- Gender and Scientific Authority
Feminist analyses of science are here to stay. Yet to some they remain a mystery. What could gender have to do with science? Surely as we increase the number of women scientists, any claim that the words gender and science deserve to appear in the same sentence will seem increasingly foolish. In Gender and Scientific Authority the editors draw together articles on science published during roughly the last decade. The pieces chosen document how feminist scholarship about gender and science has developed and diversified during the past decade. A similar volume, Sex and Scientific Inquiry (1987) edited by Sandra Harding and Jeanne O’Barr, documented the preceding decade of work published in Signs. Taken together, the two volumes provide a clear view of the evolution of feminist thought and scholarship about science during the past twenty years. They are succinct and provocative sources of reading for courses in the philosophy of science, science studies, women’s studies, and the basic sciences.
Newcomers to the field may be struck by the fact that in Gender and Scientific Authority the topic “women and science” is nowhere to be found. Indeed, the equity question (women in science) is an important focus for national educational efforts at the secondary and college levels. But feminist scholars now address more epistemologically interesting theoretical questions: How do scientists create authoritative knowledge? How can we think about the cultural specificity of knowledge claims while still accepting their utility? How are broad cultural beliefs about gender incorporated into the very fabric of scientific knowledge? The editors have organized this collection into four sections, which run the gamut from the big epistemological questions to specific case studies and show the range of problems addressed and approaches employed by feminist science scholars. (Of course, the answers provided about the gendering of science ultimately furnish us with important clues to the lack of women in science; here I merely want to preempt a common mistake—the confusion of the sociological category we call “women” with a set of power relationships that feminist theory refers to as “gender.”)
In the section entitled “Rethinking Knowledge” we find three articles: one on [End Page 588] Black feminist thought (Patricia Hill Collins), one on postmodernism in anthropology (Frances E. Mascia-Lees, Patricia Sharpe, and Colleen Ballerino Cohen), and one on feminist theory and truth claims (Mary E. Hawkesworth). These three pieces demonstrate important trends and debates in feminist epistemology. Both Hawkesworth and Mascia-Lees et al. worry about the postmodernist turn in epistemology, which seems strangely to have happened just as women have organized under the modernist claims of “the rights of man.” As Hawkesworth writes: “At a moment when the preponderance of rational and moral argument sustains prescriptions for women’s equality, it is a bit too cruel a conclusion and too reactionary a political agenda to accept that reason is impotent, that equality is impossible” (p. 99). The struggle for feminist thought about science has been to redefine notions of objectivity in ways that acknowledge the exclusion of women and account for the incorporation of gender relations into scientific knowledge, without giving up the idea that we can know things about how the world works and can act on that knowledge. In examining the nature of Black feminist thought, Patricia Hill Collins explores the strengths and weakness of standpoint epistemology, one of the important approaches used by feminist scholars to redefine objectivity through the use of situated knowledge. She writes that “the significance of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology may lie in its enrichment of our understanding of how subordinate groups create knowledge that enables them to resist oppression” (p. 31).
In the section entitled “Gendering Scientific and Technological Knowledge,” Desley Deacon and Nancy M. Theriot investigate nineteenth-century statistical and medical discourses, looking both at how they were created and how they served to build new social categories. In a more modern vein, Ruth...