History of Science
Feminist History Of Science
Since 1970, the feminist history of women in science has become an important field within the larger discipline. The term feminist history means more than simply the history of women in science. As an explicitly ideological perspective, feminist history seeks to explain the oppression of women and to offer strategies for overcoming that oppression. Unlike historians in other fields, who are frequently loath to consider themselves personally as agents of historical change, feminist historians of science often admit their personal biases and draw practical political implications from their work.
Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (1980) considers mechanistic natural science between 1500 and 1700 as an object of criticism. In defining the harm to women and ecology stemming from the scientific revolution, Merchant examines the controversy between mechanistic and organic views of nature, the social construction of a female-gendered nature, and the struggle of some women against dominant culture. For example, instead of dismissing the persecution of witches as a fundamentally irrational practice, Merchant sees it as an integral part of the mechanistic program of control over nature. Francis Bacon, René Descartes (1596–1650), and other architects of the scientific revolution promoted this program. Merchant's criticism of the scientific revolution fits closely with the work of other postmodernists such as Albert Borgmann and Max Oelschlaeger, who identify historical developments such as Locke's political and economic individualism, Descartes's universal reductivism, and Bacon's mechanistic control as key features of the modernist period.
Margaret Rossiter takes a very different yet equally original tack in Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies (1982). By collecting biographical information on thousands of women who earned a listing between 1906 and 1938 in the directory American Men of Science, Rossiter identified systemic barriers to women's advancement in science and common strategies by which women overcame or sidestepped these barriers. As factors to further explain these barriers and strategies, she examined more than a dozen variables such as education and marital status. Rossiter found clear patterns in the factors that were associated with professional success in science. This work deflated the myth of science as a meritocracy and also helped feminists develop strategies to promote inclusion in contemporary science. Furthermore, Rossiter's work encouraged historians to look more closely at the connections between gender and contemporary social institutions.
An exemplary scientific biography of a woman scientist is Evelyn Fox Keller's 1983 A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock. McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her research in corn genetics and her discovery of transposable genes. Keller focuses on McClintock's struggle against patriarchy, her perseverance in getting other scientists to examine her unorthodox research, and her way of knowing nature through connection and relationship rather than through abstract analytical power. By identifying particular masculine and feminine gender characteristics, Keller explains McClintock's scientific insight based on her sympathy for and involvement with the objects of her research. Thus Keller criticizes cultural limitations on scientific knowledge and also suggests ways in which those limitations might be transcended.
In identifying barriers to knowledge and imagining ways to overcome them, Donna Haraway is a distinctively original and inspirational thinker. Her Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989) is a good example of her ability to build a historical narrative and use critical analysis to shift the reader's point of view. Haraway began this narrative by reading exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as primary sources. These exhibits told a story of cultural politics and "a logic of appropriation and domination" by white male European culture in the postcolonial era. The book is in three parts, beginning with the pre–World War II emphasis on the balance of nature and the need for hierarchy, shifting after the war to a "man the Hunter" trope emphasizing cooperation and the integration of individuals into society, and ending with the "Politics of Being Female"—a new feminist primatology rooted in historical conditions. For Haraway, history of science matters because of the way it shapes society, defines our ideology, and limits our imagination. History matters because it can always be contested and revised, taking on a new narrative form to explore ontological possibilities.
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