Joan Scott, Liberalism, and Abortion Rights

Joan Scott, Liberalism, and Abortion Rights

Recently, the University of Edinburgh awarded Joan Scott an honorary doctorate in social science. The hooding ceremony seemed more like a Catholic wedding than an intellectual honor — replete with scepters, somber music, and long robes (the British do like their hierarchy). I attended, of course, not for the solemn ceremony, but for the lecture Scott gave (and the refreshments — B-minus at best).

Scott’s 1986 groundbreaking article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” reshaped the field of women’s and gender history, and it still serves as an (if not the) important guide for historians of gender today. For this talk, however, Scott drew on her recent book Sex and Secularism (Princeton, 2017), in which she challenges a progressive vision of history to argue that the trajectory of secularism (and its connection to liberalism) is one towards gender inequality. The book expands on an essay in her 2011 book, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Duke), which incorporates Scott’s turn towards psychoanalytic theory to make sense of the persistent state of gender inequality in the history of secularism.

I’ll be honest, I often skipped the psychoanalysis when I read the essay, and during the talk, my eyes glazed over when Scott began discussing Freud and Lacan. I did snap to attention, however, when she used Trump’s contention that he had the “biggest nuclear button” (phallus anyone?) to underscore how his masculinity (or perception of it) forms the basis of his authority. If only he didn’t actually have power over a nuclear arsenal, his gender politics would be the gift that keeps on giving!

Joan Wallach Scott in front of a book shelf.
Historian Joan Wallach Scott. (Sutherton/Wikimedia Commons)

In this talk, and in the writings it is based on, Scott is dialoguing with current discussions about the “enlightened, secular, and liberal West” versus the “backwards, traditional, and religious East” that have come to the fore in the post-9/11 era. She connects this rhetoric to the nineteenth-century rise of liberalism and its concurrent process of secularization. Liberalism, with its claims of universality and neutrality, seemingly supports gender equality. Yet because liberal thinkers implicitly coded the male subject as the model for the universal individual, gender inequality is embedded at its very core.1 The female subject is always a deviation from the norm — and always unequal.

As Scott argues, “there is no necessary connection between [liberal secularism and gender equality] … the equality that secularism promises has always been troubled by sexual difference, by the difficult–if not impossible–task of assigning ultimate meaning to bodily differences between women and men.”2 The implementation of liberal democracies and the separation of church and state were not the first step in the “great arch of history” towards a progressive future, the foundation upon which all other advancements towards equality would be made, but rather the creation of sexual difference and the codification of gender inequality into the modern nation-state.3

Here, I want to draw from Scott’s main thesis to think about how historians of gender and medicine can apply her argument that modern liberal and secular states have hardened, not softened, the lines of gender and sexual difference. Most relevant here, I think, is Scott’s critique of the grand narratives of modernization and secularization, which assumes cumulative building blocks towards a progressive future.

Exploring the example of abortion rights and access to the procedure in the U.S. and Latin America is fertile ground to apply this critical theory. Feminist North American scholars today don’t argue that the passage of Roe v. Wade was the endpoint for abortion access (we did it!), but rather the starting point for continued assaults on that access. Yes, abortion is technically legal in the United States, but the rollback of those rights in conservative states (due to the 1992 Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which gave individual states vast power to decide what constituted an “undue burden” for women seeking an abortion) has made it all but unavailable to many women.

Center for Reproductive Rights chart showing 22 states at the highest risk of losing abortion rights if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and 12 more states at moderate risk. (Center for Reproductive Rights)

For those activists horrified about what the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court may mean for the future of abortion, I think Joan Scott might say, well, it’s already happened — and much of it during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. We would be naïve to assume that Roe was about gender equality. It was, after all, about privacy (a central tenet of liberalism). Rather than giving women equal autonomy over their reproductive lives, Roe enshrined the issue as a decision a woman made in private with her physician.4

If liberalism is gender inequality, then Roe, based in the liberal ideology of privacy, could never have been about expanding women’s rights. And because it was based in the liberal doctrine of gender inequality, opponents have easily used that same ideology to chip away at the real benefits Roe (no matter its ideological foundation) has provided for millions of American women.

Latin America similarly has not experienced a great march towards progress, but rather “waves of criminalization and decriminalization” of abortion throughout the twentieth century.5 The last few decades have seen the legalization of abortion in some places (Uruguay, Mexico City), at the same time that the procedure has been recriminalized in other countries, often those led by left-leaning populists.

These laws stand in contrast to nineteenth-century legal codes, passed when secularism took hold in the region, that provided more maneuvering about when an abortion was legal. Brazil, for example, was one of the first countries in the world to legalize “therapeutic” abortions in the early twentieth century.6 Yet those same secular states made no further progress in expanding abortion rights in the twentieth century. In fact, liberal democracies have often constricted those rights, while military dictatorships — allied with the Catholic church — could be more liberal than their democratic counterparts.

The history of abortion rights across the Americas, as Scott would probably point out, has not moved in a linear trajectory. And assuming that it has is dangerous. As Matthieu de Castelbajac contends, that past scholarship on abortion in the West has posited a “repressive hypothesis,” which contrasts an oppressive history with the current liberal “right” to terminate a pregnancy.7 While many people blame the continued political and social power of the Catholic church in Latin America or Republicans in the U.S., perhaps we should instead take a closer look at broader forces of secularism, liberalism, and capitalism.

Of course, as historians of gender and medicine, we are already doing this. But Scott asks us to be specific — to evaluate when, where, and how secular and liberal states have reinscribed gender equality. Scott first emboldened a new generation of historians to critically analyze gender “as a category of analysis.” Thirty-two years later, we still have a lot of work to do. But it’s worth it.


  1. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988). Return to text.
  2. Joan Wallach Scott, The Fantasy of Feminist History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 95. Return to text.
  3. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender and Politics,” (public lecture, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK, April 12, 2018). Return to text.
  4. David Garrow, Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998). Return to text.
  5. Isabel Cristina Hentz, “A honra e a vida: Debates jurídicos sobre aborto e infanticídio nas primeiras décadas do Brasil republicano” (Master’s Thesis, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, 2013), 54. Return to text.
  6. Mala Htun, Sex and the State: Abortion, Divorce, and the Family Under Latin American Dictatorships and Democracies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 142–45. Return to text.
  7. de Castelbajac, “Aborto legal,” 41. Return to text.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.