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Gender and the Politics of History, by Joan Wallach Scott. New York: Columbia University Press, Revised Edition, 1999, 283 pp., $17.50 paperback.
In the Spring 2000 issue of Academic Questions, David Kaiser concludes that the well-known feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott has "issued a declaration of disinterest in the past as such." He means by this that she, among other things, straightforwardly admits that she adopted the Foucaultian "theory" she recommends to the historical profession for "avowedly political" purposes. Since a historian who is not interested in the past would seem by definition not to be a historian at all, Kaiser would appear, with considerable cause, to be reading her out of the profession. Yet Scott's insouciance about the admission should give us pause. After all, we have been here before. We triumphantly make what we think is our clinching argument, and our target refuses to surrender, condescendingly noting our epistemological naivete as she walks off. After all, if truth is socially constructed, it is far more truthful to admit one is doing it than to pretend that no one should. The standoff is frustrating to us, since the belief in truth is connected with the belief at least in the possibility of coming to a common understanding. The postmodernists, by contrast, are not frustrated at all; they consider themselves too hip to believe either in truth or in common understanding.
Maybe there's a better way. The way to be interested in the past as such that made the most sense to me when I was training to be a historian was R.G. Collingwood's notion of "reliving," i.e., of trying to understand the historical subject from within, from its own point of view and its own questions. I think Collingwood is right in saying that that effort is required before any judgment of the subject can be made. It also might be the only basis for any plausible effort at persuasion and discussion. So I will try it on Scott. Fortunately, her book of essays, mostly from the 1980s, provides a fair degree of intellectual autobiography. Scott seems typical of a great many progressive scholars of her generation, so her case may be instructive.
For a reissue of "a classic text," Gender and the Politics of History starts oddly with a preface in which Scott tells us that "gender" no longer interests her much. While it had seemed a "useful category of analysis" in the 1980s, because it "seemed the best way to realize the goal" of bringing "women from the margins to the center of historical focus," in these days gender "is a term that has lost its critical edge" because everyone has gone back to thinking that it just means sex. Scott is currently more interested in psychoanalytic theory, she reports. Still, this is less frivolous than it may seem. She understands both "gender," and the underlying complex of Foucaultian ideas that govern her use of it, as instruments to accomplish a moral purpose, namely promoting feminism. Thus, in the beginning of the introduction she clearly states that she "was forced to take post-structuralist theory seriously," because "[i]t addressed many of the most pressing philosophical questions I had confronted as a feminist trying to write women's history."
Those questions are made acute by Scott's radicalism, her …