Teaching and doing digital history.

Grounding the Readings in Theory

To begin my readings on gender, society, and law in America, we’re going to use the first week to ground the rest of the list using works of feminist theory.

Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd ed),

Through her specific focus on Black feminist thought, Collins actually provides a nice framework through which we can view power relations in general and how they function in society. By shifting the paradigm of oppression, she fundamentally changes how we think about oppressive forces such as race, class, and gender. She rejects the additive approach and instead she argues that race, gender, and class form a system of interlocking oppression and together with sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and religion form an overarching structure of domination—what she calls the “matrix of domination.” (20-21) She moves the discussion away from descriptions of these individual types of oppression and focuses attention instead on how they interoperate to produce injustice.

She explores the intersections of oppression for Black women in the United States by exploring four powerful, controlling images of black women—the mammy figure, the matriarch, the welfare queen, and the Jezebel. Through these images, Black women are objectified as an Other, which provides an ideological justification for their oppression. In this way the Black Other, in whatever form, as she exists on the margins, actually clarifies the boundaries of society by defining the center. The Other stands in binary opposition to the “Norm.” Her discussion of the power dynamic inherent in heterosexuality as it intersects with race and gender is powerful and provides a nice illustration as to how the “matrix” capitalizes on binary thinking to function in society.

She delineates two interdependent dimensions of heterosexism—the symbolic and the structural. The symbolic refers to the sexual meanings used to represent and evaluate Black women’s sexuality (ie, the Jezebel or  hypersexual Black “freak” in opposition to the pure White woman). The structural dimension encompasses how social institutions are organized to reproduce the hegemonic “Norm” of heterosexism, particularly through law and social custom. Much as the Black Other stands in opposition to the White subject, heterosexuality as an ideology is embedded in binary thinking that casts all other sexualities as deviant. In this way, deviance is socially and legally constructed as existing outside whatever norm is useful. In discussing the specific objectification of sexuality, she adds Madonna/whore, real woman/dyke, real man/fag, stud/sissy to the typical binaries of white/black, man/woman, masculine/feminine. She argues these sexual binaries in turn receive justification via medial theories (normal/sick), religious beliefs (saved/sinner), and state regulation (legal/illegal) (140)

Nancy Levit and Robert R.M. Verchick, Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer.

Levit & Verchick address the ways in which anti-female norms and images are expressed in the law by focusing on how feminist theorists and activists have worked to change them. They outline the major camps of feminist legal theory—Equal Treatment, Cultural Feminism, Dominance Theory, Critical Race, Lesbian Feminism, Ecofeminism, Pragmatic Feminism, and Postmodern Feminism—and the tools with which these activists fight oppression inside legal doctrine. They argue that despite their differences, all feminist theorists view the world as shaped by white men who control larger shares of power and privilege. Because men originally wrote all the laws, those who did not fit their norm were silenced. Additionally all feminist legal theorists agree that men and women should have political, social, and economic equality; they disagree on the meaning of equality and how to achieve it. (15)

Feminists, they argue, regardless of their position, attempt to battle discrimination using three major tools: unmasking patriarchy, wherein they expose the often-subtle gender-based consequences of the laws; contextual reasoning, wherein they seek to understand the full context of the situation; and consciousness raising, wherein they alert others to these subtleties and form cohesive groups to oppose them. They provide an excellent chapter-by-chapter overview of the hot-button items within feminist legal theory such as workplace discrimination, schooling and organized sports, laws affecting the female body, marriage and family, sex and violence, and global issues such as sex trafficking and genital mutilation.

By reading Levit & Verchick with Collins, the intersecting forces of oppression and unintended consequences of the law become more obvious. For example, Levit & Verchick’s discussion of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exposes how actually bringing suit under Title VII requires a woman to identify her “primary” discrimination as sex-based or race-based. By forcing one over the other, intersecting modes of discrimination are ignored in anti-discrimination cases, resulting in fewer women of color bringing suits. Similarly, in domestic violence situations, a battered lesbian woman conceivably might not escape her attacker, as neither women’s shelters nor the law recognize that women might need to be protected from other women. Fundamentally, Levit & Verchick attempt to expose the power dynamics inherent in our legal system, the consequences for women, and how activists have attempted to “correct” the unintended effects on women.


Joan Scott argued in “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” that any system of power must work to sustain itself through binary symbols because its very power is not unified, coherent or centralized and thus must constantly remake itself through objectifying the subordinate. She understands power by way of Foucault who sees it “as dispersed constellations of unequal relationships, discursively constituted in social ‘fields of force.'” (1067) Scott’s analysis focuses on the culturally available symbols that evoke complex and often contradictory representations of women—Eve/Mary, Madonna/whore, innocents/deviants.

For Scott, and I’d argue that for Collins as well, the important questions scholars can ask about how symbols work within a matrix of domination are those that seek to understand which symbolic representations are invoked, how and when they’re used. These symbols are interpreted through a set of normative behaviors and appear in  legal, medical, and political doctrines (among others) that have serious ramifications for women who must enter the legal/courts system. As such, I’m looking forward to exploring how (if) scholars address these symbols in our upcoming readings.

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