“The Shadowy Female absorbing The enormous Sciences . . . “
—William Blake

Reproductive control and genetic manipulation have been making the headlines for years. One day new developments in birth control herald a freer, happier world for women. The next day, knowledge also gained from those very same developments foretell a future of horror in which babies will be reared in “test tubes” and wombs put out for renting. An apt picture indeed for science in the modern world, since it has been obvious for long enough that we cannot have our cake and eat it, too. Well, obvious perhaps only to those who are willing to concede that the view of science as an autonomous and progressive body of knowledge providing an ever fuller description of reality “as it is” needs to be debunked in order to show that the claims made for science are an expression of the concerns and interests of the scientific community, shaped as they are by political and economic factors.

Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science develops such a view to show how the ideology of the scientific mode is wedded to certain conceptions of masculinity and femininity. The assumption on which the birth of modern science rested, namely that nature was something to be dominated, had as its counterpart a particular relationship between the sexes. Already in Plato there is a fear and distrust of all that is associated with the feminine, and this culminates in Baconian science, in which the use of sexual metaphors served to demonstrate that the success of science depended, as in the conventional relationships of men and women, on an aggressive attitude of subordination and domination towards nature. While science was masculine, nature was typically regarded as being female. The possibility that male and female, objectivity and subjectivity, reason and emotion were all integral parts of the same reality was lost in the triumph of science over alchemy and in the crucial role science played in the establishment of industrial capitalism: an assertive aggressiveness which supported those kinds of knowledge that would lead to the mastery, control, and domination of nature.

Of course, science did not have to develop in such a way, and it is certainly one of Keller’s contentions that not only could science have been predicated on a different set of precepts, but success in science has actually been achieved because such rhetoric is frequently ignored. A careful and thoughtful analysis, drawing upon philosophy, the history of science, and psychology, serves to persuade the reader that science needs to and does tolerate “a form of knowledge that grants to the world around us its independent integrity but does so in a way that remains cognizant of, indeed relies on, our connectivity with that world and affirms our connection to it.”

What is the relevance of gender for science? Keller claims that greater recruitment of women into the scientific community would play a crucial role in transforming the prevailing ideology of science, since women have no emotional investment in images of domination and manipulation. The ensuing transformation of science would satisfy feminist demands that all aggressive, male ideologies need to be destroyed but still retain “the emancipatory force of modern science.” Keller urges feminists not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Keller’s comments on gender and science are genuinely revealing, but she completely ignores the fact that the cultural force science exerts upon the modern consciousness is inextricably bound up with the technological goods and power it makes possible. A science that stood in respectful awe of the order and grandeur of nature would command about as much interest as a St. Francis of Assisi. Humility is not a virtue in the modern world, and Keller seems unable to acknowledge that “the emancipatory force of modern science” to which she refers is part of that very ideology she claims to be rejecting. In any case, it is simply false to assert that women have no interest in a science predicated on manipulation and control, given the feminist insistence that the control of women over their reproductive functions, the control of women over their nature, is to be total and unlicensed. The dominant ideology of science actually suits feminism—and the rest of society—very well, because the real relinquishment of such an ideology would make nonsense of humanism and its embodiment in liberal values.

That the marriage between science and feminism is for life is made evident in Maxine L. Margolis’ Mothers and Such. Arguing from a cultural materialist position, Margolis maintains that changes in the role of women occurred not so much as a result of feminist ideas but as a response to the shift of production from the home to the factory. Household production, as a way of providing for the needs of a family, gave the housewife a genuine role to play in society and, with the sale of surplus goods. guaranteed her a measure of financial independence. With industrialization, however, the role of the home as a center of social and economic life shrank considerably, leaving women unoccupied and economically dependent on their husbands. The eventual exodus of women from the home was not so much a revolt against domesticity as a necessary step towards gaining reemployment. The antifeminist ideology of a woman as a housewife and homemaker was a systematic attempt to satisfy the myth that the home needed a housewife, even though nearly everything needed by the household was bought from outside instead of being made.

Margolis offers a rich and detailed documentation of these changes, which strongly challenges the feminist view that women have been no more than denizens in the home. However, she is much too complacent in maintaining that “changes in a society’s material base will lead to functionally compatible changes in its social and political structure along with changes in its secular and religious ideology, changes that enhance the continuity and stability of the system” (my emphasis). To be sure, industrialization did destroy the home-based economy and with that, it ought to be added, destroyed a culture and set of traditions which punctuated a form of life that revolved around the cycle of the natural world (agriculture) and the rhythms of the human condition.

Notoriously, in tearing apart communities and in reducing the home to a sort of stable suitable only for factory fodder, industrialization deprived people of the very conditions in which stability and continuity in their lives could be safeguarded. It made of the home a prison in which all those not fit enough to compete in the rat race —children, women, the disabled, the elderly—felt abandoned, and robbed women of much that gave purpose and dignity to a life tied to things of the private sphere. It is little wonder that there are a lot of angry women about.

Yet Margolis, in sympathy with feminism, ultimately regards industrialization as having “liberated” women from the domestic sphere, giving them an opportunity to pursue a career. All this would be fine, were it not for the fact that this ancient Greek prejudice in favor of the intellect and the polis leaves the dirty work of life to a luckless mass of exploited men and women. Under modern conditions, it means, too, that those features of human life which need a private sphere if they are to have any dignity—birth, sex, death—will probably suffer ever greater degradation. Feminists encourage the destruction of the private sphere at our peril.

All this is bound to sound a bit jaundiced to feminist ears, particularly in the light of Sandra Scarr’s delightful discussion of the needs of children versus the demands upon working mothers in Mother Care/Other Care. Children are flexible, creative creatures, and working mothers, armed with intelligence and insight, should be able to make arrangements for their children that will not harm them. But, against Scarr, the fact that people are capable of bending over backwards whenever they need to does not mean that the best social arrangements are those that depend on such a posture.

There is a world of difference between those situations in which children decide for themselves to leave mother’s apron strings and those in which mother’s absence is forced upon them. Certainly, young children in the latter instance may bat their eyelids only once or twice, but for the mother it can be hell. The young infant may not notice who feeds and cares for it, but it is false to suggest, as Scarr does, that the infant’s mother (suffering engorged breasts) experiences a similar indifference and that any pain she experiences in separation is just a guilt complex induced in her by an antifeminist society.

Mothers need not be under any illusion in thinking that no one can love their children in quite the way they do, particularly since—where infants and toddlers (to a lesser extent) are concerned—the provision of physical care is the way in which mothers relate to their young and show their love. Bathing a young baby isn’t simply a matter of cleaning it up, just as dining with friends isn’t simply a matter of filling the belly. And if some women wish to deny themselves such experiences, there is no reason why the rest of us should be accomplices.

On the other hand, I agree that just as a life consisting of one continual round of dinner parties would leave one with a bad taste in one’s mouth, so too women need other interests. But are day-care centers really the answer? Or might it not be better if the home could once again become a dynamic center in the community, obviating the need for women to seek a way of escaping the horrors of boredom and isolation? And if Margolis’ no-nonsense realism means that the economic realities of life make such an option an impossibility, then it is high time feminism was seen as a desperate attempt to come to terms with a hopeless situation. For feminism, the ideology of privileged, professional women, offers no panacea to the many women not so situated, especially when one realizes that the marriage between feminism and science is for keeps.


[Reflections on Gender and Science, by Evelyn Fox Keller; New York: Yale University Press]

[Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed, by Maxine L. Margolis; Berkeley: University of California Press]

[Mother Care/Other Care, by Sandra Scarr; New York: Basic Books]