Feminism and Science: Frenemies?


Dan Hicks


November 26, 2014

A friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook this morning:

I’ve heard a couple of perspectives that insist that there’s a fundamental antagonism between natural science and feminism, and that simply adopting feminist empiricism is not enough. I’m skeptical of such views, but I haven’t yet been able to articulate a coherent alternative that takes seriously the forms of oppression that more anti-science feminism emphasizes. So, I guess my big question is, How can one articulate a commitment to anti-oppression feminism … while also affirming the importance, relevance, value of natural science?

I think this is a really wonderful question, because it goes right to the heart of not just why I do the work that I do, but also how. As a philosopher of science, I’m not only trying to understand science (both natural and social); I’m also trying to improve it, and in ways that make it more valuable for social and political practices that, I think, promote human flourishing, including feminism and other anti-oppression social movements.

Of course, this project assumes that science is, or at least can be, valuable in this way. If natural science is fundamentally antagonist towards feminism, then I’m wasting my time. So I want to start answering my friend’s question by understanding the opposite position: why would someone think that science and feminism are mutually antagonistic?

In the second half of the twentieth century, many feminists (both scientists and non-scientists) criticized many aspects of natural science. Science often operated with misogynist or androcentric assumptions — that men or males are typical, superior, or important, while women or females are atypical, inferior, or unimportant. Science was often organized internally along gendered lines — men could be “hotshots” and primary investigators, while women scientists were generally relegated to teaching, lab/technical assistant positions, and second-tier professorships. And, when science interacted with the public, “the scientist” was a technocratic, patronizing figure: the doctor (whether physician, psychiatrist, home economist, or other expert) told the housewife what was wrong with her and what she ought to do, and she was expected to comply without question.

As feminism became a recognized scholarly approach, more abstract and radical critiques were developed. These critiques argued, roughly, that science neglected interpersonal relationships — especially care, cooperation, and dependence — and the roles of emotion and symbolism in human experience. Since these things are generally associated with women and femininity in our society, their neglect by science reflects a “masculine” mindset of pure, detached rationality.

Now, if you think that all of these things — misogyny, androcentrism, technocracy, expertism, and an ideal of pure, detached rationality — are essential, necessary, or natural features of natural science, then it’s reasonable for you to conclude that natural science is essentially, necessarily, or naturally opposed to feminism. And I think this is in the background of the “feminist anti-science” views that my friend has encountered.

However, I do not think that any of these anti-feminist features are essential, necessary, or natural to science, although I do think that removing these features from science has (and, in an unfortunately larger number of cases, still) required considerable political organization and effort. The anti-feminist features of science are many and often deeply institutionalized, but still contingent. Let me elaborate this in three ways: with a deep historical point, a more recent historical point, and a pair of philosophical points.

The deep historical point is that what we might call the “liberatory potential and oppressive actuality” of both natural and social science has long been recognized by the Marxist tradition. If you know anything about Marxism, you probably know that Marxists say themselves as “scientific socialists,” who drew on cutting-edge work in social science (or, what we today would call social science) to make predictions about the future development and eventual collapse of capitalism. At the same time, actual social science, developed by “bourgeois academics,” was used to provide ideological cover for capitalism. So science had liberatory potential, even if it was generally actually used as a tool of oppression.

What’s less widely recognized is that Marxists thought this applied to other fields of science as well. Early twentieth century debates over whether “nature” or “nurture” had a greater influence on human behavior were often debates between conservative and Marxist scientists. As the Marxists saw it, “nature” explanations were frequently used to rationalize social hierarchies as natural, necessary, and indeed socially optimal; while “nurture” explanations indicated ways that more egalitarian, less oppressive societies could be built using “social engineering.” (While that phrase sounds rather totalitarian to us, it had a much more positive, optimistic connotation in the early twentieth century.) The study of human behavior, then, had liberatory potential, even as it was actually oppressive.

For better or for worse, there aren’t many Marxists around today. But I think one insight worth preserving from the Marxist tradition is that, while actual science is often used oppressively, it has deep liberatory potential.

The more recent historical point is that feminist science has had a deep, positive influence on certain scientific fields. Here let me simply point to the excellent work by historian of science Londa Schiebinger, and especially her Gendered Innovations project (and the two anthologies with the same title), Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology, and Medicine, and Has Feminism Changed Science? Each of these works includes several case studies of the positive influence of feminist scientists in a field of natural or social science or engineering.

The historical points seem to address feminist concerns about misogyny and androcentrism within science. They also provide a case for challenging the gender hierarchy within science: if feminists and women scientists have had this benefit that everyone can acknowledge (identifying and removing misogynist and androcentric assumptions), then everyone should be able to agree that feminists and women scientists should have better standing within scientific fields, both as a recognition for the good that they have done and in order to make it easier for them to do good in similar ways in the future.

But what about the ideal of pure, detached rationality, and the technocratic and patronizing relationship between scientists and non-scientists?

Here is where philosophers can make our specific kinds of contributions. First, we can argue that rationality does not require being “pure,’’ socially detached, and unemotional — we can challenge, and offer alternatives to, the ideal of value-free science and non-cognitive views of emotion and ethical judgment. Second, we can challenge, and offer alternatives to, technocratic and patronizing accounts of expertise and the role of experts in a democratic society. For a single piece that addresses both of these points, I would recommend Elizabeth Anderson’s article “Use of Value Judgments in Science”.