Feminist Epistemology: Challenging Gender Bias in Science

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Feminist epistemologists believe that the traditional ways of obtaining knowledge through sciences and social sciences are valid, but gender biases are prevalent in these practices and need to be removed to be truly objective. Feminist methodologies all share a dedication to move the focus from the masculine perspective to incorporating both men and women to advance knowledge. Science is perceived to be an objective field that gives fair answers to the questions society asks. However, science is not exempt from contextual influence. This means that who is conducting science and the context in which science is being done affect science. This is an example of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea that who controls knowledge in a society holds power and great influence over that society’s members. Before the 1960s, men were predominately in charge of the scientific research, and therefore their research and philosophies were comprised of their own bias. As discussed in lecture, men researching other men and presenting their findings to other men, would be limited to a man’s perspective. Feminist epistemologists strive to remove these biases by getting more women in research to obtain a more objective standpoint in traditional social science research. This would then result in true knowledge.

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Although it may seem as though female scientists were recognized for their work as early as the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that they started to bring the female perspective into their research and fight to show the scientific community why this perspective is necessary. Scientists such as English paleontologist Mary Anning and Polish physicist Marie Curie were only able to conduct research and experiments because they had male spouses or relatives to help them gain access to the materials needed to do their research. In addition, their male relatives had to support the idea of their female daughters, wives, etc. being intelligent and educated members of society. It wasn’t easy for women to enter fields of science, and even once they did, many purely dis research on men and generalized that women were insignificant in the populations they studied. Before the 1960s, women were strongly linked to nature. Even today, women are associated with nature, and therefore are perceived to be tied to it and in need of being controlled.

The scientific revolution brought about a change in the way humanity perceived nature. This new view was a mechanical view that suggested a woman was not a living organism, but a machine composed of many parts that can be fully understood, controlled, and ultimately exploited to suit humanity’s needs. This new idea that humanity can control nature coincided with the change in metaphors. Instead of portraying nature as a peaceful mother providing for humanity’s needs, the metaphors now portrayed nature as something wild and disorderly that could wreak havoc on humanity and, therefore, needed to be controlled. The attitude encouraged by the change in these metaphors played a role in how both women and nature were treated during this time. Encouraged by the mechanical view of nature, scientists investigated every aspect of the machine, including human anatomy. These investigations were not unbiased, however. Scientists wanted to prove that women were inferior to men and this bias is clear from the science being done at that time. For example, anatomists drew women’s skulls as proportionally smaller to their bodies than men’s as proof of men’s superior mental capacities.

Furthermore, and perhaps most relevant to society’s linking women with a wild and disorderly nature, women were becoming more commonly regarded as being irrational and subjective, and thus not suited for science, a purely “objective” practice. There was a common belief that women should not be allowed in laboratories because they would pollute the objective atmosphere of the labs with their irrationality and subjectivity. This inaccurate science that claimed women’s minds were controlled by their reproductive organs and therefore had little capacity left for intellectual activity was taken by society as “proof” of women’s inferiority to men. This science confirmed the link the metaphors made between women and nature as being wild and disorderly, and affirmed the idea that both needed to be controlled by men. The social implications of women’s “proven inferiority” include the downplaying or outright ignorance of women’s contributions to science.

In her book The Science Question in Feminism (1986), Sandra Harding acknowledges there are three feminist methodologies depending on the relationship between experience and theory the researcher takes. The first is feminist empiricism developed in the 1960s-1970s. It opposed the universality of male experience, and the partial knowledge that patriarchal methods provided. Women were thus added into research to remove the sexist bias. The second is feminist standpoint epistemology. This position views the oppressed to be the source of knowledge as they are the ones with the experience and knowing. Lastly, post-modernism feminism focuses on the differences between women rather than the inequalities. This methodology is concerned with how the identity of women affects oppression. Even though the oppression of women has been universal, individual differences between women (ethnicity and race), mean that oppression comes in varying degrees.

Feminist methodologies ultimately aim to shift the focus from patriarchal dominated knowledge to incorporating all gender perspectives. The misunderstanding of not only women but other societies led to feminist methodology bridging this gap as all human experience is valid. Feminist methods thus represent human diversity by revealing the women’s perspective of oppression to help explain the similarities and differences between women and what has caused their views and voices to be muted. Feminist methodologies also seek to minimize harm and control during the research process, but also to add value to society and promote change. Feminist theories thus describe, challenge, and hope to transform present ideas about the social construction of gender and the way it is perceived in society.

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