Historians of Science and Technology Who Focus on Feminism

Erika Lorraine Milam. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Origins of the History of Science and Technology and the Feminist Critique of “Pure” Science

During the 1950s and 1960s, most academics with an interest in the history and philosophy of science were trained first in the sciences and then gained an interest in the history of their field. As a discipline, the history and philosophy of science was designed to produce well-rounded citizens in two ways. First, historians and philosophers hoped to educate nonscientists about how science really worked and thus bridge the two cultures of science and humanities. Second, they sought to teach future scientists about the history and ethics of their field, thereby preventing them from repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. Both of these goals were predicated on the idea that good science was inherently free of ideologies that corrupt true knowledge of the world, like socialism or communism. Good science was democratic and a potential source of international cooperation and peace. By understanding the history of science and technology, educators could produce better future citizens. As U.S. politicians became increasingly concerned that Americans were falling behind the Soviets scientifically and technologically, federal funding of science and engineering increased exponentially, as did the opportunities to study the history and philosophy of science.

By the late 1960s, the rise of the women’s health movement, sexual liberation, radical civil rights, anti-Vietnam war protests, and ecological concern over pesticides and the environment combined to provide a nexus of highly visible new perspectives within society. No longer could one claim to speak for the general “American public.” Social divisions based on ethnicity, class, and gender brought this fractionated American society into view for anyone with access to a radio, newspapers, or television. This view of American society as irretrievably divided contributed to scholarly and popular reactions to scientific, technological, and medical research, not only through “externalist” critiques of the military-industrial complex but also from within the scientific community itself.

As second-wave feminism continued to gather steam throughout the 1970s, feminist scholars challenged the prevailing stereotype that science and engineering were disciplines for intelligent young boys and erudite adult men. At the core of the feminist critique of science was the contention that scientists did not have the authority, foresight, or expertise to speak for all social constituencies affected by the conclusions of the scientific and technological elite. This push against the presumed authority of science as a universal way to true knowledge built on existing tensions at university campuses over the traditional canon of great white men assigned in philosophy, literature, and history classes.

Feminist scholars turned their gaze to analyzing not only highly contentious issues within science (like Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology) but also the normal processes of science and engineering. They asked how do we “know” things, and how do different cultures produce scientific or technological knowledge in different ways? Feminist historians of science and technology were further interested in how cultures of science had changed over time and when the study of the natural, physical world had become a predominantly male activity. For these scholars, biological definitions of gender, sex, race, and femininity were constantly negotiated in society and had changed drastically in recent centuries. Gender identities were not fixed but malleable, and modern science provided only the most recent means of reifying cultural definitions of social identity by repositioning them in a biological, scientific framework.

The debate over the relative importance of natural and cultural causes of status quo erupted on the pages of newspapers, magazines, and on television, with both scientists and nonscientists on either side. In the following decades, similar debates over the values and social agendas embedded in scientific research became polarized as cultures of scientists and humanists developed specialized vocabularies and frameworks for discussing the similar issues.

Feminism and the Science Culture Wars

In the 1980s and 1990s, feminist historians of science and technology found academic homes within departments of history, history of science, philosophy, and women’s studies. The avenues by which feminist historians of science and technology enter the field have continued to vary serendipitously. While some scholars obtained graduate training in history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, or other social science disciplines, others began their graduate training in the sciences or engineering and subsequently became interested in the history of their field. This diversity of training and perspective among feminist historians of science and technology has helped invigorate the field and has also contributed to the variety of strategies women have used to reform the practice and conclusions of the scientific community.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist historians of science and technology approached their research with at least four goals in mind. The first was to demonstrate that cultural conceptions of gender were separate from scientific conceptions of sex and that women’s gender roles were not fixed but were constantly negotiated. Second, feminist historians sought to acknowledge and understand the ways in which women were framed as subjects of scientific research and consumers of technology and the inequality of access to the products of science, technology, and medicine. Third, they additionally strove to increase the visibility of women as producers of technological and scientific knowledge. Fourth, feminist historians of science and technology also worked to demonstrate how claims of scientific and technological expertise and definitions of knowledge were culturally situated. The feminist critique of scientific and technological enterprises thus extended beyond merely differentiating between “good science” and “bad science” to understanding the social forces constructing all scientific claims.

Not all scientists took this in stride. To many scientists, science was about observations of the natural and physical world, and the questions raised by feminists were beyond the purview of science. Feminist approaches to science and technology were synonymous with the social construction of science and technology and missed what scientists felt was truly important about science and engineering as powerful ways of knowing and manipulating the natural world. Feminists questioned the processes by which the scientific community came to accept observations as facts or made decisions about scientific or technological policy, and they concerned themselves with environmental and social justice in regard to pesticides, pollutants, and radiation disproportionately affecting those people in the United States and around the world who lacked strong political voices; to some scientists these issues had no bearing on what scientists knew about the natural world. For many feminists, such criticisms missed the point; they argued that it was possible to believe both that the natural world investigated by scientists was real and that scientific communities are social, political cultures. Yet many scientists remained convinced that feminist historians of science and technology sought to undermine the power and legitimacy of science and engineering as ways of knowing. This reaction from the scientific community was by no means universal, yet nonetheless it became extremely important within the politics of academia by creating a sense of antagonism between feminist studies of science and technology and the scientific community in the last decades of the 20th century.

Effects of Feminism on the Practice of Science and Technology

Today, feminist approaches to the history of science and technology sit at the intersection of several scholarly disciplines: history, certainly, but also sociology, anthropology, ethics, philosophy, and public policy. This interdisciplinary set of analytical tools has proved both analytically and politically powerful in reforming scientists’ ideas about the skills, rituals, and conventions inherent to scientific practice.

Scientists have become increasingly interested in the methods of feminist analyses of scientific and technological systems as inherently social networks as mounting critiques of science from outside academic communities have taken the shape of popular disbelief in global climate change, carbon dating, and evolutionary biology (evolution is “just a theory” not a “fact”). As a result, scientists, especially biologists and climatologists, are looking to feminist analyses of how ideas are spread through a community of peers, what kinds of authority are more convincing than others, and how to demarcate science and pseudo-science in an attempt to make their conclusions more accessible to a popular audience. Part of learning to participate in the scientific community, they argue, is learning about the culture and norms of communication within that community. Similarly, part of being a responsible scientist is to understand the social networks in which your research exists as a way of gauging the short- and long-term effects of science and technology in society. These trends have been especially pronounced in both science education and science policy.

The scientific community has emphasized multi-inter-cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding the relationships among scientific, technological, and social endeavors, including feminism. Each discipline within science and technology studies (anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, cultural studies, women’s studies, etc.) utilizes a different set of tools that provide complementary kinds of information about the nexus of the natural, physical, and social world in which we live.

Influential Feminist Historians of Science and Technology

Cynthia Cockburn entered the field of feminist studies of science and technology through her job as a research assistant at University College, London’s Bartlet School of Architecture and later at the Center of Environmental Studies. Already in her thirties, she learned how to conduct research and analyze data about current social issues. Although her work has been more sociologically than historically oriented, her books have been very influential in helping historians frame the gendered modes of production and marketing of everyday technologies (especially Cockburn and Ormrod 1993). More recently, Cock-burn has turned her attention to the conjunction of feminism and peace/conflict studies. She is active in Women in Black, a worldwide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence, and seeks to highlight the effects of war on women’s lives and ultimately to promote peaceful resolutions in conflict-ridden areas of the world. She currently lives in London and works as a visiting professor of sociology at City University London.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1969, with a thesis on Francis Galton and the history of eugenics. However, her first faculty position at SUNY–Stony Brook fundamentally changed her research interests. After student riots on campus in 1968 and 1969, the administration asked professors to volunteer for an experimental teaching project. Faculty would teach classes on topics with which they had no prior experience—the professor and the students would then learn the material together. Cowan volunteered to teach a course on “Technological Determinism,” which quickly led to a new research project on “labor-saving” devices in U.S. households. In 1973, she presented the results of her research at the annual meeting of the Society of the History of Technology (SHOT): new domestic technologies actually increased the amount of time the average woman spent on housework and were not, in fact, labor saving. This research became her first book, More Work for Mother (Cowan 1983), which won the 1984 Dexter Prize awarded by SHOT. In later work, she elucidated the ways in which technological change occurs as a result of behavioral changes in many different people, all of whom are joined together through a social network. Cowan has also published an incredibly successful textbook on the social history of American technology. In 2002, she moved to Philadelphia as the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

After earning a dual bachelor’s degree in physics and electrical engineering and while working on a master’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Evelynn Hammonds discovered her passion for the history of science and medicine. Staying in Cambridge, she completed her Ph.D. in the history of science at Harvard University in 1993. Hammonds’s research has centered on the devastating effects of race in the 19th and 20th centuries. She argues that because ideas of race are socially constructed, they have phenomenal power in American society and have been used to justify gross inequities in access to medical treatment, education, and environmental quality (Hammonds 1999). Currently, Hammonds is a professor of the history of science and of African and African American affairs at Harvard; after serving as senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity, she was named dean of Harvard College in 2008.

Donna Haraway is famous for her statement that she’d “rather be a cyborg than a goddess.” Born in Denver, Colorado, Haraway also began her academic training in the sciences, earning a Ph.D. in cell biology from Yale in 1972. After her first position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, she moved to California where she is now professor of the Program in the History of Consciousness and Women’s Studies at the University of California–Santa Cruz. It is hard to underestimate Haraway’s importance to feminist theory’s engagement with science, gender, race, and technology. She argues that we are all cyborgs, products of and actors in a technological web. We no longer can separate our self-identity from the technologies of our lives, from the running shoes in which we go jogging to our cell phones and the computers on which we check our e-mail. The coalitions we build through our technology give us the power to define our identity through kinship with communities of our choosing. Thus, Haraway’s vision of cyborg identity is at once liberating and community oriented. Her most historical book, Primate Visions (Haraway 1989), created a huge ruckus when it was published because of her contention that primates have served as mirrors of humanity. She contended that throughout the 20th century, American popular culture projected current images of human society into the narratives they told about primates. She used images and stories about primates in museums, magazines, television, and science fiction to uncover American social narratives of gender and race. In 2000, Haraway was awarded the J. D. Bernal Prize by the Society for the Social Studies of Science for her distinguished contribution to science studies.

Evelyn Fox Keller entered graduate school at Harvard in the 1950s intending to study theoretical physics. Despite the hostile climate of the department faculty and her fellow graduate students, she earned her Ph.D. in 1963 by writing a thesis in molecular biology, where the climate was a little friendlier. Her intellectual journey from physics to molecular biology to the history and epistemology of the life sciences appears at first to have been quite long, but her curiosity about how we know what we know about the natural world has run through all of her research. This trajectory from science and/or engineering to the history of science and technology is shared by many feminists with technoscience interests, although Keller’s journey from one to the other was at least partly driven by the social attitudes of her peers in graduate school, who maintained that theoretical physics was hard, certainly too hard for any woman to understand, much less to provide insightful and novel research in. Keller has published several important books in the history of the life sciences, most notably A Feeling for the Organism, a biography of Barbara McClinock and her research on maize (Keller 1983). Her personal, psychoanalytic style interrogates the effects of social assumptions about masculinity, femininity, and science on the life of a scientist. Keller has held faculty positions at Northeastern University, SUNY-Purchase, New York University, and the University of California–Berkeley. For the last 25 years she has been a professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Following a path that is more common now than it was in the 1960s, Sally Gregory Kohlstedt began her academic training in the history of science, earning her Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois–Urbana in 1972. Over the course of her career, both her research and her institutional service reflect her interests in feminism and the history of science. Her research has explored the institutional boundaries to professional science that women have faced in the United States as well as expanded our vision of how women participated in the scientific enterprise, from laboratory technicians to nature study in the home (Kohlstedt et al. 1996). In Kohlstedt’s work, feminism became a useful tool for reevaluating what counts as “doing” science and in opening our vision as historians to the great many people who are required to make the scientific enterprise succeed. The history of science is not just about a few great White men who had brilliant ideas; it concerns the entire intellectual and practical effort required to conduct scientific research and to convince the scientific community of its validity and importance.

In her philosophical analyses of evolutionary explanations of female orgasm, Elisabeth Lloyd made visible a persistent male bias in the approach of biologists to women’s sexuality. Lloyd earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University in 1984, spending a year of her graduate training working with Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard. Using philosophical and statistical evidence to substantiate her claims, Lloyd argues that sufficient evidence does not yet exist to demonstrate that female orgasm is adaptive. Although her work has been criticized by feminists, who suggest Lloyd must be antifeminist because her claim that female orgasm is not an adaptation implies it is devoid of worth, Lloyd sees her work as liberating for women. Lloyd argues that because female orgasm is an unexpected bonus and completely unconnected to fertility or reproductive success in women, then women should be free to explore as many avenues to achieving orgasm as they desire.

Judith McGaw became interested in the history of American technology as a graduate student working with Brooke Hindle at New York University. After earning her Ph.D., she accepted a position at the University of Virginia but quickly moved to join the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. McGaw’s research sat at the intersection of American history, the history of technology, and gender studies, and her first book, Most Wonderful Machine, won the 1989 Edelstein Prize from SHOT (McGaw 1987). In subsequent publications she has argued that everyday, mundane technologies were critically important in defining nationhood in the early American republic and in demarcating gender roles within society. McGaw has now retired to Portland, Oregon, where she teaches meditation.

Carolyn Merchant’s vision of the earth in peril has served as a clarion call to a burgeoning community of ecofeminists interested in environmental justice. Merchant earned her Ph.D. in the history of science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and subsequently moved west to join the department of history at the University of California–Berkeley, where she has been a faculty member for over 20 years. Merchant became interested in environmental studies after reading Rachel Carson’s indictment of pesticides in Silent Spring (1962) and in feminism because of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963). Merging these environmentalist and feminist perspectives, Merchant wrote The Death of Nature as an indictment of the modern mechanical vision of inert nature arising during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries (Merchant 1980). This vision, she argued, replaced an older conception of nature as an active, organic, feminine entity. As natural philosophers viewed matter as passive, they naturalized dominion over the mechanized nature through objective technological and scientific research. Merchant’s more recent work has continued to interrogate both the metaphorical relationships of women to the environments in which they live and the practical effects of gender, race, and class on women’s access to and relationship with nature.

As Margaret W. Rossiter earned her Ph.D. in history from Yale in 1971, she began to wonder why there were so few women in the standard history of science. Did this lack of female role models illustrate how impossible it was for women to get a foot in the door of professional science or reflect historians’ lack of interest in the contributions of the female scientists who did exist? Rossiter’s two-volume answer implicated both the systematic institutional barriers to women in science and the lack of historical attention to women in science (Rossiter 1982). The books are not entirely bleak, however, as Rossiter also explored the ways in which women succeeded in overcoming the barriers they faced, whether by confronting discriminatory policies directly, establishing prizes and fellowships for fellow women scientists, or by accepting low status and/or low-paying jobs simply to continue the work they loved. Rossiter currently holds the Marie Underhill Professorship of the History of Science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University.

Earning her Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1984, Londa Schiebinger has quickly become one of the most visible feminist historians of science in the United States. Her first book, The Mind Has No Sex? investigated Enlightenment conceptions of femininity and masculinity in nature (Schiebinger 1989). She suggested that during the 18th century, with the development of public and private spheres of social influence, men and women were constructed as biologically suited to different kinds of labor. The pursuit of “science” became a public, democratic enterprise based on the presumed intellectual equality of peers; women were thereby restricted from participating in the scientific enterprise except where cultures of science intersected with the domestic sphere (parlor science and children’s education). Schiebinger’s historical work analyzes the metaphorical underpinnings of scientific analysis of sexed and gendered public identities and the effects of assumptions about sex and gender on the current inequality of women’s access to professional careers in science and engineering. Schiebinger now works at Stanford University as a professor in the history of science and as director of the Institute for Gender Research.

Effects of Feminism on the History of Science and Technology

The conceptual tools and analytical questions of feminism have effected profound change in academic conceptions of the history of science and technology. Feminists have sought ways to change what they identified as a male-biased social structure by pointing out the systemic ways in which it was difficult for women to forge successful careers in science and to remedy the effects of science on socially disadvantaged populations. Feminist approaches to science and technology have also helped to rediscover and revive traditional technologies of domestic life that were previously invisible to the scholarly community. In doing so, they have enriched our understanding of science and technology as cultures and processes, expanded our definitions of what kinds of activities are central to the scientific-technological enterprise, and enlarged our roster of who counts as performing scientific and technological research. (See also Critiques of Science; Feminist Philosophy of Science; Feminist Science Studies; Technology)