- Humphry Davy’s Sexual Chemistry
The “scientist,” as archetype, has always been a male figure. In popular culture, the convention has been reinforced countless times, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the blockbuster films of Steven Spielberg. 1 The stereotypical scientist is invariably male and also associated with distinctly masculine character traits, whether he is man of action or cool rationalist, benevolent patriarch or glamorous young hero, saint or devil. Nor is this cliché confined to popular culture: myths of masculine accomplishment, or what Sharon Traweek has called “male tales,” are told also within scientific communities to socialize aspirants and to make boys into men. 2 The counterpart to this masculine ethos is the exclusion of women from the professional scientific world, almost universally maintained until recent decades and frequently justified as “natural.” Scientific traditions have sanctioned accounts of the superiority of the male intellect and the inherent weaknesses of the female mind, attempting to enlist the authority of nature to explain why men are better at science. Social behavior that largely excludes women has evidently been closely linked with the discursive construction of a strongly gendered sense of identity among scientists themselves. [End Page 15]
Historically, a critical moment in the development of this formation came around the turn of the nineteenth century, the period sometimes called the “second scientific revolution.” This period saw a comprehensive reorganization of scientific disciplines and institutions, with the emergence of new specializations and innovative methods of training and research. The identity of the scientific practitioner was profoundly transformed at this time, in a significant step toward the formation of a modern professional persona—a change encapsulated by the coining of the word “scientist” in 1833. The year before William Whewell contributed his terminological innovation at a meeting of the new British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), the geologist William Buckland wrote to a colleague about the necessity of excluding women from meetings of the same association if an appropriately serious atmosphere were to be sustained: “if the meeting is to be of scientific utility, ladies ought not to attend the reading of papers . . . as it would overturn the thing into a sort of Albemarle dilettanti meeting instead of a serious philosophical union of working men.” 3 Although women, including Buckland’s own wife Mary, succeeded in gaining entry to public sessions at BAAS meetings, they were firmly excluded from its governance. The leading “gentlemen of science” took it for granted that women could not be expected to make original contributions to science, would form only a peripheral section of its audience, and should be excluded altogether from the discussion of certain subjects.
The deliberations among the gentlemen pioneers of the BAAS reflect the bearing of assumptions about gender upon the emergence of the “scientist” as a social actor in the modern world. Women who demanded a place at meetings of the association challenged certain values and expectations of the men involved in forging this persona. It is in light of incidents like this that we can begin to perceive the connections between the changing social arrangements within which men and women interacted and the formation of a distinctly masculine scientific identity. Londa Schiebinger has argued that women were excluded with renewed vigor from almost all the new scientific institutions of the early nineteenth century, and that the general movement toward professionalization in the sciences denied women the recognition that a few of them had been able to earn in the rather less stratified world of Enlightenment science. 4 Ann B. [End Page 16] Shteir has made a similar argument with specific reference to botany, pointing out how certain male specialists in the 1830s sought to define their expertise in opposition to a supposedly less rigorous version of the science practiced by women. 5 Neither author is suggesting that women had ever been made welcome among male practitioners of the sciences, but they both discern changes in the tactics of exclusion as the persona of the specialist scientist was forged. The previous age of Enlightenment was no egalitarian utopia, but the early nineteenth century saw the deployment of new tactics of demarcation of male from female realms, bound up...