Scholar Joan Scott on Same-Sex Marriage

"Our notions of what counts as marriage and who count as a couple are drastically altered"

Joan Scott, Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, is one of the leading historians on gender and intellectual approaches to historiography in France and the United States. Dr. Scott shares with the Foundation her insights on the current same-sex marriage debates in both nations.

Both France and the United States are experiencing watershed moments vis-à-vis the legalization of same-sex marriage – and the institution of marriage itself. Why now? What historical and modern-day factors have converged to make this possible? Is the public and political tide now unstoppable?

The institutions of marriage and family were once considered to be the foundation for the organization of nation-states. That seems to be less the case these days, perhaps because nations have been displaced by markets as key to social and political life. In the market, it is desire that needs to be directed and harnessed for consumer ends, and any desire can find its niche. Also, although conservatives still insist on the foundational role of families to ensure reproduction and so our futures, new technologies make it possible for many different kinds of people or families to have and raise children. The heterosexual nuclear family is only one of many now, whereas once, it was the only socially acceptable way to guarantee the future. I can’t imagine a return to earlier times in the new economic, technological, and social context.

In France, “La Manif pour Tous” – the protest movement opposing the same-sex marriage legislation “Mariage pour Tous” – seems to be markedly “grass roots,” not officially endorsed by the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, right-wing National Front or the Catholic Church itself. Although many politicians have individually participated and a recent Médiapart study showed strong Catholic Church affiliations within this movement, “official” support has been strikingly absent. In fact, one individual, Catholic militant Frigide Barjot, succeeded in organizing the national protest. What can explain the lack of “official” political or religious backing?

I think this is a misreading of the French protests. The lack of official endorsement doesn’t mean there isn’t extensive unofficial organizing and support. I simply don’t believe the media hype about Frigide Barjot single-handedly organizing a national protest. Where did her money come from? The Catholic Church has been behind these protests as well as those against teaching about “gender”. The explanation for the lack of official backing is that this claim is false, and the media have allowed themselves to be misled. I’m quite sure that some serious investigative reporting would reveal how present — with both personnel and funding — these powerful organizations have been.

In France, one fundamental “hot-button” dispute in the same-sex marriage debate concerns “homoparentalité,” or the proposed removal of “mother” and “father” from language in the Civil Code (to be replaced by “parents”). Why is this so contentious?

Language seems to be a greater concern in France than in the United States, and it manages to crystallize social and political fear. Those fears also exist in the United States, but they crystallize around different issues. The removal of the words “mother” and “father” suggests to some a denial of the “natural” way that children are produced, the historical way their producers have been defined. Changing the words (rather than extending the words to new individuals) suggests a radical reordering of the social world we are accustomed to—even if it is a reordering that has already taken place. 

In both France and the United States, governments – the elected agents of democracy – are playing a pivotal role in altering the legal landscape for same-sex marriage. In France, one of Hollande’s main presidential campaign promises was to legalize same-sex marriage. In the United States, the Obama administration declared it would no longer enforce DOMA and released an amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage, as the U.S. Supreme Court is currently deciding two cases, DOMA and Proposition 8. In your opinion, what role should government play in this context? Can it be the enforcer or arbiter of social transformation, in the bedroom and out? 

Governments make laws; that’s their job. They have always regulated marriage, specifying the age at which people can marry, whether or not they can divorce and how divorce takes place, who can marry, how they can marry, where they can marry. There’s nothing new about any of that. So it makes sense that if marriage is to change, if there are to be new rules about who can marry, when and how, the state should make those rules. How else could they be changed? Your question implies that there’s some new intervention “in the bedroom,” but there’s nothing new about it. If it’s law that regulates marriage, the law has to be changed if new meanings for marriage are to be implemented.

How have conventional or conformist notions of gender, in both countries, impacted or entered into the debate on same-sex marriage? Have such notions evolved or become more entrenched during this debate?

Well, the interesting question for me is how what used to be the homosexual (or queer) critique of marriage and the state regulation of sex and sexuality (for years, homosexuality was not simply unacceptable, it was illegal), has now become the quest for endorsement of homosexual marriage. The radical aspect of this is that our notions of what counts as marriage and who count as a couple are drastically altered. But the conservative aspect is that marriage itself (two people together for life, raising children) is ratified where once it was critiqued as a conservative way of channeling sex and sexual activity.  

Joan Scott’s groundbreaking work has challenged the foundations of conventional historical practice, including the nature of historical evidence and historical experience and the role of narrative in the writing of history. Broadly, the object of her work is the question of difference in history: its uses, enunciations, implementations, justifications, and transformations in the construction of social and political life. Scott’s recent books have focused on the vexed relationship of the particularity of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics. They include Gender and the Politics of History (1988), Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996),Parité: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism (2005), The Politics of the Veil (2007), and The Fantasy of Feminist History (2011). 

University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. 1969; University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, Assistant Professor 1970–72; Northwestern University, Assistant Professor 1972–74; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Associate Professor 1974–77, Professor 1977–80; Brown University, Nancy Duke Lewis University Professor 1980–85, Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, Founding Director 1981–85; Institute for Advanced Study, Member 1978–79, Professor 1985–2000, Harold F. Linder Professor 2000–; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow; University of Bern, Hans Sigrist Prize 1999; American Historical Association, Herbert Baxter Adams Prize 1974, Joan Kelly Memorial Prize 1989, Award for Scholarly Distinction 2009.