Some notes on the

Gender of Science

‘That [witch-]craze was not, as is often supposed, simply a survival of ancient supersitition caused by ignorance and eventually cured by science. On the contrary, in the Middle Ages there were few prosecutions for witchcraft. The church authorities did not think it was common and they discouraged witch-hunting because they saw the danger of false accusation…It was in the Renaissance that things changed…. This frenzy coincided, then, with the increase of knowledge rather than being cured by it..’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘The Europeans did three things which set them apart from most other people at most time and places. Between 1500 and 1700 they set sail in tall ships and colonized most quarters of the globe. They made stunning strides forward in the sciences. And they executed tens of thousands of people, mostly women, as witches.’ Does Science Persecute Women? The case of the 16th-17th century witch-hunts, Karen Green, John Bigelow, Philosophy, vol 73, 1998

‘In the seventeeth century, in the founding days of modern science, the notion of scientific reason as triumphantly opposed to both feeling and fancy was central and was constantly dramatised in terms of gender, thus making reason the exclusive mark of Man and stigmatising feeling as a female weakness. …This gendered oppostion between intellect and feeling was the point of  Bacon’s claim about a ‘masculine birth of time’, and of Henry Oldenburg’s boast the the Royal Society would ‘raise a Masculine Philosophy’. Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Of all man’s strengths

Of all man’s strengths,

his emotion marks him

out in the Universe;

making him shine,

as fleshed stardust,

with his twinkling

water, genetically

inexplicable tears.

‘This talk of ‘a Masculine philosophy’ echoes, of course, Francis Bacon’s clarion-call for the new science to produce ‘a Masculine birth of time’; where men could turn their ‘united forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castle and strongholds’. Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Walter Charelton, another founding member of the Royal Society, summed up many of his colleagues’ antipathy toward women when he wrote,’you are the true Hienas that allure us with the fairness of your skins….You are the traitors to wisdom, the impediments to industry… the clogs to virtue and the goads that drive us all to Vice, Impiety and Ruin’. Henry Oldenburgh, the Soceity’s first secretary, declared that its express purpose was ‘to raise a Masculine philosophy’… This bastion of British science did not admit a woman as a full member until 1945.’ Margaret Werthein, Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars, WW Norton & Co, 1997

Reason is a blade

Reason is a blade - shining, silver, reflecting full the light of man,

No blood or mud of woman’s passion, fancy, sullies this mighty sword,

Clean goes the metal through the undergrowth of ignorance and wile -

Alien to that species - ignorant, batting eyes behind flirtatious fan.

Through feeling’s tricking mist it slice and fall, so terrible and merciless,

O Trophy of the Intellect - such tireless, faithful servant of the Truth,

Strike down, strike down the Sirens who sing us to the rocks of ignorance,

And our honourable endeavours, obedient to the Truth, the Lord will surely bless.

‘With novel specks on eggs to feast the eye,/ Or gaudy colours of a butterfly,/ Or new-found fibre of some grassy blade,/ Well suits the idle hours of some old maid/ (Whose sighs each lover’s vanish’d sighs deplore),/ To murder time when Cupids kill no more;/ Not men, who, lab’ring with a Titan mind,/ Should scale the skies to benefit mankind…’ Peter Pindar/John Wolcot, 1738-1819, Peter’s Prophecy

(Lost) Letter to Clarinda

Dear Clarinda, I have found such gentle pastime here,

In every weather, beating sun and cutting wind severe,

To wander with my notebook in the spectre’d woods,

Or in the fields beneath the skies of darkening moods,

Or browse among the drowsy poppies in the corn,

With trailing bonnet, and all my petticoats atorn -

To sketch the fairy toadstools with their vivid spots,

Fly agaric’s progress, gills and spores amid my secret plots,

And let the butterflies dictate my path across the moor -

Like shreds of sky their blueness guides my mesmerising tour,

Until within the darkened skies of my own sleep,

They flutter still as I within my eyes their spirits keep.

There is no end of interest in these wild and mighty lands,

Brambles bleed and speckle on my greedy purple hands -

Scratch like very cats, for I do steal their seed;

Our kindred blood is mingled as my fingers bleed.

I paint the parent bird and eggs observed in clustered nest,

Starling, thrush and skylark, robin in his Christmas vest -

To such sour tweetings do their sweet bird voices switch,

When’er they see me, with brush and paper, my easel pitch!

O, such wonders have these country months revealed -

My notebook bulging with novel observations from the field,

Illustrations of some process - a species never seen,

Hitherto undiscovered, blended amid chaotic green.

Oh, dear Clarinda, if I could but make my name anew,

Or give my bald initials, simply, as a sexless mark in lieu, 

Such treasures could I show them, riches from my pen -

Such error right, class and genus wrongly ascribed by men;

How my companion butterflies come so coloured into flight,

and how the plants so shyly plan their chemistries with light,

And think on this, my confidante, I have the boldest thought,

Which I must whisper - if you dare enter to my wicked plot -

My heart doth tell me, from the workings of my mind,

Observing plants and animals of every living kind -

‘Tis not just you - my sweetest creature, finest friend,

To which I am dearest sister, until the world shall end,

But every living thing which on the good Earth breathes -

Included here to be the flowers, bushes, grasses, trees;

Each, every creature that the good Lord made,

Doth never die, but only from Creation fade,

For printed by His mystery in every body of the throng,

Are ghosts of those who came before, so vivid, strong -

Think, dear Clarinda, of the hand - leaf, bat and man,

And see within that bony star, God’s most wond’rous plan,

To make His world as one within His loving heart -

And from this holy stem of life we play our human part,

As He has knowledge of us all, present, future and departed,

So we have risen from our humble roots from whence we started,

Coming nearer and yet nearer to that fulsome light,

Where shall we find our wings again in bright celestial flight,

And there shall we at last gain knowledge, comprehension,

Of Creation’s golden circle, phoenix spirit, in this earthly dimension;

The truth shall be revealed about His holy throne on high,

Where animal and flower shall honoured be, even to the spider, fly.

O dear Clarinda, what troubles stir my sleep and dreams,

To know in all my fibre, this is what my devoted effort means -

My studies of the butterflies, the egg, each blade of grass,

All Nature’s children who are born to air and then do pass;

And what am I to do, dear friend, with this I come to know,

Which to the very roots of things must strike a terrible blow,

From this weak hand that claims such kinship with the master eagle,

Comes forth a paper writ by her whose sex those learned men call feeble -

So many lines on all that I have seen and done, recorded, noted down,

Such fine precision, tender care, not the President himself could frown -

Times thrice I shadow mine own hand, my methods are assuredly robust,

There is no doubt, Clarinda, none, to such grand conclusion I am thrust -

But, dear Sister, pray to ponder, is there not such Glory in this scheme,

Such Beauty, Harmony, and wond’rous Unity, binding all He deem -

Might not this call to register the kindred build of plant and beast,

Protect and recognise our humble earthly brethren at the very least,

Be cause for joy untold, rejoicing, happiness, and zealous celebration,

Make men overflowed with love, pride, awe - yet more veneration?

For if the Lord hath thus the intricacy within His work revealed,

And to the light now comes the story which was once concealed,

How greater then the hearts of men will swell,

With wonder at the world in which they dwell,

And when they lift their wearied eyes up to the stars,

Search the Heavens for the light their sorrow marrs,

Then shall they know these deadly crystal spheres,

Spinster Moon which bright from rags of cloud appears,

Do not beat with His great heart and fruitful blood -

His veins do not these glassy lamps with water flood;

For here alone His works He doth perform,

Keeps His Love within the mothers warm…

And as I write, dear friend, the evening light has drawn,

Autumn’s melancholy chill creeps darkly on the lawn -

Grass and trees are fading numbly into blackest sleep,

Not yet their tryst with night’s dark queen they keep;

Dressed and breathless, in such detailed sparkling finery,

Sewn with winter’s silver needle, frost’s fine embroidery,

Nor yet ice writes in unseen blood, leaves’ bird-like bones,

Shows stars their mirror’d face, her crystals fur the stones -

Ah, yes, this night is but a girl who comes on palest feet,

Softly she darkens, promising rest, all troubles to defeat;

Her heart is black but shining, in deepest blue robes dressed -

Slowly she dons her diamond jewels, pins Moon upon her breast.

So shy they come, so sad the stars - blinking as if tear-brimmed eyes,

Sorrowful for deeds aspied on earth below, man’s wickedness and lies,

And now, my friend, my heart is stumbling in this misted night,

My blood runs sluggish as if iced, slowed with some great fright,

Ee’n as I hear my whispering words as each is written on the page,

My bold rebellious dreams in peacock colours pleading from their cage,

We know, sweet girl, that all that I have said and dreamt will never be -

My observations noted, theories discussed, work presented to the Society;

My skirts, Clarinda, will forever bar me from their high male court,

My mind is nothing, my sex betrays the hand that knocks upon the fort,

They would discover me, cowering ‘neath the sexless symbols of my name,

Somehow, someday, would they drag me into light, such unbecoming fame;

Or if I stand before them bold and true, in dress and bonnet make my case…

What say I, my feet could never cross the threshold of that hallowed space.

And what is left then, as rain doth fall upon my spectr’d window face,

Makes lightless sockets weep upon my bloodless skin, bereft of grace,

Send forth perhaps, my paper all alone, an orphan to the world -

For motherless its chance is best, upon the tides of fortune hurled;

Some hope may then attend illumination, elucidation of my thoughts,

By one mysterious, though obviously in breeches, wily as a fox -

Such ideas make me smile, despite low spirits, lack of cheer,

And mask that barren, dark scenario of which I sensibly fear -

My work to languish on a shelf unread, not e’en despised, ignored,

Until such time as women’s work take rightful place, be stored -

Before this time I shall, my friend, to God’s care have returned,

To that same dust whence all things came, and my work burned.

‘Philosophy the great and only Heir/ Of all that Human Knowledge which has bin/ Unforfeited by Mans rebellious Sin…(Philosophy, I say, and call it, He,/ For whatso’ere the Painters Fancy be,/ It a Male-virtue seemes to me…’ Abraham Crowley, 1618-67, Ode to the Royal Society

‘The text of the book [was] the foundation of modern anatomy…the title page of the Fabrica [Andreas Vesalius, 1543] – as if to emphasis masculine conquest of ‘Mother Nature’ shows him handling the abdominal organs of a naked, cut open woman, surrounded by tiers of eager male spectators.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science, 2005

’Where the Will, or Passion, hath the casting voice, the case of Truth is desperate… And yet this is the miserable disorder into which we are lapsed… The woman in us still prosecutes a Deceit like that begun in the garden, and our understandings are wedded to an Eve, as fatal as the Mother of our miseries. And while things are judged according to their suitableness, or disagreement to the Gusto of the fond Feminine, we shall be as far from the tree of knowledge as from that guarded by the Cherubim.’ Joseph Glanville, The Vanity of Dogmatising: The Three Versions, 1661

The Fond Feminine

O cursed Woman, O poor persecuted creature,

O harbinger of grief, of most deceitful feature,

Such wicked fairness snares the eyes of man,

And casts her luscious spell where’er she can.

She turns the honest head from useful toil -

Man’s reason, heart, judgment would she spoil,

Her weakness, lurid passions rob his sense,

As to be true the woman makes pretence -

But trust her not since first she ate the apple,

And caused mankind with evil, shame to grapple,

Pursuit of truth and knowledge is Man’s goal,

To which a woman is as blind as common mole,

So let him not be cast asunder from the path,

Tempted by his vanity to risk God’s wrath…

But what’s this I hear upon the night’s own ear,

That strikes into my trembling heart with fear?

Ee’n thrice I hear the voice within the blast,

And to my quaking hand with hand hold fast,

As if to pray upon masked stars and moon,

And bid their shining silver ring in celestial tune;

For is this an angel that I hear from tumult dark,

A spirit swooping in the air like springtime lark -

I hear the words, though strange as if re-cast,

And know not e’en the meaning of the last -

The spirit cries it comes from future times,

Has come to rage at me for all my crimes;

Aghast I know not what the spirit mean -

One such as I in body, mind and soul, quite clean,

Perhaps this spirit comes not from God’s heavenly rooms,

But is a demon sent from Hell beneath the restless tombs -

It screeches now as if in body of an owl,

Nay wolf it takes the shape to howl -

Perspiration beads my brow, my very hair stands up on end,

My sorely frighted heart resounds, flutters as may never mend,

The spirit speaks again and now I think to see its guise,

In woman’s form it walks the Earth, ‘tis no surprise -

O Woman born in misery, now brought to such just fate,

A wandering spirit forever mourning at her fallen state -

On Earth, in life, she tempted man to sin and wickedness,

Held captive Truth, ensnared him with immodest tress…

What’s this, the spirit interrupts, glows red within the mist -

It stands full height, with no decorum shakes its pale white fist;

“Shut it, asshole,” I hear the words and, though frighted, look askance,

Though dead and restless, this spirit is a woman I thought had chance,

With me to guide her back to heavenly light,

For I had taken pity on her awful plight -

“You foolish man, ya popinjay, ya arrogant, stupit trout,

Av come fae the future tae pit ye right, tae sort ye out -

“One day, ma man, it’s women that will dae the best -

In every school and university, at every academic test, 

“They’ll rule the roost, gien half a chance, become the boss,

Subservience, obedience tae a man? They dinnae gie a toss!

“Nae mare at hame goin nuts wi boredom, talent squandered,

Wastin’ days wonderin’ aboot whether shirts are laundered -

“Nae mare goin bonkers only plannin’ dinners,

Aye, you’ll think us all miserable sinners…”

Though cowering in my chair before the spirit’s rant,

So short of breath I did come near like dog to pant,

Not understanding of her words but one in three,

Yet stayed I stalwart, though trembling did not flee,

Though of inferior race as well as sex,

I must confess her words they did perlex,

The spirit’s rave, the subject of its wicked cause,

Did make my mind to ponder, then to pause -

For one instant I did wonder if she came to warn,

Of awful times, the rightful order treated thus with scorn,

But then I knelt, and prayed forgiveness for absurdity,

For this poor lunatic spirit I felt then righteous pity -

Her ravings, though they did affront, must be dismissed,

E’en if from future days the spirit came, by some dark magic mist,

Of which she spoke was sacrilege, by Nature quite impossible -

Woman is condemned forever, by her nature, quite incorrigible;

Her place is grateful by man’s side, forever on her bended knee…

What’s this, the spirit rents her hair, shrieks devilishly, flies at me -

“Awa an bile yir heed, yi blitherin eedjit, gawa wi yir havers -

A can see yir tae thick, an am nae doin ma cause ony favours,

“But just mind ma words, the meaning behint this farce,

An before a go, ad just like tae say yir a complete…ARSE!”   

With that the anguished spirit vanished with a flash,

As if a bolt of lightning through the room did pass -

I blessed myself and prayed unto the Lord of All,

Thanked Him for my courage, forgiveness of her gall;

I had passed this challenge from beyond the grave,

And asked the Lord her poor misguided soul to save,

And thought I then to lift my inked, still quivering quill,

My mind’s reserves were yet there more to till,

My interrupted poem upon the state of womankind,

Her many dangers to the male which she doth bind,

Becomes more urgent with each minute passed,

And to my purpose, though disturbed I must hold fast,

For if this demon woman doth of any future truly tell -

If aught she said while catched me in her mesmerising spell,

Might one day come to pass and mankind further fall,

Then I must write and speak, and hold men in my thrall,

And bid them listen to this very tale,

Though they shall shiver and grow pale,

Of how this demon woman spoke, though most absurd,  

Behoves us all to fight the possibility of every word -

To slay this foul perversion in its very womb,

For such would bring mankind unto his doom;

So rise my fellow men and take my hand -

O Brothers, save Honour from the sinking sand,

Dust down your sword of righteousness as I have done,

Defend the rightful order, of female weaknesses show none;

Shake off the faerie dust that blinds your eye,

By deceitful woman strewn to make men sigh,

From cruel enchantment, subtle and refined,

That turns men feeble, stumbling and blind -

Break free, throw off the chains they cast as flowers,

So skilful woven, scented sweetly in their magic bowers,

For now and in the future, if it be true the future mends,

On you, dear brothers, the fate of all good men depends,

And on your stalwart shoulders do proud Truth support,

And be thy manly breast to Science as a fort,

And if to further Knowledge we will be blessed -

Truth, Knowledge, Science, all must from woman’s taint be wrest.

‘And male authors can look like a lump of plasticine and still have hundreds of drooling women – ‘Bookies’?, whereas serious women poets should look like a late 1950s melancholic in cardie and thick glasses, and women novelists like a model who just tripped over a laptop. As one publicity manager at a top publisher remarked to me: “Oh, just give me a babe who can half write”.’ Gillian Ferguson, column, Scotsman newspaper

You can take a man to a woman’s exam results…

You can take a man to a woman’s exam results…

but you can’t make him think.

You can take a man shopping…

but you can’t make him interested.

You can trounce a man at Ludo…

but he’ll go in a huff (and say he’d a rubbish flipper).

You can take a man’s hand to the right place…

but you can’t make him Casanova.

You can prove a woman’s superiority in every way, (except for one or two barely utilised attributes)…

but you can’t make a man feel inferior.

You can prove a woman’s superiority in every way…

but you can’t make her confident if she ain’t good looking too.

‘Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA crystals were crucial to Watson and Crick’s success, was not allowed into the common room of her own institution.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘Nobel Prize for British Wife.’ Daily Mail, UK, 1964

‘A form of feminist influence in science is admirable and overdue…’ Rosalind Franklin, Physical Chemist and Crystallographer, 1920-1958

‘Is there perhaps some special reason why religious talk of this kind can count as a proper language for physics, but becomes innappropriate and scandalous when the chemical and biological concerns of Gaian thinking are in question? Or is it perhaps not so much the subject matter as the sex of the deity that makes the scandal? Is it perhaps held to be scientifically proper to speak of a male power in the universe but not of a female one? There is a powerful tradition which might make this odd view look plausible. As Wertheim shows, throughout the history of physics, a strong and somwhat fantastic element of misogyny has indeed accompanied the sense of sacredness that always distinguished this study. The physical priesthood was a male one guarding a male god and it went to great lengths to protect its secrets from intruding females…’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘Nor does the feminist complaint that science is dominated by male aims and attitudes justify the neglect or rejection of science by women. On the contrary, it makes urgently disireable the increased involvement of women in science.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science, 2005

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
    X & Y
        Y Chromosome
        SRY Gene – Master Switch
        Sex Wars
        X Chromosome
        Some notes on the
        Gender of Science

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