Feminisms and Science

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Feminisms and Science

At their most basic level, feminist perspectives on science begin with the observation that women have been excluded from the practice of science. This exclusion has sometimes been overt. For example, women have often been barred from getting the education required to become scientists. Overall, feminists have demonstrated that, for women, it is difficult to get in, difficult to stay in, and difficult to advance to positions with the power to control the direction of scientific study. Exclusion has also been more covert, as demonstrated by the lack of women's perspectives within science.

Feminists argue that a number of problems are related to this exclusion, including depletion of natural resources, tainted food sources, pollution, and impending viral disaster. They argue for a number of different causes and solutions for this exclusion of womensome compatible, some conflictingwhich makes it more proper to speak of "feminisms" and science, rather than feminism. Despite these differencesor, perhaps, because of themfeminist perspectives remain a rich resource for understanding science and for rethinking the relationship between science and religion.

Margaret Wertheim, for example, in her book Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars (1995) argues that there is a connection between the exclusion of women in physics and the exclusion of women from positions of authority in Western religion. From the mystic Pythagoras, to the revival of physics in medieval monasteries, to Albert Einstein's observation that "in this materialistic age of ours, the serious scientific workers are the only truly profoundly religious people," physics has been permeated with a religious sensibility. Wertheim explores how women have been excluded both from the right to interpret Scripture and from the right to interpret God's other revelation, nature.

Feminists have examined the diverse ways that women have been excluded from science and how male perspectives and bias have influenced the selection of problems to examine and decisions about how to organize and interpret data. What these arguments have in common is that the problem is seen as external: The results may be biased, but that bias is unrelated to the basic methods and assumptions of science. In fact, bias occurs because exclusion of women leads to a distortion of proper scientific method. These eternal explanations lead to external solutions: Remove the barriers for women in science; get them in and get them into positions where they can influence the direction, programs, and interests of science. Wertheim, for example, argues that women should be involved in physics in order to influence the direction of the research and to create a new culture of physics.

From this perspective, there is no such thing as "women's science," except to the extent that women may choose different problems to address or, perhaps, organize data differently. Including more women will bring about a better science, truer to its ideals and goals, but it will not bring about a different science.

Internalist arguments

Some feminists see this as a partial solution. Post-Kuhnian philosophies of science suggest that scientific concepts, theories, methodologies, and truths are not objective, but instead bear the marks of their collective and individual creators. The social location of the scientist not only influences the direction of science, it can influence the shape of science itself and even the truths it discovers. Feminists focused on gender as one of the aspects of culture that shape science.

All cultures sort human beings by sex, but there are variations in the roles, duties, characteristics, and so on that define those divisions. These variations are what is meant by gender. Feminists have argued that in the West, science is constructed around gendered assumptions, with "male" categories privileged over "female." It is not just the centrality of "rational man" that is problematic, but that what counts as rational or objective is that which has been given a masculine meaning.

Women have demonstrated this connection between gender and science in a number of ways. One of the most influential works in this regard is Carolyn Merchant's, Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1976). Merchant argues that prior to the sixteenth century, nature was seen as female: a mother, a lover, and so on. Further, nature was seen as a living, dynamic entity with a body and a soul. This conception carried with it an ethic towards nature that was marked by moderation. If one abused or exploited nature, one faced the consequences.

In the 150 years from Nicolaus Copernicus to Isaac Newton, this view completely changed. Nature became a machine, made up of discrete, interchangeable parts. Because nature was no longer alive, with no spirit and no animation, it could be exploited at will. This change had a religious dimension. Merchant, Rosemary Reuther, Evelyn Fox Keller, and others have argued that the scientific revolution was a child of the Reformation in that the removal of the divine presence from within nature contributed to the transformation from nature as mother to nature as machine. There was a further connection in that the Fall of Genesis was seen as both a fall from innocence and a fall from dominion. Innocence could be regained through religion, dominion through science (techne ).

This change was, of course, gradual, but it was not always subtle, especially in its use of gendered language. Women and nature were connected: Women threatened man's innocence; nature threatened his dominion. And, just as God intended that man should dominate and control woman, God intended that man should dominate and control nature. In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon encouraged scientific endeavor by declaring that nature, like a woman, locked her secrets away in her womb. But, like a women, she wanted to be penetrated and her secrets taken. The male scientist should extract the truth by force, and thereby command nature and compel her to serve him.

These insights have been influential in the development of ecofeminist thought, as well as feminist philosophies of science. They suggest that the problems with science are not external; rather, its epistemological assumptions and methodologies are themselves biased. The problem is not bad science, the problem is science itself. Unlike internal approaches that seek to get women into labs, these feminists insist that it is necessary to transform science, to promote a different science based on a feminist epistemology.

Feminist epistemologies and feminist science

Feminists have offered several alternatives to existing "masculinist science." Feminist empiricists, such as Helen Longino, have sought to integrate feminist concerns with existing empiricist assumptions, arguing that the social identity of the observer is not irrelevant to the practice of science. Instead, values are imbedded in science, and scientists should therefore be intentional about which values they bring to their work. Feminist empiricists have been criticized for retaining certain aspects of empiricism: the primacy of reason, the centrality of the (experiencing) individual, and the separation between public and private in science. Further, feminist empiricists do not challenge the assumption that there is but one science and one nature waiting to be discovered by it.

As an alternative, feminists such as Sandra Harding have argued in favor of standpoint theory. This arises out of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (17701831) dialectic between master and slave, and the observation that the standpoint of the slave offers a more complete, less distorted view of the world. The master thinks that the slave responds only to the master's commands. The slave knows that the slave also dreams, intentionally thwarts the master's plans, reads in secret, and even plots rebellion. In other words, the master only knows one reality, but the slave knows there are more. Feminist standpoint theorists suggest that starting fromor at least includingwomen's perspectives on and experiences of the world can give science a more comprehensive and reliable view of the world.

A third position, feminist postmodernism, begins with the observation that there is no single standpoint. Donna Haraway, for example, links women's experiences with the experiences of other "others," such as African Americans. Just as contemporary science blurs boundaries between human and animal, organism and machine, physical and nonphysical, this approach blurs boundaries between standpoints and embraces the partiality of a feminist point of viewindeed any viewand the possibilities that partiality opens up.

Despite their differences, these positions converge on the point that there is something essentially wrong with the way that science is done, and they argue for a "feminist science." This does not mean that feminist epistemologies should be equated with relativism; few if any feminist philosophers of science would take an antirational or anti-objective stance. Most would argue that feminism is a way to increase the objectivity of science, although it is an objectivity that is not grounded in the detached observer.

Feminist rationality is a responsive rationality, what Hilary Rose refers to as "thinking from caring" and what Evelyn Fox Keller sees as knowledge arising from a relationship between knower and known. This knowledge does not require, and in fact rejects, distance between the observer and the observed. Nature is not a "thing," separate or separable from a speaking and knowing "we." What people know about nature they know because they interact with and are embedded in it. People know the world, because they are a part of the world and because they are in a relationship with it.

In addition, feminists argue that it is not subjectivitythe context and desires of the observerthat leads to bad science, but the illusion of objectivity. Values do not distort science; it is only coercive valuesracism, classism, sexismthat threaten objectivity. Participatory values decrease rather than increase distortions, so objectivity is enhanced when people are intentional about their subjective preferences and can choose those that are most effective. Feminists have gone so far as to suggest that these participatory values are the preconditions of objectivity.

Multicultural and global feminisms

An additional feminist approach is emerging in the recent writings of Sandra Harding, where she explores the intersection of post-Kuhnian, feminist, and postcolonial science and technology studies. Just as feminists argue that feminist science involves more than bringing women into laboratories, multicultural approaches require more than just tacking on issues of women of color. The frameworks set by Western women can themselves block concerns from other perspectives, and alternative frameworks give way to different institutional contexts and different concepts. For example, Western science thinks in terms of nature, which is distinct from the human being, while in developing countries the focus is on the environment, which is something with which human beings interact.

The issue is not whether knowledge is universal, or whether the law of gravity is the same everywhere. The question is whether there is one best way to represent the world. Women's science is problematic to the extent that, like men's science, it retains the view that there is a science.

Each culture is a tool box containing different resources for understanding nature. Because different cultures are exposed to different parts of nature, they develop distinctive resources. In addition, each culture has distinctive metaphors, models, and languages that enable them to see their particular parts of the world in diverse ways. These resources generate both systematic knowledge and systematic ignorance about nature.

If people settle on one "science," these diverse ways of organizing and producing systematic knowledge will be lost, reducing knowledge of the world. Diverse perspectives not only allow people to see more, they enable people to see better, promoting a more rigorous objectivity by revealing aspects of nature that may be difficult or even impossible to detect from within the dominant culture and perspective. In the same way that the world needs biodiversity to continue to renew itself, so too does knowledge of the world need different sciences to maintain its creativity.

What is needed is what Sandra Harding calls a borderlands epistemology that values the distinctive understandings of nature that different cultures generate. The goal is not to integrate them into an ideal knowledge system, because that would necessarily sacrifice the advantages of the differing conceptual schemes that different cultures have developed. Instead of a single science, scientists would learn when to use one science and when to use another, what to value in modern sciences and what to value in other knowledge systems. What they would learn is which approaches provide the best set of maps for each particular journey.

See also Ecofeminism; Ethnicity; Feminist Cosmology; Feminist Theology; Liberation Theology; Womanist Theology


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lisa l. stenmark

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