History · Nonfiction · Queer

Epic Feminist Faceoff: Joan Scott vs. Judith Butler

Joan Wallach Scott: Feminist historian and author of the discipline-transforming 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” Judith Butler: Philosopher and hardcore influencer in feminist, queer, and literary theories. TWO WOMEN ENTER, ONE WOMAN LEAVES!

Okay fine, they can both leave. But this summer, I’m having my first experience with a directed readings course — a one-on-one discussion series with a professor on a given topic, in this case Gender and Sexuality in the South — and we have eight readings lined up in opposing pairs. I have a lot of thoughts, and since we’re comparing and contrasting I thought it’d be fun to set these posts up that way rather than traditional reviews. Plus I hope you enjoy the look at our topics of Professional Interest.

Books read:

  • Gender and the Politics of History – Joan Wallach Scott, revised 1999
  • Undoing Gender – Judith Butler, 2004


Joan Scott’s main point is that gender should be thought of as structures of power. That some things, like political history or politics in general, are thought of as masculine and in relation to feminine topics like “the home.” The term “gender” or “gender history” is generally taken just to mean “this is about women,” but Scott’s approach contradicts that to embrace all the feminist implications of the word. It originally meant something more akin to “assigned gender roles” than it does now, and that encompasses all genders as well as gender implications.

Judith Butler talks more about social norms in the construction of gender. She has an odd kind of psychoanalytic hypothesis that seems to assert we all disassociate ourselves from our attributes. The “me” doing the identifying can’t be the same “me” that is identified as gay, straight, female, male, and so on. Social norms require “me” to eject parts of my potential behavior in favor of approved behavior. That much seems useful, but I must say — with the caveat that I didn’t fully understand her argument — I don’t think we really do disassociate this way, if we do I don’t find it significant, and if we don’t I doubt we should start, so I don’t see the utility of her theory or indeed any proof of it.

Scott: 1, Butler: 0



The main difference between Joan Scott and Judith Butler is, for me, that one is a historian and one a philosopher. Both are theorists, but Scott generally speaks to and about the historical profession. Butler largely draws from psychoanalysis and literature.

What’s the difference? Scott uses examples. The middle of her book is all history, which I initially found irrelevant, but after reading Butler I appreciated it more, because Butler has almost NO examples of a concrete, historical nature. Instead, she offers psychoanalysis and examples from literature. Y’all know I’m all about using culture as a serious source, but as a historian, I’m never going to buy your argument if you treat an example from literature as if it was something a real person had done, as an example for the way human psychology works. I need real examples, or I need you to make it clear why this literary example is convincing.

Butler focused more on individuals and their psychological processes, but Scott, even with her broad institutional view, talked about actual people.

Scott: 2, Butler: 0



Both these books are dense and use a lot of specialized language. Scott’s is tailored to professional historians. (If you’re interested in gender-as-power-structure as a general reader, I recommend her article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” mentioned above. Still difficult, but shorter and more direct.)

Butler’s though, was intended to be the popular version of her more esoteric work. It makes me sad that she thinks Undoing Gender is appropriate for that. Her book is incomprehensible. Having internetted the subject, I feel I can safely say this is a common reaction to her, and it’s more of a problem than you might think. If your book is too complex to be readable, is it actually going to help the marginalized groups for which you claim to advocate? Or is it just going to continue barring those people from academia? If you’d like to have a taste of the Judith Butler reading experience, here are some cats.

Joan Scott is also complex, even daunting, but her writings are ultimately rewarding because they’re written as simply as possible. With Google, a dictionary, and some hard work, you can understand. With Butler, you might as well quit before you start.

Scott: 3, Butler: 0

DING DING, Scott wins and Butler failed to score! 

However, don’t leave thinking they’re opposites. While they have different approaches, they are by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, Butler cites Scott several times. And in Joan Scott’s more recent book The Fantasy of Feminist History, she thanks Judith Butler (among others) for critical input in the acknowledgements. They’re both important and have significant things to contribute. For me, it just came down to readability… The most brilliant of insights are wasted if I can’t use them!

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