The Study of “Women” vs. the Study of “Gender”

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Historian Alice Kessler-Harris asks in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Do We Still Need Women’s History?”   She reflects on the shift in the study of “women’s history” to historical perspectives  on “gender:”  

The shift to gender has had long-range implications. As the history of women, and more recently the history of men, has become a subset of the history of gender, as historians increasingly investigate the practical and ideological implications of belief systems about the nature of men and women, so gender has increasingly become an important explanatory agent : a necessary part of the historian’s interpretive arsenal.   Our more-enlightened colleagues and younger members of the profession now assume that all history has gendered components, and that, as they look for explanations for how and why things happened, gender will necessarily be part of their explanatory framework. *** [Historian Laura] Wexler and other scholars demonstrate the explanatory potential embedded in gender, and reveal why the topic “women” is now so often dismissed as too narrow and subjective a category to illuminate historical processes. Where the history of women is seen today as having celebratory content : its effort is to find our lost ancestors and restore them to a place in our memories : that of gender offers an analytic framework within which to view the sometimes abrasive relations of women and men.

Gender is a tempting and powerful framework. Far more inclusive than the category of women, it raises questions not so much about what women did or did not do, but about how the organization of relationships between men and women established priorities and motivated social and political action. Where the history of women can be accused of lacking objectivity : of having a feminist purpose : that of gender suggests a more distanced stance.

I am struck by Kessler-Harris’s assessment that the study of women has less currency among historians than does the study of gender.   Is the same true in the law?   Have courses on “Women and the Law” been replaced by courses on “Gender and the Law?”   Do law students and faculty members view courses  and studies of  “Gender and the Law” as having a more “distanced stance” than courses and studies of “Women and the Law?”  

My personal impression is that many students and professors consider a focus on “women” to be old-fashioned.   Stating one’s interest as as “Women and the Law” seems old-school — yes, feminist (and therefore someone must have an ax to grind, right?).   “Gender,” by comparison, has a hip, fluid, twenty-first century, moderne connotation.   But is the evaluation of “women” vs. “gender” anything other than a high-theory rehash of the (unhelpful, in  my view) attempt by self-proclaimed “third wave” feminists to distance themselves from purportedly ideological constraints of “second wave” feminism?   I had long thought that  these were two sides of the same coin.   But Kessler-Harris’s article made me wonder for the first time whether an emphasis on gender is a form of anti-feminism.

A copy of Kessler-Harris’s full article from the Chronicle article is here (subscription site – sorry).

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to The Study of “Women” vs. the Study of “Gender”

  1. bob coley jr says:

    My first impression was that this was indeed, a disguised atempt to de-emphasize feminism. And maybe it was or is. But on closer consideration, it may not matter what the original focus of the change was. The fact that there are subsets to the general catagory leaves open any discusion of any gendered concerns. One can scolarly examine all aspects of a subject and then specialize. It would seem to me that it would be an advantage to any point of view to know any and all differing points of view first, then articulate from an informed position. Of course, this is aready the case in most instances of scolarly study of a subject, so the name of the subject is only a general indicator of focus. With the use of subsets of the larger whole, any area of specialization may be indentified and studied, ie, women, men, gay and lesbian, transgendered, and those yet to be defined, etc.. Because of this kind of mindset, the “GENDER” studies are, or can be made to be, all inclusive and women’s studies more exact in it’s focus. The opportunity to be inclusive or exclusive is not determined by the name, rather by the actions of the participants. So, no matter the intent, greater freedom and truth can be had.

  2. Joseph Slater says:

    It’s a fascinating issue. I have a lot of respect for Kessler-Harris. I don’t know whether she gets into this in the full piece, but one can find similar debates re the study of race (including but not limited to studies of “whiteness”) and even class.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    A radical feminist family lawyer I know, a woman who’s very much a product of the Second Wave, generally advises women law students to avoid “Women and the Law”–or in fact anything “and the law”–courses, which she suspects of being tokenist gestures to appease those who want to be lawyers and fight for social justice; she tells them, “Learn the law, you already know about being a woman.”

    Which then gets to the question about “women” vs. “gender,” and what I agree is the unhelpful rejection of the Second Wave by self-proclaimed Third Wavers. Talking about “women” is scorned as “essentialist”–as though using the term “woman” amounted to an oath of allegiance to Carol Gilligan–which talk of “gender” is fashionably “constructionist.” And there’s just enough substance to this argument to lend it a certain appeal beyond that of mere academic trendiness.

    But what both “essentialist” and “constructionist” approaches elide is an analysis (like Catherine MacKinnon’s) that proceeds from an examination of power. On this view, “woman” is neither the name of a constellation of biological features nor an “ideological” construct more properly subsumed in a discussion of how “gender” is variously constructed; it’s the name of a political class or caste, defined largely in terms of what may be done to its members and of what privileges are enjoyed by those outside it. If that kind of radical feminism is (as I believe) the soundest basis on which to build a justice strategy, then I think it’s accurate to see the focus on “gender” as, at best, a diversion from the crucial question of power, at worst, a way of bracketing radical feminism with easily-discredited “essentialist” conceptions.

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    It’s a great post, Bridget. Our Women’s Studies department is currently debating changing its name to Gender Studies. I’m quite conflicted about this.

  5. Sounds like we need both.

  6. Bridget Crawford says:

    Note from Bridget Crawford: I received this email from a reader and post it here, with permission, as a comment:

    Your post brought to mind the evolution of student-edited law reviews, which parallels the phenomenon you describe. New journals are emphasizing gender, and my own school’s former Berkeley Women’s Law Journal recently morphed into Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice. Many of the responses noted in your post and the comments arose when we were discussing the name change, and some recent former journal members strongly opposed the dodge away from “women.” I think I agree with your take about the perceived staleness of “women” and hipness of “gender,” and I regret that this is so, although I also find much to embrace by potentially expanding the scope of a journal or course or curriculum with attention to gender. I guess I just don’t see how a “Women’s Law Journal” necessarily precludes such attention. Kessler-Harris evidently believes it would, but that belief is perhaps a function of her having spent her career in academia, where disciplinary boundaries are rigorously and, to some extent, arbitrarily enforced. And while she’ll ask, heuristically, “Do we still need women’s history?,” she doesn’t appear to recognize a more fundamentally threatening query, “Do we still need history?” I imagine many of the rationales for answering the latter in the affirmative could as well pertain to an answer to the former.

    Thanks for the post.


    Dean C. Rowan
    Berkeley, California

  7. bob coley jr says:

    Does not the latter contain the former?