There are books that matter. Then there are books that matter more, like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) that marked its 25th anniversary in 2015. Dipping back into it now, Gender Trouble’s achievements were astonishingly broad, and reached into multiple disciplines. 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 literature. Many historians — still struggling to make women visible in our research — had seen 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 at all in the 1980s, and, ironically, launched a new phase of gender identity organizing on elite campuses as students launched the early phases of what is now *trans scholarship and politics. My students at Wesleyan explained 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?)
Read the rest at the Society for United States Intellectual History blog (originally published January 1 2016.)