Feminist Perspectives

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The term feminism encompasses various social movements, from the late-nineteenth-century women's rights movement to the mid-twentieth-century women's movement in Europe and the United States, as well as referring to theories that identify and critique injustices against women such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) or Harriet Taylor Mill's Enfranchisement of Women (1868). A core connotation of "feminism" is thus a commitment to revealing and eliminating sexist oppression.

In the early twenty-first century, the label "feminist ethics" is used to signify a method or focus of attention for ethical theory and practice. Many scholars have marked the genesis of contemporary feminist philosophy and ethics with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1993 [1953]), which provides one of the first sustained analyses of the lived experience of "becoming woman." Beauvoir opened her classic text with a critique of theories contending that there are basic biological differences between women and men that explain women's secondary status in society. She concluded that "one is not born a woman: one becomes one" (p. 249), that is, that women and femininity are "produced" through complex disciplinary practices such as marriage, motherhood, and sexuality. In this way, Beauvoir's work foreshadowed contemporary work in the area of feminist science and technology studies.

Women in Science

Feminist investigations of science and technology emerged in the 1970s, but their origins can be traced to concerns over the low numbers of women in science. Feminists argued that it is a moral imperative to determine the causes of women's underrepresentation in the sciences and to remove those that unjustly block their participation. Because feminists soon realized that sexism also intersects with other axes of oppression, this move to understand the causes of women's underrepresentation in the sciences was followed by efforts to include similar studies of the impact of racism, and more recently of abilism (discrimination against persons with disabilities).

While the numbers of women have been improving in the biological and life sciences since the 1970s, the numbers of women receiving degrees in engineering, physics, and computer science continue to raise concerns. A study conducted by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) found that while women received 57 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in non-science and engineering fields in the United States in 2001, only 19 percent of the doctoral degrees in computer sciences and 17 percent of the doctoral degrees in engineering were earned by women (NSF 2004). The American Institute of Physics also reported that only 12 percent of the doctoral degrees in physics in 1997 were awarded to women. In addition both studies found that women scientists who worked in the academy were more likely to hold positions at the lower ranks in less prestigious institutions.

Given that overt barriers to women training in science had virtually disappeared by the 1950s, yet the number of women in science remained low, feminists began to explore features of science itself that might account for this disparity. Some of the more liberal approaches argued that the sole cause of the problem was that girls and women were not being encouraged to enter science. This approach led to proposals for science education reform designed to improve the education of girls and young women in science and mathematics. The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science for all Americans (1989) and the National Research Council's National Science Education Standards (1996) are two examples.

Many feminist scholars nevertheless argued that solving the problem of science for women would take steps more far-reaching than simply reforming the education system. They began to examine the ways in which sexist and androcentric biases had marked the very topics that were of interest to scientists and had permeated research design as well as the interpretation of research findings. From this perspective, feminists began to propose a transformation of the themes and practices of science itself.

Gender Bias in Science

As feminists began to attend to the role of gender in science they identified a number of examples, particularly in the biological and medical sciences, of scientific practice that was either androcentric, that is, focused on male interests or male lives, or sexist, that is, manifested a bias that women and/or their roles are inferior to those of males.

One classic example of gender bias in science emerged out of feminist investigations of theories of human evolution. Feminists argued that theories of evolution, in providing accounts of the origin of the family and of the sexes and their roles, turned on widely accepted biases about sexual difference. "Man, the hunter" theories of human evolution were analyzed and critiqued not only for focusing primarily on the activities of males but also for the assumption that only male activities were significant to evolution. Hunting behavior alone was posited as the rudimentary beginnings of social and political organization, and only males were presumed to be hunters. Language, intellect, interests, emotions, tool use, and basic social life were portrayed as evolutionary products of the success of the hunting adaptation of males. In this evolutionary account, females were portrayed as following natural dictates in caring for hearth and home, and only male activities were depicted as skilled or socially oriented.

Feminist primatologists, among them Linda Marie Fedigan (1982), Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (1981), Nancy Tanner (1976), and Adrienne Zihlman (1978), not only exposed the gender bias of "man, the hunter" theories, their research led to an alternative account of evolution now accepted as more accurate. By questioning the assumption that women's actions were instinctual and thus of little evolutionary importance, these scientists began to examine the impact of women's activities, in particular the evolutionary significance of food gathering. From this focus, an alternative account of evolution emerged that posited food-gathering activities, now of both women and men, as responsible for increased cooperation among individuals, which resulted in enhanced social skills as well as the development of both language and tools (Haraway 1989).

Examples of androcentrism or sexism in science are numerous and frequently shown to result in poor science and, in many cases, ethically problematic beliefs or practices. The following list provides just a few examples identified by feminists: the exclusion of women in clinical drug trials, attributions of gendered cognitive differences in which female differences are posited to be deviations from the norm, the imposition on women of a male model of the sexual response cycle on women, and the lack of attention to male contraceptive technologies.

Objectivity and Situated Knowledges

Feminist perspectives on gender bias in science and technology led to an appreciation of the link between ethics and epistemology. Feminists such as Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Helen E. Longino argued that nonfeminist accounts of scientific objectivity were inadequate because they provided no method for identifying values and interests that are unquestioningly embraced by the scientific community and that impact theoretical assumptions or the design of research projects. Careful analysis of the history of science documented systematic assumptions about women's biological, intellectual, and moral inferiority that were not the idiosyncratically held opinions of individual scientists but widely held beliefs imbedded in social, political, and economic institutions, as well as scientific theories and practices (Schiebinger 1989, Tuana 1993). Given this, no account or practice of scientific objectivity that does not control for community-wide biases and values could be sufficient.

Feminist science and technology theorists thus argue for a "strengthened objectivity" by developing methods for uncovering the values and interests that constitute scientific projects, particularly those common to communities of scientists, and developing a method for accessing the impact of those values and interests (Harding 1991). In developing such an account, feminists gave up the dream of a "view from nowhere" account of objectivity with its axiom that all knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, can be obtained only using methods that completely strip away all subjective components such as values and interests. Feminists, rather, argue that all knowledge is situated, that is, emerges from particular social, economic, or political locations. Strengthened objectivity requires attention to particularity and to partiality, with the goal not to strip all bias from knowledge, but to assess the impacts of "beginning knowledge from different locations." On this account human knowledge is inherently social and engaged. The goal, then, of any quest for objectivity is to examine how values and interests can either limit or enlarge one's knowledge practices.

As just one of many examples analyzed by feminists, consider the emphasis on recombinant DNA technologies that has been proposed since the late twentieth century as a unifying principle for molecular biology (Lodish et al. 2003). Feminists have argued that rather than the lauded neutrality and objectivity, this position reflects numerous values and interests. Recombinant DNA technologies emphasize the centrality of DNA as a "master molecule" that controls life, and ignore or view as less important the organism's environment or the organism's history. In this way, such an allegedly "neutral" technology actively frames a sharp division between genetic and nongenetic factors, trivializes the role of environments, and reinforces biological determinism. Feminists have argued that efforts to cement molecular genetics as the foundation of the science of biology leads to a perception of life, including behavior and social structures, as "gene products."

This situated knowledge practice of contemporary molecular biology is clearly linked to the emergence of "big science" and its support by venture capital. Funding for the Human Genome Project has emphasized a hierarchical, centralized organization of scientific research. And venture capital, following the promise of marketable discoveries in biomedical research, has similarly fueled the growth of such science.

Insofar as molecular genetics becomes the focus of biology, it embeds ideologies concerning the functions and significances of genes and environments that carry with them a renewed emphasis on genetic factors in disease. For example, although the vast majority of all cancers, including breast cancer, are attributable to environmental factors, there is an increasing emphasis in scientific research and medical practice on genetic factors, a move that has been sharply criticized by feminists (Eisenstein 2001). Another concern of feminists and race theorists is that this "geneticization" of human health has also led to a renewed interest in biological difference between groups, which is reinscribing a biological basis to racial classifications (Haraway 1997).

These shifts in research focus can have dramatic effects on resource allocations. Occupational hazards and environmental carcinogens have been clearly implicated in cancer rates, and the effects of environmental racism on the health of minorities have been well documented. Yet funding for research into or cleanup of modifiable environmental factors is shifting to research on genetic inheritance.

Given feminist perspectives on the interaction between biology and environment in the constitution of sex (as well as gender) and sexual identity, this reemergence of biological determinism is in conflict with feminist values and interests. Strengthened objectivity calls attention to the different values and interests guiding research and asks for examination of their roles in contributing to more effective and liberatory practices of science and technology as well as an investigation of how practices of science and technology affect values and interests.

Feminist Technology Studies

Such attention to the values and interests guiding scientific practice also influenced feminists working in the field of technology studies. Feminists came to understand that historians of technology had been accepting gender stereotypes such as "man, the producer" and "woman, the consumer," which had biased the field. In the words of Judith A. McGaw (1989), theorists working in technology studies had "looked through masculine ideology at the past rather than looking at masculine ideology in the past" (p. 177). Following Harding's call for a strengthened objectivity, feminist investigations of the history of technology recovered the histories of women who both produced and employed a technology, that is, women architects, engineers, and inventors, as well as women workers and their experiences of technological change.

But an attention to sexist or androcentric ideology revealed other types of biases in the field. Technology studies often focused on only certain types of inventions and specific kinds of work as worthy of study. The work of women in textiles and food production, for example, was either ignored or labeled "consumption." Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) argued that technology studies had overlooked the fact that female experiences of technology and technological change were often markedly different than male experiences. Studies such as those of McGaw, for example, demonstrated that the mechanization of industrialization often differentially affected men and women, keeping women in the lowest paying jobs where their skills were denied and they had no opportunity for advancement. Feminists also argued that attention to women's most common relationships to technology, namely through use, maintenance, and redesign, revealed an overemphasis in technology studies on the design of technology rather than its use. In critiquing the dichotomy commonly embraced in technology studies between production and consumption, feminists revealed how gender formation and technological development are co-constitutive, meaning that gendered norms are encoded into technological design and use, and that gender roles themselves emerge out of interactions with technologies (See, for example, Wajcman 1991 and 2004, and Rothschild 1983).

Medical Technologies

There is no more obvious arena for mapping the interactive emergence of gender and technology than in the science of medicine. Indeed this interaction can be found at its most literal instantiation, along with all the attendant ethical dilemmas, in the case of the intersexual child (that is, a child born with genitalia and/or secondary sexual characteristics of indeterminate sex, or which combine features of both sexes). In Sexing the Body (2000), Anne Fausto-Sterling argues that the U.S. and European medical practice of "fixing" intersexual individuals by assigning a specific sex and offering surgical and other medical

Such practices rest, of course, upon a series of technological advances including advances in plastic surgery originally developed to return to "normal" those bodies that had been deformed by war, accident, birth defects, or illness. But because they also rest upon a series of values, these practices provide a window into the ways in which beliefs about sex and gender affect medicine and also raise a complex series of ethical concerns. Whereas many in the medical community view infant genital surgery as being designed to fix or "cure" an abnormality, which they believe would then allow the individual to lead a "normal" and healthy life, many feminists and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual scholars have argued that such surgery is performed to achieve a social result, namely to make sure all bodies conform to a two-sex system. They also contest the belief that such surgery is necessary for either physiological or psychological health, citing the many cases of intersexuals whose lives were not negatively impacted by this physiological difference. While the medical community views early genital surgery as a medical imperative, critics note that such surgery is frequently a "failure," often requiring numerous additional surgeries, extensive scarring, and a decrease or elimination of sexual pleasure (Fausto-Sterling 2000). Ethical issues abound in this area of medical practice from questions of autonomy (Who decides what is best for an intersexual child?), to issues concerning sexual identity and current societal regulations concerning same-sex relations (Does an intersexual individual who has both a vagina and a penis "count" as a woman or a man in the prevailing two-sex legal economy?).

Ethical issues also permeate the new reproductive technologies, another focus of feminist analysis. Feminists have addressed the risks of various types of reproductive technologies as well as the fact that such technologies are available only to certain women, identifying the way that class issues as well as sexuality and marital status have been limiting factors in the availability of such technologies. Issues of "normalcy" are also central to feminist analyses of reproductive technologies. Many feminists have, for example, critiqued the ways in which prenatal testing intersects with societal biases concerning disability, noting that whereas prenatal testing and selective abortion for the purposes of sex selection are decried in many countries, this practice is widely accepted for fetuses with disabilities such as Down syndrome. Feminists have also investigated how new reproductive technologies are reshaping what is seen as "natural" and affecting the ways women and men experience their bodies. As women and men "bank" their eggs and sperm, as postmenopausal women become pregnant through technological interventions, as lesbian couples give birth to their own biological children, the nature/culture divide shifts and alters.

Global Issues

Feminist investigations of the impact of Western science on women in non-Western societies reveal the Eurocentric and undemocratic nature of Western science. Western scientific "voyages of discovery" were often part of colonialist efforts to mine other cultures for resources, both human and material, and maintain the forms of social control necessary to do so. Feminist and postcolonial science studies have documented how European expansion has contributed to the destruction or devaluation of the scientific practices of the colonized cultures, leading to the false belief in the superiority of Western science, indeed to the false but pervasive belief that Western science is "generic" and not itself "local," that is, not situated in particular economic and social practices (See, for example, Adas 1989).

Feminist scholars have also mapped the continuing de-development of other cultures and their scientific and technological practices through so-called development policies such as the "green revolution" and the more recent impact of biotechnology in agriculture. Feminists have examined who benefits and who is made worse through such practices, paying close attention to the profit margins of those chemicals companies, such as Novartis, AgrEvo, and Dupont, that sell the fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically engineered seeds of this revolution. Although economic impact is a key factor in such analyses, feminists pay close attention to the impact on diversity—both human diversity as well as biodiversity. Vandana Shiva (1997) has argued that the marginalization of women and the destruction of biodiversity through monocultures go hand in hand because women provide the majority of the agricultural labor in many Third World countries. Shiva examines how the biodiversity-based technologies of Third World societies have been viewed as backward and have been systematically displaced by monocultures biased toward commercial interests.

Feminists and postcolonialist science and technology theorists have argued for a democratized science/technology practice that acknowledges the importance of biological as well as cultural diversity as a way to undo the harms of colonialist science practices, including many of the current capitalist-generated practices. While this vision of science and technology emerged from feminist-inspired investigations, it is a moral vision of the intricate interactions between humans and the more than human world, between natures and cultures, and between organisms and environments that should inspire everyone.


SEE ALSO Assisted Reproduction Technology;Abortion;Homosexuality Debate;Juana In˜ez de la Cruz;Race;Sex and Gender.


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