Sister Ape

Caroline Humphrey

  • The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science by Londa Schiebinger
    Harvard, 355 pp, £23.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 674 57623 3
  • Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science by Donna Haraway
    Routledge, 486 pp, £40.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 415 90114 6

Most people, without thinking about it very much, elide sexual differences between men and women with gender, the cultural categories of masculinity and femininity. Surely, one might imagine, the more scientists discover about the former, the more refined and true will the latter become. These two books undermine that view. People are aware that non-Western cultures have different ideas about gender from our own, but no one is disturbed by that for a moment: their ideas, we say to ourselves, are based on ignorance and strange religions and values. We think we are different: we have science, which is gradually and inexorably analysing those difficult questions which lie in an unsorted jumble at the back of our minds – ideas of natural propensities, hormones, the left and right sides of the brain, feminine nurturing or, even more hazily, genetic programming for differences between the male and female brain. These books do not deny that science is making advances, but in different ways make the point that we need to be able to stand back some way in order to know how to think about them.

Londa Schiebinger has an important story to tell about something we can know: the history of women in Western science. The point she makes is this: that the question of female capacities – in this case, whether ‘the female’ is good at science – is inextricably linked, not only with concepts of gender, which is obvious, but with the definition science has made of itself. Early on, in the 16th and 17th centuries, women did participate in science. Universities then were not as prominent as they are today in intellectual life, and modern science emerged from several other social institutions, notably kings’ academies, the workshops of artisans and upper-class salons. Women were involved in all of these. As the Renaissance courts of Europe turned from military to rhetorical skills, the superior power attributed to the mind seemed to justify women’s participation in intellectual culture. Aristocratic women scientists became members of early academies in Italy and Germany, and they were powerful patrons and intellectual power-brokers in the salons which proliferated in 17th-century France. In Germany a large number of women were prominent in astronomy, working for academies in private family observatories in the artisan workshop tradition. Even more surprising, in view of the present-day idea that girls don’t like maths, was the popularity of mathematics with women in general: the Ladies’ Diary, for example, published in England from 1704 to 1841, was devoted to teaching trigonometry, algebra, astronomy etc, and in 1709 the editor announced that by popular demand he would remove articles on cookery in favour of those on mathematics. But by the middle of the 18th century intellectual and institutional changes were hardening towards the inexorable exclusion of women from formal science.

One strand in this was a general professionalisation of traditional medical practices, such that apothecaries cut their ties with spicers, surgeons with barbers, dentists with tooth-pullers and veterinarians with blacksmiths. In this the occupations hitherto dominated by women, such as midwifery and medical cookery, were no exception. Medical cookery was transformed into the academic fields of nutrition, botany and pharmacy, increasingly carried out by men, and the professions of obstetrics and gynaecology separated respectable science from midwifery, which went on mainly for the benefit of the poor. All attempts by midwives to form themselves into a trained corporate body were rebuffed and they were also refused entry to medical colleges. This was not simply a matter of professional competition. Schiebinger notes that knowledge of fertility control was suppressed along with the midwife: in the early 17th century two hundred contraceptive and abortion methods were known and used. The state and the church were, however, concerned to foster population growth and it is in this context that the role of the midwife changed. She had earlier been both a doctor and a teacher of other women, but she now became an agent of the state and church whose licence did not guarantee professional competence but moral character. Midwives were called on to baptise infants close to death, to certify virginity and to register illegitimate births, to make sure that women did not kill or conceal their offspring.

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