Thus Spake Zuska

The Feminist Scientist

This is the third of three discussion posts for Week 1 of Feminist Theory and the Joy of Science. You can find all posts for this course by going to the http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/archives.php>archives and clicking on “Joy of Science” under in the Category section.

This post deals with the readings by Hubbard, Spanier, and Keller, as well as the NSF report “Beyond Bias and Barriers”.


Ruth Hubbard, Bonnie Spanier, and Evelyn Fox Keller each made the transition from practicing scientist to feminist critic of science. Hubbard addresses an issue that bothered me greatly when I first began reading works on feminism and science. It seemed to me that all the women writing about science who were scientists had left the actual practice of science once they began delving into the “woman question” in science. I felt this didn’t bode particularly well for me! I wanted to find some wonder woman who did breath-taking science and who wrote astonishingly insightful feminist critiques of science. I searched all their books for evidence of their “science cred” because it was important to me that they be “real” scientists. I didn’t want it to be the case that talking about women in science was what you did when you couldn’t make a career for yourself in science. Thus were my own anxieties laid bare. Was I interested in the “woman question in science” because I couldn’t cut it myself?

This is one of the more twisted crimes of gender bias, that questioning the conditions of your oppression should cause you to doubt your competence.

But as Hubbard notes, it’s much harder to be a radical scientist on your own that it is to be a radical poet or a radical artist. Scientists need community and access to equipment and funds – and for that you have to be accepted into the orthodoxy, more or less. (Later in the semester we’ll read an article called “The Feminist and the Scientist: One and the Same”.)

Well, I found it easy to wrap my brain around the discrimination and bias stuff, the recruitment and retention issues. I could even make a little bit of shift to thinking of it as access and climate issues. You know, it’s not just “we need to get the girls to come over and see how great engineering is”, it’s “we need to examine what we are doing here in engineering that makes it seem an unattractive or hostile environment for women”. Yes, that stuff was easy to latch onto. I could even go with the critiques of biology – all that stuff they were saying about women’s innate biological nature, and that sociobiology crap, that was bad science, and it needed to be critiqued, and shown for the bad science that it was. But what was there beyond that? How was feminism really supposed to transform science per se, as it had done in literature or history? It was clear that the content of those fields were altered by a feminist approach. But science?

So this was it for me: (1) Reclaim the lost heroines, the great women of science. (2) Try to recruit more young girls into science, and retain the women who worked their way through the graduate ranks (industry was still a dim imagining to me). (3) Teach morons how to behave themselves. (4) Point out bad and biased science where it occurred, and debunk it.

Or was this it? If I accepted the feminist critique of biological theories of women’s nature, then I had to acknowledge that there were a lot of people out there who still held to those antiquated and misguided views about the biological roles of women and men. As Keller said, I knew the question was not one of male and female nature – that is, there were no inherent biological reasons for women’s lack of progress in the sciences and engineering. But many people believed that there were, and so these beliefs about male and female nature were a source of trouble.

Keller claims beliefs have force. It seems clear that beliefs about female nature can have an impact on women’s access to science careers – parents or teachers who think that girls are not as good at math and science are unlikely to encourage such interests in little girls, or to treat girls and boys the same in the classroom. But how would beliefs affect science itself?

Let’s think for a minute about our stereotypical, dualistic ideas about male and female nature. Males are rational, objective, analytical. Females are emotional, subjective, irrational. The feminine nature, in this model, seems ill-suited to the pursuit of science. That is because we have come to valorize the traits most highly identified with masculinity as also being most highly identified with and necessary for science. And according to the NSF report, we reward (some) people who display those traits:

Characteristics that are often selected for and are believed, on the basis of little evidence, to relate to scientific creativity – namely assertiveness and single-mindedness – are given greater weight than other characteristics such as flexibility, diplomacy, curiosity, motivation, and dedication, which may be more vital to success in science and engineering. At the same time assertiveness and single-mindedness are stereotyped as socially unacceptable traits for women.

Let me be clear here that when I talk about masculine and feminine I do NOT mean men and women. Certain traits may be associated with masculinity; men may or may not display these traits. The same goes for femininity and women.

Keller, Spanier, and Hubbard would contend that when we hold these unexamined beliefs about male and female nature, they will pop up in our models and metaphors in science, and affect the way we interpret and understand our data and experiments. They will shape the way we ask questions – they may even preclude us from asking certain questions in favor of other questions. A famous example is the study of primate groups. Previously, primate groups were generally seen to be composed of harems, ignoring the active roles of females in mate choice and aggressive sexual behavior with multiple mates. But the entry of women with a feminist perspective into this field opened up the kinds of observations that were made.

We’ll talk more about how beliefs can affect science throughout the course; for now I’ll refer you to this: Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies. You may not want to read the whole document, but you might like to read Question 1: What is meant by feminism, and what does it have to do with science?

Something I am particularly interested in, and that I hope will come out in our conversations over the course of this “course”, is how the masculine nature of science culture precludes or shapes expression of pleasure and joy in the doing of science and in our descriptions of science. I am also interested in whether or not feminist critiques of science adequately address this issue.

Why am I interested in this? Because I think everyone, or most everyone, who goes into science or engineering and sticks with it for any length of time does it because it pleasures the mind and soul. When things are at their best and everything’s working, it’s a joyful pursuit. The Muse can visit you in the lab just as surely as when you are working on a painting or a poem; see how Joolya speaks of scientific joy.

But we aren’t supposed to talk about such things. Miss Prism notes:

It seems almost indelicate even for us to talk about the thrill – so how do we awaken it in others?

We’re supposed to be rational, logical, analytical scientists. We aren’t supposed to be all emotional and effusive. What happens when you feel that joy and it has to be sublimated?

Men have spent a lifetime learning to sublimate most of their emotions – they mustn’t cry, they mustn’t be soft or expressive, they mustn’t show that they feel much of anything. It isn’t masculine. Science is a nice refuge for those who have learned to be uncomfortable with showing feelings. And yet, and yet…it causes us to feel. What happens when you are a woman in that environment, and you aren’t used to sublimating your feelings, but you know that somehow you’re supposed to be this rational unfeeling creature called a scientist? What if you don’t want to be that person? Can you still be a scientist?

Does critiquing science, staring closely at its faults and problems, its biases and barriers, make it more difficult to continue taking pleasure in science? What is the role of joy in science?

Comments

  1. #1 Jenny F. Scientist
    February 13, 2007

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the patriarchal emotional/social structure of lab science- thank you for putting it all so eloquently. Moving these structures away from gendered stereotypes is a major thing feminist science can do for everyone!

    Maybe I should cry more in lab. :)

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