Lyapunov Logo

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 chambers."
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 produce offspring.
Richard P. 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 society, including 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.


ANNE EISENBERG, a professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, is the author of four books on scientific and technical writing.





Chaos Quantum Logic Cosmos Conscious Belief Elect. Art Chem. Maths

Scientific American July 1992  File Info: Created 13/10/2000 Updated 11/9/2016  Page Address: