The following post is by Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History and Director of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the New School and author of War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture and the forthcoming Beyond Pornography: Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, and the Campaign to End Violence Against Women, 1968-2000. We are delighted to post this important essay on the intellectual and institutional contexts of the writing of Gender Trouble and its influences.
There are books that matter. Then there are books that matter more, like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) that marked its 25th anniversary in 2015. Dipping back into it now, Gender Trouble’s achievements were astonishingly broad, and reached into multiple disciplines. It collated and built on the growing importance of literary and cultural studies to emerging scholarship about sexuality and the body. It brought what was then loosely called “French Theory” to the notice of thousands of scholars outside literature. Many historians — still struggling to make women visible in our research — had seen little need to engage theory at all.
Gender Trouble put all feminist scholars on notice that gender was not just a noun invented in the 1950s to describe the sexed body, but a dynamic, “performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence.” This phrase simultaneously asked us to ditch identity politics, which had ceased functioning effectively at all in the 1980s, and, ironically, launched a new phase of gender identity organizing on elite campuses as students launched the early phases of what is now *trans scholarship and politics. My students at Wesleyan explained to me that they no longer had gender; they performed it (not precisely what Butler meant, but ok.) When emergent *trans scholars came to campus as “men” or “women,” my students rebuked them as essentialists (tiresome for the guests, I know: but who cares how students engage theory as long as they do?)
A quarter century ago, Gender Trouble compelled its readers to pay attention to feminism’s achievements and its flaws. It forced historians like myself to join a scholarly world where theory mattered so much one read it all the time. Gender Trouble was also famously complex, a few sentences lasting a third of a page or so, forcing historians to develop higher order reading skills. Critics made – still do make — bitter references to the difficulties of understanding Gender Trouble, imagining the reader’s failings as the writer’s flaws. (I will return to this later, but for now, let me plant the question: are complex syntax and dense prose criticized, except when employed by feminist, queer, and critical race studies scholars?)
Understood and misunderstood, as Gender Trouble circulated in seminar rooms and dormitories, it helped feminists of all ages imagine a politics and a scholarly perspective that transcended the struggles of the Awful Eighties. All of these conflicts centered “women,” not gender, although gender lurked in the background. Butler offered us a way out and a way in: feminism could be political without claiming to speak for “women;” it offered a route for everyone to enter feminist politics without the precondition of being women, or putting women at the center, as radical feminism had for two decades. This, in turn, offered feminist scholars the intellectual freedom to critically engage worlds beyond the edges of our own bodies.
Because of this, Gender Trouble remains a key text for understanding how feminism transformed the late twentieth century intellectual left. Queer studies, trans studies, cultural studies, critical race studies, and disability studies derive from many path-breaking books, scholars and intellectual traditions, but they are all the children of Gender Trouble too. Institutionally, this book also helped to fuel the emergence of American Studies as a site for theory production; and transform women’s studies programs into degree-granting departments that now incorporate the modifiers gender, feminist, queer, sexuality and *trans in their names.
A future Butler biographer will want to center Gender Trouble in the intellectual history of the women’s studies movement in which it germinated – only to participate in dismantling and reassembling it. Although she began her undergraduate education at Bennington, Butler transferred to Yale in 1976; she did her doctoral work at Yale as well between 1978 and 1984. In these years, the first generation of feminist scholars was also being hired and promoted to tenure in American colleges and universities. In New Haven, these years coincided with the emergence of a vibrant cohort of feminist faculty, students and community organizers, including legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and historian Nancy Cott. Beginning with an introductory course taught by MacKinnon in the spring of 1977 faculty, graduate students and undergraduates worked together to build a feminist curriculum in an institution where misogyny that defied liberal solutions: for example, prior to a successful faculty vote on the women’s studies major in 1981, an anonymous flyer issued by “the Committee for the Ruination of Academic Programs” proposed its own major in “Grossness.”
Another intellectual hub that figures prominently in Gender Trouble’s genealogy is Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women in Providence, RI. Founded in 1981 under the directorship of historian Joan Wallach Scott, and in collaboration with literary scholar Elizabeth Weed, the Pembroke Center gathered some of the finest minds in the world to push feminist scholarship to the next level. Endowed by the Ford Foundation, a bequest, and three years of dedicated fundraising, the Pembroke Center became one of feminist theory’s most prestigious laboratories. There, structural analysis, post-structural theory, cultural studies and feminist politics came together to frame the field formerly known as women’s studies as inherently comparative and dynamic in its methods. As Weed put it in a short history of the Pembroke Center, the difference between the conversations at Brown and “those of other centers of the period can be encapsulated in the difference between thinking of women as the answer and women as the question.”
It was one of Pembroke’s literary scholars, theorist Naomi Schor, who introduced Scott to Butler, launching a friendship and intellectual partnership that continues to survive and thrive three decades later. Scott’s intellectual project had begun in the late 1970s when she and Louise Tilly had asked path-breaking questions about the effects of industrialization on European women. In 1986, Scott published the prize-winning “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” in The American Historical Review. “The work with Tilly very clearly began her influential argument that the collective subject of history could not be thought as uniform or homogenous,” Butler reflected in a 2008 essay; “and that the subject in question was riven by inequalities that were essential to its formation. Moreover, if one were to move from a consideration of the formation of the subject to an account of the transformative action of the collective subject, it becomes clear that, for Scott, opportunities for action are not determined but result from contingent and converging historical effects.”
In 1994, Gayle Rubin, one of Butler’s early intellectual influences, playfully crowned Butler “the Queen of Gender,” but if Butler was Gender Trouble’s author, Scott was its midwife. In 1987-88, Butler wrote the first draft of the book alongside a multi-disciplinary all-star cast of interlocutors in the “Gender Seminar” at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Scott had recently moved from Brown. For those without a copy of Gender Trouble’s acknowledgements at hand, Butler’s IAS colleagues that year included Scott, Lila Abu-Lughod, Yasmine Ergas, Donna Haraway, Evelyn Fox Keller, Dorinne Kondo, Rayna Rapp, Carroll Smith Rosenberg and Louise Tilly.
The impact Gender Trouble made on feminist scholarship also cannot be fully appreciated without situating it among other landmark books and articles informed by the new feminist theory, scholarship that made bodies, desire and sexual identity “the question” too. A brief bibliography would include Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” (1984); Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men (1985), as well as the essays that culminated in The Epistemology of the Closet (1991); Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1985); Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-transsexual Manifesto” (1987); and a second article by Scott, clearly informed by Gender Trouble and by the ongoing process of producing feminist knowledge, “The Evidence of Experience” (Critical Inquiry, Summer 1991.)
The success of Gender Trouble, and the emergence of queer studies as a field that was informed in no small part by her work, propelled Butler to prominence, end eventually, to an endowed chair at Berkeley. Today, the ubiquity of Butler’s work on college syllabi, and her staunch support of causes like Occupy Wall Street, #BlackLivesMatter, the anti-war movement, and Boycott, Divest and Sanction, make her an admired figure to many who have perhaps only have read about Gender Trouble. The phrase “Judith Butler fan” recently generated 484,000 Google hits that included blogs and tumblr sites completely devoted to her work.
However, what many admire have also made Butler an object of attack: Gender Trouble’s virtues have, since its publication, threatened longstanding assumptions about what academic work should be and do. In 1999, just in time for a new edition of Gender Trouble, Butler (in perfectly lucid prose) responded to these attacks with an op-ed in The New York Times that questioned the value of transparent writing. “Why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” she asked, noting that common sense prose was frequently neither true nor was it ethical.
Those of us who are celebrating twenty-five years of the trouble Gender Trouble made, and continues to make, know that making a commitment to the “difficult and demanding” is no small part of what intellectuals are supposed to do. It taught us to make a different kind of trouble than we were making, and it changed history. At the end of the twentieth century Gender Trouble was one of a dozen texts that announced the shape of feminist intellectual life after women’s studies. When the intellectual history of this movement is written, Judith Butler – and this book – will be at the center of it.
I would like to thank Judith Butler for a brief email exchange that verified several key dates, and supplied me with several articles that documented her friendship and intellectual collaboration with Joan Scott.
[Editorial note 1/3/16: This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Butler received her BA from Yale, not Bennington College.]
 Elizabeth Weed, Notes on Pembroke Center’s History: 1981-2011 (Providence: Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, 2011), 8.
 See Joan W. Scott, “The Provocations of Enduring Friendships,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, vol. 21 no. 2 (2011)
 See Butler and Elizabeth Weed, Ed. The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism, Indiana University Press, 2011, 12.
 Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler, “Sexual Traffic,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (Summer 94), Vol. 6 Issue 2/3, 97.
See the unpaginated preface of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990.)