Among her publications was the article "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis", published in 1986 in the American Historical Review. This article, "undoubtedly one of the most widely read and cited articles in the journal's history", was foundational in the formation of a field of gender history within the Anglo-American historical profession.
She was born Joan Wallach in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Lottie (née Tannenbaum) and Sam Wallach, high school teachers.
Before joining the Institute for Advanced Study, Scott taught in history departments at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Brown University. At Brown University she was founding director of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, and the Nancy Duke Lewis University Professor and professor of history. Scott has written that it was during her time at the Pembroke Center that she first started "to think about theory and gender". She serves on the editorial boards of Signs, Differences, History and Theory, Redescriptions and, since January 2006, the Journal of Modern History. In 2010, she helped to found History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History.
Scott has also played a major role in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as the chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Scott's 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. Drawing on a range of philosophical thought, as well as on a rethinking of her own training as a labor historian, she has contributed to a transformation of the field of intellectual history. Her current work focuses on the vexed relationship of the particularity of gender to the universalizing force of democratic politics.
Scott's work has been mostly concerned with modern French history and with the history of gender.
Reflecting her interest in European working class history, in 1980 Scott co-wrote with the British historian Eric Hobsbawm in an article in Past and Present entitled "Political Shoemakers".
her 1986 article "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis", Scott argued that studying gender not explains women's history, but all history as well.
Taking her own advice, Scott has sought to write such "gendered" histories in her books Gender and the Politics of History and Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Men. In her 1988 book Gender and the Politics of History, Scott expanded upon the themes she had introduced in "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis" to argue that gender was the "knowledge of sexual differences". Citing Foucault, she adopted his definition of "knowledge" as "the understanding produced by cultures and societies of human relationships".
In addition to her article "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis", Scott has published several books, which are widely reprinted and have been translated into several languages, including French, Japanese, Portuguese, and Korean. Her publications include The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth Century City (Harvard University Press, 1974); Women, Work and Family (coauthored with Louise Tilly) (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978); Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia University Press, 1988); Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Harvard University Press, 1996); Parité: Sexual Difference and the Crisis of French Universalism (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and The Politics of the Veil (Princeton University Press, 2007). Scott has also edited numerous other books and published countless articles. She is also one of the founding editors of the journal History of the Present.
She has received various awards, accolades, and honorary degrees for her work, including the American Historical Association's Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, the Hans Sigrist Award for Outstanding Research in Gender Studies, and the Nancy Lyman Roelker Prize of the AHA for graduate mentorship. She holds honorary degrees from Brown University, SUNY Stony Brook, The University of Bergen (Norway), Harvard University, Princeton University. and Concordia University
Scott's influence within the Academy has been extensive. She has played an influential role in establishing the careers of a number of prominent academics, winning the prestigious Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award in 1995. Among the students who completed their dissertations under Scott's supervision are Leora Auslander at the University of Chicago, Mary Louise Roberts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Dagmar Herzog at the City University of New York. The Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University annually awards the Joan Wallach Scott Prize for an outstanding honors thesis in Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Previously married to Donald Scott, a professor of American history at CUNY, she is the mother of A. O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times, and the artist Lizzie Scott. She is the niece of actor Eli Wallach (her father was Eli's brother).