Feminist Science Studies

Feminist Science Studies emerged in the mid-1980s as a response to the masculinist paradigms of participation and epistemology in the natural sciences. A survey of initial efforts in the area reveals a schism between the women-in-science movement and feminist critiques of science (Hammonds and Subramaniam 2003). The former was predominantly focused on gender equity in science, reflecting the shared awareness that science was dominated by men in terms of membership, status, and access. Participants in women-in-science projects – frequently themselves scientists – worked collaboratively at raising the numbers, improving the conditions, increasing the retention, and strengthening the status of female scientists. Scholarship in the latter area – the feminist critiques of science – tended to be more disciplinarily diverse and driven by the work of individual scholars. There, researchers in a variety of humanities and social science fields took a critical perspective on science itself, arguing that limited definitions of objectivity, sex/ gender, nature, and classification restricted the kinds of questions that scientists could and would ask, and thus the validity and worth of the research results.

“Science” is an abstraction, of course; the feminist critique of science focused initially on physics, and later on biology, as the target scientific discipline, with other disciplines soon taking their turn in the spotlight (Hammonds and Subramaniam 2003: 925). At conferences, academic meetings, and in academic journals, these two realms of feminist research celebrated their shared commitment to feminist intervention into scientific practice, hoping to produce what Sandra Harding called a “successor science” (Harding 1986: 197). Yet they struggled to find common ground in their formulation of the appropriate goals, strategies, and methods for making that intervention. The challenge facing feminist science studies was captured by Donna Haraway’s formulation of “my problem and our problem,”

how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice 312 for recognizing our own “semiotic technologies” for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a real world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness. (Haraway 1991a: 187)

Or as Evelyn Fox Keller would explain a decade later: “clearly, we have gotten hold of a gargantuan entity – not only huge but amorphous and ever changing” (Keller 2001: 98).

Despite this ongoing struggle to forge workable common ground and despite the fact that science remains stubbornly resistant to feminist interventions and men still dominate many of its individual fields, feminist science studies has successfully challenged many of the assumptions and traditions that have informed scientific research for over a century and a half. From affirming the privilege of marginal perspectives, to a reconceptualization of objectivity as something necessarily situated and partial, feminist science studies has gone on to carry out fine-grained explorations of the role of gender in scientific disciplines ranging from archaeology to biology, information technology, physics, and primatology (Longino 1987; Haraway 1989; Traweek 1992; Spanier 1995; Turkle 1995; Strum and Fedigan 2002; Wylie 2002).


Donna Haraway

One useful example of feminist science studies’ developmental trajectory can be found in feminist theory and philosophy publications such as Feminist Theory (which produced a special issue on “Feminism and/of Science” in 2004) and Hypatia, which published two special issues on feminist science studies. The first, a two-volume set, appeared in 1987–88; the second, a single volume, was published in 2004. While the initial special issues dealt primarily with skeptical audiences in feminist theory and philosophy as well as skepticism from scientists (Tuana 1987, 1988), the more recent special issue assumes an audience of supporters in “a vibrant field of scholarship that has matured and diversified … and that presupposes a number of hard-won insights that were just beginning to emerge in the mid-1980s” (Nelson and Wylie 2004: vii). Over the past decade, a plethora of anthologies on the subject have also helped to sharpen and hone the field’s foci into discrete scholarly areas (Tuana 1989; Marchessault and Sawchuck 2000; Creager, Lunback, and Schiebinger 2001; Lederman and Bartsch 2001).

If we explore the difference that a feminist perspective makes in the questions researchers ask, we can map more precisely the relation between feminist science studies and the broader field of science studies. While science studies research asks questions about the cultural networks of knowledge production, feminist science studies focuses on the gendered nature of inclusion and access. How many female scientists exist? What positions do they hold relative to their male peers? What kinds of obstacles did they face in their education or employment? Additionally, feminist science studies researchers focus on recovering the work of forgotten or overlooked female scientists. To the science studies focus on the contextual nature of scientific facts and the value-laden nature of scientific procedures, in the late 1980s and early 1990s feminist science studies added explorations of the systematic exclusion of women and the feminine through language (including metaphor), epistemology (ways of knowing), and the hegemony of classificatory schemas. Finally, to the general exploration of the social construction of scientific facts as well as the scientific construction of social facts, feminist science studies added attention to the role of science in the construction of gender, sexuality, and women’s material bodies.

As women’s studies scholars and feminist theory scholars more generally have already suggested, the adoption of a “textbook” or “disciplinary” scheme for feminist science studies has its drawbacks. For example, institutionalization can lead to decreased flexibility in terms of scope for the field; and yet, what we have witnessed over the past twenty-five years is not the hardening of boundaries, but their continual breaching. Contemporary feminist science studies sustains its commitment to the pragmatic improvement of the position of women in science and maintains the work of the feminist critique of science, while drawing on the analytic perspectives of a range of disciplines to illuminate an ever-increasing variety of scientific practices and fields, and to engage in pioneering collaborations with scientists – projects characterized by critical reflexivity and a mutual commitment to an emancipatory science (Brown, Lemons, and Tuana 2006).

Despite its revolutionary vision, at least two areas remain in which the field of feminist science studies has yet to reach its full potential. First, except for the work of a few scholars, feminist science studies has an inadequate account of the central importance of race and ethnicity in the scientific project (Harding 1993; Schiebinger 1989). Just as in the 1980s and 1990s scholars in feminist theory and women’s studies were forced to acknowledge the field’s inadequate attention to race and ethnicity as categories of analysis, so too, by the turn of the twenty-first century, a number of feminist science studies scholars pointed to a similar gap in their theory (Hammonds and Subramaniam 2003; Roberts 1998). Indeed, Hammonds and Subramaniam argue that, due to the lack of adequate historical or statistical data on women of color in the sciences, as well as the small numbers of women of color currently active as scientists and/or feminist science studies researchers, even as feminist science studies scholarship advances into new scientific fields, “structures of invisibility” are “proliferating across feminist studies of science” (Hammonds and Subramaniam 2003: 931). And the challenge of coalition building within feminist science studies remains: “There are no linkages drawn between the status of women of color in ‘women in science’ efforts to the projects on ‘gender and science’ and ‘feminist science studies’” (2003: 932).

Given the breadth and depth of feminist science studies, it is also somewhat surprising that the field has forged few connections with literary scholarship, a discipline that supplies many of its analytic tools. We believe that this is the second area of unrealized potential for feminist science studies. From the outset, the fields of feminist science studies and literature and science share a commitment to reinterpreting the foundational premises of scientific theory and practice. Much feminist science studies work relies on the significance of language, metaphor, image, representation, and translation, matters that are central to but, within feminist science studies, often unrecognized as, literary scholarship (Hesse 1963; Keller 1996; Martin 1987, 1995). While feminist science studies research makes frequent use of literary examples to introduce or exemplify scientific developments, few non-literary practitioners consider the importance of literary discourse as an alternative critical and epistemological perspective on science. Despite the work of literary scholars to map the cocreative relations between literature and science in Victorian, postmodern, and most recently modern literary texts (Beer 1983; Levine 1988; Gates 1988; Jordanova 1989; Shteir 1996; Hayles 1991, 1999; B. Clarke 1996, 2001), the full potential of literature as a powerful technology of subject production remains to be tapped by feminist science studies. An improved relationship between the two fields would enable feminist science studies to appreciate the ways that fiction (broadly defined to include canonical and non-canonical literatures, poetry, theater, and cinema) and science are networked phenomena indebted to their mutual cultural production. Through the inclusion of fiction, feminist science studies analyses can and should be broadened to include the reflexive relationship between cultural artifacts and scientific theories.

Given its diverse and interdisciplinary heritage, clearly no exhaustive description of the research findings of feminist science studies is possible, but we want to highlight one dominant theme: the management and control of life. From reproductive technologies; to images of the cell, the fetus, and the body; to the environment and the microbes, plants, and animal beings that dwell within it, feminist science studies has explored the emergence, definition, and utility of “life” (Cartwright 1995; Franklin, Stacey, and Lury 2000). Here, we will discuss two examples of this phenomenon: reproduction and the interactions between gender and technology. Reproduction has long been an important topic for feminist literary scholars, who investigated the metaphor of “literary paternity,” explored Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a portrait of the scientific usurpation of maternal agency, and considered the impact on Victorian women of a corporeal economy that consigned women to the bodily work of procreation and men to the brain work of cultural creation (Gilbert and Gubar 1979; Russett 1991). Yet with the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the world’s first “test-tube baby,” feminist science studies began to address reproduction as an emergent and highly contested arena of technoscience.

Early studies by members of FINNRAGE, the Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, were highly critical of reproductive technology (as it was then called). Scholars compared the procedures of in vitro fertilization and prenatal sex selection to eugenic breeding \ practices and to agricultural practices of reproductive management; argued that surrogate motherhood, extra-uterine gestation and cloning would lead to women being treated as machines; warned that reproductive technology usurped the role of mother (or transferred it to male doctors); and cautioned that it could lead to the alarming prospect of human breeding farms and a complete loss of women’s biological autonomy – a speculative world that was also imagined in fictional narratives such as Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) (Corea 1985; Arditti, Duelli-Klein, and Minden 1984).

This wholly critical position shifted in the late 1980s and 1990s with the publication of a number of studies that took a more nuanced view of what was by then referred to as “assisted reproduction.” These studies situated the technologies in the legal, political, and economic context of their development and use; analyzed the changes they produced in the institutions of mothering and kinship; and assessed their impact on notions of female bodily privacy and autonomy (Stanworth 1987; Strathern 1992; Farquhar 1996). As the reproductive sciences were increasingly deployed to manage the entire course of a woman’s life, scholars began to analyze the historical origins of this apparatus of control in the agricultural sciences, to explore its roots in the popular science writing and fiction of the early twentieth century, and to consider how the metaphors that were applied to conception, gestation, and menopause (even in medical practice) subordinated women and consolidated male cultural power (Martin 1987; Squier 1994, 2005; A. Clarke 1998). Studies at the intersection of literature and science, cultural studies, and literature and medicine explored the disciplines and practices that contributed to the development of the new reproductive technologies: gynecology, endocrinology, contraceptive production and dissemination, technologies of literary representation (the novel, poetry), technologies of visual representation (microscopy, X-ray, the camera, cinema), technologies of the gendered body (body building and cosmetic surgery), maternal/fetal surveillance technologies (the fetal monitor and the ultrasound machine as well as community prenatal health programs), and practices of gynecological education from the gynecological manikin to the gynecology teaching associate (Oudshoorn 1994; Adams 1994; Rapp 2000; Cartwright 1995; Balsamo 1996; Kapsalis 1997; Roberts 1998; Kaplan and Squier 1999).

Another parallel strand of research extended this analysis of sexed and gendered embodiment, fertility, procreation, and reproductive technologies to men as well as people of intermediate sex and gender. Beginning with the analysis of the constructed nature of human morphology, as sexuality shifted from the one-sex model of ancient Greece and Rome to the modern two-sex model, scholars went on to explore the medicalized imposition of gender upon ambiguously sexed bodies and the function of the concept of deviance to monitor and channel human bodies away from homosexuality, disability, illness, and other socially stigmatized categories into various versions of normativity (Laqueur 1992; Terry and Urla 1995; Terry 1999; Fausto-Sterling 2000). The male body in science and medicine has also come under the purview of feminist science studies scholars interested in finding connections to the relatively new field of masculinity studies (Daniels 1997; Moore 2002; Serlin 2003). Just as feminist science studies joined feminism in broadening its focus in response to critiques that it excessively reflected the position of white, middle-class women from the global North, and as female scientists of color began to play a major role in theory building, so the study of reproduction, and specifically, of technologies ranging from assisted reproductive technology (ART) to contraception and surrogacy, has gradually come to focus on the central role played by race and ethnicity in shaping practices and outcomes (Ginzberg and Rapp 1995; Roberts 1998; Briggs and Kelber-Kaye 2000).

Although feminist science studies scholarship necessarily encountered technologies throughout its development and growth, including the test tubes and techniques of ART, the speculum, and the X-ray, scholars did not begin critically to engage issues of gender and technology until the early 1990s. One of the foundational texts for such work is Teresa De Lauretis’s Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (1987). Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, De Lauretis proposed that gender “both as representation and as selfrepresentation, is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalized discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life” (De Lauretis 1987: 2). Her theory, which imbricates gender and technology by definition, and her method, which turns to fiction and film, is a model for much of the scholarship that has followed. Indeed, later work on gender and technology has turned to film, fiction, and the media as important counterparts and equal players in the history and development of various biomedical technologies (Landecker 2007).

From redefining gender as a technology to understanding technology as gendered (Wajcman 1991, 2004; Terry and Calvert 1997), feminist science studies has addressed issues such as technological determinism, technophilia, and technophobia; discrepancies between designers and users, including the fluidity between a “brown good” (read masculine) and a “white good” (read feminine); the multiplicity of identities (race, class, sexuality, disability, gender, sex) in spaces such as the World Wide Web (Kolko, Nakamura, and Rodman 2000; Nakamura 2002, 2007); the larger economic and political systems in which technology is embedded; the merger of organic and inorganic material in/as cyborg theory (Haraway 1991b); and the visualization and construction of bodies via imaging technologies (Cartwright 1995; Waldby 2000; van Dijck 2004).

If literature is largely absent from feminist science studies, it is more firmly entrenched in this subsidiary field of gender and technology. For Haraway, science fiction is often a key component of situating technologies in their larger systems. From Joanna Russ (1978), Haraway (1997) borrows and reconstructs the figure of the FemaleMan. While Haraway may not have been aware of C.L. Moore’s No Woman Born (1944), in which a dancer’s brain is granted  a second life in a robotic body, her later interlocutors have firmly connected Haraway’s cyborg with this 1940s narrative. Other critics, including Catherine Waldby (2000), find connections between biblical imagery and the references to Adam and Eve that surround the male and female bodies preserved through the Visible Human Project. For José van Dijck (2004), science fiction films, as well as art exhibits such as Body Worlds, serve as a centerpiece to theories about nature, culture, and gender.

And yet, even discussions of gender and technology could benefit from a more sustained engagement with fiction, as can be seen in a survey of scholarship on the sphere of the domestic space and its technologies (Wajcman 1991, 2004; Green and Adam 2001; Bell, Blythe, and Sengers 2005). These discussions trace the history and dynamic adaptations of technologies such as the microwave – a military technology that was initially introduced to the domestic sphere as a “brown good” marketed to men and stocked alongside electronics and other leisure technologies, and later changed to a “white good” marketed to modern housewives (Wajcman 2004: 37). However, the scope of analysis can be broadened to include a consideration of the role of gender and technology in the construction of domestic space by turning to an analysis of literary texts, such as Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1945), which portrays the home against the backdrop of World War II, the rise of the 1950s housewife, and the military technologies that decimated the domestic spaces of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which concerns the only “smart” house left standing in a post-apocalyptic America of 2023. The family of four who once populated this domestic space are mere imprints – shadows of frozen motion caught forever on an external wall, while inside, the house continues to function according to all the modern routines that manage and control life: timetables, automatically prepared food, robot cleaners, measured leisure (Bradbury 1945). The ultimate irony is that the domestic technologies expected to manage life inside the home manage only to consume themselves and the house in a final cannibalistic blaze.

In some feminist science studies scholarship, the smart technologies of the post-WWII era have been replaced by smart technologies of the digital age and repurposed for a feminist agenda. Take, for example, Anne Balsamo’s “Teaching in the belly of the beast” (2000: 187), a riff on Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunkinflected “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” in The Diamond Age (1996). Balsamo’s multimodal primer is a “thought experiment” in which she tries to imagine “what a feminist primer would look like that took as its focus the education of women in science and technology” (187). As she conceptualizes and describes her primer, Balsamo covers much the same territories we have laid out in this introductory chapter: women’s participation in science, what Sandra Harding terms “the science question in feminism,” the rhetoric of science (language, discourse, representation), and the influence of popular media on science. She comes away from her musing to assert that because feminist science studies has no such primer, its success and its successful challenge of the masculinist paradigms depend on educators in myriad fields willing to test assumptions about women’s participation in and feminists’ impact on science and technology studies.

As we have explained in this brief overview, feminist science studies has made strides in the past quarter century to take up the diverse set of questions and challenges posed by feminist theorists. While feminist science studies, and its sister-field of gender and technology studies, must become more inclusive and aware of issues of intersectionality (including especially race, ethnicity, class, and disability), the field is ready and able to incorporate the fruits of these labors. So, too, is feminist science studies ready not only to recognize the contributions of scholars working in mixed media – including literature and science – but also to acknowledge the field’s historical and continuing tradition of using the tools of literary analysis.

Source: Clarke, Bruce, and Manuela Rossini. The Routledge Companion To Literature And Science. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.


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