Subversive Science

By Leila A. McNeill

From previous issues, it might now be apparent that writing women’s history can be difficult. After all, how does one go about writing a history for someone whose life wasn’t deemed worthy of recording in the first place? A lot of the women’s stories that we’ve written about-- the astronauts’ wives, the members of the Women in Space Program, the women of the Apollo Program, and the women of the Manhattan Project-- we know mostly from oral histories, women’s own eager retelling of their invisible lives. But when it comes to women who are no longer alive, the trail of historical records can go cold pretty quickly, even for women living well into the 19th century. Sometimes it is impossible to find even basic biographical information for these women, like birth and death dates.

Traces of women in the history of science are often scant because the fact is that few participated in mainstream science, and those that did were the exception, not the rule. In the 18th century, Western-centric science systematically devalued the feminine and distanced itself from it. Men of science, as the presumed gatekeepers of scientific knowledge, cultivated a discourse of science that denigrated women by integrating culturally constructed values of heteronormativity and female inferiority into the very core of their scientific language and method, from Linnaean botanical taxonomy to Georges Cuvier’s natural history. Modern science, then, required women to extirpate the feminine and do science ‘like a man’ in order to be recognized in the circles of institutionalized science.

The women who have gained the most attention in the history of science, indeed in any history, have typically been the ‘female firsts’: “The first woman in [insert boys club here].” They were the ones who were able to break successfully into male dominated fields or scientific institutions despite cultural assumptions and expectations about female intelligence and ability. Not only were better records kept of their lives, but as creators of scientific knowledge, discoverers, and inventors, their work most closely resembled that of the great men of science and history. However, if history only focuses on the ‘female firsts,’ the trail will again run cold as we try to ‘fit’ women into a model of history that was never meant for them, an out-dated model created for and by men.

Again, historical facts tell us that women did not largely participate in institutionalized science, but just because the men at the Royal Society and the like hung a “Keep Out-Boys Only!” sign outside their door didn’t mean that women politely and quietly went back to their knitting. Many outside the establishment took up the pen for science and science education, and others took up the pen to subvert it.

Women who consumed science in the 18th century onward found themselves in conflict with their passion and interest in science and their own identities as women. A large majority of scientific works by men continually maligned women, relegated them to the domestic sphere, and placed them biologically closer to animals and nature--all with an air of empirical objectivity and scientific authority. Women, and women of color even more so, experienced science and nature differently than men, as men were the ones making scientific claims about women’s inferior nature that legitimized their position in society. Woman’s place in society was justified not only through her natural, biological functions but also by her construction as nature itself. By the end of the 19th century, nature had become so feminized and science so masculinized that it seemed men of science had claimed sole authority to speak for and about nature. Yet, this claim to authority did not go unchallenged.

Many women pushed back against this, but participation in public debates about a masculinized science was seen as a transgression against their feminine nature, which led to their censure. Open sentimentality invited judgment but even appeals to reason evoked strong criticism, so alternatively, some women followed different routes to participate in scientific discourse. One of those was literature; women discussed natural history in plays, romance literature, moral tales, and popularizations of science. Literature served as a medium that not only allowed women to enter into public discourse but also offered them a means to create a distinctive language about science and gender relations. Denied legitimization in a public discourse on science and nature, many women embraced a literary tradition that, in the very least, gave them the license to contemplate nature.

One of the most striking examples of women’s fraught relationship with science can be found amongst the pages of women’s nature poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Censured and oppressed, women occupied a unique place in a society that had already positioned them closer to nature than men and, thus, indirectly authorized them to speak on behalf of nature. In their scientific and cultural construction as nature, many women placed the conservation, protection, and rights of nature and animals alongside women’s rights, as they saw both women and nature as victims of a progressive science and patriarchal control. In this poetry, many female poets argued strongly against domesticating animals, using animals for scientific experiments, and destroying nature for industrial progress. They too distinguished nature as female while conversely referring to the forces and individuals that sought to destroy the natural world as male. They appropriated their own identities as women and nature to reclaim the authority of who gets to speak for nature. In harnessing the poetic form to voice a self-identifying alignment between themselves and nature, these women cultivated poetry not only as a form of sentimental expression but also as a site for advocacy and social intervention.

During this time, poetry was still an instrument for important political and social discourse, and, thus, through writing poetry, these women poets were able to claim some ground in scientific debates. Since male scientists published more on the female body and woman’s nature than women during this time, their works have had a long lasting influence over public perceptions of women’s abilities and intelligence. However, if we look at other sources, like poetry, not just those published in journals or conducted in institutions from which women were excluded, then we can see that alternative perspectives from the dissenting voices of women also shaped the scientific discourse that was consumed by a vast readership. Looking to women outside of the establishment and considering literary sources that might seem tangential to serious scientific discourse, which was so often denied to women, brings out from the margins of history a unique perspective of science that will ensure women’s voices can be heard alongside those of the men of science.

Further Reading:
Barbara Gates, Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013).