Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Science and History with Race and Gender

There are two essays from this week’s Feminist History class that I’ll engage. Both are chapters from books. First is Londa Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. The fifth chapter of this book, “Theories of Gender and Race,” examines how science was mobilized post-Enlightenment to explain why women and people of color should be excluded from democratic society. Schiebinger mobilizes a wide array of material to look at ways that gender and race were constructed during the 18th century. Schiebinger looks at scientific work studying the size of skulls and how that was informed by race and gender. She also talks about the case of the Venus Hottentot. She concludes, “naturalists did not draw their research priorities and conclusions from a quiet contemplation of nature, but from political currents of their times.”
This chapter made an excellent pairing with a chapter from Thomas Laqueur’s Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Laqueur, who would definitely be a pip to talk to at a cocktail party, reviews how sex was created during the eighteenth century by scientists. He reviews a wide variety of medical texts to look at how increasing information about male and female bodies become sexed into a binary sexual system after thinking of male and female as two parts of a single whole prior to the Enlightenment. His work is highly detailed in accounts of both the anatomy of men and women and how it evolves to become gendered and away from being analogues for one another as well as insight into sexuality. Laqueur explores the perceived relationships between pregnancy and orgasm as well as the advent of removing the ovaries as a way to solve women’s problems with hysteria. This chapter like the Schiebinger is quite detailed in its examination of historical documents and synthesizing and mobilizing them to understand the evolution of sex and gender differences.
These two pieces of scholarship taken together - and in dialogue with Martin’s work on metaphors and the immune system from last week - really provide insight into what Women’s Studies is and what it can do. By examining the historical archive, both Schiebinger and Laqueur are able to provide a new set of knowledge and information about how science is and became gendered and offer new possibilities for how we think about bodies and sex and gender today.

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