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Title: Has Feminism Changed Science?
Author: Londa Schiebinger
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Copyright: 1999
ISBN: 0-6743-8113-0
Pages: 195+
Price: $27.95
Rating: 88%
In Has Feminism Changed Science, Londa Schiebinger reconstructs the historical momentum that feminism has provided science. I would have preferred a more-risky attempt at deconstructing the scientific enterprise itself. However, for Schiebinger, working within the confines of science appears to be an integral component of her academic endeavor. Science's claim of value-neutrality coupled within a context of a hegemonic structure, create boundaries that limit the inclusion of both women's views and women's participation in science, and more generally, the participation and knowledges of people of "difference." In her own way, Schiebinger is advocating a neo-difference feminism that moves away from looking at different styles of "doing science" between men and women toward promoting different forms of knowledge production through different organizational and institutional arrangements. In this sense, more women in science, is only half the question. The other half of the question consists of changing scientific knowledge itself. To me, Schiebinger inadequately addresses this latter and more important question. Rather, she attempts to educate the professional scientist and the lay public on the "proper tools of gender analysis" (p.194). Her three-pronged approach of the need for more women in science, reforming the cultures of science, and opening new questions for scientific research help lay the foundation for her feminist critique of science. However, she falls short in her critique by running the risk of supplanting one form of knowledge (science's) with another (Schiebinger's).

Schiebinger situates the reader within a series of historical reflections on gender bias in both the life and physical sciences. According to Schiebinger women flocked to science during the women's movement in the 1870s/1880s. They emerged from Ph.D. programs in the early 20th century, and by the 1920s, women Ph.D.'s were at an all-time high, in numbers, in the United States. Between the 1930s and 1960s, this number plummeted. The 1920s high was not reached again until the 1970s. Schiebinger utilizes these population numbers to help illustrate that science is situated within a historical context. Although, she argues that the growth and decline of women in science is much more complicated than a mere cycle, Schiebinger has correctly identified historical context as a focal point. Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the solidification of the public and private spheres of family life, and a myriad of other factors at different moments during the present century have influenced women's participation in science both in numbers and in productivity. These institutional changes have had an immense impact on social life.

As Schiebinger argues, scientific organizations have been reconfigured and reconstructed during the past couple of centuries. Many of these forms have influenced the type of knowledge produced by science, and the type of people that "do science." Cultural influences, which are often negated by science as nonscientific, appear to me to be important aspects of how and why science is done. In fact, I agree with Schiebinger, "we cannot think or act outside of culture" (p.146). Meaning is interpreted through a cultural lens. Whether it is a "passive egg," or an "aggressive" baboon, metaphor is an impressive tool that overlays meaning and "truth" in a society and culture. Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Lindee (1995) give a telling account of how metaphor and scientific knowledge can be used to explain human difference. They suggest that by using DNA to explain human difference we are determining our lives through scientific knowledge. Similar to Nelkin and Lindee, Schiebinger correctly identifies the social productions of science. First and foremost, science is embedded in society and with this comes reflections of societal beliefs and meanings. I will not make the move in this review to construct the equation "Science = Society." Instead, I will merely contend that science is embedded in society and that science contains collusion with culture when knowledge and meaning are constructed. I would have enjoyed reading an attempt at deconstructing the scientific enterprise. Instead, Schiebinger decided to give us a historical account of gender bias within science and an agenda for rectifying contemporary gender biases. Yet, at times, this agenda appears flawed.

Schiebinger incorrectly suggests that the battle is simply between "science" and "feminism," when in fact, much of the heated debate and critique is within the different sects of social science. For instance, History, Sociology, Cultural Studies, and other social scientific disciplines are reconfiguring and reconstructing theory and practice continually (see Seidman, 1997; Butler, 1999; Hartouni, 1997). An example of such a controversy is illustrated with Steven Seidman's (1997) work. He illustrates the internal problems that have handcuffed social science critiques of "science." He suggests that cultural and queer studies have viable attributes in that they both move away from foundational social theory. According to Seidman, the founding "Fathers" of the social sciences were embedded within a hegemonic societal structure, and thus, they have the same assumptions as the "natural" sciences in their processes of evoking "truth." In this sense, the social sciences reproduce the social relations that limit difference (women, people of color, sexual preference, etc.). The question remaining is which model of politic do we follow?

Seidman articulates a need for appealing to the social value of difference. However, within current social-foundational theoretical paradigms, this task is overwhelming. He formulates the need to understand difference within a cultural studies perspective. Unlike Schiebinger, Seidman posits a deconstruction of the scientific enterprise including the reflexivity involved in one's own science. He does not privilege signifying practices. But, instead he connects these practices to institutional dynamics (Seidman p.136). This appears to be what Schiebinger had set out to do. However, she fell short of deconstructing the institutional arrangements of science. Seidman posits that we need to move away from a sole focus on self-identity and the representations of identity politics (i.e., a "universal woman," or the "universal heterosexual"). His suggestion is a move toward "an analysis that embeds the self in institutional practices" (Seidman p.138). At this juxtaposition, Schiebinger and Seidman meet for a fleeting moment of agreement. Scheibinger's effort to use gender tools that invade institutional and culture space is wonderful. However, she undercuts a radical deconstruction such as the one Seidman suggests. His strategy is a "politics of difference" versus the previous generation's "politics of respectability." In this sense, Schiebinger's difference-feminism pulls back the Seidman extension and moves toward a status-quo critique of science. Regardless, Schiebinger's effort is a worthy read. Her attempt to bring together social scientists, physical and life scientists, and the lay public in a discourse on the historical construction of knowledge, practice, and institutional arrangements in science is creatively crafted. I commend her for her effort! In the same breath, she misses important opportunities to critically assess the "nature" of what science purports to be in culture and practice.

By focusing on the "hard" and "soft" sciences, Schiebinger misses some important aspects of scientific culture. Culture is the active ingredient that allows specific forms of knowledge and practice to emerge from certain forms of institutional arrangements. These specific forms of knowledge are not always visible. In fact, much of knowledge can be located in its "tacit" form as an integral part of the culture of science. She doesn't appear to fully realize that science is a part of society, and not the other way around. For instance, her contention that "Science is a human endeavor, it must serve us all, including women and feminists" (p.184) is illustrative. This sounds like an essentialist argument that loses sight of gender bias - the focus of this book. For example, if science is a human endeavor, and most scientists are men, shouldn't we predict that men best produce scientific knowledge? I posit that society formulates the scientific enterprise, and that the knowledge and practices within science are mirror images of society. I know that our author realizes this, but I wonder if the reader assimilates it. I believe that if she would have made a more aggressive deconstructivist move she may have convinced the reader of the worth of her central argument - the need for new tools of gender analysis in critiques of science.

Schiebinger's tools of gender analysis are important aspects of her agenda. However, before providing her "tools," she prescribes four major actions that are needed by feminists to cure contemporary gender biases in science. Two of the prescriptions are complete nonsense. These two: to have science students take courses in history of gender in science; and to have gender analysis a part of standard science courses have common assumptions. The assumptions are that social sciences are not "science," and that the most important form of change in knowledge construction occurs at the university level. I am saddened to admit that she is wrong! The pedagogic style of the scientific enterprise begins much earlier than college/university. In fact, most Americans still do not attend college or university and would rarely understand the intricacies of "science" (this contention is supported by the National Science Board survey on Science & Engineering). Also, popular culture is immersed with the metaphors and analogies that Schiebinger so vehemently rules as important interpretive tools. Youth are surrounded with messages of what science is and who should practice it. More importantly, education on class and race can be argued to be just as important as education on gender.

Londa Schiebinger recognizes the duality of public and private life and the impact that the division of labor has on societal institutions. She correctly asserts, "Domestic arrangements are part of the culture of science" (p.93). Along similar lines, Judith Butler (1999) argues that the association of mind with masculinity and body with femininity is linked to "the ontological distinction between soul (consciousness, mind) and body," which "invariably supports relations of political and psychic subordination and hierarchy (Butler, 1999 p.17). Both Schiebinger and Butler appear to be calling out for a reverse-discourse, a discourse that utilizes extant processes to construct new meanings and interpretations. The success of their effort depends largely on who will listen. One of the most prominent obstacles is the fact that the natural sciences have a lot of believers and listeners.

In her present work, Schiebinger has attempted to bridge a dialogue between three sets of actors: social scientists, physical & life scientists, and the lay public. At times, she has oversimplified the context in which "science" is situated. In her attempt to give a historical analysis of gender bias in science, she has implicitly grounded her argument from within science. This move has both positive and negative consequences. It has the unfortunate consequence of situating science as a privileged enterprise and thus, subsequently bearing the onus of "proof" upon critical analysts outside of science's boundaries. This can only bolster the perceived privileged status of "science" as the premier source of knowledge production. In this sense, science is a religious artifact that bears essential "truths" of nature. However, more fluid attempts have deconstructed the scientific enterprise as an institution that does not have sole privilege to knowledge production. Instead, these works have illustrated that science is one form of knowledge that reflects societal norms, beliefs, interests, and biases. This sort of deconstruction still leaves room for "nature." It is only the choice of questions and answers that are constructed not the material agency of nature. Schiebinger's book is an interesting narrative on how feminism historically emerged in science and what avenues are available in contemporary science for further developments of feminism. Yet, her greatest contribution may be the construction of novel tools of gender analysis. This book is an important read for anyone interested in the production of scientific knowledge or more generally, gender analysis in science. More importantly, it gives researchers pertinent advice on directions and tools that can be used in analyses of science.

--John D. Wilkins, Ph.D. Candidate at Virginia Tech


Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (2nd edition, 10th Anniversary edition). New York: Routledge.

Hartouni, V. (1997). Cultural Conceptions: On Reproductive Technologies + The Remaking of Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

National Science Board. Science & Engineering Indicators 1998. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation, 1998. (NSB 98-1).

Nelkin, D., and M. Susan Lindee, (1995). The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Schiebinger, L. (1999). Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seidman, S. (1997). Difference Troubles: Queering Social Theory and Sexual Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.