When Secularism Fails Women

When it comes to the work of what Kati Curts recently called “categorical quickening,” Joan Wallach Scott is an exceptional midwife of the body politic ...

When it comes to the work of what Kati Curts recently called “categorical quickening”—the moment when theoretical concepts get enough kick to prompt new conversations—Joan Wallach Scott is an exceptional midwife of the body politic.1 The maternal metaphors are at once apt and awkward. On the one hand, Joan Scott is a historian whose generous practice of citing the insights of other scholars, who are often women, makes her very much a “with-women” writer. On the other hand, she is not one to sentimentalize maternity or to valorize a collective notion of womanhood. But as anyone who has seen a midwife at work knows, hers is a hard and messy job at the same time that it is collaborative and creative.

Having helped to quicken such categories as gender, experience, and academic freedom, Scott has now turned her attention to discourses of secularism. In Sex and Secularism she takes on the assumption—and the argument—that secularism and gender equality are bound together. Questioning “contemporary reactivations” of secularism that consider it a pathway to women’s emancipation in the face of religious conservatism, she argues that championing secularism in this way denies a longer history of its sexist, colonial, and often anti-Muslim formations. To put it another way, she challenges the idea that a secular world is one in which political inclusion, equal pay, and the valuing of women’s reproductive labor and reproductive freedom will flourish, while violence against women, girls, and queer people will wither away.

A recent commentator has charged that Scott’s argument is “counterintuitive” and at odds with “traditional” views of secularism that see it as the best path to “closing the gender gap.”2 Writing in the Guardian, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins also charges that Scott’s argument is at odds with evidence from some of the “most secular places in the world,” such as Norway and Germany, which are characterized by high levels of gender equality. (The curiosity of Germany being considered “secular” despite the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel is leader of the Christian Democratic Union is an irony that Joan Scott helps to explain.) To chide Scott for giving up on secularism as the best way to close the gender gap, however, is to have misread her body of work—including Sex and Secularism—in a manner both peculiar and careless.

Joan Wallach Scott is a historian and theorist of gender who has long argued that there are no fixed points that make gender a stable category over time; for her, any gender gap would be constantly moving, and could never be drawn as two points on a line that inch closer together on a steady march of progress. In most “traditional” studies of secularism, by contrast, gender has either been glaringly absent as a category of analysis or deployed as a stable category inhabited largely by women.3 In Sex and Secularism, Scott goes further to argue that secularism is also an unstable discourse with ideals and practices that have encompassed freedom, equality, colonial expansion, white supremacy, and, at its foundations, the political exclusion of women from the public realm of politics.

What does it mean to understand “secularism” as a discourse? In the simplest of (idealized) terms, secular nation-states are ones that root their political legitimacy not in religious authority, but in a democratic ideal of government by the people. But since most self-declared secular nation-states grew out of conflicts between religious (often Christian) groups, the very notion of the secular—whether in the US, Turkey, Germany, or Norway—is always in a complicated relationship with particular discourses of religion. Or, as Hussein Agrama has put it in the context of Egypt, secularism is a “problem-space” that depends on a constant adjudication of the line between the religious and the political.4 The answer to the question of what is secularism is always local and historical; secularism is not a universal category that can be measured and applied across time or nation-states with any fixity.

Sex and Secularism is likely best understood within the longer trajectory of Scott’s thought. An eminent historian of France and pathbreaking feminist theorist, her most widely read work is an essay called “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”5 First published in 1986 in the American Historical Review (AHR), the article went on to be one of the most frequently downloaded in the journal’s history, and continues to be reprinted in collections and assigned on syllabi today.6

Part of the article’s staying power comes from its clear synthesis of approaches to the “woman question” in second-wave feminist theory. For those who did not live through the intellectual excitement of those days—and for whom the category of gender (or even woman) may seem to be passé—Scott’s mid-’80s tour through Marxist, psychoanalytic, and anthropological feminist approaches may have the feel of a decidedly different era. On the other hand, what feminists found useful about gender—in conjunction with race and class—more than 30 years ago remains strikingly helpful for thinking about sex and power today.

There is a recurring bodily specificity to the ways that men have attached their secular rationality to sexual difference.

Scott argued that it was not sufficient to study women qua women. Instead, gender—equally applicable to men, women, and any human being living within an unequal world—offered a conceptual frame for thinking on two interrelated levels: 1) how social and political relations are premised on perceived sexual differences, and 2) how such perceived differences are shaped by changing relations and dispersals of power.

Here is one example of how gendered referents both change and remain the same. In her 2011 book The Fantasy of Feminist History, Scott discusses how in the 1970s the (ultimately successful) opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US warned that such legislation would lead to gender-neutral bathrooms that would become sites of immorality, sexual violence, and “racial invasion.”7 By 2017, we now know, panics over bathrooms reemerged in response to the legal recognition not of the rights of women, but of trans people. The work of thinking about sex and power, for Scott, would never be done, but gender could provide a useful categorical tool to pry apart the ways that qualities such as femininity and masculinity attach to and detach from particular bodies, persons, desires, and political systems in different times and places.

Reflecting in an AHR forum dedicated to her “Gender” article 20 years after it was first published, Scott made clear her intentions as a synthetic thinker and writer seeking to galvanize a conversation: “I was giving voice to—not inventing—some of the ideas and questions that the feminist movement had posed, looking for ways to turn political questions into historical ones.”8 Drawing from the work of Denise Riley and others, she demonstrated how the category of “woman”—whether applied to bodies, bathroom doors, or voting rights—was changeable in its usefulness and harms, and only legible within wider systems of gendered and racialized meanings. Or, put another way, over the past 250 years in most places throughout Europe and its colonies (including in the Americas), being white, Christian, and heterosexual made it easier to be a woman.

While she still maintains the usefulness of gender, Scott has become even more determined to argue for its indeterminacy—its status as a permanent question. As Judith Butler and Elizabeth Weed argued in a collection of essays inspired by Scott’s work, her questioning of gender opened up a powerful approach to critique at once theoretical and historical: “Gender will be useful, it seems, only under those conditions in which we can see how it works, as a mode of signifying power, to produce and sustain certain ways of organizing social and political life.”9

Scott first started to look at secularism as a discourse in want of a historically framed gendered critique in The Politics of the Veil, a book focused on French government efforts in the name of laicité (aka secularism) to ban French Muslim women’s wearing of the headscarf. Released of their veils, the secular argument went, Muslim women would be emancipated from the sexism of Islam and thus capable of becoming truly French and free. Noting the complex legacies of colonialism in North Africa for the politics of Islam in France, Scott showed how convictions that secularism was the salvation of Muslim women were rooted less in listening to these women’s public, political speech and more in purveying racist imaginaries of their private lives.


A Muslim Future to Come?

By Judith Surkis

Joining a broader chorus of feminist critics of secularism in theory and practice, Scott’s next book included an essay called “Sexularism,” a categorical hybrid prompted by a typo. Here, Scott called out the eternally deferred promises of secularism as a harbinger of gender equality: “The equality that secularism promises has always been troubled by sexual difference, by the difficult—if not impossible—task of assigning ultimate meaning to bodily differences between women and men.”10 With recourse to examples from the French Revolution and Algerian nationalist movements, and with a turn to Lacan, she argued that a genealogy of secularism reveals not only its Christian imperial contours but also its dependence on gendered depictions of masculine, rational universality and feminine, enthusiastic particularity. The “sexed secular subject,” in Scott’s analysis, was actually founded upon and then helped to reproduce the political exclusion of women.11

Which gets us, at last, to Sex and Secularism. Tracing discourses of secularism across primarily European and North American contexts over the past 250 years, Sex and Secularism is Scott’s latest kickoff of a conversation that puts gender and sexual difference at the shaky center of the story. Focusing again on Western depictions of Islam as inherently misogynistic, Scott turns to the work of scholars such as Saba Mahmood, Nilüfer Göle, and Mayanthi Fernando to show how the othering of Islam is part of a broader pattern of religio-racism (to borrow a term from Judith Weisenfeld) in which secular defenders stake their claims on gendered bodies and terrains.12

As a historian, Scott is resolute in attending to actually existing discourses of secularism, as deployed in specific times and places. But she is also making a broader intervention that draws together key arguments from generations of feminist scholarship on the politics of sex, gender, racialization, religion, and empire (for that synthetic work alone, the book is worth reading). From 19th-century anti-Catholic tropes of effeminate yet seductive priests who beguile their female parishioners to 21st-century anti-Muslim depictions of oppressed women silenced by their headscarves, beleaguered women who are said to need secular saviors are at the center of her story.

According to Scott, 19th-century champions of the secular, largely men, highly valued public reason, understood as masculine, in direct opposition to the supposed private passions of women’s sexuality, unbidden fertility, and religious enthusiasm. But as the scribes of secularism rested their visions on the origin stories of Western political theory that rooted political order in abstractions of the rational (male) individual, they were nevertheless also worried about the ways that bodies—especially those marked as female—got in the way.

For example, Scott’s discussion of the French historian Jules Michelet’s defenses of secularism demonstrates his fear that priests were spiritually, if not literally, cuckolding husbands across France as they whispered to their women parishioners in the confessional. Writing in the 19th century, Michelet argued that husbands need to take back control of their wives, justified by a pseudoscientific observation that women’s monthly menstrual cycle made them inherently wounded and naturally subordinate to men.

While she still maintains the usefulness of gender, Scott has become even more determined to argue for its indeterminacy—its status as a permanent question.

There is a recurring bodily specificity to the ways that men have attached their secular rationality to sexual difference. For example, describing what amounts to a political theory (or maybe a theology) of semen, Scott recounts multiple instances of secularists who linked seminal fluid to men’s greater rationality. Drawing on Isabel Hull’s research on the role of sexual difference in the rise of German civil society in the 18th and 19th centuries, Scott points to George Sarganeck’s theory that semen conveyed greater life force and brainpower to men. Discussing anti-suffrage arguments in 19th-century Britain, she draws from G. J. Barker-Benfield’s work on the “spermatic economy” to cite a Scottish biologist who would deny the vote to women because he considered ova to be less active and “hungry” than sperm. And in a Cold War twist, Scott discusses American fears that a Soviet victory would lead to the sterilization of all men. Her attention to the diversity and particularity of the ways that bodies are imagined in the service of political goals shows that gender, race—often whiteness—and sexual difference are key to the story of secularism.

One of the most incisive aspects of Scott’s comparative argument is her attention to the role of secular transformations of law in colonial contexts, and the effects of such transformations on ways of organizing families and property. Drawing on the work of Judith Surkis, Wael Hallaq, Janet Halley, Kerry Rittich, and others, she shows that across British and French imperial contexts, distinctions drawn between civil, or contract, law and family law relegated women to the realm of “custom” or “religion,” thereby denying them equal status in civil law: “Indeed, the position of women in family law is itself the product of secularizing influences.”

This meant that colonial secular regimes used their own models of patriarchal heterosexual marriage not only to dispossess women of their lands and their rights to inherit, but also to redraw precolonial maps of collective landholding based on very different models of kinship. Denying women the right to hold property also “opened up” for white settler expansion land that had long been collectively held by Indigenous and African peoples across North Africa, North America, Oceania, and elsewhere.

In Sex and Secularism, Scott is not out to get secularism, but to critique it. As she does in her earlier work on women and gender, she acknowledges the challenges of critiquing powerful discourses while also needing to use them for political activism and academic analysis. The biggest problem with shaky concepts is that they give you less to hold on to when you need to take a stand. Though challenging the fixity of “woman” as a category makes intellectual sense, it does not erase the reality that people who are defined as women are more likely than those who are defined as men to be paid less, sexually harassed, or violently assaulted by family or strangers.


Women's Suffrage @100

By Linda Gordon

Questioning the egalitarian ideals of secularism is similarly fraught—activists have fought for everything from access to contraception, to fairer divorce laws, to same-sex marriage with appeals to a secular narrative of separating church and state. But the secular goals of these struggles—think of contraception activist Margaret Sanger—does not mean that these ideals of secularism may not also nurture racist xenophobia or white privilege rooted in colonial property laws (including laws that allowed slavery). Even a secular celebration of sexual emancipation, as Scott argues, is a gendered “freedom which does not necessarily confer equality.” A sexually emancipated world is one in which sexual harassment and predation against others who are less empowered still continues.

Joan Scott’s quickening of gender and secularism will not solve the problems of sexism or racism, or definitively close any yawning gaps of inequity. Nor, I would add, does thinking about secularism fully equip one to understand the power of discourses of religion on human bodies and lives. Many women (and others) have turned not only to secular but also to religious discourses to buttress their efforts to challenge political injustice.

Scott’s theoretical, historical narrative in Sex and Secularism takes its place in a wider conversation in which critical thinkers working in many genres—including film, music, and fiction—ponder gender, race, religion, and sexual difference in a way that refuses essentialism while taking seriously the political effects of these categories on people living in worlds of ongoing inequality and violence. Secularism is not the savior, nor is it the demon in this narrative; it is, like all political ideals, including feminism, a promise that variably incites and excludes. icon

  1. Kati Curts, “Spiral Glimpses,” The Immanent Frame (blog), January 1, 2018.
  2. Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Do Secularism and Gender Equality Really Go Hand in Hand?,” Guardian, December 30, 2017.
  3. For counterexamples, see Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Secularisms (Duke University Press, 2008); Linell E. Cady and Tracy Fessenden, Religion, the Secular, and the Politics of Sexual Difference (Columbia University Press, 2013).
  4. Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (University of Chicago Press, 2012); I discuss this further in Pamela E. Klassen, “Fantasies of Sovereignty: Civic Secularism in Canada,” Critical Research on Religion, vol. 3, no. 1 (2015), pp. 41–56.
  5. Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 5 (1986), pp. 1053–75.
  6. Joanne Meyerowitz, “A History of ‘Gender,’” American Historical Review, vol. 113, no. 5 (December 1, 2008), pp. 1346–56.
  7. Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 20.
  8. Joan W. Scott, “Unanswered Questions,” American Historical Review, vol. 113, no. 5 (December 1, 2008): p. 1422.
  9. Judith Butler and Elizabeth Weed, eds., The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism (Indiana University Press, 2011), p. 4.
  10. Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History, p. 95.
  11. Ibid., p. 112.
  12. Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (NYU Press, 2017).
Featured image: Adeline Harris Sears, Quilt, Tumbling Blocks with Signatures pattern (begun 1856). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York