Beyond the Objectivity Myth | Public Books


On March 11 of this year, I closed the door to my study, not sure when or if I would return. It is one of several dozen little redwood-paneled offices nestled on a grassy hillside above Stanford’s campus, with a view of San Francisco Bay. For seven perfect, sun-soaked months, I had the key to this office because I won an academic version of the lottery: a visiting fellowship, without the usual professorial responsibilities of teaching and serving on university committees, to finish my book on the missing science of men’s reproductive health.

But then the coronavirus arrived in the United States, and the Bay Area was one of the first regions to shutter daily life in an attempt to slow its spread. “Sheltering in place” with my husband and our children three thousand miles from home, I began to think about just what I had been doing in my little study by the Bay.

Posted just outside its door is a chronological list of the 64 people who have occupied that particular office at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences since 1956: the “Ghosts in the Study.” There are a handful of famous sociologists (members of my own field) and a few economists who have won the Nobel Prize. Men’s names dominate the first several decades, but in recent years, there are more women who have sat in that chair.

I did with my time in the study what I’m sure many of my predecessors did: read, wrote, walked on the hillside, and thought about my next research project. Now I’m the newest ghost. My name will be added to the list whenever people can return to work there.

I chose that particular study because of one name on the list of ghosts: Evelyn Fox Keller, a Harvard-trained physicist turned philosopher of science, and author of classic works on the relationship between gendered beliefs and scientific knowledge-making. I want to call her a foremother but do not like the gendered connotations of that noun. Progenitor? Too biological. Forebear? Too biblical. Ghost? Too wispy and insubstantial, the opposite of what I want to convey. Elder? Suggesting both wisdom and experience, this comes closest to what I want to say about her.

Keller explored the historical, social, and psychological causes of the circular process through which sexism infuses science, and the prestige of science is then used to devalue femininity and women.

I have never met Keller, but I am indebted to her. She is part of a generation of scholars who so thoroughly established “gender and science” as a legitimate subject of inquiry that it made possible decades and decades of subsequent research among historians, philosophers, and social scientists, including my own work on reproduction. Within the broader feminist movement, Keller was one of many academics working to challenge the sometimes explicit and often implicit masculine bias in scientific knowledge. Starting in the 1970s, this cohort turned a gendered lens on science itself, questioning the supposed objectivity of the scientific method, and analyzed the intersection of gendered beliefs with inequalities around race, class, and sexuality. Crucially, they also excavated the history of biological knowledge-making about male and female bodies, demonstrating that cultural beliefs shaped basic biological “facts” about sex and race.

I first heard Evelyn Fox Keller’s name as a 19-year-old kid from Topeka. It was my sophomore year at Rice University, in Houston, and, taking the advice of my boyfriend, a gender studies major, I enrolled in a class titled “Introduction to the Study of Women and Gender.” During this class, I was first exposed to formal academic denunciations of the idea that biology is destiny: that women are somehow rendered less than men by bodily sex differences, especially those tied to reproduction, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding. The idea that biology was not simply the accumulation of scientific facts, but was profoundly shaped by cultural assumptions and deeply implicated in social inequalities, led to new questions: How does this happen? Can it be prevented?

That same semester, the fall of 1996, I heard about a lecture to be delivered by Keller, who was then an MIT professor in the history and philosophy of science. She would be speaking on gender and genetics, and my burgeoning interest in bodies and biology was what led me to the student center, where I found that hundreds of others had also been intrigued by the topic of her talk. In fact, so many people showed up I was stuck standing outside in the main passageway, trying to catch her words.

Soon after, I switched to the interdisciplinary gender studies major, where I took classes in anthropology, literature, history, and religion, delving into the many ways that gender shapes everyday social processes, including the very production of knowledge itself. Even though I had missed most of Keller’s talk that evening, I became familiar with her ideas via assigned readings in my courses. A Google Ngram search suggests Keller was the first to use the phrase “gender and science.” It is the title of a 1978 article in which she calls attention to the unspoken “genderization of science,” noting a “historically pervasive” and “mythlike belief” in the equation “objectivity = masculinity.” Making clear this was not simply a matter of the relative absence of women scientists, Keller explored the historical, social, and psychological causes of the “circular process” through which sexism infuses science, and the prestige of science is then used to devalue femininity and women. She concluded by posing a question about what science unbounded by such mythology might look like.

The bibliography of that 1978 piece contains just 15 books and articles, including work by scholars who later became part of the feminist canon: the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, the psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein, and the sociologist Nancy Chodorow. Now, in 2020, the phrase “gender and science” returns 16,700 results in Google Scholar, including several of Keller’s subsequent writings.

Within this vibrant web of scholarship, reproduction has been a central field of inquiry. Feminist social movements, too, have placed reproduction at the top of their agenda since the beginning of the 20th century. This includes Margaret Sanger’s eugenics-entangled efforts to enable “planned parenthood” in the early 1900s; the 1960s and ’70s struggles to expand access to contraception and to legalize abortion; and the ongoing movement for reproductive justice led by women of color in organizations such as SisterSong. For their part, academics now define reproduction as a biological and social process, conducting studies about a variety of phenomena, from pregnancy and birth to abortion and contraception, as well as about infertility and reproductive technologies.

One reason that so many activists and academics who are interested in gender focus on reproduction is because it has so often been mobilized as a “reason” for gender inequality. That pregnancy and birth occur in women’s bodies (or bodies designated female at birth) has long figured centrally in gendered expectations. The pervasive assumption that women with children are less committed to their jobs, for instance, results in a reluctance to hire mothers in the first place. Those who do make it over this hurdle are paid less and promoted less often. This is part and parcel of the devaluation of “the feminine” that Keller wrote about so eloquently back in the ’70s: biological facts are deployed to justify social inequality.

But, as Keller noted, the arrow also goes the other way. Social inequalities suffuse the making of biological facts. And this is another approach that subsequent scholars took when it comes to reproduction: examining how cultural beliefs about gender, race, and sexuality inflect the making of knowledge about reproductive processes. One can look to Emily Martin’s anthropological study of medical textbooks, where gendered beliefs about masculinity and femininity resulted in “facts” about aggressive, penetrating sperm and passive, nurturing eggs. Or Dorothy Roberts’s classic book about how Black women and their reproductive bodies have been subjected to the “systematic, institutionalized denial of reproductive freedom” throughout American history. She showed how racist science was implicated in everything from forced childbearing during slavery to modern-day welfare policies that coerce the use of contraception in attempt to limit fertility.

Social inequalities suffuse the making of biological facts.

I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, but the relationship between biology and society that these scholars elucidated is precisely what sparked my own interest in researching reproduction back in 1997, when I was a junior in college. One of my professors assigned an essay written by Katha Pollitt in The Nation about the Baby M trial, the landmark 1987 case in which a surrogate mother contracted by a New Jersey couple changed her mind and sought to keep the baby. I still remember the desk in the library where I was sitting when I read it, because the questions it inspired sent me on an intellectual path that I walk to this day. I wondered whether pregnancy “felt different” if women were being compensated for it and not planning to raise the child. In other words, perhaps the embodied experience of pregnancy was not a universal dictated by biology, but might vary based on its social context.

I decided to spend my senior year researching and writing a thesis about surrogate mothers. With a $300 grant from Rice’s sociology department, I flew home to Kansas and interviewed five surrogate mothers and three couples who had children through this form of “assisted reproduction.” With the guidance of sociology professor Elizabeth Long, I crafted an 80-page analysis that forever hooked me on the power of social-scientific research to illuminate the junctures of cultural beliefs and biological bodies.

A few years later, I began a sociology PhD program at UCLA, where I would write a dissertation on egg and sperm donation that became my first book, Sex Cells. Drawing on interviews and observations at egg agencies and sperm banks around the country, I found that the market for egg donors was organized around the idea of gametes as gifts, whereas the market for sperm donors was structured as an “easy job.” I argued that these gendered conceptualizations shaped the medical market for eggs and sperm, including donors’ experiences of being paid for their genetic material. Egg donors could feel good about the “gift” they had given, while sperm donors described themselves as alienated and objectified.

My most recent book, GUYnecology: The Missing Science of Men’s Reproductive Health, came out in August and takes a step back to look more broadly at gender and reproductive health. After more than a century of studying every possible aspect of how women’s health and women’s behaviors affect reproductive outcomes, biomedical researchers are now learning that a man’s own age, behaviors, and exposures before conception can damage sperm and affect the health of his children. These “paternal effects” can be seen not only in pregnancy outcomes, such as miscarriage and birth weight, but also in birth defects, childhood illnesses, and even adult-onset conditions like schizophrenia.

To figure out why it took so long to pose the basic question of whether men’s health might matter for reproductive outcomes, I pored over historical documents and analyzed media reports and statements from health officials. I was also interested in the social and political consequences of this lack of knowledge about men’s reproduction, so I interviewed 40 men about how they think about sex, sperm, and fatherhood. In the end, I argue that historical inattention to men’s reproductive bodies—scientific knowledge that was not made—affects not only individual beliefs but reproductive politics more generally.

Every one of my research projects has been inspired by and in conversation with a legion of academic elders, including Evelyn Fox Keller. It is no exaggeration to say that she and her compatriots literally made possible not only my work but entire generations of scholarship on science. They made space, both intellectually and infrastructurally, through the creation of departments, classes, speaker series, conferences, and journals. These social and institutional structures, both visible and invisible, shape who is accepted into academia, what kinds of questions we can ask, and whether the answers we offer are perceived as legitimate.

In demonstrating that inequalities of all sorts—of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, nationality—are both widespread and deeply persistent, academics continue to grapple with the questions Keller posed in that groundbreaking article: Where do these inequalities come from, and what can be done about them? These queries only seem more urgent with every new headline in US newspapers about the deadly effects of our collective failure to address these injustices, especially for the poor and marginalized among us.

So that is what I was really doing in that little study on the hill: trying to understand the relationship between scientific knowledge and social inequalities in order to identify the best way to redress them. There are times when this feels unreasonably optimistic, especially when I consider how far we are from a truly just society in which all members have the opportunity to flourish. But that is where elders are helpful in another way: they didn’t give up, and neither should we. That my name sometimes appears alongside Keller’s in syllabi and bibliographies, that I physically sat in her chair, is both hard to believe and illustrative of a direct connection between the scholarly and logistical work she did to make my life in academia possible. I can only hope to have a similarly powerful effect on the future ghosts in my study.

 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

Featured image: Woman Studying Anatomy (2019). Photograph by RF._.studio / Pexels



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