What is feminist science?

First published in Spook Magazine Feb 18th, 2015

To the average observer, biology and feminism do not make for a happy marriage. The science of sexual difference has historically been leveraged as a kind of politics to legitimate or naturalize social inequalities.

 Arguments based around hormones, brain size and configuration, and genetic makeup have played their role in propagating unfounded sexist beliefs. Apparently, men are more biologically pragmatic, so clearly they’d make better political leaders. Similarly, women are “hardwired” to be the more compassionate of the two sexes. Guess Maggie Thatcher missed out on that memo.

Society has been trained to believe that anything a man in a white coat tells us is the God honest truth, and we happily devour science-lite interpretations of research without qualm or hesitation.

If science says so, surely that means it’s fact, right?

Maybe not.

In the past, feminist theory hasn’t been one to embrace biology with gusto, and previous waves of feminism combatted biological misgivings by avoiding it altogether. Arriving from the rich, masculinist terrain of high theory, thinkers like Judith Butler revolutionised the conception of gender by drawing attention to social constructivism. Butler argues that society and culture were the key players in forming and ascribing gender roles.

Aside from the freedom this school of thought brought to minority groups and queer theory, social constructivism became the ultimate weapon to yield against the dreaded essentialist arguments of sex and gender. Essentialist ideas suggest that there are only two genders – male and female – and they “naturally” correspond to the sex assigned at birth.

This is where feminism’s revisiting of biology becomes integral to understanding the manifestations of gender and the significance of sex in society. Unearthing biological “findings”, interrogating research methods, and accounting for women’s participation in an area of study that has historically locked them out of, are all part of a much larger process to transform feminism into an interdisciplinary ideology. And, following a strong lineage of great thinkers, feminism is utilizing biology to debunk gender myths, as well as raise a platform for voices that have previously gone unheard.

When I’ve discussed behavioral difference between men and women with friends in the past, the conversation often steeps into the kind of essentialist debate that would keep Judith Butler awake at night. “But I just always liked trucks and the colour blue,” male friends would say, suggesting that their ‘maleness’ was inherent at birth. And my own experience doesn’t help to refute that. Growing up, I was a girly girl. I exclusively wore pink, was obsessed with Barbie, and would recite Spice Girl’s ‘Stop Right Now’ with accompanying dance moves on request. It wasn’t as though my parents particularly encouraged this kind of behaviour. In fact, my sister who is 4 years older than me barely expressed any of the girly gender tropes, yet we grew up in the same house, with the same parents, and have turned out to be remarkably similar 20 years later.

Feminist scientists are now making their own hypotheses as to why children sometimes happily, if unwittingly, follow gender stereotypes. Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist theorist who also happens to be a biologist, argues that the formation of gender identity and expression begins at around our first birthday, and slowly emerges throughout infancy. The infant-caregiver interaction is pivotal during this period, and plays a large role in the child’s conception of self. But before this sounds all too social constructivist, the most significant point she makes is that the sex-specific genes, hormones and brain pathways also have the capacity to be “activated” or “suppressed”. By this she means that nothing is fixed, and therefore nothing can be “inherent”.

When I look back on the princess years (ages 3-13, with the latter contestable), I try to interrogate the reasons why I felt such a strong affinity with girliness. As a cis-woman, I don’t deny that there was likely an element of me that identified with culture’s definition of what is was to be female, and could relate to the women around me with an easy sense of belonging.

But I was also highly impressionable, sensitive to compliment or insult, and hungry for attention (insert stereotypical middle child syndrome comment here). When I heard things like, “don’t you look pretty in that pink dress?” or “isn’t she cute singing her little song!” even though I was young, I know there was a part of me who put two-and-two together: acting like a girl was conducive to praise. Saying I liked pink made people feel comfortable, dancing in front of cameras meant people smiled and cooed, and people came to expect that I’d wear the floral dress.

Drawing from Fausto-Sterling’s argument, I would proffer the idea that all of these environmental and cultural factors had a role in “activating” and “suppressing” my genetic makeup. My personality type as a young girl meant that I was drawn to these behaviors, not the other way around. My sister wasn’t as inspired by the “girly” things because the praise that they promised just didn’t appeal to her as much. And just the same as our personalities and priorities change from infancy to teenage years to adulthood, so too can our conception of gender identity.

Feminists are now actually being sought after in the science world. Think of all the famous scientists you know of. Now count how many of them are women. Not many, are there? Institutions like The University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US are trying to rectify this problem by actively seeking not just women, but feminist biologists to join their research team. Their motivations aren’t all to do with seeming politically correct, either. As it turns out, gender bias in scientific discovery is a very real thing.

Men’s monopoly over the scientific realm has manifested in ways that potentially jeopardise the credibility of the research conducted.

Gender bias exists in scientific terminology. Some scientists still refer to the sperm as “penetrating” and “burrowing” into the passive egg, when in reality, the interaction between sperm and egg is more of a comingling, with equal activity on either part.

Gender bias exists in scientists’ misinterpreting data. Research on primate behaviour (or any animal behaviour for that matter) has often been distorted based on researchers’ (gendered) interpretations.

That’s right, viewing things though a patriarchal magnifying glass may mean features of the animal kingdom like female aggressiveness and female-dominated hierarchies can get overlooked.

Most scientific research we’ve come to know and trust has been conducted by men, interpreted by men, and distributed by men. Male dominion over science and research has, even if unwittingly, played and major part in further entrenching the gender status quo, and has trickled down into contemporary science in ways we may not even recognise.

Pop Science, or the kind of science that is likely used by women who write books like, “How to Get a Man to Love You”, has infiltrated cultural perceptions of gender by making ridiculous claims about the “hardwired differences” between men and women.

People love reading about the “science” behind the biological variations in the sexes because people love getting answers to things, even if they’re not technically correct. One such example is the popular belief that men and women’s brain configuration directly correlates to their behavioural inclinations. Throughout the 20th Century, science was intent on researching the size of the corpus callosum in men and women, with findings indicating that the region was bigger in women. Hooray! This then explained why women’s communication skills were superior to men. But before you get too excited, the findings worked in two-fold. Our emotional brains were working so hard at diffusing situations and empathising that it unfortunately meant our pragmatism was falling by the wayside. Oh well, no woman wants to be Prime Minister anyway.

Current scientific research can provide no real causal link between the brain size or configuration in men and women and their ‘innate’ behavioural tendencies. But once we begin to question gender bias in science, it certainly places in abeyance the unexamined trust society has for research findings.

A return to biology means rethinking the body. Outside science, the western conception of self is a hierarchy of mind over body and Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” still pervades ideas of identity.

Revising biology isn’t only about refuting sexist claims. Feminism in science is heralding a new language in which to conduct research, expanding possibilities, and informing how feminism itself should be defined.




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