U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Books That Matter: Twenty-Five Years of Gender Trouble, a Guest Post by Claire Potter

Gender TroubleThe 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.”[1]

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.[2] 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.”[3]

In 1994, Gayle Rubin, one of Butler’s early intellectual influences, playfully crowned Butler “the Queen of Gender,”[4] 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.[5]

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.]

[1] Elizabeth Weed, Notes on Pembroke Center’s History: 1981-2011 (Providence: Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, 2011), 8.

[2] See Joan W. Scott, “The Provocations of Enduring Friendships,” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, vol. 21 no. 2 (2011)

[3] See Butler and Elizabeth Weed, Ed. The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism, Indiana University Press, 2011, 12.

[4] Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler, “Sexual Traffic,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies (Summer 94), Vol. 6 Issue 2/3, 97.

[5]See the unpaginated preface of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990.)

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  1. “When the intellectual history of this movement is written, Judith Butler – and this book – will be at the center of it.” Taking note of this. Thank you Claire for the historical perspective on the significance of Butler to the history of feminist thought and gender. We need more of this.

  2. Claire: Thanks so much for the piece. It is super helpful to me, and not just for its historical perspective.

    I was one of the few grad students, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, who (seemingly) WAS NOT assigned *Gender Trouble*. As such, I’ve not read it. (There, I said it!) I’ve felt bad about that lacuna for years. But, after reading this essay, I feel much better because, though I was never assigned Butler, I read A LOT of Joan Scott — multiple readings of the famous 1986 article plus readings in the *Feminism and History* collection (edited by her). Your essay makes me feel like I got the underpinnings of Butler’s famous text, even if I didn’t get the book itself. Aside: I love it that Scott wrote what appears to be an essay about her friendship with Butler. I value my provocative friendships, many of which have come out of this blog space.

    This question of difficult sentences and challenging readings strikes me as, well, odd—on several fronts. I feel sympathy for Butler on the criticism. But, no matter my sympathy with her theory and cause in terms of history, I probably would’ve criticized her for the same. Why? Longer, complex sentences do not make us better readers, *necessarily*. But shorter, less complex sentences do make important points more widely accessible. Butler’s book strikes me as important enough to warrant friendly criticisms about accessibility. (Perhaps the conflation of French theory and the idea of performative writing made criticisms of the text’s accessibility *seem* like criticisms of Butler’s theory?) That said, I’ll shut up until I get my copy and read it.

    Thanks again, Claire, for sharing this essay here. Best, TL

  3. I found Gender Trouble *incredibly* difficult to read when it was first published — so much so that I stopped and started several times before completing it. Upon revisiting it for this post, I found it a far easier read. Of course, I am 25 years older, but I think we give reading, as a skill, too little attention as historians. History tends to value narrative writing, nor theoretical or methodological prose, and reading skills sharpen and dcline like any other cognitive attribute. The more I read hte better and faster I read — and the more theory I read (right after GT, I went to Wesleyan and fell in with the cultural studies crowd, as well as many people who had been educated in the Brown English department) he better I read theory.

    • About teaching reading to history students: On my syllabi—everywhere I’ve taught (CCs, SLAC, universities)—I explicitly discuss analytical reading per Adler’s and Van Doren’s rules of reading (outlined in *How to Read a Book*, 2nd ed, 1972). I know some of my colleagues have raised an eyebrow at my recommending that book and going over some of their points. But students have never criticized me for it. Most have said that no one has ever discussed either how to read or how to read history. So I’ll do it, forever, until someone makes me stop or something better comes along. I wonder how many of my other colleagues discuss guides for reading?

      That said, I don’t know how much the book would explicitly help students read Butler. Hmm…One thing Adler and Van Doren do is talk about how to criticize a book (and when to criticize). So maybe it would help. And it’s a way to learn to read more intentionally, and more difficult books, without tackling theory (whether good or bad!). – TL

  4. I had the fortune to not only read Gender Trouble right as it was published but study it in a classroom seminar fashion. Thus I was inducted or inculcated into her way of writing and meaning making. That was so long ago and it seems quite odd indeed to discuss it now after all these years. I am profoundly ambivalent about the book. I certainly don’t share Steven Pinker’s verdict on the prose style, which I consider to be actually very good indeed, in the Hegelian tradition which is often misunderstood (and unread). Butler is a genius, possibly sui generis.

  5. Thanks for this Claire. Let me add to the bibliography of that moment in the late 1980s that produced _Gender Trouble_, two texts that you don’t mention, but that anticipated at least part of its critique: Denise Riley, _Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of Woman in History_ (1988); and Gloria Anzaldua, _Borderlands/La Frontera_ (1987). From the time of Berger and Luckmann’s _Social Construction of Reality_ (1966) to Ian Hacking’s _The Social Construction of What?_ (1999), a host of phenomena was “de-naturalized” and de-essentialized as part of an on-going critique of categories that appeared to be stable and natural, often in the service of a Left politics. As Rogers points out in his chapter on gender in _Age of Fracture_, the turmoil over the category of gender in the late twentieth-century was both political and epistemological–if the distinction between “Man” and “Woman” wasn’t ordered in the nature of things, what distinctions could possibly meet the Cartesian criteria of “clear and distinct ideas”? So, when Riley questioned the category of Woman as a unified identity, and Anzaldua offered a critique of Anglo/white feminism by linking distinctions of sex and gender to the artificiality of geographical borders and power, they were creating the context in which a _Gender Trouble_ could be written and make sense.

    Let me offer a somewhat different view than the one you put forward here, although I think it’s complementary to your perspective. I think Butler’s innovation was to take on the received wisdom, in feminist circles, of the distinction between sex and gender that had been part of the feminist critique of socially constructed identities, in a more direct and central way than anyone else had done. That is, feminist theory in the 1970s and 80s had already separated the biological (sex) from the cultural (gender), and had argued for the mutability of the latter (while affirming the natural and fixed nature of the former). The sex-gender distinction was an attempt to argue against the “anatomy is destiny” school of anti-feminists, who argued that cultural institutions such as the family and its division of labor, and cultural values associated with women such as maternalism and care, were rooted in biology. So feminists were already using “gender” as a category to deny biological determinism and to open up the possibilities of women changing their social roles in ways that allowed for greater freedom from existing conventions. See, for instance, the work of Nancy Choderow. They largely thought they were anti-essentialists since they were arguing against the attempt to essentialize gender by rooting it in biology. What Butler said was that the sex-gender distinction actually brought back in through the back door what it had criticized at the front door: the biological determination of gender identity. By insisting that gender identity align with sex (that biological women and men exhibit the attributes that were culturally and socially constructed), feminists were actually re-inscribing sex into gender, rather than providing the conditions of a liberation. That liberation could only occur when gender became free-floating and performative, rather than related in any way to sex-based biological identities. In this way, Butler was both an extension of earlier radical feminist theory, and an undermining of it.

    One last point: you say that it appears that feminist, queer, and race theorists are the ones primarily targeted when critics complain about obscure language and syntax. But in the 1980s it was Derridean and DeManian deconstruction, and the entire tradition of theory growing out of Heidegger that was the source of this complaint–and much of it had relatively little to say about gender, sexuality, post-colonialism, and race. It may be that as critical race, queer, and post-colonial theorists took up the language of this tradition, the criticism of their obscurantist language has shifted to those subjects. That would be an interesting question to explore.

    Sorry if I’ve gone on at length. It’s an interesting topic, and I appreciate your contribution to the discussion here.

  6. Thanks Dan, for adding important context: another important text that I neglected to mention would be Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, The Metalanguage of Race (1992), which made race “the question” and showed how the racialized subject was trapped by race, even as she produced it.

    Another great piece on Butler came out in 2014: Jordana Rosenberg’s <a http=http://avidly.lareviewofbooks.org/2014/05/09/gender-trouble-on-mothers-day/<Gender Trouble on Mother's Day.

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