Sex and Secularism

by Joan Wallach Scott, Princeton University Press, 2018

Reviewed by Anne Marie Goetz

Secularism – the separation of religious institutions from the state, and the elevation of enlightenment notions of reason and equal rights over divine revelation for the chosen few – is in trouble. It would seem an odd moment therefore to question how well secularism advances feminist social change goals. Yet in her new book, Sex and Secularism, feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott does just that. In an exposé of the sexism and racism at the origins of secularism, Joan Wallach Scott argues that the notion of secularism has in fact been put to the service of the conservative, Christian, West, in the ‘clash of civilisations’ that has substituted Islam for the old adversaries of the Cold War. As Scott shows, the West has claimed sexual liberation and gender equality as key features of secularism, and as the clearest marker of superiority over Islam. Joan Wallach Scott’s account shows the hypocrisy underlying these assertions.

In this book, Joan Wallach Scott demonstrates that gender equality and women’s rights were never conceived as part of secularism. To show this, she draws on a wide range of historical sources on the revolutions of the 18th century, and the emergence of modern constitutional governance. The separation of church and state, and the inauguration of Euro-Atlantic democracies, resulted in a second separation – between the feminised private sphere of religion, tradition, emotion, and family, and the masculinised public sphere of the state. But the stylised opposition between a secular and emancipated West, against a religious and oppressive East, has masked the persistence of difficulties related to sex and gender in the West. There has been reluctance on the part of the state to address matters associated with the feminised private sphere. The fact is, true gender equality would profoundly disturb the West’s political and social order. Despite the evolution of secularism in the 20th and 21st centuries, extremely difficult and incomplete struggles to expand women’s rights have continued (including excruciating battles for suffrage).

Joan Wallach Scott’s first chapter goes over what is now familiar ground for feminist social and political scientists. She discusses the historical construction of the feminised private sphere, in tandem with the expulsion of religion from politics. In the process, gender shaped politics – as a male domain. Women – and the clergy – resisted, but this resistance cemented connections between femininity and religion. Women represented restorative morality, and were assigned the role of preserving and rebuilding values eroded by the world of competitive politics and markets. The feminisation of religion and tradition extended to the West’s colonial adventures, to the construction of the idea of the ‘Orient’¹ and the justification of the West’s mission to bring order and civilisation to colonised peoples and places. The feminisation of religion and tradition also supported the codification of selected traditions in colonies into family or customary law that entrenched (or established) patriarchal power and women’s subordination, eroded women’s rights to property, and established gender differences in relations between state and citizen.

The second chapter explores the ways 19th-century science was recruited to emphasise women’s reproductive importance – and sexual difference from men, playing down their intellectual sameness. This was in service of supporting the sexual division of labour and the nuclear family as the necessary bedrocks of capitalist development. The nuclear family was not only the legitimate site for sex (in the service of reproduction), but also the place where ‘men’s alienation was redeemed by
women’s private affection’ (p. 88). This expectation that men could somehow be relieved, redeemed, restored by women’s unselfish private service became a core entitlement, a necessary component of masculinity, and of public order. As I will note below, some men’s contemporary loss of access to sex and domestic services, and loss of the opportunity for engaging in private behaviours for which there need be no public accounting, has proven profoundly destabilising.

The third chapter explores the fraught history of women’s struggle for political emancipation and the vote. In liberal political theory, the denial of women’s equality and right to vote has been justified, like much inequality, as a matter of free choice. Carole Pateman’s work on the marriage contract shows how astonishing it is that it is assumed that women, as an entire class, would so freely elect to surrender substantial rights (to their own property, to bodily integrity) to men via marriage (Pateman 1988). Eventually, women demanded political rights and protested the linking of their unfreedom to male identity, freedom, and citizenship. But winning the vote did not generate political or any other kind of equality. Here, Joan Wallach Scott draws on Freud and Lacan to explain the conversion of power and authority, via secular revolutions, from God and monarch, to, not the people, the demos, but to man. Men’s political authority was required for social stability in states constructed on the gendered separation of public and private spheres, and unchangeable gender roles.

The last two chapters – examining the way the West deployed secularism during the Cold War, and now, in the ‘war on terror’, are the most interesting to a political scientist like myself. They show how secularism has had its meaning repeatedly distorted to uphold Western cultural superiority. First of all, secularism was used during the Cold War to represent not only liberty and democracy in contrast to communism, but, paradoxically, to represent Christianity, as the core
expression of Western civilisation. The Soviet world offered women economic equality, but because Western capitalist secularism could not (or would not) do so, it championed freedom, particularly sexual freedom, instead. In her argument, Joan Wallach Scott deals with the obvious incompatibility between Christianity and sexual liberation by showing how Christian activists and liberal feminists come together on protection issues (framing women as victims), and worked together on
campaigns to end violence against women – particularly in non-secular developing nations. By the 1990s, Joan Wallach Scott cleverly shows that the preoccupation with violence against women (sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, and eventually, sexual violence) shifted state responsibility for promoting gender equality from a role of provision of economic and social support to criminal enforcement, all while reinforcing a narrow focus on women’s sexuality and sexual
difference, defined in contrast to men.

The focus on violence against women was also, eventually, the centrepiece of the West’s critique of fundamentalist Islam in the last years of the 20th century, and now. This is the focus of Joan Wallach Scott’s last chapter, in which she shows how secularism has shifted in meaning again – as a critique of the veil, of ‘sexuality literally under wraps’, which is contrasted to the ‘uncovered’ sexuality of Western women. Secularism now means women’s sexual autonomy. As Joan Wallach Scott points out, this analysis is grounded in ‘the complementarity of normative heterosexuality’, and sexual difference, not in recognition of the inherent sameness of people, regardless of their sex. Progress towards genuine gender equality continues to be undermined by this stress on sexual difference, as well as the continued construction of female sexuality in service of male sexuality.

Secularism has come a long way by the end of this book – the old distinctions between public and private are erased when sex has become a public matter and a focus for state legislation, and when secularism is synonymous with sexual liberation. Sex has become the key to identity, to the point that other routes to self-determination, or at least, notions of identity that do not put sexuality on display, nor fixate on sex as consumption, are not recognised as secular, and are hence dismissed. Joan Wallach Scott has previously discussed this, and the crude assumption that emancipation is incompatible with wearing a headscarf, with great sensitivity in her book, The Politics of the Veil (Scott 2007). This current book reads like a detailed extension of the third chapter of that book, where she discusses secularism and, in particular, the French notion of laïcité

Arguably, Joan Wallach Scott’s analysis of secularism is skewed by her investment in French social and political history, and the controversial 2004 ban on headscarves. Secularism redefined as sexual liberation has been a more marked feature of the French notion of laïcité than in Anglo, and especially American, secularism. The latter has been more puritanical, and more explicitly Christian, since the end of Cold War. Because of this, with the US context in mind, not all parts
of the argument about the redefinition and concentration of secularism on sexual autonomy are plausible. Secularism as sexual autonomy works in a context where abortion rights and contraceptive access are not threatened. But even in such a context (France), how can secularism as sexual liberation be sustained conceptually and politically in the context of women’s continued economic dependence on men, and their still relatively peripheral position in politics, in spite of the law on
parité’ (the subject of Scott’s 2005 book)? In other words, can we really speak of women’s sexual freedom outside economic, political, and social equality?

Joan Wallach Scott notes that women are expected to make sexual liberation substitute for economic or political equality, and she notes that of course it cannot. The #MeToo movement (which is not addressed by Scott) shows why. Sexual freedom without equality simply cannot work when there are power imbalances, for instance at places of work or of learning.

The argument in this book about secularism and its multiple meanings, adapted for strategic purposes to preserve Western power (and white Christian male dominance), is no surprise. But I was left wanting to know: what now? No interesting alternative to secularism is mentioned.  And feminists know that women’s rights have raced ahead fastest in secular democracies. Researchers analysing cross-national data on the conditions under which states advance women’s rights,
such as new work by Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon (2018), argue that the environments of greatest constraint to progress for women are theocratic states or any context where religious doctrine dictates state policy. When women succeed in de-listing aspects of women’s rights from the domain of religious doctrine – abortion, contraception, divorce – they do better. Feminists often invoke secularism to support proposals for gender equality. What Joan Wallach Scott shows, particularly in The Politics of the Veil (Scott 2007), is that feminists have to avoid the trap of making women’s behaviour and appearance the signifier of secularism – and equating this with liberation. This can result, as it did in France, in putting some social groups (Muslims) outside the bounds of society, and in the use of secularism not for tolerance, but oppression.

Perhaps the #MeToo movement is the beginning of a feminist remaking of the notion of secularism. But if it is, it has to go much deeper than a focus on harassment in the workplace, the street, and elsewhere. It has to sever the connections that are embedded in the liberal secular state between men’s sense of power and women’s lack of freedom. If it doesn’t, #MeToo will not topple the patriarchy, and will instead trigger a vengeful backlash, in which women will be expected to return to
being the punchbags of men. The mass murder in April 2018 in Toronto by an ‘incel’ – an involuntary celibate who blamed his misery on the fact that he could find no female sexual partners – shows the lengths to which some men will go to enforce women’s subordination.³

Importantly, if secularism is to work for women’s rights, the plasticity of the concept has to be challenged. Consider the language used by members of the US delegation to the 2018 Commission on the Status of Women. Their repeated emphasis on ‘science’ while negotiating to limit rights to abortion, contraception, and sexuality education, and same-sex relationships – bogus as that science is – showed a recognition of the need to invoke secular principles of reason, not divine revelation, to legitimate public actions.4 A terminal assault on abortion rights and even contraception is under way, but it is using the language of secularism.

Joan Wallach Scott’s main goal is to disprove the assumption that gender equality is inherent in secular societies, and, depressingly, she achieves it. She urges a profound scepticism of universalism, of the organisation or impression of unity in defence of actions that curb some people’s freedoms, and she shows that this often relies on the silencing of others, most often women. She reminds us that what matters is democratic processes and outcomes: not abstract principles, but how their meanings are debated in public space, and enacted in policies. Secularism implies that true democracy can never be achieved where public actions are motivated by a religiously dictated truth. It will take considerable vigilance by feminists to fight off current attacks on secularism the world over, attacks that are being made in the name of women’s rights.

1. The ‘othering’, exoticising and disempowering of non-Western civilisations has a long history famously analysed in Edward Said’s (1978) book: Orientalism.
2. Laïcité is the French word for secularism. Its definition is highly contested, as Joan Wallach Scott shows in her analysis of the 2004 decision in France to ban headscarves in schools.
3. For an explanation of the term ‘incel’, see Zoe Williams (2018).
4. The anti-choice, pro-abstinence position of the US delegation to this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women is analysed in Emma O’Connor (2018).

Htun, Mala, and Laurel S. Weldon (2018) The Logics of Gender Justice: State Action on Women’s Rights around the World, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press
O’Connor, Emma (2018) ‘In Closed-Door UN Meetings, Trump Administration Officials Pushed Abstinence for International Women’s Health Programs’, Buzzfeed, 17 April, (last checked 18 May 2018)
Pateman, Carole (1988) The Sexual Contract, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books
Scott, Joan Wallach (2005) Parité: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism, Chicago and London:University of Chicago Press
Scott, Joan W. (2007) The Politics of the Veil, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Williams, Zoe (2018) ‘“Raw Hatred”: Why the “Incel” Movement Targets and Terrorises Women’, The Guardian, 25
women (last checked 18 May 2018)

© 2018 Anne Marie Goetz
Professor, Center for Global Affairs, New York University, USA

Review originally published in Gender & Development 26(2) July 2018