Friday, April 26, 2019
Book Review Sex and Secularism, Challenging the Idea that Secularism is Synonymous with Gender Equality
In Sex and Secularism Joan Wallach Scott challenges the pervasive idea that secularism has always been synonymous with gender equality, entrenching and codifying the “historical triumph of enlightenment over religion” (p. 1)***
Like many feminist historians educated in the late twentieth century, I studied and absorbed Scott's seminal article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” published in 1986 in the American Historical Review. It became part of the canon of second-wave feminist theory for scholars in a variety of disciplines. Scott's clear and pervasive analysis demanded that feminist historians understand and dive deeply into dimensions of social and political power that emanated from perceived notions of sexual difference, both historic and contemporary. ***
Utilizing a wide variety of literature written by second-wave feminists and historians of race, colonialism, and religion from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, Scott provides a plethora of examples from gender and secular discourse on religion, reproduction, and politics—ending with the most recent “clash of civilization” discourse that transcends the “Cold War” rhetoric and supports and justifies Islamaphobia in a post-9/11 world. She effectively argues, first, that gender equality is not inherent in secularism (nor ever has been) and, second, that gender equality has not been ameliorated by white, Christian racial and religious discourse or practices in either public or private spheres of a gendered world. It is her third argument about secularism that provides intriguing food for thought. Scott posits that the discourse of secularism has also “functioned to distract attention from a persistent set of difficulties related to differences of sex” regardless of the nation, government, or period (p. 4). Inequality is ingrained and has been, and continues to be, a moving target in the discourse of secularism that allows Western nations to effectively ignore, if not “hide,” the inherent core of gender inequality under the guise of focusing on the “other”—the latest threat to the “civilized” world.