Scott, Joan Wallach
SCOTT, Joan Wallach
Born 18 December 1941, Brooklyn, New York
Married Donald Scott
With the development of the new social history in the 1960s, history from "the bottom up" grew in scope, importance, and diversity. Historian Joan Wallach Scott is a leading figure in the development of women's history, labor history, and gender theory. A renowned teacher and writer, Scott is an influential participant in the ongoing postmodern debate.
The daughter of two high school teachers, Scott knew early in her life that she wanted to be a historian. She attended Brandeis University, graduating with a bachelor's degree magna cum laude in 1962. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1969. Her first academic appointment was as assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. From there she taught at Northwestern University, where she was the first woman faculty member in the history department. Her next appointment was as first assistant and then associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1980 she was appointed Nancy Duke Lewis Professor at Brown University. She continued to encounter "firsts": this time she was the first woman to secure tenure in the history department at Brown. During her time at Brown, she also served as director of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women.
Her current position is at Princeton University. She is only the second woman to be invited to join the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, an institute founded by Albert Einstein and others in 1930. In an interview with Katherine Hinds, Scott described her appointment to the Institute's faculty as significant to women's studies, a field "which has been struggling to legitimize itself in the scholarly world for the last ten to fifteen years."
Scott's first book brought together her interests in French social history and labor history. The Glassworkers of Carmaux:French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth-Century City (1974) won the American Historical Association's prize for the best first book written by an American on European history. It made a critical contribution to the developing specialty of the new labor history.
Scott is perhaps best known for her penetrating work in exploring gender dynamics in history and in historiography. She decided to focus more on these issues when students began to demand courses on women. She forthrightly addressed the invisibility of gender (which she herself acknowledged characterized her first book) in her second book, Women, Work, and Family (1978). Coauthored with Louise Tilly, this book examines how women figured—actually and symbolically—in working-class history. She told Katherine Hinds in 1985, "Since labor history is my field, it seems appropriate to take these questions about women and gender and work them into labor history."
Most recently, Scott's scholarship has brought her into the center of the sometimes contentious realm of French postmodern theory. Scott has been influential in the consideration of how this theory can apply to the study of history. She borrows from Michel Foucault in arguing that history is the study of politics. Like Foucault, Scott contends that politics cannot be simply defined in governmental terms, but rather as "contests that involve power." Scott and others continue to debate power as not only "a relationship of repression or domination but also a set of relationships or processes that produce positive effects." She maintains all history is decision-making, all history is political.
Scott provides important leadership in opening the historical profession to other women. She gives a great deal of service to the profession, inside and outside her universities. While at Chapel Hill, she chaired the University of North Carolina Committee on the Status of Women. For the American Historical Association, she chaired the Committee on Women Historians. Her expertise includes institution building. She was instrumental in establishing women's studies programs at the University of North Carolina and at Brown.
Gender and the Politics of History (1988). Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996).
American Women Historians, 1700s-1990s: A Biographical Dictionary (1996). CA (1973, 1978).
Change (July/Aug. 1985).