Science in Christian Perspective



Essay Reviews

Feminism, Ethics, Science, and Technology

James C. Peterson
C.C. Dickson Chair of Ethics
Wingate University Wingate NC 28174

Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47 (September 1995):196.

While women are half of the human race, they have not been half of the scientific community. Have insights been missed because of their relative absence? A prolific genre of feminist literature has sought to answer that question among others, and has deeply influenced many of our academic communities. Feminism is a diverse movement united solely by a commitment to work against the oppression of women and, more generally, against any domination of some persons over others. What that means in theory and practice has been described in at least three strikingly different lines of argument that lead the discussion. I will call these perspectives "equity feminism," "different voice feminism," and "radical feminism."

Equity Feminism

Historically, the first major feminist movement emphasized respect and equality for all persons regardless of gender. Sometimes called "equity feminism," this movement still calls for equal access to political power and professions such as scientific research. With equal opportunity, encouragement, and reward, individual women will make contributions as important as those of their male counterparts. No one should be excluded or discouraged from excelling wherever their particular interests and talents lead them. Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism? How Women have Betrayed Women (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994) is currently the most influential book from this perspective.

Different Voice Feminism

A second major movement within feminism shifts the argument from equal access to an analysis of human culture. In this view, men and women have developed different perspectives and values because they have had different experiences. Carol Gilligan's book, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982, 1993), led the movement to chronicle such distinctions and to consider them positive ones for the doing of ethics. From this perspective, more women in science and in ethics would change the conduct, content, and application of science. The large scale involvement of women would probably heighten qualities such as subjectivity, intuition, holism, and harmony.

In Speaking from the Heart: A Feminist Perspective on Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 1992), Rita Manning is writing primarily of ethics, but exemplifies this perspective. She centers a feminist contribution to ethics and human endeavors such as science in the nurturing of relationships. Individuals are not isolated in a series of equal relationships with strangers, rather the moral life takes place within a web of roles and commitments deeply evident to women. The best life in this context is an "ethics of care." We each live within a context of special responsibilities, not just as individuals faced with strangers and public responsibilities. One should by character and disposition consistently recognize and respond to the needs of those one is related to. For Manning, this care for related others is required by the "spiritual awareness" that "all things are interconnected. All is relationship." She has been particularly influenced by the woman's spirituality movement led by authors such as Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989) and The Fifth Sacred Thing (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), and by the classic statement of an ethics of care, Nel Noddings's Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1984).

Manning recognizes that an ethics of care alone offers little specific guidance on how to respond to or how to balance competing needs. It also can be parochial. What about the concerns and needs of those outside one's immediate circle of relationships? Is her assumption correct that her personal experience has led to an inherently feminine ethic? It is true that American culture tends to expect women to fill nurturing roles and commitments, yet Manning's own survey data of how males and females respond to ethical cases shows substantially more overlap than difference when responses are sorted by gender. It is noteworthy that in many Asian countries the dominant male ethic is to focus on supporting one's immediate circle of relationships; an attitude that Manning assumes is feminine. The book is helpful in reminding us that most of the moral life takes place with family and friends, not strangers, yet it is not clear that this ethic of care is an inherently feminine one as she suggests.

                                                        Radical Feminism

A third major group, radical feminists, sees a trap for women in any ethic that builds upon perceived unique aspects of feminine experience and perspective. Susan Sherwin argues in No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics and Health Care (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992) that the nurturing and caring at which women excel are, among other things, the survival skills of an oppressed group that lives in close contact with its oppressors  (p. 50). For Sherwin, women must be set free from male oppression to do or be anything they want to be. Freedom from restraint is the central goal.

She writes, for example, that the male dominated medical establishment has limited women's freedom by assuming heterosexuality. "IVF is usually unavailable to single women, lesbian women, or women who are not securely placed in the middle class or beyond...The selection criteria serve as one more instrument to establish the superior power and privilege of favored groups in society" (p.127). In fact for Sherwin,

A principal function of establishing sex differences is to structure dominance relations....All feminists must support lesbians in their sexual choices and recognize that the sexual freedom of every woman is tied to the sexual freedom of lesbians; that is, physical love of men cannot be a free choice for women unless lesbianism is a genuine option as well....underlying all forms of the oppression of women in patriarchal cultures...physical, economic, political, legal, emotional, ideological....are the assumptions of the institution of heterosexuality or heterosexism: specifically, the assumptions that men own and have the right to control the bodies, labor, and minds of women (p. 209).

"Heterosexuality is a way of living that normalizes the dominance of one person and the subordination of another."Heterosexuality, at least as we know it, is at the root of women's oppression" (p. 212). The foundational charge that heterosexuality is synonymous with "heterosexism," one gender oppressing the other, is simply assumed in the book, not argued.

While not focusing on heterosexuality as the foundation of male oppression, Judy Wajcman also labels herself a radical feminist in Feminism Confronts Technology (The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA, 1991). "The belief in the unchanging nature of women, and their association with procreation, nurturance, warmth and creativity, lies at the very heart of traditional and oppressive conceptions of womanhood" (p.9). Wajcman argues that these characteristics are parceled out differently to masculine and feminine stereotypes from one culture to another. Therefore, there must not be innate distinctions between males and females. The ever-changing culture, which can be shaped to better ends, draws the lines of distinction between the sexes. Technology should not be sex stereotyped as an activity of men. It should be equally available to women. If it becomes so, it will be less the means of exploitation and domination over nature and women that she presently sees.

While the assertion that current technology exploits and dominates women is stated repeatedly, the given examples are not always persuasive. The strongest one she offers may be that physicians, who have usually been men, have come to dominate the birth process by emphasizing the routine intervention of technologies such as caesarian section and episiotomy. Wajcman argues that it is not sufficient even to have an equal number of female physicians now because our culture emphasizes physician control of the woman's birth process, whether the physician is a man or a woman. Wajcman is quite right that control has been increased. Whether that is more a matter of exploitation or service is not addressed.

All of the above authors recognize that culture deeply influences our perception and choices, especially when we are not aware of its shaping power. They also agree that women should be treated as the equals that they are, but they do not agree on what it is to be human, let alone man or woman, and so reflect some of the broad diversity in the feminist movement. For each, at the least, women should be welcomed in the sciences and technology. For equity feminism, their increased presence will make a difference for the better by augmenting individual freedom and the talent available to the endeavor; for different voice feminism, by offering a unique perspective; and for radical feminism, by checking the use of science and technology against underrepresented groups.

For further reflection on feminist perspectives, Margaret Farley's essay in Prospects for a Common Morality, edited by Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, Jr. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993), ends with notes that cite much of the important literature in feminist ethics through 1993.

1995 Americian Scientific Affiliation