Women and men have been treated differently throughout history. Whether it be economically, politically, or socially, the difference in gender and it’s relations is starkly contrasted. Women’s studies as a historical discipline was formed in the 1960’s on the heels of the feminist movement. During the 1980’s, this discipline moved away from a single gender, focusing on the relationship between the two genders, male and female, on a grand scale. Joan Scott’s Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis and Alice Kessler-Harris’s Just Price, Free Market, and the Value of Women are two journal articles that were written in the 1980’s just as women’s studies became gender studies. Each author was influential to the study of gender in her own way.
The first article, by Joan Scott, explains that there is a connection between the individual as well as societal norms when it comes to speaking or writing about gender. Human agency and language are also important attributes of historical work which can modify and/or explain a historian’s implications when writing about gender. Connections must be achieved throughout all aspects of life in order to truly exemplify the term “gender”. We must first understand that gender is an element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes and that gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power. Scott says there are four different elements to this: using culturally available symbols, such as Eve and the Virgin Mary. One woman is light, while the other is dark. It’s almost as if there is no in-between, that women are reduced to just these characteristics. Scott says that these normative concepts limit and contain all metaphoric possibilities when it comes to writing about women. She explains that these positions are a product of social consensus and not conflict or politics. In order to fix this, we have to find women’s subjective identity. Not all women fit into one box. We need to find relations between identity and social constructs to display women’s own personal experiences.
Scott explains that “gender”, in modern terms, refers to men and women being defined in terms of one another and that the understanding of each one could not be achieved if studied separately. When women’s history was established as a discipline, a new world history was also formed, as it took into account different perspectives regarding women’s personal experience. Women’s history didn’t focus solely on women, it also focused on class and race as well. Women historians use these three facets in order to explain persisting inequalities throughout society as well as personal experiences. Historians use a variety of approaches to achieve their goal.
The two approaches given by Scott are as follows: the first is descriptive, meaning that it speaks of phenomena without actually analyzing it or explaining it. The second approach is the opposite, explaining why these phenomena happen and looking at outside factors to determine the cause. The word “gender” is used heavily in each instance, specifically used to give the subject matter weight or seriousness because it is neutral and objective. Being a scientific word, it lends itself to a more scientific approach rather than a political or feminist one. “Women” as a word, when used historically, gives readers the notion that women are valid historical subjects. By using the word “gender”, they are able to include women without being a threat to men. By using “gender” as a substitute for “women”, it tends to give readers the notion that information about women is also about men, and vice versa. One implies the study of the other. In order words, speaking of women historically is allowed as long as historians talk about men as well.
Scott gives us three methods as to how feminist historians are able to analyze gender. The first attempts to explain the origins of patriarchy. The second is economically, especially based in Marxist theory. The third uses production and reproduction to assert the subject’s gendered identity; mainly, a biological explanation.
Through all this, Scott finally gives us her specific definition of gender. The four aspects listed cannot operate without the others. In order to present good historical research, the relationships between the four aspects must be discussed. We need to think about gender in social or institutional settings.
Kessler-Harris speaks of gender in terms of economics and politics. For some reason, those in power and who make policy keep focusing on the past as their guide to making legislative changes. Women appear as “other” instead of being a symbol of diverse experiences.
Yet, is it really the law? Or is it social constraints? Antonin Scalia, a conservative justice, portrayed his view of women when deciding on a court case regarding a female working in a typically male profession. He said it was a traditionally segregated job category. Yet he also blamed society for making women feel as though they should avoid certain jobs for fear of discrimination. As you can see, the two cannot be easily separated.
A striking example of this trepidation in assuming equal rights for women comes from New Perspectives, a magazine that was actually published by the Civil Rights Commission. They couldn’t find valid proof that women had been the victims of wage discrimination over the past one hundred years. They didn’t feel the need to pass legislation or have a court make a ruling on equal pay or equal worth that assumed the difference in pay was due to discrimination. What other evidence could these two examples possibly need? This reminds us that we have a responsibility as scholars to show the inequality throughout history, especially when it comes to women.
Although there are some who oppose this thought, especially in fear of what will happen to the economy, it is clearly on our nation’s political agenda. Equal pay for equal jobs is necessary for women to feel value in the workplace, whether or not the content of their work is similar. Some also say that the market failed to pay women a fair return for all the hard work, or human capital, that they invested in their jobs. Occupational segregation is the root of this problem for two reasons: first, that capitalism doesn’t work for women, and second, that every job’s value can be compared to that of another job. The market as it stands does not function independently from those who participate in it. They bring their prejudice, bias, and cultural upbringing to the table as well.
When speaking of wages, meaning equal pay for equal work, we run into a problem. Societal gender roles throw a wrench in an equation that should be simple. There is some sort of archaic social sense on what men and women are responsible for. Customary wages help to preserve this status quo. Since wages are tied to social hierarchy, it makes women secondary. A male worker would never want to be compared with a female worker because it would violate his “manhood.”
In order to fix this, we actually need to change society. This is no easy task. We are at a new historical stage, as men and women are both in the workforce, even doing similar jobs. Household chores still primarily fall in the hands of women. We are starting to see a shift in this. As more women enter the workplace, we are starting to see more things such as stay at home dads or parents who equally share household responsibilities. The fact that this wage argument is at the forefront of American politics proves that.