This blog is less about a single book that has influenced me and more about a book that sparked an influence. It’s called The Mind has no Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science by Londa Schiebinger and it was my first taste of Feminist Science Studies, which has become the core of my research life. I am not a scientist, though I am a social scientist (which is subject to the same assumptions about knowledge and it’s production as the “hard” sciences).
For many years I simply assumed that facts were facts. I assumed scientific knowledge was rigorously tested and all angles considered. That’s why social scientists needed to work so hard! It’s harder to be factual when drawing conclusions about humans. We need to be more like science! Schiebinger was the first author to challenge that notion. Make me aware that science has the same challenges and splitting the mind from the body is problematic.
In 2004, I decided to do a Master of Arts. I needed a break from curriculum and pedagogy that is so all consuming when a teacher. I had lost the love of my disciplines by trying to transfer that passion to my students. Disappointment consumed me when I realised that I couldn’t spark a love of History in all students. Students were all different and I was just coming to really understand that. As a teacher who chose teaching to earn money while not having to give up History, this was a rude awakening.
I wanted to re-discover my love.
Aside from my thesis, I enrolled in two coursework subjects – one on History through a Foucauldian lens; one on gender and sexuality in Australian politics. I loved both immensely. It was so good to be simply cerebral rather than practical for a while. Both have influenced me greatly in how I see the world but the gender and sexuality course more so than any other.
For our first assignment, we were asked to choose an author, read five of their works and find the common thread. This was my first real introduction to an academic literature review and I wasn’t great at it; but I did fall in love with Schiebinger who I picked randomly off a page-long list of suggestions by my academic supervisor.
Shiebinger writes an alternative history of science. She highlights where women and people of colour are actively removed from scientific practices and knowledges. Her chapter on “Modern Anatomy and the Question” opened my eyes to how a world view can skew science. Shiebinger describes how early anatomical drawings of women were only ever taken from female cadavers who had born children. She also explains how the draft sketches were then tweaked to ensure the completed drawings aligned with the ideal – small heads, wide hips. Other reading opened my eyes to evidence that skin colour descriptions and drawings of the Ancient Egyptians could have been lightened during the peak of the African slave trade because Europeans could not reconcile technological advancement with black skin. That early naturalists that classified the races did not even include female characteristics in their studies – women were universally disenfranchised so not important. I read about how early chemists stole women’s cookbooks full of herblore and burned witches. How medicine actively kept midwives out of the Royal Academy of Surgeons so they couldn’t be trained in the use of the forceps – midwifery nearly died out. Schiebinger also wrote about the plight of women in STEM, relating stories of hidden pregnancies in order to avoid risking their careers in academic science labs.
I was shocked. My world was rocked. What else had they lied about? Shouldn’t they chuck science out and start again? How else can we be sure we’ve rooted out all the lies?
So began an obsession. I wanted to know about women in science and research. They’d been systematically removed and I was obsessed with the ones who made it. Here are a few of my favourite books (not all about women but also about the flaws of the men).
Lab Girl by Hope Jaren
The Amazing Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace by Sydney Padua (I named my youngest Ada); and
The Rise of Modern Science Explained: A Comparative History by H. Floris Cohen.
This is the fifth book in my blog series on the books which have made me who I am.