Science of the Marginalized: Women in the Age of Scientific Authority

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed a transformation in the status of scientific authority. With authority comes power, and with power comes the ability to dictate what is inside the realm of value and acceptability and what lies outside of that constructed space. When scientific disciplines and the respected members of those disciplines began to gain cohesion and recognizable authority, they began to make distinctions between what and who was and was not a part of their research programs and acceptable practices. Members of the scientific community especially susceptible to exclusion were (and are) those who had historically been viewed as outsiders — the most studied groups being women and people of color.[1] In this essay, I will examine how this systematic marginalization at various points in science’s ascension to greater and greater political, cultural, and intellectual authority has changed the way that women have practiced science, paying special attention to how the subjects of study and questions asked by female scientists are centered around different issues than their male colleagues. A similar study on African American science would be equally valuable but would extend the breadth of this essay beyond what I can reasonably discuss.

Maria Mitchell’s successful career as an astronomer spanned the middle third of the nineteenth century and provides an excellent point of departure. Born in 1818, her training and early work took place in the context of a scientific community still quite fragmented; the big names that would contribute to science’s nineteenth century prestige — Charles Darwin, James Clark Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur — were a development of mid-century. As her biographer Renée Bergland argues, Mitchell established herself as a scientist at a time when “studying science was ‘womanly,’ safely outside the potentially dangerous ideological realms of law or history or theology.”[2]

Lack of ideological authority placed science in a space that, at the time, was acceptable for females to interact within, and Mitchell’s science reflected her acceptance into the community. Like her male colleagues, she scanned the night sky for comets and made her entrance into the astronomical discourse with her discovery of one in 1847.[3] She was given credit for it and felt that she could become “a woman scientist… who could chart out her own course of research,” unlike her heroine Caroline Herschel who constantly diverted credit to her brother.[4] She acquired a job as the computer of Venus and published her astronomical work in various journals.[5] Mitchell was thus a scientist in her own rite, asking her own questions that reflected her relatively secure position within the discipline of astronomy. She needed neither to justify her participation in knowledge-production nor rely on a man’s help to solidify her position in the community.

Major changes were soon to alter the situation for women in science, however. Around the 1860s, America was professionalizing on many fronts, and science too felt this pull. With their newfound authority, professional scientists began to relocate the practice of science to the university — an institution from which women were usually excluded.[6] They also began to construct a view of the scientist that was uniquely male in order to further assert their professional authority. Women practitioners, they thought, would weaken their professional image.[7] Authority, institutionalization, and increased disciplinary cohesion (brought on by advances in theory and methodology) thus gave a particular class of scientist — advantaged by their social and economic position — the power to create spaces of exclusion that left whole sections of the community outside of scientific discourse. This would have profound implications for female scientists and their work in the twentieth century.

One such scientist was Helen Thompson Woolley. Born in 1874, she would face a far different scientific environment than Maria Mitchell. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before beginning her research on sex differences; her thesis “compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women on motor, sensory and intellectual tests,” and her subsequent research and reviews centered on the same issues surrounding gender differentials in mental capacities.[8] Her frustration with contemporary scholarship on sex differences is evident in Psychological Literature: A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex, where she reviews recent work and, in a powerful and convincing conclusion, repudiates scientifically many of the arguments made by male scientists for why females do not belong in their profession. “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here,” she states in a particularly ardent passage.

Woolley was fighting against the current that was sweeping many of her female colleagues out of science and into domesticity, and her research reflects her tenuous position. She chose to pursue issues related to her gender’s capacity to reason, and by extent to participate in knowledge-creation. Instead of engaging with other lines of inquiry in her field at the time, Woolley chose to hone in on one in which she had a vested interest; the scientific community’s consensus on whether females were intellectually on par with men would have a direct effect on Woolley’s ability to assert her own authority within her discipline. Therefore, because of the authoritative exclusion of her gender from science, Woolley’s research took on a very particular identity — one connected to her identification as a marginalized professional scientist and one based on legitimizing her participation in scientific discourse.

We have now seen how two female scientists’ work differed before and after the marked rise of scientific authority. Maria Mitchell pursued her own interests, relatively unaffected by her role as a female scientist. Helen Thompson Woolley, on the other hand, pursued a research program that attempted to authorize her participation in science; her identity as a woman in science played a central role in her research interests. As the twentieth century wore on, the situation for women in science improved only marginally. Two more scientists’ work will now elucidate how scientific authority has continued to marginalize women and thus inform their research agendas.

Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector founded a new field in archaeology — the archeology of gender — in 1984 with a groundbreaking article. In it, they highlighted the propensity for archeologists to make gendered assumptions about past populations. Conkey and Spector found that archeologists maintained gender biases when interpreting symbolism and explaining divisions of labor and social hierarchies, and their solution was to begin “a systematic program of feminist research on questions about women and gender.”[9] While it took seven years for anyone to act on their criticism, conferences began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Wylie links the increasing interest in feminist archeology to “a parallel, and, in most areas, antecedent interest in questions about the roles, status, and contributions of women in archeology.”[10]
In this late twentieth century scenario, female archeologists drew attention to the gender biases rampant in their field. This kind of research was different from Helen Woolley’s in that it did not attempt to legitimize the female in general as a potential authority within a discipline; while female archeologists still suffer from unequal treatment in academia, they had at least affirmed their right to be there (more or less) by the 1980s. Conkey and Spector did, however, wage war against the gender biases still inherent in archeological analytical techniques, pointing out that contemporary methodologies were problematic. Perhaps they pursued these research interests because, as women within a scientific framework that was still masculinized in method, they remained outsiders. The authority of male archeologists, so ingrained in the profession, was still implicit in the way that archeology is practiced. While the role of women in science has improved overall, the barriers to equitably assigned intellectual value have remained strong, though often implicit.

Thus, while scientific authority has come with many benefits, it has also provided the impetus for marginalizing some with effects on the kinds of research they conduct. While I by no means am attempting to make the deterministic argument that all women in science have conducted gender-influenced research — that would be over-simplistic — I am, however, asserting that scientists’ work is profoundly impacted by the socio-scientific environment in which they practice, and the marginalization that has resulted from centralized scientific authority has had implications for some women’s work. I think this idea could be further researched and expanded to include other groups on the fringes; perhaps a comparison of the work produced by scientists occupying different positions in the institutional hierarchy would prove fruitful. In any case, as we have seen, different levels of authority from various time periods have produced distinct research agendas. For women scientists, mounting scientific authority has not always resulted in their work being taken more seriously, and it has left a distinctive mark on their research.

[1] By studied, I mean in the discipline of the history of science. These are two obvious examples, but the list goes on and on: those with disabilities, with alternative religious orientations (even as science’s power was eclipsing that of religion), homosexuals (i.e., Alan Turing), foreigners (some more threatening than others), etc.

[2] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), xvi.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6]Ibid, 156-157.

[7] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, 174.

[8] Katharine S. Milar, “An Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women,” Classics in the History of Psychology Special Collections, accessed November 18, 2016, http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Special/Women/characteristics.htm.

[9] Alison Wylie, “Doing Social Science as a Feminist: The Engendering of Archaeology,” in Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology and Medicine, eds. Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Londa Schiebinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 24.

[10] Ibid, 25.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s