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A Lab of One’s Own

Feminism and Science

edited by Nancy Tuana
Indiana University Press, 249 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science

by Donna Haraway
Routledge, 486 pp., $35.00


The intrusion, advance, spread, import, insinuation—word choice is important here, exposing world views, projecting fears—of feminist thought into just about every aspect of contemporary cultural life is by now entirely general. Literature, philosophy, sociology, history, economics, law, even linguistics and theology, are engulfed in fierce and multisided debates over the relevance of gender difference, gender interest, and gender prejudice to this or that issue or to the shape of the enterprise overall. But nowhere has the reaction to efforts to move such concerns to the center of attention stirred deeper disquiet than in that last redoubt of impersonal reason, natural science. Sexing science, or even scientists, makes everyone, even those most passionate to accomplish it, extremely nervous.

The worry is, of course, that the autonomy of science, its freedom, vigor, authority, and effectiveness, will be undermined by the subjection of it to a moral and political program—the social empowerment of women—external to its purposes. A physicist determining the spin of a particle, a neurologist tracing the circuitry of vision, or an evolutionist isolating the mechanisms of phyletic change is likely to find such pronouncements as “a sexist society should be expected to develop a sexist science” or “science…is not sexless; she is a man, a father and infected too” to be silly at best, lunatic at worst, and in either case deeply threatening to the centuries of long struggle to examine the workings of nature free of the distortions of wish and prejudice.1 Objectivity—logic, method, knowledge, truth—is what science is about; the rest is romance and special pleading.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon where one’s loyalties lie (and both unfortunately and fortunately if, as is increasingly the case, one’s loyalties are divided), this radical contrast, inherited from the ancients, between “knowledge” (episteme) and “opinion” (doxa) has been breaking down, not merely as between “science” and “non-science,” but, more fatefully, within “science” itself, for at least thirty years. Thomas Kuhn’s enormously influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, with its reconceptualization of scientific change as consisting in an episodic succession of professional dominant thought frames rather than a step-by-step advance toward reality, truth, and the cloudless vision, is usually considered the watershed work. But since Kuhn’s book appeared, there have arisen, one hard upon the next, a series of even more headlong revisionisms. In the sociology of science there has been a so-called strong program, determined to examine science as through and through a social and cultural phenomenon, like capitalism, the papacy, astrology, football, or easel painting. In the history of science there has been a stress on “who is to be master,” in which power struggles among research groups, institutional interests, organizational imperatives, disciplinary elites, professional reputations, and policy concerns are seen as shaping the evolution of scientific thought. In philosophy there has been “antifoundationalism,” the rejection of fixed “methods,” permanent “principles,” and inherent “essences” in favor of multiple perspectives, intellectual genres, language games, rhetorical styles, and practical outcomes. Pluralism, contingency, pragmatism, maneuver. If it is not the case that “anything goes,” at least many things do, and none of them is beyond remark.

This movement toward what is most often termed a “social constructionist” conception of science has hardly gone unresisted by those for whom “the world” or “nature,” “the way things actually are,” is the beginning and end when it comes to knowing. (Alasdair MacIntyre, the moral philosopher and general objector to how we think now, has announced that he won’t rest until the last proponent of the strong program is strangled in the entrails of the last expert in the theory of metaphor.)2 But as it has gained momentum, amounting by now to something of an avalanche, this general movement has cleared the way and provided the model for feminist criticism. If, like everything else cultural—art, ideology, religion, common sense—science is something hammered together in some place to some purpose by partisans and devotees, it is, like everything else cultural, subject to questioning why it has been built in the way that it has. If knowledge is made, its making can be looked into.

Feminist looking, still tentative, limited, and internally troubled, has, since perhaps the mid-Seventies, been driven forward by a critical (and also much debated) bit of social constructionism within feminist thought itself: the distinction of gender from sex—of what it is culturally to be “a woman,” “a man,” “a gay,” “a lesbian,” or whatever from what it is biologically to be “female,” “male,” “hermaphrodite,” or whatever.3 If “woman” and “man” are historically situated social categories, like “black” or “Norwegian” or “communist” or “middle class”—or like “astronomer” or “gynecologist”—then asking whether science is “a man,” or anyway “masculine” (the mode word now—Virginia Woolf would have hated it—is “androcentric”) is no more unreasonable than to ask whether football or the papacy are masculine. It may, however, be a good deal harder to answer.


The uneven and extremely miscellaneous collection of papers, originally published in a journal of feminist philosophy called Hypatia and brought together as a sort of progress report by Nancy Tuana, manages to touch on most of the matters impeding an answer to the questions I have posed without getting very far toward resolving any of them. Framed by nervous, questioning titles (“Is There a Feminist Method?” “Can There Be a Feminist Science?” “Is the Subject of Science Sexed?” “Is Sex to Gender as Nature Is to Science?” “Where Are We Now and When Can We Expect a Theoretical Breakthrough?”), the book is an anthology of dilemmas, conundrums, puzzlements, and worries, which, taken together, give an arresting picture of great intellectual commotion without much in the way of a definitive sense of where it is that it might be heading.

Part of the problem is simply the multiplicity of concerns gathered together under the feminism-and-science rubric. Sue V. Rosser, in her opening “over-view,” a cascade of names, citations, and one-line summaries, lists six: the transformation of training methods and academic curricula to attract more women into the sciences; the historical understanding of the obscured and denigrated role of women in the development of modern science; the sociological investigation of the current status (improving, but still disadvantaged) of women in science; the feminist critique of male-biased scientific enterprises (sociobiology, brain research, intelligence testing, biochemistry); “feminine science” (Do women—Barbara McClintock, Rosalind Franklin—do science differently from men?); and “feminist theory of science” (Is objective, “gender-free” science possible? Is its pretense a sham?). Six, seven, ten, or a dozen—it hardly matters: this is not a field, or even a program. It’s a tumble of possibilities out of which something or other may somewhere come.

That in itself is perhaps only to be expected in an enterprise that is, as Rosser rightfully insists, just now getting seriously under way. But the diffusion of aim and the tone of bafflement that accompanies it (“How do you speak to scientists?” “What do we mean by truth? What can we possibly mean?”) do not spring merely from growing pains; they arise from deep intractabilities buried within the task as such. Putting together a critique of the fictions and illusions surrounding “womanhood” and a mode of knowing claiming to “[limn] the true and ultimate structure of reality” poses rather more problems than moralized and power-conscious “emancipatory theory,” the saving hope of all these essays, can easily meet.4

In the best of the essays, this sense of impasse is everywhere apparent. Sandra Harding’s examination of the question whether there is, as a number of people have suggested, a distinctive feminist method of research (consciousness-raising, organismic thinking) that can be used as a criterion to judge the adequacy of research designs, procedures, and results—a question to which she answers a resounding, well-argued “no”—ends with an apology to her colleagues for disappointing them in this matter and a suggestion that they give up trying to regrind “the powerful lenses of scientific inquiry” and console themselves with the more practical task of swinging them around to feminist concerns.

Helen Longino, asking the even broader question of whether there can be a feminist science in any sense at all, also offers a doubled answer: “no,” if by feminist science is meant an “expression and valorization of a female sensibility or cognitive temperament”—complex, interactive, holistic, and “soft”—for there is no such sensibility or temper; “yes,” if the social conditions—“the making of money and the waging of war”—under which science is now being prosecuted by the androcentric powers-that-be are changed to something less thrusting, manipulative, instrumental, and “hard.” Here, too, one can eat one’s cake as a detached scientist and have it as a partisan. “While remaining committed to an abstract goal of understanding,” to “the science one has learned and practiced,” we can choose “to whom…we are accountable in our pursuit of that goal,…to the traditional establishment or to our political comrades.”

This formulation—Curie in the lab, Sanger in the agora—seems a bit easy, and in the most searching, and the most tangled, piece in the volume, Evelyn Fox Keller is unwilling to settle for it. Though engaged in the same enterprise as Harding and Longino—separating the defensible idea of a feminist science from the chimera of a feminine one—Keller, author of a much discussed biography of the Nobel prize winner Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, resists the notion that the separation is to be made by dividing science into its technical and its moral parts, into methods, which are gender free, and their deployments, which are not.5

Keller wants to affirm both the autonomy of science as an account of “nature” and the force of “gender ideology” in shaping that account. Caught between feminist interpretations of her McClintock study as a manifesto for an alternative, “female science,” and arguments from working scientists that, since many male scientists have “a feeling for the organism,” McClintock’s sex is irrelevant to her work, Keller wants to find a “middle ground” from which she can avoid so polarized a choice. But her efforts to do this involve such a tortuous string of on-the-one-hands and on-the-others (“science does not and cannot mirror nature”; “it [is] necessary to shift the focus…from sex to gender”; “neither nature nor sex can be named out of existence”) that the best she can come up with is imagined discourse:

We need a language that enables us to conceptually and perceptually negotiate our way between sameness and opposition, that permits the recognition of kinship in difference and of difference among kin; a language that encodes respect for difference, particularity, alterity without repudiating the underlying affinity that is the first prerequisite for knowledge.

Intractability and impasse, the feeling of not knowing which way to turn, stays, behind the brave front of new codes and symmetric expressions, rather firmly in place.


Quite possibly, the way out of this wilderness of question marks lies not in waiting expectantly for a Theoretical Breakthrough, but in describing what happens when the imaginings of gender and those of science actually encounter one another in salons, guilds, schools, and academies. This is what Londa Schiebinger does in her fine account of the vicissitudes of women scholars in the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her book is neither a “compensatory history,” countering a “great man” story with a “great woman” one, nor a “different voice” plea for the celebration of female intellect; nor is it but another somber chronicle of male injustice. It is a beautifully detailed portrayal, alternately amusing, astonishing, dismaying, and painful, of “how real men and women participated in [early modern] science” and what difference it made—to them, to science, and to our general idea of sexual difference. Feminism put to work.

  1. 1

    The first quotation is from Elizabeth Fee, “A Feminist Critique of Scientific Objectivity,” in Science for the People, Vol. 14 No. 4, p. 8, cited by Sue V. Rosser, in Tuana, p. 10; the second from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, cited in Sue Curry Jansen, “Is Science a Man? New Feminist Epistemologies and Reconstructions of Knowledge,” Theory and Society, Vol. 19 (1990), p. 235.

  2. 2

    Panel Discussion: Construction and Constraint,” in Ernan McMullin, ed., Construction and Constraint: The Shaping of Scientific Rationality (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 242. The whole volume is an excellent survey of the range of positions in the debate.

  3. 3

    For a review of the intense, unstable debate over the meaning and value of the concept of gender in feminist writing generally, see Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” in her Gender and the Politics of History (Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 28–50.

  4. 4

    The quotation is from W.V.O. Quine, cited, negatively, as “dogmatic metaphysics,” in Richard Rorty, “Is Natural Science a Natural Kind?” McMullin, p. 50

  5. 5

    Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (W.H. Freeman, 1983); reviewed in The New York Review, March 29, 1984.

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