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Women and Science: Contested Terrain

Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives by Sandra Harding; Lifting
the Veil: The Feminine Face of Science by Linda Jean Shepherd
Review by: Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Social Studies of Science, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1995), pp. 363-370
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
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REVIEWS
Women and Science: Contested Terrain
Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinkingfrom
Women's Lives (Milton Keynes, Bucks.: Open University Press;
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), xii + 312pp., ?37.50/
$38.50, ?12.99/$14.95 pbk. ISBN (UK) 0-3353-09761-8 (-09760X pbk); (US) 0-8014-2513-1 (-9746-9 pbk).
Linda Jean Shepherd, Lifting the Veil: The Feminine Face of
Science (Boston, MA & London: Shambhala, 1993), xv + 318pp.,
$14.00/$11.99 pbk. ISBN 0-87773-656-1.
There's been more than a little cavilling among feminist scholars in
the last few years, a disheartening development, albeit one that
was probably inevitable. Discord has even spread to that small
community of scholars who work at the contested border in which
women/gender studies meets science/technology studies. The difficulties involved in navigating those borders ought to generate a
spirit of cooperation and sisterhood; sometimes they have - but
not always.
Some of the cavilling has been about what students of the
history and sociology of science like to call 'priority disputes': who
got to which question first? Some of it has been about philosophical and ideological issues: who is more guilty of essentialism than
whom? Some of it has been about matters of interpretation: which
scholar really understands what the other scholar is trying to say?
And some of it has been about matters of strategy: how - or even if
it is necessary - to convert more women scientists to feminism?
The two books under review here are not in direct conflict with
each other (Shepherd refers to Harding as one member of a group
of scholars who have written about gender and science; given the
Social Studies of Science (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New
Delhi), Vol. 25 (1995), 363-70

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date of publication, Harding doesn't mention Shepherd's at all) but the differences and similarities between the two works provide
some sense of what has generated all the feminist sound and fury.
Sandra Harding is a philosopher who has written and edited
several earlier books on gender and science. She is best known for
having developed 'feminist standpoint theory' - which is an effort
to develop a wholly feminist, wholly epistemological critique of
scientific method, without giving up the ideal of objectivity.
Harding does this, in part, by arguing for what she has called
'strong objectivity': her notion (related to the call for a 'strong
programme') that a scholar can still maintain standards for truth
and falsity, all the while realizing that those standards are both
socially conditioned and variable. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? is both a defence and an extension of standpoint theory.
In the first section of the book, Harding reviews critiques of
what has come to be called the 'conventionalist' model of scientific
method and scientific history. In the second section she reiterates
the arguments that have been made against feminist standpoint
theory and offers several spirited defences. One of those critiques
- namely that the 'standpoint' she has adopted in her earlier work
is that of a well-educated, privileged, white, heterosexual intellectual - provides the rationale for the concluding (and weakest)
section of the book, in which she tries to view science from the
perspective of several 'others' (black women, Third World
women, lesbians) and tries to show that many, non-conflicting
'standpoints' can all form the basis for a new, different, liberatory
scientific method.
One of the standpoints Harding doesn't consider is one that I
suspect she would have a difficult time stomaching: Shepherd's.
Linda Jean Shepherd is a biochemist who has become a passionate
(I use the adjective advisedly) convert to Jungian psychology. In
Lifting the Veil Shepherd applies Jung's archetype concepts (Logos
and Eros, Masculine and Feminine, Conscious and Unconscious)
to the long history of the sciences, to the current dilemmas of
scientists who regard themselves as politically progressive, and to
her own situation as a woman scientist.
In her first chapters she interprets the history of the sciences in
light of Jungian theory, arguing that the development of individual
consciousness recapitulates the development of the science. In
their youth, she argues, the sciences may have had to rigidly
endorse one of the two faces of humanity (the Masculine - Logos)
but now, as they enter what she calls 'middle age', the sciences

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Reviews: Cowan: Review of Harding & Shepherd

365

ought to be able to do what individuals must do (according to


Jung) in order to reach the wholeness of true maturity: blend the
Masculine with the Feminine (Eros). In subsequent chapters she
takes the characteristics that Jung attaches to femininity (feeling, receptivity, subjectivity, multiplicity, nurturing, cooperation,
intuition and relatedness) and tries to locate the sciences and
scientific practices which, in her view, epitomize those characteristics. (Shepherd prefers, for example, chaos theory to Laplacian
dynamics, cooperative, consensual laboratories to hierarchical,
competitive ones). She ends by arguing that those who 'lift the
veil' of the Feminine will not only be better people - they will also
do better (which she takes to mean 'more socially responsible')
science.
Both books are disappointing, each in its own way. Harding
conflates scientific method with the content of the sciences, which
means that she can confidently assert that a more feminist method
would, inevitably, generate new and different sciences (as well as
new and different technologies) without having to trouble herself
with the nitty gritty details of what the content of such sciences and
the nature of such technologies might be. A good social constructionist, Harding is also convinced that sociology ought to be the
queen of the sciences, but her notion of sociology is coextensive
with what the rest of us would call Marxism. She seems to believe
that all social relations dominated by First World men are relations
of exploitation and oppression, and that all social relations within
oppressed groups are relations of cooperation and solidarity. From
the perspective of epistemologists her arguments may be subtle
and nuanced (not being an epistemologist I'm in no position to
judge this), but from the perspective of a historianand social scientist
they are leaden, mechanical, unsophisticated and ahistorical.
Shepherd, on the other hand, is quite willing, even anxious, to
be specific about which sciences she thinks currently embody
Feminine principles: for example, non-linear algebra, chaos
theory, ecology, quantum mechanics. Unfortunately, Shepherd's
understanding of the history of science comes from newspaper
articles, book reviews and rudimentary general texts which means
that she cannot tell the reader whether the people who founded
those sciences had Feminine thought processes or investigatory
practices or personalities, whether they were more receptive,
intuitive, subjective or nurturant than their peers. Indeed, Shepherd has a hard time explaining what makes the various cognitive
styles that she describes (Masculine and Feminine, intuitive and

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non-intuitive, receptive and close-minded) different from each


other. More often than not her justifications for the distinctions
she makes seem to boil down to politics: x is nurturant while y is
destructive because I like x's politics better than y's. Possibly an
interesting epistemological argument could be made for the
validity of such criteria, but Shepherd is no epistemologist - and
she, consequently, fails to make it.
Both authors are social constructionists. Harding believes that
the conventional scientific hierarchy (physics on top, social
sciences on the bottom) should be reversed; all sciences should be
reducible to the social sciences, rather than the other way round.
(A tantalizing notion, that one!) Shepherd isn't willing to go that
far, but she does concede that all sciences are imbued with the
social agendas of their practitioners. Both authors are also equal
opportunity feminists, in the sense that they both decry the
obstacles that have been placed in the paths of women who have
the aptitude and the desire to become scientists and engineers.
Shepherd is a particularly acute observer of that obstacle course,
having been forced to run it herself.
The Rock of Essentialism
Whatever their virtues may be, both books founder on the rock of
essentialism, although both authors are at pains to deny that this is
so. Shepherd and Harding both practise what might well be called
'socially constructed' essentialism. Women, they argue, are far
more likely than men to adopt feminine ways of thinking because
of the manner in which girls are socialized, and because of the
gendered experiences that adult women have had. Harding pushes
her essentialism off bodies and on to 'standpoints'; she argues that
men can adopt a 'feminine' standpoint if they want to - although
few have ever wanted to. Shepherd similarly describes more than
one man who has adopted a 'feminine' cognitive style, albeit
admitting that such men are rare.
But even socially constructed essentialism is still essentialism.
The adjectives both authors use to distinguish 'feminine' from
'masculine' thinking reek of nineteenth-century 'separate spheres'
stereotypes. Harding and Shepherd both agree that when more
women become scientists and engineers, scientific theories and
technological systems will automatically become more nurturant,
intuitive, non-linear, and so on. A female nuclear physicist who is

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a passionate advocate of continuing the arms race and who wants


to 'nuke' the (fill in the blank) 'back to the Stone Age' would be,
according to both authors, a woman who has somehow allowed
herself to become ungendered (a victim of 'false consciousness').
In a similar fashion, many nineteenth-century educators argued
that a woman with a PhD was, in some profound fashion, unsexed.
Whether innate or socially constructed, whether Platonic, Jungian or Marxist, whether discussed in the language of gender or
argued in the language of sex, essentialism is still essentialism and it is still anathema to many feminists, including this reviewer.
Back in what might just as well be called 'the Stone Age' of the
modern women's movement (otherwise known as the late 1960s)
many women became feminists precisely because they felt so
unfairly constricted by gender essentialism as it was then practised.
As far as these feminists (the pejorative adjective 'liberal' is oft
applied to us) are concerned, essentialism is still essentialism, and
just as constricting, even when it is propounded by other feminists.
'If I had known that this is what feminism would become', I found
myself musing while reading these two books, 'I would never have
become a feminist'. It is worth remembering, I think, that
'women's lib' is actually a contraction of 'women's liberation'; and
what so many of us wanted to be liberated from was precisely the
set of notions that Shepherd and Harding advocate - namely, that
women are inherently more nurturant, less logical, more
emotional, less rational than men. Glossing this text (sorry, am I
supposed to say 'discourse'?) with the corollary notion that
'different need not mean lesser' helps not a whit; in a world that is
still political a stereotype is still a stereotype and, as such, it is
bound to demean and/or constrict someone. The fact that these
gender stereotypes are being propounded by feminists only makes
them more likely to be adopted faster by those who are the
enemies of feminism. The fact that feminist essentialists, such as
Harding and Shepherd, are social constructionists rather than
biological determinists is equally unhelpful, since the enemies of
feminism are unlikely to pay much attention to the subtleties of
that distinction.
Feminist Debate and S&TS
The debate between liberal and essentialist feminists (in some
contexts the latter group are called 'eco-feminists') has become

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particularly heated on what I earlier described as the contested


borderland where science/technology studies meets women/gender
studies. There are two reasons for this. The first, which I will call
the 'empirical' reason, is the total lack of evidence that women
scientists and engineers design artefacts, or construct theories, or
use methods, or select evidence in any way that is different from
their colleagues who are men. The scientist whose name and work
are most frequently referenced to demonstrate that essential
differences between the cognitive styles of women and men really
exist is Barbara McClintock. Unfortunately, those references
almost always misstate or ignore three inconvenient facts: (1)
Barbara McClintock emphatically denied that her observational
method had anything to do with her gender;' (2) McClintock's
biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, has denied that her biography,
A Feeling for the Organism, asserts that McClintock's method was
uniquely feminine;2 and (3) McClintock's work, far from being
ignored by mainstream scientists, was published in some of the
most prestigious, peer-reviewed journals of her day; she was also
employed, from 1941 until her death, at one of the most prestigious American research institutions, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
On top of this there is the uncomforting fact that the vast
majority of women scientists and engineers emphatically reject,
when asked, the arguments that the essentialist feminists are
making, presumably on their behalf. Many women scientists and
engineers would dearly like to have the company of more women
in their chosen professions, not because they think that armies of
women investigators will transform the disciplines they have
chosen, but because they thoroughly enjoy the work that they do
and want to tear down the obstacles that preclude other women
from similar pleasures (as well as similar salary levels and similar
social status). In Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, Sandra
Harding tacitly acknowledges that she is aware that most women
scientists reject the notion that they have a unique standpoint
when she argues that what the sciences need is not more women,
but more feminists. Only feminists, Harding says, will be sufficiently political, and sufficiently energized, to adopt a woman's
standpoint. This is tantamount to suggesting that women who do
not believe there is such a thing as a woman's standpoint have
been coopted by the patriarchal establishment, precisely the kind
of circular argument that, elsewhere in her text, she denigrates as

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lacking any means of proof. It is also the reason why so many


women engineers and scientists who have been battling cultural
stereotypes since their adolescence refuse - more's the pity - to
refer to themselves as feminists. Since they love the work that they
do, and have fought hard for the privilege of doing it, why make
common cause with those who denigrate their professions?
Which brings me to the second of the reasons why feminist
discussions of women and science have recently become so heated;
for lack of a better term I will call this the 'theoretical' reason.
Radical, socialist, Marxist and eco-feminists are united in their
belief that there is an overarching socio-cultural system, patriarchy,
which dominates all Western cultures (and some Eastern ones as
well). The economic expression of patriarchy is capitalism; the
religious expression of patriarchy is the Judeo-Christian ethic; the
social expression of patriarchy is male dominance; and the cultural
expression of patriarchy is - you guessed it - Western science,
technology and medicine. This notion puts feminist scientists,
engineers and physicians in something of a double-bind; it also
puts those who would like to encourage more women to become
scientists, engineers and physicians (and those who would like to
encourage more women scientists, engineers and physicians to
articulate their feminism) in something of a triple-bind. To those
who have acquired scientific competence, radical and essentialist
feminism says, 'If you love what you do you are walking straight
into the mouth of the lion.' To those of us who want to encourage
more women to acquire scientific competence, the same ideologies
say, 'What you are doing in effect is bolstering the very system that
puts you down.'
Small wonder, then, that most women who have such competence and work for such affirmative action goals want no truck
with what appears to them to be the dominant strain in modern
feminism. Small wonder, too, that old-fashioned, undeconstructed
liberal feminists like myself get hot under the collar while reading
the books written by their cooler, postmodernist and essentialist
colleagues in arms.

* NOTES
1. See Elizabeth Kolbert, 'Scientific Ideas: Women vs Men', New York Times
(17 October 1985), Sec. C, col. 1, p. 1.

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2. See Evelyn Fox Keller, 'Just What Is so Different about the Concept of
Gender as a Social Category'? (Response to Richards and Schuster)', Social Studies
of Science, Vol. 19 (1989), 721-24, esp. 721 and note 3.

Author's address: Department of History, State University


of New York at Stony Brook, New York 11794-4348, USA.
Fax: +1 516 671 2900; e-mail: rcowan@edu.sunysb.

Reviews (continued)

What Is that Thing Called Mendelian Genetics?


Marga Vicedo
Kyung-Man Kim, with a foreword by Donald T. Campbell, and
commentaries by Robert Olby and Nils Roll-Hansen, Explaining
Scientific Consensus: The Case of Mendelian Genetics (New York:
Guilford Press, 1994), xxiii + 239pp., $37.95. ISBN 0-89862088-0.
After the rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900, a conflict arose in
England between William Bateson, who defended Mendelian
inheritance, on the one side, and, on the other, Karl Pearson and
W.F.R. Weldon, who supported Galton's law of ancestral inheritance and the view that the main evolutionary force was natural
selection acting on small continuous variations. This notorious
confrontation is known as 'the Biometrician-Mendelian controversy'. Despite a considerable amount of historical and sociological literature on this episode in the history of genetics, there is
little agreement on how to interpret it. William Provine (1971)
argued that the issue at stake was whether natural selection
operated on small continuous variations. He also maintained that
the controversy was mainly fuelled by personal factors. Bernard
Social Studies of Science (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New
Delhi), Vol. 25 (1995), 370-82

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