Today, a different look at gender and science. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Germany is the fatherland to
Germans. Russia is her people's motherland. When
you go fishing your boat is a she, but the fish you
catch are male: "Lookit him, ain't he a big
So how about science? Is it male or female?
Francis Bacon, who set
the new agenda for experimental science in 1620,
The empire of man over things is founded on the ...
sciences ... for nature is only to be commanded by
He meant that we must observe nature and
learn her rules before we exert technological control
over her. We must submit before we master. Bacon's
tenet of faith is shot through with notions of
male/female roles. The active human species is man.
Nature is she. Nature is mother whom the male son
will eventually command. But she is, nonetheless,
Female imagery lingers in science 200 years after
Bacon. Over and over, scientists portrayed their
work as female. The frontispiece of a late Galileo
book shows two women. One is Natural Philosophy.
The other is Mathematics.
Historian Lhonda Schiebinger tells about
18th-century imagery in books on science. The
frontispiece of Lemery's 18th-century book on
"Chymistry" shows chemistry as a beautiful lady.
She's shown bare-breasted -- probably because she
offers us the naked truth.
Emilie du Châtelet published a book on
physics in 1740. In the frontispiece, she herself
ascends to a temple where naked truth -- a woman --
awaits her. Five of the sciences watch her ascend.
They're all women.
That imagery declined in the 18th century. The
frontispiece of Newton's book on calculus shows
only men making measurements. The philosopher Kant
didn't only attack female imagery. He thought women
had no business studying science. He wrote:
A woman ... who engages in debate about the
intricacies of mechanics, like the Marquise du
Châtelet, might just as well have a beard ...
Science turned into serious business in
the 1840s. It became professional. No more female
face! In fact, no more embodiment of any kind! If we
wanted to portray science, we did it the way Newton
had. We showed men engaged in science. As we did so
the field became more impenetrable to women than
Rousseau played a part in driving women out. He
argued that they hurt the style of science.
Rousseau saw science as male combat. And so it
often is. One modern observer calls science a
system in which not the best, but the
best-defended, idea prevails. What science really
needs is less of that. It needs the same
male-female balance that Rousseau tried to take
from it. The good news is that science is finally
finding ways to achieve that balance today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds