Sex and Secularism

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Joan Wallach Scott
The Public Square
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Sex and Secularism, Joan Wallach Scott, arguably one of the greatest feminist historians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, turns to questions of secularism and by extension, to religion.

This is not Scott’s first foray into this territory. Her 2010 book, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton University Press), addresses the French government’s 2004 headscarf ban, refuting the notion that French conceptions of laïcité are an effective means of respecting the diversity that characterizes French society today (a diversity that is primarily the result of France’s adventures with colonialism).

Sex and Secularism builds on this work, making the case that the “discourses of secularism” which today insist on the presumed gender equality of secularism over against the purported sexism of religious others, have a history that in no way substantiates their claim to the moral high ground on issues dear to feminists. Though the claim is far-ranging, Scott’s principal focus is, as in her previous book, on Muslims in Europe and the discourses of secularism that affect them there.

Scott spends her introductory chapter defining her terms, most especially her use of “discourses of secularism” as opposed to the simpler “secularism.” She argues persuasively that people have not always meant the same thing when invoking secularism. Indeed, according to Scott, since their inception in the nineteenth century, discourses of secularism have been figured and enacted in varied, sometimes contradictory, ways.

Scott begins by going back to the earliest “discourse of secularism” that she recognizes as such, in nineteenth-century Europe.  In these appeals for secularism, not only was gender equality not stipulated, but the force of the argument in favor of secularism actually rested on categories of gender that dramatically and intentionally reduced women’s presence and voice in the public sphere. Just as women have long been assigned to “emotion” in order for men to own “reason,” this first discourse of secularism, says Scott, assigned women to “religion” to free up space for men’s highly vaunted, and much superior “secularism.” As Scott puts it, these “campaigns deployed the language of sex difference in order to disarm the power of religious institutions, not by abolishing those institutions but by feminizing them” (13). All this took place during an era when sex difference was being radically renegotiated, its dictates insistently reframed in terms of nature and biology rather than divine law (31).

The most recent “discourse of secularism” discussed by Scott is our own, begun in the late twentieth century and still flourishing today. This discourse of secularism, says Scott, rests primarily on a quest for sexual emancipation: not the emancipation of the sexes, but the freedom to gratify one’s sexual longings however one wants, with whomever one wants, in an essentially consumerist, market-driven manner (165). In the process, this discourse of secularism singles out—and in Scott’s terms, reifies—“sexual desire… as the defining universal feature of the human” (175). In both of these moments of secularism, then, women, sex, and gender do not play minor, supporting roles. Nor are changes in women’s status or sexual freedom simply secondary consequences of convictions regarding the role religion should play in society and government. Rather, women, sex, and gender are the very foundation upon which the discourses of secularism are built.

I love a good conspiracy theory that finds the cruel stamp of the patriarchy on some of our most commonplace notions. And I love this conspiracy theory in particular because it is manifestly true. Scott’s arguments are compelling and evidence-based. Whatever else is stewing in the contemporary discourse of secularism, very specific culturally- and politically-bound notions of gender and sexuality are bubbling away unacknowledged, and as often as not, unnoticed.

Scott’s discussion of secularism is, as she clearly states, based on a particular set of cultural and political circumstances that prevailed mainly in Europe, and later America, from the nineteenth century to the present. Her concern is for the current assimilation of Muslims to the category of “religion,” which supposedly demeans women and thwarts sexual freedom, and the assimilation of Christianity—oddly enough—to secularism (18). This may prove unsatisfying to some scholars of religion. True, Islam and Christianity are the two most populous religions on the planet, and the dialectic between them carries enormous ideological freight in Europe and North America. But this dialectic is visible in other areas of the world as well, and local circumstances may completely flip the roles of Christianity and Islam that prevail in Europe and North America, or nuance them in directions that Scott does not acknowledge. And of course there are other religions and other secularisms at play in the postcolonial world that Scott focuses on. Religious studies scholars may also dispute the purported “secularism” of Christianity because they are often deeply embedded in the rich variety of Christianities in our world and less attentive to the overarching trope of Christianity-as-such in European and American intellectual history.

Most bewildering of all, for the religious studies scholar, is the complete omission of the “discourse of secularism” that has dominated our discipline for decades: the theory, advanced by Max Weber and Peter Berger among others, that religion in both its public and private domains is fast dissipating. Interestingly, this particular discourse of secularism was arguably at its height during the very period that Scott sees as a calm between the storms of the two major discourses of secularism that she treats. In chapter 4, Scott describes the Cold War era as a respite from the discourse of secularism in the West, a time when Christianity was abruptly deployed to fly the regimental colors against the “godless atheism” of communist forces (122-55). This is more footnote than critique. Scott is not writing as a religious studies scholar, but it is fascinating to see how disciplinary differences provide such distinct lenses through which to analyze a phenomenon with which we are all concerned.

Perhaps Scott’s greatest insight—repeated at least twice in her text—is that gender and politics are “not established entities [that] come into contact and so influence each other. Rather it’s that the instability of each looks to the other for certainty” (25). Or again, “political systems invoke what is deemed the immutability of gender to legitimize asymmetries of power; those political invocations then ‘fix’ differences of sex, in that way denying the indeterminacy that troubles both sex and politics” (180). If this is true of gender and politics, surely it is equally true of gender and religion, something for all of us to bear in mind when we go about theorizing “religion” in its modern, disciplinary usage.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia Eller is Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont Graduate University and Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of the American Academy of Religion and Reading Religion.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joan Wallach Scott is professor emerita in the school of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and adjunct professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her many books include The Fantasy of Feminist HistoryThe Politics of the Veil (Princeton), and Gender and the Politics of History.


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