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  • Women and Utility in Enlightenment Science
  • Lisbet Koerner (bio)


The study of women in science is by now a mature discipline. I mean this in Thomas Kuhn’s sense: it is a normal science, a paradigm of its own within the social sciences, materially instantiated as well, with scholarships, job-listings, conferences, specialized publication venues—and articles such as the one that you are reading now. Our project is fully one generation old, some twenty-five or thirty years. We stand at a point of time when it is natural, perhaps even inevitable, for us to pause and to reflect more broadly on the nature and the future of our scholarly project. Yet, as Evelyn Fox Keller noted in her remarks as session commentator in the 1993 annual conference of the History of Science Society, to date a wider cultural regrouping of our field is only tentative. Indeed, the viewpoints on women and science offered in that 1993 Santa Fe conference were “conservative,” in the technical, Kuhnian sense that they adhered to the cultural confines of our project to date. Papers were presented in the scholarly style and with the types of data that had already emerged as paradigmatic for the field by the early 1980s. 1 [End Page 233]

To date, we historians of women and science have understood our scholarly task in four ways (excluding our heroic biographies and prosopographies). First, feminist historians of science have sought to identify womanly or gynocentric sciences, deemed to be infused by communitarian, egalitarian, or ecological sentiments; candidates have included the occult sciences, folk herbalism, midwifery, Romantic life sciences, holistic biology, ethnosciences, and, outside of the academy proper, the New Age pseudo-sciences. 2 Second, we have recorded those moments in early science when family legitimacy overcame gender illegitimacy to allow individual women (in their roles as daughters, wives, or widows) to participate in science variously as craftspeople, scions of scientific lineages, patrons, salon hostesses, or members of correspondence networks. 3 Third, we have investigated how science has taken women as the object of its study and how, in doing so, it has legitimated gender inequalities. 4 And fourth, and in conjunction with the projects above, we have provided explanatory models of why, historically, women have been largely excluded from the natural sciences. This project, which was chronologically our first task, was linked to our political and emotional wish to make sense generally of women’s historical oppression. Here we borrowed from wider-ranging feminist cultural critiques, adapting them to the special case of the natural sciences.

Now, such cultural critiques have often taken the form of Verfallsgeschichten, or histories of decline. They center on some supposed turning point or lapse into patriarchy—such as the extinction of a prehistorical European matriarchy; 5 the early modern witchcraft [End Page 234] trials; 6 the advent of a mechanistic world view 7 or a heliocentric universe; 8 or the hardening of the division of public and private spheres around 1500 9 (or again at 1800). 10 Putting aside the question of the accuracy of such retrogressive periodization schemes, we still need to account historically for the fact that women in the West today do practice science on a broad scale. In a sense, our explanatory models have been too powerful. They conceptualize the history of women and science in necessarian terms: the position of women is seen as substantially determined by an immanent logic of male machinations whose coming into existence is conceived of essentially as an origin history of history (or modernity) itself. Thus they explain perfectly lacunae, gaps, and exclusions, and they chronicle poignantly women’s struggles against these injustices. But they are less apt to trace the histories (institutional, social, and political) within which many women have succeeded as scientists and public figures. To be provocative: I am imagining a new Whig history of our discipline. I do not mean by this a naively positivist history, or a history that takes as its task a moral justification of the present. Rather, I mean a history of women in science that aims to explain also the formation of our present era; which is to say, among other things, an era in...

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