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March 24, 2021+Alice Dreger
+Viewpoint Diversity

Could Feminism (Again) Provide an Argument for More Conservatives?

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, "Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog." Narration begins at 1:10.

What has made me inclined to want to see more political conservatives in the faculty ranks of American colleges and universities? Feminism.

I had the great good fortune to land in graduate school – in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University – in 1990, during what nowadays would be called a “fraught” moment. The Science Wars were in full swing. In one corner, we had the folks who, roughly speaking, had a pretty strong belief that science could obtain objective truth. In the other, we had those arguing that truth is an amalgam of socially-constructed concepts, exquisitely dependent on human cultures and subcultures.

When I say “we” had these types, I don’t mean that my graduate department had them. Our program had grown out of the logical positivist tradition in philosophy of science and out of the great-man tradition in history of science, and none of us students or faculty – so far as I know – signed up with the program in order to undermine the scientific pursuit with the most extreme critiques of science.

But we did see a pretty clear break between the older faculty, who thought social constructivism was worth engaging only when one need a punching bag, and younger faculty, who were willing to take seriously epistemic critiques of science, including smart feminist critiques by scholars like Helen Longino, Sandra Harding, and Evelyn Fox Keller. The work of many feminist philosophers of science of this period suggested not that science is “just another way of knowing,” but rather that scientific pursuits are shaped, in part, by the gendered experiences of the doers.

Feminist standpoint epistemology as practiced by philosophers of science during this period generally suggested that a greater diversity of viewpoints would ultimately produce more and different and possibly also better knowledge – by which we meant more reliable and more useful knowledge. This would occur because the questions asked, the data collected, the challenges brought to bear, and the verification methods would broaden.

Sound familiar?

I know I am not alone in having come to the idea of heterodoxy first via scholarly versions of politically progressive isms that some conservatives now mock. In his recent blog on this history of viewpoint diversity, written for this venue, Musa al-Gharbi points to an experience similar to my own. He writes, “Indeed, my first exposure to the importance of viewpoint diversity, the problems with homogeneity and groupthink, etc., didn’t come from reading people like Jon Haidt, but instead Edward Said, Foucault, Fanon, Gramsci, Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler.”

That at least Musa and I walked from these texts to arguing for viewpoint diversity suggests others could take the same path. So, why does it seem to happen infrequently? That’s an empirical question, but my experience might shed a little light on possibilities.

In graduate school, as a feminist M.A. and then Ph.D. student, I found the arguments of feminist philosophers of science thrilling, and they strongly informed my choice of dissertation topic – the ways that nineteenth-century scientific and medical men had determined who counted as female, male, and hermaphroditic. I was interested in sex, not only gender. While I believed (and still believe) that ovaries, testicles, uteri, prostates, etc., are real, I also understood that the decision of whether and where to draw a sharp line between “male” and “hermaphroditic” or “female” and “hermaphroditic” represented a complex decision that invoked a lot of conservative, patriarchal wishful thinking ultimately aimed at keeping women down and keeping homosexuality pathological.

After I cleared my master’s degree requirements and started officially working on my Ph.D., I found myself caught in the teeth of the Science Wars. Back then, our department had a rule that every faculty member in the department had to sign off on your dissertation plan. That effectively gave every faculty member veto power.

The philosopher of science Noretta Koertge refused to sign off on my plan. I remember quite distinctly that she stopped me in the hallway of the department one day and asked me if I really thought it was a good idea, as a feminist, to suggest that girls didn’t have special problems to worry about – cervical cancer; unwanted pregnancy; disproportionate risk of rape. Her argument as I understood it was interesting. It was not that she believed that thinking about women’s issues was a bad idea. It was that she thought my approach, of showing how sex borders are socially constructed, might undermine science, and that science was the best route to rationality, and rationality was the best route to human liberation.

As it happened, I had two dissertation directors mentoring me, because I was bridging history of science and history of medicine, and one of my co-directors was Ann Carmichael, M.D., Ph.D., who lived in the History Department (a separate department from ours). As I recall, Ann told me to just proceed with the work in spite of not having the forms signed, adding with her characteristic cheery sarcasm that they would have to make me a doctoral candidate when Harvard University Press published my first scholarly book.

Things worked out – I earned my Ph.D. and Harvard did publish a book based on my dissertation, in that order – but Noretta’s objections stayed with me in a very useful way. Ironically, what I took from her was a stern warning to think about the social impacts of my research, something feminists were insisting scientists do. But the longer I went on in the academy, the more it felt like being a feminist who believes in epistemic improvement and the power of science made one inscrutable to academics on the two edges of the political spectrum.

This has occurred, I think, because of the tendency to caricature each other, picking the most extreme versions of each camp’s arguments to mock, when non-hostile reading across the aisle might get us somewhere. For example, based on recent conversations with academic philosophers now arguing for getting more political conservatives into the faculty ranks, it is my impression that many are making the same arguments that were made in my grad-school days by feminist philosophers of science. But they don’t seem to be reading that work, even though, I would think, drawing on feminist arguments for more conservatives could be a pretty interesting and productive move.

There is no question in my mind that, like Noretta’s criticisms, strong political challenges have made my scholarship (and my mainstream work) better. While I don’t think she should have tried to stop my project, I can honestly say that her hostility towards it made it better. She caused me to work much harder to obtain, organize, and present data and to watch my language; that hallway discussion was the reason my first book is entitled Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, and not Hermaphrodites and the Medical Construction of Sex. I didn’t want readers who might understand my work to reject it out of hand from a knee-jerk assumption that a scholar using the word “construction” doesn’t believe in ovaries and testicles – doesn’t know that you have to have a cervix to get cervical cancer, and a womb to get pregnant from a rape.

But what has stayed with me most from graduate school was what the then-young philosopher of science Stephen Kellert said to me as a faculty mentor when I was being particularly obstinate during an argument with a classmate:

“If you haven’t changed your mind lately, how do you know it’s working?”

I wonder sometimes if what we fear in not reading across the aisle is not boredom or fury or the wasting of time, but that we might change our minds. At stake is not only self-identity, of course, but relationships, as many have noted when speaking of tribal loyalties. Yet again I think a feminist perspective impels us, in recognizing the identity- and relationship-based reasons for reluctance to engage, to do better on promoting viewpoint diversity. Feminist scholarship is nothing if not attentive to the shortfalls of identity politics and politically-stilted relationships.

Regardless, it seems that feminists like me who have long argued for the epistemological value of varied gender perspectives in the academy need at least to explain why we shouldn’t want more conservatives in the faculty ranks. And when they do arrive, we should make an effort to introduce them to the feminisms they’ve apparently never known.


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