Sex and Secularism: For a Critical History

Joan Wallach Scott
12 June 2018

This is Joan Wallach Scott’s reply to her four reviewers in our critical exchange on her book Sex and Secularism. To see the four reviews, follow the link here.


I appreciate these comments, the time it took to write them, and the questions they raise about Sex and Secularism. My aim in this response is not to cover all the ground that they do, but to address some of the issues raised and not raised by the authors.


Tim Crane wants us to remember that the ideal of secularism (like the ideal of democracy) is better in principle than in practice. Whatever our reservations about the historical uses and abuses of secularism, he thinks we ought to embrace it as an aspiration—a reminder of where we ought to be. I don’t disagree about the importance of ideals, but I’m also skeptical about giving them a fixed definition. Has secularism (or, for that matter, democracy) always meant the same thing, even in the abstract? My point in the book was to examine the ways in which not just the practice, but the very discourse (and so the principle) of secularism has long carried with it a presumption of gender inequality that has not yet gone away. Discourses, as Foucault has taught has, have effects, and so the distinction between theory and practice as Crane offers it isn’t very helpful for the kind of analysis I wanted to do. As for discourses and their effects, I don’t think I ever say that women in the secular nations of the West are worse off than their counterparts elsewhere; the book isn’t about measuring relative rates of equality or emancipation. It’s about understanding the persistence of gender inequality precisely in the countries where one would have thought it to have long ago disappeared—and where claims are made that indeed it has.


Although Crane refers to secularism and women in his piece (and he clearly is in favor of gender equality), most of his discussion focuses on the definition of secularism in relation to freedom of religion. The quote from Taylor and Maclure refers to “the moral equality of individuals” and religious freedom—what, one wonders, counts as “moral equality” and is gender equality necessarily part of it? Crane also offers Peña-Ruiz’s list of secularism’s “three values,” but that list refers to the “‘full equality’ of all believers”—not of women and men and not necessarily, one might conclude, of those whose beliefs differ from the majority. Crane’s own reference to John Locke and the American Bill of Rights is about religious tolerance. The core ideal of secularism he says, is “freedom of conscience and religion.” How might we derive gender equality from that? Crane’s definition has everything to do with religion or (religious) conscience, and has nothing to say about gender. I see this as symptomatic of my point, which is that secularism, taken as a discourse, has relied on prevailing inequalities of gender, referring them to a presumed natural difference between the sexes. Crane himself does not presume these inequalities, but nothing in his defense of a fixed secular ideal addresses them.


I leave it to readers to find in the fine comments from Peter Coviello and Valentine Zuber what I take to be corrections to Crane’s reading. They clarify and elaborate the major points of the book and run with them in new and useful directions. They understand that the book’s scope aims well beyond a critique of French secularism. Although certainly inspired by my work in French history, I want to insist that this is not a book only about France—which itself has never entirely shed its Christian influences (lately invoked by Nicolas Sarkozy among others, including Emmanuel Macron). It is precisely the more general notions of what Crane refers to as a “western way of life” (evident across a broad geographic spectrum) that indicate the ways in which Christianity is never absent from discourses of secularism—as is the contrast with Islam.

I like very much the way that Coviello and Abu el Haj extend my thinking to take up the issue of sexual freedom, he discussing the ways in which the figure of woman has been instrumentalized in that discourse; she pondering the surprising convergence of “left-leaning feminist and Christian activists, often evangelical” on the mission to save Muslim women. I think Abu el Haj is right that these disparate groups agree not on “sexual freedom per se, but on questions of freedom and choice as they relate to intimacy and the family more generally.” And, like Coviello, she draws our attention to the power of figurative operations—in this case the veiled Muslim woman—“as the necessary Other for the self-fashioning of a secular-liberal, if certainly not a godless West.”


I agree with Valentine Zuber’s suggestion that the real fight we have is “contre tous les fondamentalismes sans exception, qu’ils soient d’origine religieuse ou même laïque.” I think she will approve of the title of the French translation of the book, La Religion de la laïcité, which plays on the fundamentalist thinking of so many of the defenders of laïcité, as well as on the way in which Christianity clings to this supposedly anti-religious concept.


I have been repeatedly surprised that in the reception to the book, what I take to be my most original theoretical contribution has gone largely unremarked. That has to do with the examination of the relationship between gender inequality and the emergence of western democratic nation-states. I suggest in chapters three and five especially, that gender and politics are interconnected, each looking to the other for its legitimation. Following Freud and Claude Lefort, I point out that the difference of the sexes, on the one hand, and democratic politics, on the other, are both characterized by an irresolvable indeterminacy. Freud tells us that there is no ultimate explanation for the difference of the sexes and Lefort tells us that, after the fall of absolutism, there is no concrete embodiment for democratic politics. As a result, I argue, gender and politics look to one another for certainty: the supposed natural difference of the sexes explains why men predominate in politics (and in many other spheres as well) and the reference to that natural difference as a justification for politics secures a particular view of gender inequality (explaining it not as socially constructed inequality, but as an incontrovertible fact of nature). I think this insight goes beyond secularism—it redefines gender not as the prevailing relationship between women and men, but as the impossible (and therefore always vulnerable) attempt to secure meaning where none exists. And it understands politics as deeply invested in policing that meaning because the difference of sex provides a way of thinking about and justifying asymmetries of difference more generally. (In this way, contrary to what is often said about the ahistoricity of psychoanalytic theory, psychoanalysis allows me to historicize gender and to specify its relationship to political power.) Here is how I put it on the last page of the book:


Gender and politics have used each other to establish their legitimacy and to enforce their rules, justifying inequalities as natural phenomena—inequalities that extend beyond gender to race, class, ethnicity, and religion. Untangling the operations of this interconnection in the discourse of secularism has been for me a critical project, and not only because it exposes the way certain claims about equality have served to perpetuate inequality. What is also at stake in insisting on the historicity of this discourse, and on the indeterminacy of the meanings of gender and democratic politics upon which it rests, is that those meanings are perpetually and irresistibly open to change.


Perhaps because secularism is in the title of the book, the point about the mutual constitution of gender and politics has not drawn the attention I hoped it would. Instead, it’s theories of secularism (their defenders and critics) that have predominated in the discussions. Perhaps I haven’t developed clearly enough the link between gender and politics—their mutually constitutive indeterminacies—on the one hand, and the discourse of secularism, on the other. Perhaps my focus on “the Muslim question” has taken up too much room. Perhaps, too, the sheer abundance of historical material has overwhelmed my attempts to theorize gender and politics. Or, perhaps that theorizing is most relevant to historians (as it happens, none of the commentators in this forum are historians—they are an anthropologist, a literary scholar, a philosopher, and a sociologist). I don’t mean to complain about the kinds of theoretical engagement evident in these thoughtful responses to my book—to the contrary, I’m enormously appreciative of their rich critical explorations, enabled by that interdisciplinarity. But I do find it worth pondering that my theorizing of gender and politics isn’t as fully addressed as I would have hoped.

Tags: , , , , , ,


  • Tim Crane says:

    Thanks very much for these comments, and for the opportunity to think about your book.

    I think I didn’t express myself clearly enough, since I agree with a lot of what you say here, but you seem to think we are not in agreement. So let me have another go, if I may.

    You say ‘the distinction between theory and practice as Crane offers it isn’t very helpful for the kind of analysis I wanted to do.’

    Yes, I would agree — but it wasn’t meant to be helpful for that. I used the distinction between an ideal and its implementation to answer the question of what implication your analysis has for those who would like to defend secularist ideas today.

    Of course, this depends on what secularism is, and as you point out, its meaning is not something transcendent or atemporal, but has a complex history. So it has no simple definition.

    I agree with this too, and I said as much in my review. Rather than attempt to define secularism, I identified one ideal in some actual defences of secularism, the ideal of religious freedom. I take this to include the freedom not to practice any religion at all — and of course it is supposed to be a freedom for men and women, and for ‘those whose beliefs differ from the majority’. I mention this only because you question it above.

    I don’t mind myself whether this ideal is expressed by the word ‘ secularism’, and given your analysis perhaps it would be better if it were not. But my main point is that religious freedom is an important value, and a belief in it is not, in my opinion, challenged by your analysis. (And of course ‘freedom’ too is not a simple idea, but I only had 1500 words!…)

    You ask, how we might derive gender equality from the idea of religious freedom. I don’t think we can, and I didn’t claim so. Religious freedom and gender equality are very different ideas (as in effect your book so brilliantly illustrates) and they need to be implemented in different ways.

    In that sense, then, I agree with your final comment that nothing in the defence of the ideal of religious freedom addresses the question of gender inequality. I think you see this as a criticism of what I am saying; I don’t.

    (Finally, just one minor pedantic point where I probably was not clear enough. You say, ‘I don’t think I ever say that women in the secular nations of the West are worse off than their counterparts elsewhere’. Absolutely — I did not attribute this view to you. I said that we should consider the possibility that women in secular nations are better off than they would have been if secularism had never happened; this does not imply any comparison between actual women in actual secular and non-secular nations. But this isn’t a very important point, it doesn’t really matter.)

    Best wishes
    Tim Crane

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *