1988 - Gender and the Politics of History
The process of selecting a book from each year I've been alive should not have been as difficult as it was. Blame my picky reading taste or weird off-years in the publishing biz or simple lack of access to accurate lists of books published in a given year--one thing is certain: 1988 was not a good year for me. I'm sure it was actually a good year for me when I lived through it the first time; it was not a good year for me for this project.
Underwhelmed by the prize winners for the year, I ventured out into the lists generated by users in various corners of the web. It was one such list--on this website that looks like it was built in 1988--that I came across Gender and the Politics of History by Joan Wallach Scott. I thought it would actually be a good match. I knew I would read it prior to the conclusion of the 2016 presidential election--the first to feature a woman on the ticket for a major party. So it went on the list.
The book is a collection of academic essays that address four main themes: "Toward a Feminist History," "Gender and Class," "Gender in History," and "Equality and Difference." The essay titled "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" (in the first section, if you were wondering) is a seminal article in feminist historical theory. Though I had never read this essay in particular, I had seen references to the article and to Wallach Scott in other academic writing. Wallach Scott is clearly a brilliant theorist. Her analysis of other thinkers and writers is astounding; even though I've read essays by Lacan and Derrida, her critique and reinterpretation of their philosophy makes me wonder if I ever understood them at all. And the essay itself made some compelling points. This quotation struck a chord with me, especially in light of recent political and social events:
"An interest in class, race, and gender signaled, first, a scholar's commitment to a history that included stories of the oppressed and an analysis of the meaning and nature of their oppression and, second, scholarly understanding that inequalities of power are organized along at least three axes." p. 30
Essentially, a focus on the oppressed is an acknowledgment that those lives matter. It is a recognition of the fact that societies have inherent power relationships and it examines them rather than continuing to tell the stories of those who won the power in the first place.
While I think I understood that argument, much of the rest of the book went over my head. I don't claim to have much education in proper feminist or sociological theory. Every page contained at least one word ending in -tion, -ism, or -ist that I had never heard before. This book made me think. It made my brain hurt. It made me re-read and research and rethink. And all of those things are great! One of my goals for this project was to make sure to learn something new. But given the fact each essay took roughly two hours to read and parse, I'm glad I'm not slated for much more academic writing for the remainder of the year.
I will say the upside to reading academic work is the great marginalia that comes along with it. The person who owned this book before me marked passages and jotted questions neatly in pencil.
If your brain needs a serious workout, I've listed three similar deep-thinking works below. The pieces by Wollstonecraft and Wolf continue along feminist themes, while Chomsky analyzes the power of language from multiple perspectives.
- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
- Language and Politics by Noam Chomsky
- The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
Keep turning the page,