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Why feminist critiques of science theory demand a change in the rhetoric of the opt-out revolution.

Flora's picture

Feminist critiques of science have largely focused their efforts upon reforming the ways in which scientists practice science via pedagogy and research, in which scientific communities are organized and in which science conceptualizes the natural world. I wish to question the ways in which science is used in public discourse by non-scientists. I argue that just as feminist critiques argue that scientific inquiry must be socially responsible, discourse on social concerns must be equally responsible for their use and understanding of scientific knowledge and explain the ways in which Karen Barad's ideas on scientific pedagogy would reinforce both arenas. I take as a case study, Lisa Belkin's October 2003 New York Times article, “The Opt-out Revolution.”

In her piece, Belkin discussed a surprising late twentieth century trend: Elite, well-educated professional women married to elite men were “opting out” of successful careers for full time motherhood. Belkin drew on her own experiences as a writer and mother. She also used Ivy League and Seven Sisters alumna lists to find her interview subjects. The piece largely details the individual life stories of the women she found to be representative of the trend. Common themes throughout these stories include the inflexibility of the workplace for family life, a lack of scholarship preparation for the balancing of work family life and a drive to care for oneself and family. She loosely related these stories to larger concerns of work family policy, feminist history and even some primatology. The article solely discussed the experiences of elite women, a point on which Belkin was thoroughly rebuked later.

However, this article was not simply an rote report of a current social phenomena. Belkin named this trend. And by naming it, she also defined the way in which it would be interpreted: as a phenomena affecting elite women like herself. She insisted that these women were not in fact being selfish or betraying the hopes of the women's rights activists before them. Instead, they were actively choosing to reject the workplace environment. Belkin viewed this choice as an empowering move. She argued that elite women's choices to leave their careers would force companies to work harder to keep them by implementing family friendly policies like flexible hours, part-time work, paid maternity/paternity leave, reduced hours and job sharing. She also thought that their move would cause the redefining of career. In this modified scenario, individuals could leave the workplace for years to raise their family with the assumption that they would return. In these ways, Belkin viewed the opt-out revolution not as a return to suffocating gender roles, but an impetus to the actualization of gender equality at home and in the workplace. She ends the piece optimistically with the question “Why don't women run the world?” to which she quotes a theater artist turned full time mother's response: ''In a way, we really do.''

The reaction to Belkin's article and to the phenomenon of the opt-out revolution has been very multi-faceted. The proponents of the revolution have had many critical labels applied to them, including classist, irresponsible, spoiled and anti-feminist. The latter critique is the simplest to make considering the fact that one of the women interviewed in the article was quoted as saying, ''I don't want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn't really my sister because I don't even know her.'' However, one aspect of the the article is especially germane within the context of this Bryn Mawr course on the gendering of science. Almost all of the mothers, none of whom were trained scientists, quoted used scientific terms to explain their choices. Consider the following excerpts from the article, brackets mine:

'Sometimes I [former journalist] worry that we're really just a bit lazier, but in my heart of hearts, I think it's really because we're smarter. Maybe evolution has endowed us with the ability to turn back our rheostat faster, to not always charge ahead after on all-consuming thing...'

Sarah Amsbury [former theater artist] also raises the question of biology. 'It's all in the M.R.I.,' she says of studies that show the brains of men and women ''light up'' differently when they think or feel. And those different brains, she argues, inevitably make different choices. Amsbary graduated with a degree in English, not science, in 1988, and while at Princeton

she was one of the first women in the University Cottage Club...I can only imagine that being the first woman in such a place was its own kind of Darwinian experience.

'I [former publisher] think some of us are swinging to a place where we enjoy, and can admit we enjoy, the stereotypical role of female/mother/caregiver... I think we were born with these feelings.'

That is the gift biology gives women, she says. It provides pauses, in the form of pregnancy and childbirth, that men do not have.

The consistent use of scientific terminology and biologically deterministic ideas by women untrained in the discipline is striking. This comfort with scientific rhetoric can be seen as a reflection of the women's elite education.

Here I must interject my own reactions to these women's reflections. As a young college student without any children, raised by two parents who worked full time for pay, I find it difficult to relate to these women's experiences of mothering. However, their use of scientific terms to justify their choices both baffles and infuriates me. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that binds women to full time motherhood. And the throwaway use of these terms in the service of justifying a social phenomenon is simply, in my value system, an irresponsible use of science. What, I wonder, caused these women to use this terminology? Was it a sense of science literacy gained by introductory college courses and weekly readings of popular publications? Was it a desire to add credibility to their experiences by donning the mantle of scientific justification? Or was it a sincere belief that the reflections they gained from their experiences were as valuable as traditionally obtained scientific results? I cannot interview these women directly, but I will speculate on the implications of their inclusion of science in a politically charged gender discourse. I realize that some may say the topic of the opt-out revolution is narrow one in terms of who it affects and who discusses it. However, I am using this subject as an example of the creation of a social belief that uses science irresponsibly. Therefore, my conclusions about the topic can be applied to the place of science in public policy and experiential discourse in general. The question I am concerned with is locating social responsibility in the scientific curriculum.

I will use the work of feminist physicist Karen Barad to illustrate my argument. Barad rejects the classical dualist model of physics in which an observer scientist is separate from the natural world she studies and a physics theory or discovering is considered to be an entity separate from the culture in which it was created. Drawing on the way Niehls Bohr viewed the world, she considers the classical model an inaccurate, outdated view of the world given contemporary quantum physics theory. She deeply critiques the practices and pedagogy of physics that assume the possibility of studying a process without disturbing it. Instead, Barad argues for what she terms an “agential reality.” This agential reality emphasizes what she calls the intra-action between equal agents in a system. Rather than emphasize the mystical nature of complex theories of physics in an introductory course, Barad argues that students should be taught the importance of their interactions with the physical world. Social concerns and student interests should be at the forefront of physics inquiry. Physics should be viewed as another way of intra-acting with the world, not a body of knowledge separate and platonically describing it. Therefore, the historical and cultural context of scientific work should be valued as a part of the creation of physics, not a separate anecdote. What is most relevant in the context of the opt-out revolution is Barad's emphasis on integrating social responsibility into pedagogy. She writes, “Agential literacy cannot be taught in one course or even within one curriculum. It is a responsibility that cuts across disciplinary boundaries in the academy and beyond.” Here, physics, which I will generalize to science in general, is not a show pony but an equal part of a greater discourse. Science is not seen as a deified source of truth but “involve[s] complex intra-actions of multiple material discursive apparatuses.” This concept of agential literacy is different than a traditional view of science or other literacy because it not only requires an understanding of science terms in a disciplinary context, but demands both an understanding of the situations of the terms in their social and cultural context and the effect your use of them will have in a given environment.

The use of scientific, biologically deterministic explanations of personal choices in the Belkin piece appears at face value to be an attempt at acknowledging an agential reality. Belkin attempts to integrate a small amount of possible biological evidence for a stronger maternal proclivity to parenthood by choosing to include discussions of MRIs and primates. However, her efforts mirror the “physics for poets” pedagogy that Barad so thoroughly critiques. In these courses, students superficially study scientific concepts by loosely relating them to artistic works. The result, Barad argues, is either a student with a limited understanding of both the scientific topics covered and her own ability to understand them or a student who overestimates the context in which scientific terms can be applied. The emphasis, Barad argues, is for a science course to teach the fact this world is an agential reality in which human and cultural forces interact that the student is a part of than to teach just the vocabulary of how the agents actually fit together. Belkin throws in the scientific terms offhandedly, without significant comment. It is this inclusion of science without discussion that I question in her writing. Perhaps she does not need to analyze everything in her research, but report it as a faithful journalist. However, Barad would argue that journalists have just as much of a social responsibility in the creation of agential reality via discourse as scientists do via research and theory.

What is most interesting to me about these interview excerpts, even if they are not representative of the views of elite women who opt out of careers, is the way in which scientific concepts have become a strong part of these women’s vocabulary of identity. Second wave feminism is famous for its catch-phrase, “the personal is political.” Here, it seems that the scientific has become personal and vice versa. In other circumstances, indeed in my previous post, I would welcome this ownership of scientific terms: women should feel control or at least personal relevance over the results of scientific studies of which they are the subject. However, when science is used so cavalierly in the service of a political statement with which I disagree, I become uneasy. I flinch not because science can only be interpreted by one of its mystical priests but because they are projecting scientific theory broadly onto social structures without incorporating social and cultural concern. Agential reality entails several agents pushing against each other, not one individual manipulating vocabulary to receive their desired result. Discussion of the opt-out revolution must take the science of gendering and motherhood seriously as an agent in the discourse, not an accessory to bolster their argument.

Barad, Karen. "Scientific Literacy--> Agential Literacy= (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly." Feminist Science Studies, ed. Mayberry et. al., 2001. 226-246.

Belkin, Lisa. “The Opt-out Revolution” The New York Times: October 26, 2003.