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Gender and the Politics of Secularism

A conversation between Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler on Scott’s latest book Sex and Secularism

An excerpt from Joan Wallach Scott’s latest book Sex and Secularism can be found here.

Judith Butler: Shall we start the interview? I am wondering whether you could describe the decision to work on a book on sex and secularism. What led up to that decision? How does this book follow from your The Politics of the Veil?

Joan Wallach Scott: In the Politics of the Veil, I had a chapter on secularism in which I pointed to the hypocrisy of the French insistence that religious expression was antithetical to “laïcité” — the French word for secularism. Christianity was present everywhere in French society (national holidays, state support for churches) considered part of the national heritage. It was Islam that was taken to be at odds with this heritage. I was increasingly aware that this was an argument being made more generally about Islam in many Western European nations and among many feminists. The argument was that Western secularism guaranteed gender equality, while Islam subordinated women. Knowing what I did about the history of laïcité in France, where liberal notions of republicanism and democracy had nothing to do with gender equality, I was curious about the history of secularism more generally — how it functioned as a political discourse and what, if anything, it had to say about women. I was particularly struck by the way it worked to demonize Islam — a patriarchal religion, to be sure, but no more so than Catholicism or Orthodox Judaism or many forms of Protestantism. It also struck me that the association of gender equality with secular nation-states was at odds with the historical work of second wave feminism, which demonstrated again and again that democracy was not democracy for women. I wanted to remind my readers about this research, which seemed to have been forgotten in the post-9/11 waves of Islamophobia.

JB: In this book you return to France where you show that secularism did not imply the emancipation of women. Can you explain your point about the relation between secularism, progress, and feminism?

JWS: What I show in this book is that gender INequality was built in to the conceptualization of modern western nation-states — and not only in France. This followed from the way in which the progress of civilization was defined in terms of clear differences between public and private, the political and the domestic, reason and religion, men and women. So-called civilized societies recognized these boundaries; those said to be less civilized (peopled, in the terms of colonial discourse, by “savages” and “barbarians”) did not. Historical progress was equated with a sharpened differentiation of spheres. And gender difference was attributed to nature. Interestingly, as Carole Pateman long ago maintained, ideas of liberal contract defined a wife’s consent to subordination to her husband as a form of “equality,” since her acquiescence was based on the supposed exercise of her individual free will. Still the principles of equality and progress enunciated in the discourse of secularism opened the possibility for women to claim another kind of equality, one that did not involve subordination or unequal treatment. So, while the regulation of religion by secular nation states in the name of modernity rested on notions of gender inequality, ideals of democracy and equality made it possible for feminists to think otherwise. As I suggested in Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996), the universal ideals of liberty and equality could become the basis for claims by those excluded from the practice of those ideals. Sex and Secularism acknowledges that possibility, but it is not a history of feminist claims for rights. Instead, it asks why the ideals associated with modern secular nation-states have been so difficult to extend to women (and, I add, to non-whites as well). What about “gender” resists equality? How have racialized notions of gender underwritten many forms of inequalities of power? To answer these questions, I suggest (following psychoanalytic theory) that the difference of sex is a puzzle that resists all final resolution and (working with the writing of the French political theorist, Claude Lefort) that democracy introduces indeterminacy and uncertainty into the sphere of political representation (who embodies the nation in the way the king embodied it?). The solution to the indeterminacy of sex and of politics is their mutual constitution: political inequality is justified by reference to the “natural” asymmetrical requirements of gender and gender is stabilized by these political references. The entanglement of the two has made change difficult, but the resistance of both politics and gender to ultimate stabilization gives them a history and opens the possibilities for change.

JB: You also engage the history of feminism in the United States separating secularism from the steps taken to achieve sexual equality. How was it for you to work across the continents? Would you describe that work as comparative or transhistorical?

JWS: I don’t think the work is comparative, in the sense that I’m looking for similarities and differences across nations. And it’s certainly not transhistorical since my focus is on the modern period (18th century to the present). Rather I think I’m trying to look across a number of different national histories (and there are important differences among them) for the operations of a process we might call modernity in its relationship to the articulation of gender.

JB: How would you describe the sense of secularism you work with in this book in relation to the work of Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood? It seems the book works intensively with Mahmood’s ideas. Can you elaborate on their meaning for you?

JWS: I’ve been very influenced by Asad and Mahmood. I think of my book as answering Asad’s call for a genealogical approach to secularism. His insistence that secularism is a discourse that works to establish its own meanings is crucial I think. And Saba’s work has problematized both secularist and feminist notions of agency and emancipation, demonstrating the scholarly and political value of critique. Her explorations of the agency of women in pietistic sects in Cairo led me to think differently about what counts as agency and emancipation; and her work on national sovereignty and minority religions in her last book, brought a whole new perspective on the ways colonial powers set in place forms of governance that were then continued by post-colonial nations. Asad’s and Mahmood’s critique of secularism as a regulatory process was an important opening for me to think about its history.

JB: Many of the scholars in religion who work on secularization assume it to be a process by which religious belief is gradually replaced with non-religious belief. Charles Taylor and others have argued that religious values continue in the public sphere and even that they provide important moral resources for public thinking — a position that Habermas partly shares. Others, like Asad and Mahmood, consider secularism to be a form of power that comes to organize political life and to allocate differential values to different religions, giving clear priority to Christianity. Islam seems to be a religion that must be defined, managed, and rendered private. I am wondering how the shape of these debates changes once we consider the status of women in religion or the goal of women’s equality?

JWS: Here I agree with Asad and Mahmood: the regulation of religion that secularism entails has everything to do with Christianity; it is maintained as a moral influence in an otherwise secular state. For that reason imperialist powers often sent missionaries to convert the natives in the colonies; at home, they wanted to retain the moral influences of Christianity in otherwise secular educational curriculums. The question of women — or better to say of the difference of sex — enables us to see how inequalities are naturalized and how they then become foundational for secularist discourses. I argue in the book that gender inequality (a racialized gender inequality) becomes the matrix for other inequalities, a way of justifying asymmetries of power as natural and thus outside of human control.

JB: Many self-defined secularists fear that any critique of secularism will usher in an epoch of religious values, if not religious fundamentalism. How do you account for the anxiety that those critics bring to this intellectual debate?

JWS: I think this comes first, from the tendency of these intellectuals to accept the emancipatory story secularism has told about itself and, with it, the binary between religion and secularism — as if you can only have one without the other, as if the one (religion) can only be a threat to the other (the secular). It assumes that religious values are necessarily antithetical to politics, despite the long history of the influence of some forms of religious expression on campaigns for social justice. (The US Civil Rights movement as one important example.) By accepting the binary — religious vs. secular — these intellectuals endorse a way of thinking that exempts secularism from any critical examination and, indeed, allows persisting inequalities to remain in place because they are taken to be the antithesis of the secular promise of emancipation and equality.

JB: I am wondering whether you might tell us how your approach to both gender and race has changed in this new book. For instance, you are clear that secularists have identified feminist goals as not only compatible with secularism, but supported and realized only through secularism. And yet, you show that the very distinction between secularism and religion (one that secularism itself produces), creates a very different picture. Indeed, discourses of secularism, understood as the basis for state power — if not an operation of sovereignty — create the opportunity to stabilize the meanings of feminine and masculine in various hierarchical forms. You write, for instance, that « gender and politics are not established entities that enter into contact and influence each other » but that in their « respective instability » are effectively stabilized by regimes of power. You write, « political systems invoke a supposed immutability of gender to legitimate asymmetries of power » but that the troubling instabilities of each term always threaten to disturb the smooth operation of power. Can you tell us how this works (a) in terms of secular power and (b) the distinction that secularism makes between itself and religion? And can you help us understand the difference it makes to your discussion to understand that gender is always racialized?

JWS: In a way, you’re asking me to recount the whole book, which we can’t do here, though the excerpt that is provided along with this interview does clarify some of these points. I think the most important argument of the book is the one you cite — about the instabilities of both gender (the difference of sex is an unsolvable enigma) and of democratic politics (there is no sure way to embody the abstractions of nation, individual, citizen, representative). In the effort to stabilize inherently unstable or indeterminate systems, asymmetries of power are referred to a naturalized notion of gender, and in the process the uncertainties of the differences of sex are “fixed” as natural — whatever normative forms gender is supposed to take are thus declared immutable. (In the book, I cite a Scottish scientist who, protesting women’s suffrage, declared that what was true of the primitive protozoa could not be changed by an act of parliament.) Race is used to clarify the normative system of gender, attributing to “others,” abnormal or less civilized ways of performing the difference of sex. In the discourses of secularism that conceived of the modern nation state, the superior status of “our” women (and so of “our” nation) was defined against the inferior status of “their” women. This came to justify colonial civilizing missions and, today, justifies discrimination against Muslims in many western countries. The importance of the argument about the mutual constitution of gender and politics, allows us also to historicize gender, to see attributions of meaning to differences of sex as politically motivated attempts to resolve the uncertainties of both gender and politics, to ask how the one uses the other to establish meaning and legitimize relationships of power. It also suggests, as you have noted, the performative aspect of gender — not so much as it pertains to individual subjects, but as it pertains to gender ‘systems.’


Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.

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.

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