Feminist science studies can be considered as heterogenous and amorphous body of work that include scholars in women’s studies, science studies, cultural studies, and visual studies to scholars located in traditional disciplines (Subramaniam). It is very broad and covers the ranges of ideals these feminists believe in because in retrospect not all feminists have the same beliefs. However, what does it mean to be a woman in the sciences? Feminists and women in general have fought blatant sexism and marginalization to be involved in sciences and while it has been an uphill battle there has been almost exponential change in the last two decades. Feminists that have successfully made their way in the door are going steps further to critique epistemologies and methodology of different branches of science while also opening new avenues for feminist science studies and research.
Prior to the nineteenth century, women had been restricted to dame school level learning mostly because it was believed boys were smarter and more superior and it was simply not the female’s role to be knowledgeable in subjects that were deemed manly. Surprisingly enough, some prolific female authors of the eighteenth century agreed with the paradigm. An example is Anne d’Aubourg de la Bove, Comtesse de Miremont (1735–1811), who wrote a seven-volume course on girls’ education (1779–89), which summarizes as follows: “Women were not destined to learn anything in depth. The study of religion and the accomplishments was to be enriched by the three Rs, [that is, reading, writing, and arithmetic,] grammar, geography, history, and natural science … [but] women should never appear learned”. However, there is evidence of women contributions to early science, astronomy and philosophy, some as assistants to male scientists. Botany was on of the sciences that benefitted the most from women in these earlier centuries.
Educated women in the nineteenth century and centuries before, as well as educated women in less developed societies today, were seen as a threat rather than an asset to the community. Society was more rigid when it came to gender roles and it was made clear the boys were to work and be educated while girls were only to be educated to a certain degree and about select topics that would make them good wives and mothers. It was believed that educated women would start to exhibit social and political defiance, for example refuse to do housework and the like if they were educated. Men felt threatened that women might want to be included in activities they deemed for themselves or want to take their jobs, thus making the women more ‘masculine’ and less acceptable as wives. One particularly strong excuse at the time was that it went against the words of God in the bible. With all these fears, it wasn’t too hard to stifle female involvement in education prior to the nineteenth century as men were in almost, if not all, leadership positions and most women at the time believed their health and social status at risk.
In the nineteenth century, there was a rise in higher education for women in the United States. This spike in female higher education was encouraged by advocates who did not intend for women to use their newly gained knowledge outside of the what they deemed ‘womanly’. They believed that women were to use this new knowledge to become better mothers and wives. Women in these times knew that to go against this belief was to tarnish the little if not reluctant support they had to get a higher-level education. These educators went on to work carefully within the restrictions they were given while gradually expanding and upgrading their institutions as years went on. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was significant transformation towards female education in the United States.
With this progression, more schools for girls and institutions for higher learning for women were established. Higher learning for women were being created solely for women because at first, women were refused entry into prestigious universities on account of ‘no precedent’. Those that could enter had found it harder obtaining their degrees and were not acknowledged by most men on campuses. The first co-educational college in the United States was Oberlin College, which admitted women in 1837 and awarded its first degrees to women in 1841 (Murray 2001, p. 2).
Although universities were admitting women in most countries in the twentieth century, women in the sciences were relatively few. This is because women often went on to establish careers in other female dominated professions, a pattern which is still evident that goes on the show unconscious gender stereotyping. During the World War II there was an understandable fall however, in both male and female admissions to higher institutions. It was during this time that women were encouraged to take more jobs even in male dominated industries as the men were sent to fight the war. During the twentieth century, there were dips and rises in women’s involvement in sciences due to different situations e.g. the world war II, but overall the progression was great. This unfortunately did not mean all of society had come to accept women in professional field. Sadly, on December 6, 1989, a man entered the École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal, and killed fourteen women with a semi-automatic rifle. This was his war on feminism. It is still evident even today that people don’t think women are supposed to be involved in the sciences as the memorial of the victims of the Montreal massacre were recently defaced with misogynistic messages (Toronto Sun, 2019).
The visibility of women in the sciences has always been an issue even when women managed to get their foot in the door. In early times, female writers of subjects of science and philosophy often had to publish their work under male pseudonyms. In the twentieth century, female scientists were shunned by most of their male colleagues. An example being Rosalind Franklin who co-discovered the shape of DNA for which Watson,Wilkins and Crick received a Nobel prize. Being the only female scientist working in the laboratory in the 1940s and early 1950s, it was not surprising that she was ignored by her male colleagues who did not have good things to say about her. She was shunned from companionship at work which meant she mostly had to work alone. During a work holiday, Wilkins looked through her files and found her crystallographic pictures of DNA which was an essential part of discovering the shape of DNA. Wilkins showed this to Watson in February 1953 and two months later they published ‘their findings’ for which they won a Nobel Prize.
While there are unfortunately more unfair instances like this, some that may have not even been discovered, there have also been wins for women in science. Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics for her work in radioactive decay and later another Nobel Prize in chemistry. Seventeen women in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine have received the Nobel Peace Prize which goes to show women are now more recognized for their contributions in science.
Feminist critiques of science are studies by feminist scholars which focus on epistemologies and studies that enforce gender stereotypes and the theory that men and women are categorically different in science. These show how gender ideals has an impact in science. They can be easily divided into six categories:
Feminist scholars queried objectivity and neutrality of science in its production of theories of biological determinism which is the belief that human behavior is controlled by an individual’s genes or other biological attributes. The influence of social beliefs on this particular branch of science was made apparent after some feminist scholars went ahead to analyze such bodies of work and found many faults in experimentation and conclusions. This was clearly a power issue as those deemed to be the elite in society were ‘found’ to be superior racially and sexually in these studies due to their biological attributes. These studies exposed the cultural and gender normative ideals that had unintentionally been embedded in scientific theories and law. Dr. Camila Benbow published a paper linking testosterone, hemispherical specialization of the brain and greater mathematical ability. This study has been disproven but it has done its damage. It went on to show that badly done research based on biological determinism can have a negative effect on the ability girls think they have. This essentially can influence girls to limit their horizons and what they think they can achieve. The fact that some women also believed female intellect to be inferior shows that this is not just a problem of men but a problem of wrong long held biases. These scientists were not bad or evil, they were mostly just a product of their environment.
One such case of cultural ideals in science, in particular normalization of rape culture, is in Barash’s sociobiology. The general goal of sociobiology is to identify and understand interactions between animals. The aim of Barash’s and E.O. Wilson’s sociology however, was to become ‘a study of biological basis of all social behavior’ which included human behavior. A particularly disturbing study of Barash’s that showed influence of his ideals was his study of ‘rape’ in plants and animals. Barash saw rape as rampant in nature. In one of his studies, he explained how the pollination of a female flower by the insertion of pollen tube of a male flower into the ovary of the flower is rape. He then went ahead to imply that these plants and animals that ‘rape’ are just following strategies derived from their genes to produce healthy offspring. Barash therefore goes on to say that humans are not much different implying that rape is just a response to male’s genetic makeup to produce offspring casting the ‘pitiful’ rapist as just listening to his body’s need to reproduce without being able to control his urges. This study literally absolves males of purposely committing rape with the excuse that it cannot be helped.
Feminist scholars did research to refute studies these studies and as a result opened new discussions about science and gender. While most early feminist science critiques are in biological science, more recently scholars have expanded to engineering and physical sciences.