Introduction

Joan Wallach Scott


FEMINISM AND HISTORY

There is a long history of feminists who write the history of women in order to make an argument for the equal treatment of women and men. Typically, this approach has involved substituting positive examples of women's capabilities in place of negative characterizations. Countering stereotypes has built a tension into the writing of women's history. On the one hand, an essentializing tendency assumes (with feminism's opponents) that there are fixed characteristics belonging to women. (The disagreement is over what they are.) On the other hand, an historicizing approach stresses differences among women and even within the concept of 'women'.

For centuries, those advocating the elevation of women's status have culled the past for examples of exemplary figures: artists, writers, politicians, religious devotees, scientists, educators. Depending on the period and the purpose, they assembled stories to counter the presumptions about female incapacity contained in the prescriptive literature or legal codes of their day. When the argument was about education, feminists came up with stunning cases of brilliant women to demonstrate that learning did not distort femininity or, more radically, that sex had nothing to do with the operations of the mind. As feminists mobilized to demand citizenship in the wake of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, they pointed to the political capacities of queens and of ordinary women such as Joan of Arc to legitimize their claims that political rights ought not to be denied them because of their sex. A wonderful example comes from a speech delivered in 1793 to the Parisian Society of Revolutionary Republican Women by 'La femme Monic,' a haberdasher:

I am grateful to Mary Louise Roberts and Debra Keates for their careful critical readings.

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