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There Isn’t Just One

Pemwrez2009's picture

Paper 3: What use can you make of the feminist critique of science?


There Isn’t Just One

Dear Journal,


            So, I’m supposed to write about the feminist critique of science, drawing from my experiences in my Gender and Science class and from the readings that we had been assigned. It’s weird to think of a single feminist critique of science, or the structure of science as it has been institutionalized. From the words of Caryn Musil, who is one of the authors, whose works we read in class,

“Feminism has never been monolithic”.[1]

Musil argues that there is no single definition of feminism or what feminism can be. This is more than apparent in the articles that I’ve read for class in this unit. Before identifying any feminist critique of science, I think it is most important to acknowledge that there is no single feminist critique of science.

            The articles that we have read for class, address issues from the structure of science in the class room, to the critique of what is called “kitchen physics”. In analyzing the critiques of some of the feminists that we read in class, I hope to be able to come up with my own short feminist critique of science using some of the authors. So here it goes:

            One idea that we discussed in class was the idea of having a “science” or a “math brain”. While I am in support of the claim that some people just have a gift for figuring out problems either scientifically or mathematically, I believe that these differences are not defined by gendered constructs. If anything, I believe that everyone has the potential at an early age to be either or both, it becomes a question of our development. Our schooling, teachers, resources and drive are all contributing factors. For me, Mary Beth Ruskai is feminist critic whose ideas I have most identified with. I believe that much of the reason why there are so few women in the science world has to do with a historical stigma and fear affecting women who believe that there is either no space for their ideas or those who are just frightened away by their ideas of what science is! It is not an issue of aptitude nor is it an issue of who has a “math brain” or an “English brain”.

“What I find particularly striking about these figures is that the overwhelming majority of girls have made the decision not to study physics before they have ever encountered a physics course or a physicist”[2]


            With the statistics that Ruskai gathered there are already so few women who are involved with what we call the “hard sciences” There is something about the sciences or the (theoretical or actual) construction of the scientific world that is turning these women off to the “hard” sciences and math.

Ruskai also places a lot of emphasis understanding the developing stages of the individual and how their experiences as children may affect their futures as intellectual thinkers. If we are in a society that analyzes small children to see if we are biologically predetermined to certain ways of thinking, why are scientists paying so little attention to issues involving lower levels of education? Don’t they say that our most crucial years of our development are when we are in the younger years of our academic careers?

“Because formal physics education begins in high school, even physics education specialists rarely concern themselves with the earlier years. Recently, research mathematicians have begun to pay more attention to issues involving elementary and secondary education. There is some reason to believe that, even in the absence of obvious gender-bias, good and bad educational practice may affect girls disproportionately.[3]


            If gendered differences are identified at such a young age, it even more important that the teaching of science plays a larger part in the education of younger students. Though it can never be clear what is the cause for this disproportion between men and women in science, age can provide a pretty valid feminist argument.

While I think Ruskai would recognize there being structural differences with the science world she places a much higher emphasis on the women who are rejecting the sciences. This is quite a different outlook from Karen Barad who is a pretty avid feminist critic of science. Barad argues for more structural differences in actively teaching science. She is against the idea of creating classes to cater to students who feel as though they do not have this “math brain” or what she explains as “dumbing down the science” to attract interest. 

“The approach used is trans/disciplinary, and the readings are drawn from a range of literatures including anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, feminist theory, cultural studies and physics. This approach is different from ones that merely attempt to place physics in its historical, philosophical, sociological or cultural “context” by adding tidbits from other disciplines (such as the history and philosophy of science) that seem appropriate to the topic at hand.”[4]


            Needless to say, Barad would not appreciate classes like physics for poets or the chemistry of art that are offered at the Mawr. For Barad, if people are not interested in sciences offering fluff courses are not going to give an accurate idea of why certain topics in science are so important. By teaching students only the elements of science that appeals to them dismisses some of the most important elements of the subject. Barad’s fundamental argument is that if we are going to draw interest to the sciences, the attraction should be framed on the importance of the issues in science that we can break down to the basic scientific elements that concern these larger issues.

            In her article, Barad focuses on the importance of an agential approach when studying science. This is a much more traditionalist approach to the studying of science. When framed within the context of her paper, it becomes much clearer that she is concerned with bringing people to the sciences rather than bringing the science to people’s interests. By arguing this point she places much emphasis on the “hard” sciences versus the “soft” sciences. As somewhat of a sociologist and an intense third wave feminist, Barad makes me question her notions of agency and her problem with studying the sciences in any capacity. Maybe introducing chemistry in a chemistry of art class is not necessarily “dumbing down the science”. Maybe it is just the first step to getting students to be interested in a topic they wouldn’t normally find appealing. In addition, why are there such titles as “hard” or “soft” sciences? If it seems that there are far less women who are venturing into the world of the harder sciences doesn’t this just create and perpetuate ideas of masculine and feminine constructs, or even more dangerous ideas that women are unable to be in the “harder” sphere because they are unable to do it.

Barad herself argues that we cannot understand our responsibility to the world unless we know how we are interacting with it.[5] For me, teaching students how certain parts of their every day lives relates to the sciences is in effect learning how we are interacting with the world on a much more specific level. In my own world, feminism is as an equality of the sexes on a social, political and economic level based off of the values of the individual. For example, I believe house wives can be feminists as well as women who value their nationalism above all else. What makes Barad correct in her assumption that we are even dumbing down her precious sciences in the first place by introducing them in different ways? And what is dumb about teaching women who wish to be house wives the science of their kitchens?



  • Barad, Karen. "A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics." Teaching the Majority: Breaking the Gender Barrier in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering. Ed. Sue Rosser. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995. 43-75.
  • Barad, Karen. "Scientific Literacy--> Agential Literacy= (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibly." Feminist Science Studies, ed. Mayberry et. al., 2001. 226-246.


  • "Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies." Women and Scientific Literacy: Building Two-Way Streets. The Association of American Colleges and Universities. 1999. 1-19.


  • Ruskai, Mary Beth. "How Stereotypes About Science Affect The Participation of Women." Lecture in Symposium: "Women in Physics: Why So Few?" San Francisco: Annual Meeting. Association for Women in Science. 1989. 1-9.

[1] Musil, Caryn McTighe. Frequently Asked Questions About Feminist Science Studies (Page 2)

[2] Ruskai, Mary Beth. How Stereotypes about Science Affect the Participation of Women (Page 2)

[3] Ruskai, Mary Beth. How Stereotypes about Science Affect the Participation of Women (Page 3)

[4] Barad, Karen. Scientific Literacyà Agential Literacy = (Learning + Doing) Science Responsibility. (Page 240)

[5] Barad, Karen. A Feminist Approach to Teaching Quantum Physics