In her 1986 "Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" Joan Wallach Scott examines the use of the analytical term "gender", its historical emergence, its importance, contribution and shortcoming. Scott describes that manner in which feminist thinkers began the use the term gender as a key concept for describing and analyzing both historical processes and current social relations between men and women as social and cultural categories.
Gender was first introduced into circulation in the writings of American feminist writers who pointed at the social origins of male vs. female characteristics and emphasized the constructive and normative nature of these distinctions. In "Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" Joan Wallach Scott argues that the use of the concept of gender and it theoretical framework enabled a more complex examination of history and the understanding of different times and societies. The use of the term gender, Scott argues, has offered the opportunity to reveal and expose the power structures that create the both the hierarchy between men and women and the justification of the social structure.
Scott criticizes some prior definitions of the term "gender" and offers her own definition of gender as an organizing principle of social relations which is based on "sex differences". This organizing principle, Scott asserts, is predominantly used to mark relations of power.
In "Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" Joan Wallach Scott introduces a methodological framework for tracing, describing and understanding gender formations and the processes which constitute and maintain them. She distinguishes available cultural symbols and the proliferation of sometimes contradictory representations of sex differences, normative perceptions which determine the understanding of those symbols and finally the shaping of gender identities. Scott says that the principle question that must be asked is what relation these three parameters maintain.