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Feminism brings useful innovations to science

Penn State

University Park, Pa. -- The women's movement of the early 1970s began changes in the culture and content of science that continue today, according to a Penn State researcher.

The immediate effects of the early women's movement ranged from ensuring nondiscrimination in the workplace to Title IX of the Education Act mandating gender equity in all aspects of education. But Dr. Londa Schiebinger, professor of the history of science and women's studies at Penn State, notes that recent feminism has brought deeper changes to the culture and substances of specific sciences.

In her new book, "Has Feminism Changed Science?" (Harvard University Press), Schiebinger explores the history of women in science and the effects of feminism on the cultures and content of medicine, anthropology, archaeology, biology, physics and mathematics.

"I am trying to effect a shift away from abstract critique toward the more positive task of asking what useful changes feminism has brought to science," says Schiebinger, a faculty member in the College of the Liberal Arts.

According to Schiebinger, science is not value neutral in respect to gender and gender inequalities are built into scientific institutions and influence the knowledge coming from these institutions.

"We are beginning to appreciate the contingencies of scientific knowledge, and especially what is forgone in the choice of one particular course of research rather than another," says Schiebinger.

Medicine provides one of the best examples of success for feminism. The National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health founded in 1990 and the 1991 Women's Health Initiative represent major funding for neglected areas of women's health such as osteoporosis and heart disease.

"Taking women's health seriously did not require new technical breakthroughs or simply more women doctors -- though those changes helped," says Schiebinger.

The changes in women's health required new judgments about the social worth of women and a new political will. It was not simply the entry of more women into science, which did occur, but also the influence and persistence of the women's health movement that changed the way American medicine looks at research and at women.

The biggest impetus to change was Congressional intervention in the form of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues which pushed forward the creation of the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health where career advancement for women is intimately tied to eliminating gender bias in research.

Other areas where gender plays a role -- primatology, archaeology and biology -- have been influenced by feminism. In primatology, an influx of women into the field shifted study away from the baboon, a species with very aggressive males and seemingly passive females, to other primates and to females that showed decidedly different behavior patterns and organizational structures, many in which the female had social control.

Anthropology and archaeology, both concerned with the study of humanity, already considered men and women, but gender bias often existed in the questions asked and the knowledge produced. The absence of women in the field and the once pervasive ideas of 'man the hunter' and 'man the tool maker' may be to blame, according to Schiebinger.

A feminist viewpoint, provided by both male and female feminists led to rethinking the category 'first tools' -- arrow heads and hunting paraphernalia -- to encompass a broader notion of cultural inventions in order to draw attention to the development of digging sticks, baskets for gathering, slings for carrying babies -- artifacts thought to have emerged from the female side of life.

"Culture can come to structure scientific theories and practices," says Schiebinger, "not as a willful imposition against the evidence, but through the way questions are posed and data interpreted."

In biology, the use of female and male analogies for plant parts and for non-sexual reproduction in one-celled organisms set the pattern for gender bias. The concept of a passive egg and an active sperm also showed gender assumptions that were deeply imbedded in a matrix of cultural and historical meanings. When researchers looked from a different viewpoint, an altered picture emerged where the egg actively selects the sperm and allows it to penetrate.

In the physical sciences, feminism has had much less influence, but, according to Schiebinger, the very scarcity of women in physics, for example, may insulate the discipline from feminist critique. In these sciences, culture and climate are still barriers preventing women from entering the disciplines and once there from effecting change.

"Women are apparently not poorly represented in physics and other physical sciences because they are harder conceptually, but rather because of their image, culture, associations and organization," says Schiebinger. Physics is often big science and women tend not to be in charge of big science projects. Much physics grew out of defense initiatives, areas where women have little presence. Neither of these examples, however, explains why women are not prominent in theoretical physics. Schiebinger notes that the distinguishing marks of a successful female professor of physics are not necessarily the same as those of a successful male.

"The culture keeps members in line, quietly governing their dress, speech and general deportment," says Schiebinger. "Beyond regulating the behaviors of their practitioners, cultures foster intellectual styles that guide research programs.

"The goal is not to create a feminist science, if that means a special or separate science for women or feminists," says Schiebinger. "Science is a human endeavor; it must serve us all, including women and feminists."


EDITORS: Dr. Schiebinger is at 814-865-1367 or by email.

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