Published by H-Ideas@h-net.msu.edu (November, 1999)
Londa Schiebinger. Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, Mass. and
London: Harvard University Press, 1999. x + 252 pp. Introduction,
appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-674-38113-0.
Reviewed for H-Ideas by Doreen Valentine, ,
Princeton Research Forum and National Coalition of Independent Scholars
Feminism, Science, and the Pace of Change
When dozens of book titles answer a query of "women in science," it is
natural to ask what makes Londa Schiebinger's recent contribution to the
subject worth reading. Surely, we know already, especially if we've
experienced it firsthand or read even a couple of these texts, that
science has changed since the 1970s to encourage women's participation and
to permit analyses of scientific norms and assumptions in terms of gender.
But the question posing as the title for Schiebinger's work is not merely
a rhetorical one; rather, it reminds us that change is not inevitable,
that it happens unevenly and by degrees, and that more work, particularly
in the arena of science knowledge, is required before equity and
objectivity are possible.
Where other texts on the subject offer (separately) statistics and
anecdote, historical perspectives, biographical portraits of the (few)
great women scientists, or highly-theoretical critiques of the culture of
science, Schiebinger's tack is to adopt every tool within reach to address
the question of gender in science. The matrix of analysis she constructs
is developed across time and across disciplines, providing a comparative
framework for considering why certain fields, such as primatology, are now
strongly and positively influenced by women's participation, and why
others, such as physics, mathematics, and the other "hard sciences,"
remain bastions of male-dominance. Indeed, the third section of this book
applies the kit of analytical tools to a broad set of scientific
disciplines (medicine, primatology, archaeology, and human origins,
biology, and physics and math) to reveal disparities between soft and
hard, and applied and basic sciences in their progress toward
incorporating women as participant and gender as subject.
But perhaps here Schiebinger isn't as exhaustive nor as specific as one
would like: how, for example, do we reconcile the majority representation
of women in primatology where the field focuses on social behavior through
field observation with the fact that women are scarce in neuroscience labs
that use primate brains as their model system? And speaking of
neuroscience, where is the critical discussion of whether female and male
brains are differentially wired to bias the expression of gender
differences in behavior and cognitive ability? Such an analysis, placed
in the context of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and history
of science, and in the capable hands of Schiebinger, would help elucidate
the still controversial question of whether there is a feminine style
operating in the production of knowledge. Concerning gender differences
in mathematical performance on standardized tests, such as the SAT,
Schiebinger buries this ever-burning issue in the penultimate chapter on
physics and math. Other pivotal issues are also embedded in the section
on disciplines, and thus are lost to the synoptic chapters at the
beginning and end of the book.
For its range, lucidity, and erudition, Has Feminism Changed Science?,
reaches beyond many of its competing volumes for the reader seeking the
big picture. The picture, however, is colored gray for many fields and at
many institutions. As Schiebinger describes, it is also firmly situated,
in its daily practice and its ethic, in a masculine model of
professionalism that divides work into public and domestic spheres.
Women's careers in science, then, are often caught in a snare between
these spheres, forcing demands on her time and attention that can derail a
climb to the top of her field, or, in the worst case, spur an exit from
science altogether. But gender is only one signifier of science and
scientist, race and class being two others that Schiebinger only mentions
in passing. What a truly rich and comprehensive book this would have been
had these variables, too often overlooked, been taken up as well.
Nonetheless, advocates for change armed with Schiebinger's prescriptive,
which is spelled out in the final chapter, are poised to graft fundamental
and profound changes to both the heart of science and the culture of
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