Women and the Discourse of Science
To make the point of male bias in language, a computer magazine
recently substituted she for he throughout one issue as its standard third-person
pronoun. Impassioned responses poured in, ranging from those appreciative
of the reverse sexism to those cancelling their subscriptions.
("Dear Editor," one irate reader responded, "I... suggest [you] adopt the
subtitle," A Magazine for High Tech Women and Eunuchs.") Indeed, passion
runs high among the normally dispassionate when it comes to women and the
language of science. True, generic he (he used for all humans, rather than
specifically for males) has disappeared from most scientific publications,
after a fierce fight.
But in a domain as traditionally masculine as science, that's only a beginning.
Further work awaits the linguistic reformer, for in this hard-fought battle,
pronouns are but prelude. The discourse of science is
soaked in testosterone. Consider, for instance,
the historical naming of science as male and nature as female. Together
the couple forms a deeply embedded, central metaphor of scientific discovery,
one that is a favourite of
Francis Bacon. In it, the scientist, always
a bold, rational he, pursues nature, inevitably a passive, mysterious she.
"If any man there be who, not content to rest in and use the knowledge which
has already been discovered, aspires to penetrate further... to seek... certain
and demonstrable knowledge," Bacon says in Novum Organum, "I invite
all such to join themselves, as true sons of knowledge, with me, that passing
by the outer courts of nature... we may find a way at length into her inner
Bacon regularly summons his sons of knowledge to an aggressive male wooing
of female nature's secrets. When nature proves approachable, stern science
treats her well, deciphering her mysteries
and imposing order and reason; when she resists, he puts her on the rack.
"I am come in very truth leading to you nature with all her children to bind
her to your service and make her your slave,"Bacon says in The Masculine
Birth of Time. In Advancement of Learning, he comments, "You have
but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will
be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place
again." The historical identification of science with male domination is
an enduring one. in the metaphor, masculine science and feminine nature often
Feynman used the trope in his 1965 Nobel lecture.
"So what happened to the old theory that I fell in love with as a youth?"
he asked. "It's become an old lady, who has very little that's attractive
left in her.... But, we can say the best we can for any old woman, that she
has been a very good mother and has given birth to some very good children."
The language of modern science has a decidedly masculine bent-and not just
in its pronouns and metaphors. Even its praise is skewed. Edwin Hubble
congratulated the brilliant astrophysicist Cecilia Payne - Gaposchkin by
calling her "the best man at Harvard."
Indeed, the discourse of modern science is replete with arguments and asides
meant to demonstrate that only males have the intellectual, physical and
psychological qualities necessary to do good science.
Women just don't have the right stuff. Nineteenth-
century neuroanatomists and craniologists, for example, diligently measured
and weighed female brains to prove women lacked
a talent for the hard task of scientific reasoning.
Sir David Brewster, Newton's biographer, announced that "the mould in which
Providence has cast the female mind, does not present to us those rough phases
of masculine strength which can sound depths, and grasp syllogisms, and
cross-examine nature." The womb, too, came in for its share of blame. "[Woman]
is less under the influence of the brain than the uterine system," wrote
Dr. J. C. Millingen in 1848.
Women were sternly warned that any effort to hone their inferior brains,
particularly in science, would lead to damage both to themselves and to their
unborn children. "Over-activity of the brain during the critical period of
the middle and late teens will interfere with the full development of mammary
power and of the functions essential for the full transmission of life
generally," warned C. Stanley Hall, president of Clark University, in 1906.
As ever, female nature was called to support male science in this argument.
"It cannot be emphasised enough,"
Max Planck said, "that nature herself
prescribed to the woman her function as mother and housewife, and that
laws of nature cannot be ignored under any
circumstances without grave damage, which... would especially manifest itself
in the following generation."
Women who managed to do science despite these injunctions
were historically portrayed in language that minimised or trivialised
their accomplishments. Caroline Herschel, for instance, sister of William
Herschel and an important astronomer in her own right, is described in one
account as someone who took care of the "tedious minutiae that required a
trained mind but would have consumed too much of Sir William's time."
Another commentator felt called on to explain in Westminster Review
(1902) that scientific work done by women "is either done in conjunction
with men, or is obviously under their guidance and supervision, and much
is made about it out of gallantry."
Nowadays women's treatment in the public discourse of science is looking
up. Rampant sexism appears to have expired, although occasionally there is
an eerie echo of Planck's warning to those unborn generations.
In September 1990, for instance, a respected chemist at the University of
Alberta published a peer- reviewed article in the Canadian Journal of
Physics (CJP) that blamed mothers who work for many of the ills of modern
drug use, cheating
and corrupt politics. But while Planck's comments caused no stir whatsoever,
the CF paper led to a very public uproar. Nine issues later the editor in
chief apologised, saying that the "article does not comprise science and
has no place in a scientific journal."
That's progress for you, however slow it may sometimes seem in coming. We'll
just have to accelerate the pace a bit, for, as we all know,
time waits for no woman.