Books That Matter: Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble"
It's a difficult book, but making a commitment to the “difficult and demanding” is what intellectuals are supposed to do--and it changed how a whole generation of feminists thought
I spent the morning discussing theory with my students, and it sent me tumbling back into the past for a post about a book that changed my life. If you have a friend who would like this post, please:
There are books that matter. Then there are books that matter more, like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990.) Dipping back into it over thirty years later, I am struck by how astonishingly broad the achievements of this book were and how many disciplines it affected. 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 the fields of literature and philosophy. It did these things at a time when many historians — still struggling to make women visible in our research—saw 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 in the 1980s, and, inadvertently perhaps, empowered the new-ish field of *trans studies.
My students devoured Gender Trouble, explaining 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?) And the book is probably responsible, in part, for the fact that no one has a women’s studies program anymore, but a “Feminist and Sexuality Studies” or “Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies” program.
After Gender Trouble, “woman” was no longer a capacious or descriptive term, much less on the cutting edge of anything.
Instead, Butler compelled their readers to pay attention to feminist theory’s achievements and flaws. She forced historians like me 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—and still do make—bitter references to the difficulties of understanding Butler’s prose, imagining the reader’s failings as the writer’s flaws.
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 identity politics of the Awful Eighties. Butler offered us a way out, and a way in: feminism could be political without claiming to speak for “women.” And feminism could offer 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 was a loss for those reborn in the crucible of 1970s women’s liberation. But it also offered feminist scholars the intellectual freedom to critically engage worlds beyond the edges of our bodies.
Because of this, Gender Trouble remains a crucial 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. Still, 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 transformed women’s studies programs into degree-granting departments, not programs, academia’s eternal stepchildren.
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 they began their undergraduate education at Bennington, Butler transferred to Yale in 1976; they did their doctoral work at Yale between 1978 and 1984. The first generation of feminist scholars was also being hired and promoted to tenure in American colleges and universities in these years.
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 defied liberal solutions. For example, before 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 major in “Grossness.”
Another prominent intellectual hub in Gender Trouble’s genealogy is Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. 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 feminist minds in the world, Butler included, 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. As Weed put it in a short history of the 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.”
One of Pembroke’s literary scholars, theorist Naomi Schor, introduced Scott to Butler, launching a friendship and intellectual partnership that continues to survive and thrive to this day. Scott’s scholarly 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.”
In 1994, Gayle Rubin, one of Butler’s early intellectual influences, playfully crowned Butler “the Queen of Gender.” 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 acknowledgments 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.
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. 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 achievements in feminist theory, propelled Butler to prominence, end eventually, to an endowed chair at Berkeley. Today, the ubiquity of their work on college syllabi, and their 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 never read Gender Trouble, only read about it. The phrase “Judith Butler fan” recently generated 484,000 Google hits that included blogs and Tumblr sites wholly 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 the book, Butler (in perfectly lucid prose) responded to these attacks with an op-ed in The New York Times that asked why transparent writing is an absolute value for some. “Why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” they asked, noting that common sense prose was not, by nature, either true or ethical.
Committing to “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, changing 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.
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