Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Reframing the question
A useful counter to the utopian desire for women to incarnate an absolute alternative, or the complete rejection of any reality outside of discourse, has been a philosophical and historical endeavour to dig beneath dichotomies of mind and nature, reason and feeling, objective and subjective. Evelyn Fox Keller summarizes this extensive process of reframing the questions about Western science.
How is it that the scientific mind can be seen at one and the same time as both male and disembodied? How is it that thinking 'objectively', that is thinking that is defined as self-detached, impersonal, and transcendent, is also understood as 'thinking like a man'?
(Keller, 1992; p. 19)
A growing body of feminist historical work has taken off from this set of conundrums, overturning en route not only the view that invention has been exclusively male but also over-simple feminist propositions. For example, one line of enquiry has begun to question the idea that women's alienation from modern Western science can be explained simply in terms of exclusion through the development of a rationalism which emphasized objectivity. The impact of rationalism has to be regarded more dialectically. Londa Schiebinger reminds us of the historical context not only of what came after but of what came before. It is misleading to project our contemporary disenchantment uncritically upon the past, for this obscures how access to reason through education was seen as the key to emancipation by many advocates of women's rights in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. She shows that the dictum 'the mind has no sex', was popularly regarded as a defence of female aspirations (Schiebinger, 1989a: pp. 172-175; see also Harth, 1992).
It is important to recognize that while women grounded their critiques of male bias within the existing structures of knowledge, they also subverted these in the process. For example, Elisabeth of Bohemia, the Princess Palatine, who influenced Descartes, was a sceptical disciple from the 1640s through the 1660s. She and other Cartesian women embraced and used Cartesian dualism, 'the radical disassociation of mind from body', critically.2 So the argument that the masculinist characteristics of modern western science are traceable to the mechanistic methodologies of the seventeenth century is an over-simplification (Merchant, 1980). These ingenious Cartesian women used rational objectivity as a means of insinuating themselves into the intellectual space it opened. The epistemological claim to transcend difference provided a social context for women of rank to enter the world of science. As Londa Schiebinger observes:
Elisabeth of Bohemia insisted that the thinking subject be grounded in the materiality of the body. Catherine Descartes reinfused her uncle's vision of mechanical 'dead' nature with soul and moral value. Madeleine de Scudery pointed to the necessity of incorporating ethics into science.
(Schiebinger, 1992: p. 9)
The advantage of several hundred years hindsight of course is that we can now remark on the disadvantages of being disembodied on male terms.3 Nonetheless the traces of this ambiguous route to freedom reveal that the aspiration to reason had several propensities. The Cartesian women were not the first upper class women to make sallies against masculine cultural hegemony. Renaissance humanism, which, from the fifteenth century, had, as Londa Schiebinger says, 'chipped away at the oppressive Aristotelian dictate about the nature of women' (Schiebinger, 1989a: p. 165), had already presented women with a mixed legacy well before Descartes. Though inclined, like the scholastic clergy they criticized, to dwell in male fraternal networks, humanist academics were in some cases beholden to women patrons. Juan Luis Vives and Thomas More advocated female education and were influenced by Catherine of Aragon. However, More believed instruction was necessary because women were by nature inferior intellectually (Noble, 1992: pp. 171-174).
Humanism thus argued for only a limited admission of women into the institutions of learning. Yet it nonetheless made the demand for women's entrance into the academy possible. Similarly the Enlightenment was to open a corridor into culture while making sure that its route was restricted. So when women in aristocratic intellectual circles through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sought admission not on the basis of a suppressed experiential understanding but as equals in rational learning, they encountered an ironic acceptance which disassociated them from their gender. Voltaire wrote of his friend, collaborator and lover, the Marquise Emilie du Châtelet, a leading advocate of Newtonian physics, 'Never was a woman so learned as she. She was a great man whose only fault was in being the woman' (cited in Noble, 1992: p. 199). However, women have not necessarily accepted cultural definitions which excluded and denied their knowledge and experience. Du Châtelet wrote to Frederick of Prussia, 'Do not look upon me as a mere appendage. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do' (ibid.). So the very notions of individual control over nature which imposed restrictive concepts of women's essential character were also used by women to question custom and prejudice. No body of thought, then, can be regarded as containing a single inclination. Very different theoretical approaches to science can be seen as containing women's potential while also presenting certain possibilities which women have manipulated to the best of their abilities.
Science and heterodoxy
The recognition that 'science is not a cumulative enterprise', and that consequently 'the history of science is as much about the loss of traditions as it is about the creation of new ones' (Schiebinger, 1992: p. 2), has been influential in bringing into focus opposing intellectual currents. For instance, the mind-body split was contested but not overcome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when neo-Platonists, cabalists and alchemists emphasized the union of male and female principles as the basis of creativity. In the case of alchemy the iconoclastic character of its adherents in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led some of its exponents to defy clerical misogyny. Cornelius Agrippa even argued the superiority of women. While dependence on learned women patrons might have made such advocacy opportune, their intellectual and social defiance could also reach out beyond women of the upper classes to present a democratic approach to learning (Noble, 1992: pp. 175-183). Paracelsus declared:
The universities do not teach all things so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveller because he must enquire of the world. Experiment is not sufficient. Experience must verify what can be accepted or not accepted.
(cited in Noble, 1992: p. 181)
Paracelsus also revived ancient ideas within alchemy about oneness; instead of regarding the existing form of masculinity as a perfect model for humanity, he saw masculinity as an incompleteness seeking union with its opposite.
Man having become separated from the woman in him, lost his true light. He now seeks for the woman outside of his true self, and wanders about among shadows, being misled by the will of the wisps of external illusions.
(cited in Noble, 1992: p. 177)
There was an ambiguity within this subordinated approach towards knowledge in relation to gender and power. The space for the woman as other was still marked out on male terms. The alchemist's desire for androgynous union, 'entailed less a primordial reunification of the sexes than an appropriation of the one by the other' (Noble, 1992: p. 178). Moreover the alchemists were safeguarding an occult tradition in the manner of a sect, even while legitimating practical understandings against scolasticism. Their challenge to the existing intellectual hierarchy was driven by two impulses; the elitism of a knowledge apart from the mainstream and the democratic potential of experience.
The significance of submerged heterodoxies is not simply how they regarded women but how they saw the aims and constitution of science. A gender lens can bring into view not only women's relation to men but wider questions about an extended terrain. Buried within alchemical tradition was a vision of social purpose. It was not simply about the dream of wealth but the quest for the elixir of life. For Paracelsus this meant that 'the business of alchemy is not to make gold, but to prepare remedies for human ills' (cited in Needham, 1981: p. 6).
Such a view placed him in a direct line of descent, according to Joseph Needham, with the Chinese alchemy of disinterested Taoists which predates the pre-Christian era. The idea of the elixir and the social value of its pursuit reached Europe through Arab culture. So alchemy provides us with a clue about the loss of tradition not simply as a subordinated culture within western science but of other histories of science. It opens another window of remembering.
Joseph Needham quotes an Arab scholar from the ninth century musing upon the migration of learning.
I, Muhammad ibn Ishag, have lastly only to add that the books on this subject of alchemy are too numerous and extensive to be recorded in full, and besides the authors keep repeating themselves. The Egyptians especially have many alchemical writers and scholars, and some say that that was the country where the science was born. The temples with their laboratories were there, and that was where Mary the Jewess worked. But others say that the discussion on the art originated with the Persians, while according to others the Greeks were the first who dealt with it.
(cited in Needham, 1981: p. 70)
Alchemy probably reached Egypt from ancient Mesopotamia. It flourished in Alexandria when the Greco-Roman world was in decline, AD 85-165. It drew, as Margaret Alic tells us in her account of women in science, Hypatia's Heritage, upon
several sources: the formulation and manufacture of cosmetics, perfumes and imitation jewellery - major Egyptian industries; the artistic tradition - the mixing of dyes and the theories of colour; and gnosticism, an esoteric mixture of Jewish, Chaldean and Egyptian mysticism, neo-Platonism, and Christianity, centred in Alexandria. In the gnostic tradition, as in ancient Taoism, the male and female were equal - a precept which became the cornerstone of alchemical theory.
(Alic, 1986: pp. 20-22)
The gnostic belief in the transcendence of all divisions, including that between the sexes, as a sign of redemption meant that they strove to make the two one. This could be an absorption and reduction of the female to the male or it could be a symbolic reunification of male and female. Small study circles provided 'a close spiritual companionship between men and women in which sexual identity had all but lost its significance' (Noble, 1991: p. 16). By claiming to have overcome sexual desire, the gnostics were able to accept women as equals.
Diverse strands of scientific heterodoxy can be found exercising their influence long before the emergence of modern western scientific paradigms. Not only does western science have its opposing heterodoxies, there are all the other scientific traditions with their various histories. If Evelyn Fox Keller's 'lens of feminist inquiry' (Keller, 1992: p. 18) were to be applied to this wider spectrum, it would undoubtedly reveal a more complex picture of the scientific mind than the present western feminist history of science has yet uncovered.
Space to manoeuvre
Instead of conceiving masculine-oriented science as an unchanging block, it is apparent that there have been significant shifts and considerable variations. This recognition has enabled historians to re-examine the argument that women have been completely absent. Women as historical actors have begun to be restored to the history of western science, they have come into view, in Londa Schiebinger's phrase 'manoeuvring within the gender boundaries prescribed by society' (1989a: p. 7). Such manoeuvring surely also existed outside western science, for even in very ancient times women can be found studying science in many cultures. Margaret Alic describes women doctors in Egypt before 3000 BC, while ancient Babylonian women perfumers developed the chemical techniques used among alchemists in Alexandria in the first century AD (Alic, 1986: pp. 20-22). She observes that the Dark Ages,
were not as bleak a time for women as one might expect. In the Byzantine Empire a succession of women rulers pursued scientific interests. In China women engineers and Taoist adepts pushed science and technology forward at a steady rate. With the rise of Islam and the subsequent conquest and unification of the Arab regions, translations and elaborations of ancient Greek works formed the basis of Arab science. A diverse and tolerant culture, the early Moslem empire preserved and expanded upon the knowledge of antiquity. Women studied at the medical school in Baghdad and female alchemists followed the teachings of Maria the Jewess. If Moslem women scholars are not recorded in the historical text, their existence is at least testified to by stories from the Arabian Nights.
(ibid.: p. 47)
She goes on to tell the legend of the Arab slave girl Tawaddud, who outwitted readers of the Koran, doctors of law and medicine, scientists and philosophers with her wisdom and learning.
Rather than viewing history in terms of an undifferentiated structure of patriarchy, it is possible to see women emerging intellectually in some periods and forced into retreat in others. Historians have begun to examine what David Noble has described as differences within the 'recurring fact' of female subordination. As he says, 'There have been significant variations of experience, variations that have shaped particular cultures and lives' (Noble, 1992: p. 4).
This nuanced view of history makes it possible to enquire into the actual social circumstances which have enabled women to enter the world of science and technology, for it has not simply been an ideological struggle but a practical one. Several broad features can be outlined. Firstly it has certainly been an advantage to be a member of the upper classes. Class has created a certain space for gender manoeuvring. For example, one of the most celebrated Byzantine women scholars, Anna Comnena (1083-1148), was the daughter of Emperor Alexius. Her father's many wars provided her with material for her favourite subject, military technology, and her book The Alexiad, contains 'detailed descriptions of weapons and military tactics' (Alic, 1986: p. 48). In medieval Europe the 'ladies of Salerno' contributed to the eleventh-century revival based on translating ancient Greek medical writing from Arabic into Latin. They were a group of noble Italian women who were able to enter the universities in this period.
According to legend an upper class scholar called Trotula wrote on medicine, dealing with subjects such as skin diseases and cosmetics, birth control, gynaecology, lice, toothache, and even slimming. In a work attributed to her this advice was given: 'The obese person was to be smeared with cow dung and wine and placed in a steam cabinet or in heated sand four times per week' (Alic, 1986: p. 53).
The patronage of royal and aristocratic women, which played a significant part in scientific innovation in early modern Western science, can be observed elsewhere. An early example is to be found in Japan, where the Empress Shotoku-Tenno ordered the printing of one million charms in 767. These were distributed in 770, the earliest printed documents produced in any country (Sarton, 1927: p.529).
Science and daily life
There were, however, other ways of entering science for women from less privileged backgrounds. An important influence upon science has been the tradition of practical experiments associated with craft skills, and women have contributed both through the workshop and through the household. Way back in the second millennium BC, cuneiform tablets name two women chemists Tapputi-Belatekallim and Ninu. Although women had a low status in ancient Sumerian culture, they could engage in business. Margaret Alic writes:
The perfume industry was very important in ancient Babylon since aromatic substances were used in medicine and religion as well as for cosmetics. The apparatus and recipes of perfumery were similar to those used in cooking. Women perfumers developed the chemical techniques of distillation, extraction and sublimation.
(Alic, 1986: p. 21)
The textile crafts, where women are to be found in many cultures spinning wool, silk and linen, are also female trades closely linked to household duties. Irfan Habib describes how, in 1301-2, Amir Khusrau advised his daughter in Delhi to be content with the needle and spindle which he compared to her spear and arrow, a source of wealth and a means of hiding one's body (Habib, 1992: p. 12).4 Nearly fifty years later another poet, 'Isami, was grumbling at Raziyya's presumption on becoming Sultan though a woman, and urging women to sit with the charka rather than assuming sovereignty (ibid.: p. 13). Irfan Habib comments,
To these two poets one feels truly grateful in spite of their unacceptably reactionary views on the place of woman: their admonitions have enabled us to fix the generalization of the spinning wheel at least in India in the first half of the 14th century.
Unfortunately the poets were not concerned with a gendered account of technological innovation or implementation.
In China the memory has survived of Huang Tao P'o, a famous woman textile technologist of the thirteenth century who brought knowledge of cotton growing, spinning and weaving from Hainan to the Yangtze (Needham, 1981: p. 111). In Hainan she is remembered still as the inventor of the loom.5
Who is remembered and revered is not a matter of chance but bound up with how science is defined and what model of the relationship between science and technology is adopted; it indeed depends on how knowledge is constituted. The recognition that 'technology' means much more than applied science, that it is itself a creative area of culture which involves the tacit know-how based on doing, has opened up a much broader approach to the history and sociology of science and technology, which has enabled feminists to redefine the parameters of women's contribution to technology. This understanding is by no means new: the fifteenth-century French writer and defender of women, Christine de Pisan, located women's technological creativity in precisely these areas of human culture. The rediscovery of how the domestic sphere has interacted historically with certain kinds of technological and scientific know-how has recently begun to blur the boundaries between formal and informal knowledge. Women's cultural traditions have been passed on orally or through household manuals rather than through the academy. Medicine is an obvious example. Long before the invention of penicillin, Elizabeth Stone, in nineteenth-century Wisconsin, specialized in treating lumberjacks' wounds with poultices of mouldy bread in warm milk or water (Stanley, 1983: p. 14).
In medieval Europe women were active in many areas of craft production, but from the sixteenth century they were to be excluded from many trades. Still, Maria Winkelmann, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, born near Leipzig in 1670, was able to receive an advanced training in astronomy by serving as an unofficial apprentice in the house of the self-taught Christopher Arnold. Astronomy in late seventeenth-century Germany was organized partly along guild lines and partly through study at the university. The practical observation work occurred, however, largely outside the university. Maria Winkelmann was able to pursue her work by marrying Germany's leading astronomer, Gottfried Kirch. This enabled her to continue as an assistant to Kirch in Berlin. She became celebrated for her scientific work, which included the discovery of a previously unknown comet in 1702. Together she and her husband worked on astronomy which contributed to the production of an astronomically accurate calendar (Schiebinger, 1989b: pp. 21-38).
Family connections have been important to women entering scientific study from early times. Hypatia of Alexandria, born AD 370 when the city was in turmoil as the Roman Empire was converting to Christianity, was the daughter of the mathematician and astronomer Theon. As well as theoretical writing, Hypatia was interested in mechanics and practical technology. She designed a plane astrolabe for measuring the positions of stars, planets and the sun to calculate time and the ascendant sign of the zodiac, and a graduated brass hydrometer for determining the density of a liquid. She was murdered by fanatical and jealous Christian monks hostile to her learning (Alic, 1986: p. 44).
The persistent appearance of women as practitioners of alchemy was not only because of ideological affinities. Alchemy presents an example of a craft form through which women could be technologically creative. Maria the Jewess was a prominent early alchemist. She invented a water bath in the first century AD which resembled a double boiler and was used to heat a substance slowly or maintain it at a constant temperature. The French still call a double boiler a bain-marie. She also invented distilling apparatus. Maria compared the thickness of the metal in part of the still to a 'pastrycook's copper frying pan' and recommended flour paste for sealing joints (Alic, 1986: p. 37). It is possible to see here the connection between domestic craft and technology, present in much of women's inventiveness, which the hierarchical model of technology as applied science or a narrow definition of technology as physical objects would obliterate. Another creative link has been to the reproduction of life. Cleopatra, a later Alexandrian alchemist, brought imagery of conception and birth into her writing and studied weights and measures in an attempt to quantify experiments. However, in the third century the Roman emperor Diocletian persecuted Alexandrian alchemists. Consequently alchemy was to be culturally rerouted. As Margaret Alic says, 'The Arabs rescued the science and ancient alchemy reached Europe during the Middle Ages, but by that time it had degenerated into mystical mumbo-jumbo' (Alic, 1986: p. 41).
Interest in alchemy was to appear again during the thirteenth-century scientific revival. In fourteenth-century Paris, Perrenelle Lethas married the well-to-do scribe Nicholas Flamnel. Together they discovered an ancient alchemical manuscript. They laboured together experimenting with mercury and silver trying to create gold.
Women can be found studying science and making practical contributions through medicine or technological innovation within the separate space of intellectual or religious communities. An early example was the famous mathematician Pythagoras of Samos, c. 582-500 BC, who formed a community in the Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy between 540 and 520 BC, in which there were at least twenty-eight women teachers and students. The most famous of these was Theano, who married Pythagoras when he was an old man. She and her daughters were renowned as healers and believed that the human body in microcosm reflected the macro universe. When the community was forcibly dispersed she took Pythagoras's philosophical and mathematical ideas with her through Greece into Egypt (Alic, 1986: pp. 22-24).
Some medieval European convents provided women with education in medicine, sanitation and nutrition. Hildegard, born 1098, was a learned abbess in Germany who studied scientific ideas and developed ideas of links between the body and the universe. Hildegard lived in a period when the influence of the ancient Greeks was being translated from Arabic into Latin and her writing indirectly expressed these influences which were to continue to affect scientific thought into the Renaissance (ibid.: pp. 6267).
The Shakers also provided a communal situation in which women were able to contribute to technological inventions. Catherine Greene's contribution to devising the cotton gin is uncertain, though, according to a Shaker writer, Whitney once publicly admitted her help (Shaker Manifesto, 1890: p. 10). One certain breakthrough is the invention of the circular saw, c. 1810, by Sister Tabitha Babbitt of the Harvard Massachusetts Shakers.
After watching the brothers sawing, she concluded that their back and forth motion wasted half their effort, and mounted a notched metal disc on her spinning wheel to demonstrate her proposed improvements.... Sister Tabitha intended the blade to be turned by water power.
(ibid.: p. 19, footnote)
The entry points for women into the world of science and technology in cultures which have been hostile to their participation have thus been through the power of aristocratic wealth and patronage; through learning within a practical craft situation or housewifery; through their family networks; and through groups and communities set apart from society. These social and material circumstances have entwined with ideological factors. Cultures which have respected experience have enabled women to practice skills gained through doing rather than academic knowledge. Oppositional ideologies have also contained a critique of elitist knowledge, which has sometimes been sympathetic to the claims of women, even though these have been subordinated in relation to a hegemonic academy. Nonetheless, given conducive social conditions, women have contributed to invention and drawn on aspects of their experience as well as upon formal learning.
Access and exclusion
It is misleading to present a unified or steady progress for women as a homogenous group even within Western science, for as cultural gates opened through education and the upper-class women's salons, which were to become spaces for exchanging ideas from the seventeenth century, they were also closing. The formal academies created in the late seventeenth century tended to be exclusively male. The Académie Royale des Sciences was founded in 1666 and closed the intellectual paths opened by Cartesian women like Elisabeth of Bohemia, Catherine Descartes, Madeleine de Scudery (Schiebinger, 1992: p. 9). The Berlin Academy of Sciences did admit Maria Winkelmann, but she was denied a post in the observatory. She wrote: 'Now I go through a severe desert, and because . . . water is scarce . . . the taste is bitter' (cited in Schiebinger, 1989b).
The professionalization of science made it harder for women who were practitioners through craft and family connections. However, the popularity of science also inspired upper class European women to take up the study. Many of these gained a reputation for eccentricity, like Mad Madge, the Duchess of Newcastle, who broke into the Royal Society of London in 1667, or Lady Mary Montagu who brought the knowledge of inoculation to Britain from Turkey in the eighteenth century and was described as having 'a tongue like a viper and a pen like a razor' (Alic, 1986: p. 90). Later examples come from an enlightened and radical milieu. Dr James Miranda Stuart Barry, a protege of James Barry who was a follower of Mary Wollstonecraft, dressed as a man to become a doctor at Edinburgh in 1812 and pursued a successful career as an army surgeon (ibid.: p. 105). Ada Byron Lovelace developed a concept for an analytical engine and studied cybernetics in the 1840s, reviving old ideas of microcosm and macrocosm. Unfortunately this early pioneer of the computer imagined that she had found an infallible system for winning at the horse races, and with Charles Babbage lost a great deal of money (ibid.: pp. 157-163).
Professionalization meant that education became of crucial importance. Access to colleges in the nineteenth century was an important demand among women who sought entry into the public sphere of scientific debate. In the early nineteenth century in America, educational ideas which emphasized science with a practical application for industry included women. For example Amos Eaton, founder of RPI, was a proponent of women's education and opposed to 'the monkish policy' of the universities (Noble, 1992: p. 266). Vassar College, Smith College and Wellesley College were established to educate women scientifically as well as in other subjects. Oberlin was the first coeducational school. It modelled itself on manual labour schools, in particular the Oneida Academy which grew out of a community and combined religious instruction with science and practical training in agriculture and mechanical arts. In the 1850s the People's College movement in upstate New York also took a practical approach to education, while Wesleyan University, a Methodist institution, was initially coeducational with an orientation to industrial scientific education. MIT was also coeducational (ibid.: pp 267-270). Women moved into higher education in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in large numbers. However, a reaction became evident in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when arguments about 'women's nature', in terms of physical and psychological difference, were used as reasons to exclude them. Wesleyan College eliminated coeducation, and women's enrolment at MIT fell off. From the institutes of technology a concerted male opposition consolidated akin to that of the academies of the earlier era.
Recent research has then effected a remarkable recovery of women excluded from conventional histories of Western science which has in turn brought about a deeper exploration of the relationship between gender and science. This work can lead us to an examination of both the barriers which have prevented women from gaining access and the circumstances which have made it possible for women to learn about scientific ideas and contribute to technology themselves; questions which have a significant and direct relevance to the contemporary position of women. However such an assessment of the possibility of women gaining power to shape the design and purpose of technology would need to refer not only to the internal tensions within scientific thought but also to the wider social context. This necessary connection has tended to fall into the background in the focus upon the scientific milieu itself which has characterized much of the new gender-sensitive history of science and technology.
Contents - Previous - Next