Women as Objects: Science and Sexual Politics

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Women as Objects: Science and Sexual Politics

By Rita Arditti

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 5, September 1974, p. 8 — 11 & 29 — 32

Rita Arditti lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her son, Federico. She has been in the scientific “scene” for fifteen years, has done research, taught and gone around several laboratories and universities. disguised as a molecular biologist. She is fascinated by the power of ideology in shaping people’s lives. She is now working with an experimental higher education program (Union Graduate School) and runs with three other women a women’s bookstore in the Cambridge-Somerville area (New Words, 419 Washington Street, Somerville, Mass. 02143).

What science offers today (like religion in earlier times) is a system of beliefs and ideas that allows us to create some sort of meaningful pattern out of the information our senses receive. Scientists are, in general, blissfully unaware of the frame of reference in which their work takes place. The scientific community is composed mainly of white middle class males who have accepted the myth of the neutrality of science and been socialized into the professional value system. Taken by the seemingly neutral day-to-day data gathering work, they ignore the fact that the basic assumptions of their culture permeate their work and act as guidelines for their interpretation.

As has been recognized by historians of science, 1 the tradition in which most scientists still work and think derives from the model proposed in the 16th century by Francis Bacon. In Bacon’s terms, Nature was the enemy and science was the instrument for its control and domination, a way of recovering the lost dignity of “man”. His “House of Solomon” still hovers in our times: a group of male scholars, devoted to scientific research and the pursuit of wisdom, eminently qualified to guide a utopian society. From this vision derived the European scientific societies, elite male institutions “par excellence”. Clearly no place for women in this scheme, except as objects of study.

We live in a patriarchal culture that dehumanizes women, setting them up as objects, the “Other” in relation to the “One” (male). Scientists have usually looked upon and studied females as the reproductive system of the species, reducing them to their reproductive organs, their secondary sexual characterics and/or their sexual behavior. In general, the scientific community has offered in a subtle but consistent way, “scientific” rationalizations for the secondary status of women, and played a limited restrictive function instead of a liberating, creative one. No wonder then if the study of women carried out in this fashion reinforces and is part of the sexual politics of the culture.

Wrong Beginnings: The Human Body Is Male

If we follow the scientific view of women through the ages, we can see that from the earliest beginnings, the ideal of a healthy human body converged with that of a healthy male body. Galen, whose teachings dominated medical education for over a thousand years, saw females as less developed than males, their imperfections being a necessity for the survival of the species:

Well then, Aristotle was right in thinking the females less perfect than the male … Indeed you ought not to think that our Creator would purposely make half of the whole race imperfect, and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation … “2

The imperfection of the females consisted in this: while the male reproductive organs are turned inside out, those of the female remain inside, because the female is unable to give them the final eversion. The advantage for the species would be that in this way the female would be “colder” and less likely to disperse her nutrients so that they would be available to the fetus. Galen’s authority in the medical field went unchallenged until the Renaissance. In a very real way, his teachings are still with us: people still think of spirits and humors and people still see females as imperfect males.

In the Renaissance, the concept of human as male was further developed: “This my depiction of the human body will be shown to you just as though you had a real man before you,” says Leonardo da Vinci in the introduction to his projected and never completed anatomical treatise. 3 His work “On the proportions and on the movement of the human figure” shows only male figures, 4 delivering blows, pulling, leaping, squashing. In the anatomical drawings the external genitalia of the female appear confused or absent: the labia minora and the clitoris are often missing in his drawings.

The clitoris, though it was well known by the Greeks (kletoris), disappeared from anatomical drawings, until it was rediscovered in 1561, by Gabriello Fallopius, who states proudly in his “Observationes anatomicae”:

This organ, because small and hidden in the thickest part of the pubis has remained unknown to anatomists, and so I am the first to describe it and I first described it a few years ago and if there are others that have mentioned it or have written about it you should know that they have heard it through me and so for this only reason they do not have such good knowledge. (my translation) 5

Disgust for genital odours and nasty-smelling substances such as menorrheal fluid are described vividly by Linneaus: “We commonly flee from such odours,” he says in his chapters on the Human Condition. 6

In the nineteenth century the female body is seen as ruled by the reproductive system, women did not have sexual feelings.

To return to the ovaries, about which we were speaking: they it is which give woman all her characteristics of body and mind … if the ovaries are so essential to the well-being of the individual in health, these organs, when diseased. must exercise a potent influence in deranging the brain and nervous systems … The imperfect development of the ovaries retards the development of the higher nerve-centers … As we know, a very large part of the brain and nerve power is devoted to reproduction and, if that function is never established because of the absence of the ovaries, the brain and nervous system are never fully developed. In such a case the nervous system remains upon a lower plane and the woman usually evinces mental weakness and often derangement of intellect. 7

That women had contributed so poorly to the sciences is explained in the following way. “Extraordinarily important parts of the brain necessary for spiritual life, the frontal convolutions and the temporal lobs are less well developed in women and this difference is Inborn.”8

The respiratory system of females was also thought to be different, until 1894 when Clelia Mosher Duel in her report “Respiration in Women” 9 demonstrated that there was no sexual difference in the type of respiration; that clothing was the most potent factor in the production of the female costal respiration and probably a factor also in the production of gall stones, more frequent in women than in men. She also made the connection between clothing and painful menstruation. As skirts grew shorter and lighter and waists grew larger, the health of women improved. A result of her studies was the resolution adopted by the First International Conference of Women Physicians in 1919: “The corset is a surgical appliance needed only by the average woman who is over fat or whose lack of muscular development needs to have artificial support.” She also stressed that under normal conditions there should be no more women suffering with disorders of the generative organs than with disturbances of the digestion, respiration or heart.

How Culture “Makes” Biology

Today, the ambivalence of our culture towards female is reflected in the way that perfectly normal and healthy phases of women’s lives are viewed as almost pathological episodes from which women will “recover” to become more or less human again. Judith Hardwick’s views of female biology fall neatly into the expectations of the culture 10. She is a well-known author of numerous articles on the psychology and physiology of women and teaches psychology at the University of Michigan. She sees menstruation, pregnancy, menopause as “normal crises”. The language used is revealing in itself: Why would a normal event be considered a crisis? In the ideology set up by scientific sexism, with winners and losers in the competition with men, the message is clear: very few women can expect to make it as “normal healthy women”. We are not all qualified for it. Hardwick accepts enthusiastically the “premenstrual syndrome” hypothesis correlating variations in women’s emotional states to the menstrual cycle only. In the premenstrual phase, women are supposed to be more prone to accidents, to be admitted to the hospitals with psychic disturbances, to get involved more easily in criminal actions … Here is some of the supportive data:

Within the last six months there has been a number of serious and fatal accidents among women pilots and at the time of these accidents it was found that they were in their menstrual period . . . Some localities in the United States have been practically depleted of women pilots by accidents.11

Only recently have poignant criticisms been raised rendering the “premenstrual syndrome” a shaky scientific hypothesis.12

Bardwick herself has contributed one of the major pieces of sexist research: 13an experiment to study changes in the contraction of the uterus in response to sexual and non-sexual stimuli. The contractions were measured by means of a small water-filled balloon inserted into the uterus. Extrusion of the balloon was interpreted as a response to the experiment and an aggressive ending of the situation. The experimental “highly-paid” subjects are classified “passive and sexually anxious” (losers) or “not-anxious, not-passive” (winners) depending on whether they extruded the balloon or not. The winners always kept the balloon, when sexually aroused they had brief uterine spasms suggested (by links with other experiments) as the “normal” response of the uterus during coitus which could increase the probability of conception . . .

There is no way of knowing the influence of sexist ideology on the expression of the human potential of women. In general, the importance of the “environment” can hardly be overemphasized. Over the past 100 years people have not only been getting bigger but also getting bigger earlier. There has been a dramatic decline in the age of puberty which is attained today 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years earlier than it was a century ago. These changes are probably due to better nutrition, more proteins and calories in early infancy, less diseases, increased psychosexual stimulation, and in general, the environmental factors related to the living conditions of people.14

The emotional environment in which a human being lives, the degree of love and acceptance of an individual have a powerful impact on her/his growth. Emotional deprivation was probably the main cause of the spectacularly high mortality rates in the 18th and 19th century children’s homes. In reviewing the information on children who are abnormally short and thin for their age the most common finding is rejection of the child by one or both parents. A physiological pathway is created whereby the deprived emotional environment affects the endocrine system and has an impact on the child’s growth: impulses from the higher brain centers travel along neural pathways to the hypothalamus and through neurohormonal mechanisms act on the pituitary gland, the mastergland of the body, and one of the results is abnormal concentration of growth hormone.15

Difficult emotional relationships in adolescence, particularly between mothers and daughters, can result in extreme loss of appetite (anorexia nervosa). Adolescent girls in this situation may stop menstruating: the emotional environment halts secretion of the pituitarian hormones that mediate ovarian function.16 From old time on, females have been treated in a way that gives them less of a chance for a long life. Female infanticide has been much more common than. male infanticide. In classical Athens little girls were brought up on a sparse diet with little protein. The skeletons of ancient times clearly show this kind of discrimination: Calvin Wells, a British medical anthropologist studying Saxon skeletons in East Anglia, has shown that girls began to suffer arrested bone growth (a sign of malnutrition) earlier in life than boys. 17 In pre-industrial societies, including all societies before the Industrial Revolution, men lived longer than women. It is only in industrial societies, where nutritional differences have disappeared and contraceptive and childbearing practices are safer, that women on the average live longer than men. And yet:

In our times, the shortage of worldwide fertilizers will probably have an impact on the life expectancy of females in countries like India. The food shortage, which India is facing, will increase malnutrition and deaths among female children and adults because of the traditional preference for males.18

We can only speculate at this point, on the impact that living in a non-sexist society would have on the physiology of women. Being recognized and accepted as full human beings could lead to a fuller expression of genetic potential. In a real way, the struggles for women’s rights would affect the biological make-up of females.

Ideology in Birth Control Research

“… Control must be exercised through females . . . Biology makes women responsible . . .”
  Science, editorial by G. Hardin, July 31, 1970.

In making predictions on future methods of fertility control, Contraceptive Technology 19 lists 29 potential methods to regulate fertility in the female, 9 for the male and 6 for use by either male or female. This discrepancy is too well known to dwell on. It is worth commenting, though, about the reasons that are still offered to justify the situation. Sheldon Segal, vice-president of the Population Council and director of its Biomedical Division writes in his article “Contraceptive Research, a Male Chauvinist Plot?”20 that the scientific establishment does not discriminate against women, it is Nature herself that has decreed it so. “Even the forces of women’s liberation cannot change the fact that the reproductive analogies between male and female end with sperm transport and egg transport, and that all subsequent events potentially subject to controlled interference occur only in the female.” In the female there are many more steps in the series of reproduction events that would be amenable to manipulation, he argues: The maturation of the egg, ovulation, egg transport, fertilization, zygote transport and relation to the cervical mucus, implantation . In male contraception, there are four areas where research is being done: production of the sperm, sperm storage, sperm transport and chemical constitution of the seminal fluid. If one cared to do so, one could argue that males are the ideal target for contraception: they present a simpler picture to start with and a deep understanding of the biological mechanisms involved in sperm production could be attained rapidly. Furthermore males are fertile for most if not all of their lives, while the fertility of females decreases with age and eventually disappears. Because of the menstrual cycle and its changing levels of hormones, the study of females is bound to present many more complications.

A look at some of the research done on male contraception reveals a care and scrupulous attitude rarely found anywhere else in the contraceptive literature. A good example is the work done in the sixties with the diamines,21 a group of compounds that totally supresses sperm production without interfering with sex hormone production. These compounds were tested in male prisoners and looked extremely promising. The first difficulties arose when the subjects ingested alcohol: dizziness and then other symptoms were noticed. The experiments were halted, as it seemed that the drug was associated with a higher occurence of hepatitis. Contraceptive Technology 22 reports: “It is now uncertain whether the suspected hepatotoxicity was indeed drug related: thus reevaluation of the prospects of this class of drugs should be done.” As a comparison, the story of the development of the pill unavoidably comes to mind. The original approval of the FDA for marketing of the drug was based on a study of 850 Puerto Rican and 132 U.S. women during which 5 of the Puerto Rican women died and no autopsies were performed on them. Ultimately, after the Nelson subcommittee hearings, a statement found its way into the pill packages.23 It contains no warning and blandly suggests that women should periodically see a doctor. The original 600-word statement, warning women of the symptoms and dangers of blood clots, and cautioning women who suffered from diabetes, epileps~, high blood pressure was the subject of a stormy battle between the AMA (American Medical Association), the FDA and women’s groups, and it was withdrawn. The question of the safety of the pill is still wide open, but 8 to 9 million American women take the pill every day.

The plight of women as objects of study in the contraceptive field today is masked by the practice of the “informed consent agreement”. The case of DepoProvera is to the point. At the present moment (May, 1974) the FDA has withheld approval of this drug as a contraceptive agent. This decision came as a surprise since in October 1973 the FDA declared its intention to approve the drug for birth control for women who signed the “informed-consent agreement”. This agreement, written both in Spanish and English, states that: (1) She has been informed by her doctor of all alternative methods of birth control and of their reliability; (2) She is either unable to tolerate these alternative methods, or she refuses them; (3) She is aware that Depo-Provera has been found to cause tumors in beagles and some of the tumors are malignant; (4) She realizes that it is not known whether she will develop tumors in her breasts as a result of the experiment; (5) She has been told that she may experience side effects caused by the drug, including permanent or temporary sterility.24

This drug has been administered to about 100,000 women in the United States 25,26 and several times as many in other countries. It is considered unique among contraceptives because it can be administered by intramuscular injection once every 3 months and so specially convenient for women who are “undermotivated, unreliable or mentally deficient”. It has recently been shown 27 that Depro-Provera users have cervical cancer rates several times higher than women who do not use the drug. Secret transcripts of advisory groups meetings have revealed that Upjohn (the company that markets Depo-Provera) (1) combined results of DepoProvera studies in 11,500 women although the dosages given them had varied widely; (2) used a statistical method that the FDA’s own experts have declared faulty; (3) ignored the Pap smears that suggested malignancy; (4) did not report all the animal data.28

Depo-Provera appears also in connection with the forced sterilization of poor black people; MinnieLee and Mary Alice Bell of Montgomery, Alabama, the two young black women who were sterilized without their knowledge or consent on June 14, 1973, by the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, had been given shots of Depro-Provera. In fact, their mother had signed with an X the surgery consent forms thinking she was authorizing more Depo-Provera shots.

While poor women in America are the target of mass experiments, women of the less technologically advanced countries of Europe are also being used as objects of study. In 1969 the Yugoslavian government and the FDA signed contracts to conduct a major series of studies on the safety of oral contraceptives. 29 The research was expected to be 5 times less expensive than if conducted in the U.S.

What the new advances in contraception reserves for women is another matter of speculation. It is dubious that hormonal contraception will ever be perfected· to eliminate all of its side effects and there is likely to be great resistance to hormonal methods for males. It is possible that one of the new areas to develop will involve control of . the hypothalamus via the cerebral cortex. What this means is that more sophisticated neuroendocrinological drugs will be developed that will act on, our higher centers and our minds, literally, will be the next target.30

The “New Biology

“New” Biology is the fancy term currently used to describe recent developments in genetic engineering, reproductive biology, neurological control of behavior, etc. Fertilization of human eggs in the laboratory and procedures to put those embryoes back in a uterus (implantation is one of the areas where work is rapidly progressing. The womb that will receive these embroyos can be that of the woman that furnished the egg or that of a different woman, thus raising the possibility of a woman “doing” a pregnancy for another woman.

Nature, a prestigious British scientific journal, reports on this work:

Have set up a charitable trust to attempt to increase the pace of their work on helping infertile women . … The growth of a human embryo in a test tube, which was hailed with such publicity a few years ago, was pioneered by Dr. Edwards and Mr. Steptoe. This work which is primarily designed to help wives who cannot have children by normal means also has several other beneficial effects not the least of which is to obtain a greater understanding of congenital abnormalities. . . . Ova are removed from the wife by laparoscopy — a minor operation where a needle is inserted into previously prepared ovaries through the naval in order to remove the ova. The ova are fertilized by the husband’s sperm and then grow for a matter of days in the laboratory. The process thus far has been perfected but the problems of implanting the few days old embryo in the womb to grow and develop normally are so far unsolved. 31

Edwards expects to accomplish a successful implantation that might lead to a normal pregnancy in the next year or two. One of the by-products of this research will be the possibility of choosing the sex of the embryo whose development will be carried to completion by simply implanting only those of the desired sex. (Sophisticated techniques to detect the sex of embryos by chromosomal analysis are also being developed.)

Needless to say, this research raises a myriad of ethical and political questions. Which embryos are going to be implanted? Who are going to be the “surrogate” mothers? Who are the women who are being used in these experiments? What exactly were they told? Do they consent to the operation to remove eggs from their ovaries under the impression that an embryo will be implanted in their wombs? How clear is it to them that at least for the moment they are only experimental subjects?

The women who participate in this project are usually infertile because of blocked oviducts. Edwards says: “We tell women with blocked oviducts: your only hope of having a child is to help us. Then maybe we can help you.”32 This is probably a simplified view of the situation: blocked oviducts constitute about 20% of the causes for female infertility and can be treated by traditional surgery. In many instances they are associated with abnormal ovaries and this would make the procedure non-applicable anyhow.

To describe the procedure to obtain the eggs as “laparoscopy — a minor operation” is, to say the least, an optimistic professional view. It involves a program of hormone injections; at least 24 hours in the hospital with general anesthesia; distension of the abdomen with an inert gas; incisions in the abdominal wall with insertion of a telescope and an aspiration device to collect ovarian follicles.33

In Britain there are approximately 20,000 women who want a child but cannot get pregnant because of blocked Fallopian tubes. There are about 10 million women of reproductive age, one million who are pregnant and one million who are actively avoiding pregnancy. It is somewhat ironic that Edwards and others choose to work in an area whose social contribution will be in “helping infertile women” when the scientific research establishment claims widespread concern about overpopulation. In this day and age, the umbilical cord, the physical link between mother and child still catches the fantasy of a probably well-meaning scientist. The nine months of pregnancy are given central attention and modem science outstretches itself to ensure biological motherhood

Some Thoughts on Feminism and Science

It is useful to review some of the characteristics of the scientific establishment before trying to articulate thoughts around the issues of feminism and science. The training of most scientists and the conditions governing scientific research today succeed in allowing scientists to be interested in scientific progress in a strictly technological way without concern for human values. The scientific establishment is part of the power structure and the needs of the scientific community are met by financing from the government or powerful private institutions. The main type of behavior expected from scientists is professionalism: treating knowledge as private property above a democratic review, seeking a privileged status with credentials, avoiding evaluation or even egalitarian discussion with the people affected by their work and dependent upon their performance.

In science, there are practically no competing schools of thought. The community is run by consensus and the members of the establishment are the only judges of the work that is done by its members: they set the standards of what is going to be accepted as “good work”. Very few women participate actively and there are practically no feminists’ or feminist points of view expressed.

What then would be the components of a philosophy that would fit a feminist perspective?

First of all a feminist perspective would involve the creation of an environment that maximizes the development of minds and bodies and encourages positive attitudes towards one’s own biological identity. It would involve the conversion from an exploitative value-free technology to a commitment to a humane technology: to preventive medicine, fair distribution of material goods and educational opportunities. Love and identification with the object of study would be necessary components.

Scientific research that would finally take the interests of women into consideration will only be developed and carried out in a life-oriented society in which sexism does not exist anymore and in which feminist priorities are priorities of the whole culture. The gap between scientist and non-scientists will decrease in direct proportion to the acceptance of women and the concept of self-help would be fully accepted and fostered by the scientific community.

Females would no longer be considered the sole reproductive units of the species. A priority would be given to the area of health related to women and children. (The U.S. today runs 15th among the nations of the world in infant mortality rates.) The myths surrounding menstruation and menopause and the value of the hormonal therapies given to women in different moments of their lives would be clarified. The whole area of reproductive research, contraception, would be revised. A list of possible topics of research would include: serious efforts in the study of male contraception to begin closing the gap between the methods now available to both sexes; developing pregnancy tests to detect pregnancy before a missing period and research in methods for early abortions; precise determination of the time of ovulation; research into diseases that affect mostly women like lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis; methods for the early detection of cancer of the female organs, etc.

However, the individual attitudes of scientists alone will not be enough to stop the subversion of new knowledge that takes place all the time in our culture. The technology that derives from new knowledge is continuously used to buttress the interests of a profit-seeking, anti-life economy. Witness, for women, the use that corporations have made of the new, two minute pregnancy testing methods: the telephone company (particularly the Bell system) screens the urine of women applicants· to deny employment to those that are pregnant. (“Using pregnancy tests inhiring is discrimination against women.”) 34

A feminist perspective would not hail new technological developments as “liberating” because it would realize that the oppression of women is not the result of biology but of the social constructs around it. In this respect, it is paradoxical that the excesses of an impersonal technology developed by males in a sexist society can be viewed as important for the liberation of women. Advances in cloning, out of the womb reproduction, choosing the sex of one’s child are sometimes considered of great importance for females. Some feminists consider that the elimination of menstruation or pregnancy would be beneficial, since pregnancy, for instance, is hazardous, “ugly” or “primitive”. This can be viewed as the ultimate victory of patriarchal culture. Instead of viewing pregnancy as another existential dimension available to women who choose to explore it, sexism succeeds in making even women see pregnancy as barbaric and debasing. The truth is we do not know what we would think of pregnancy in a non-sexist society and what is usually barbaric about it is the lack of choice and the pressures that are brought to bear on women to become mothers. As for the new fancy modes of reproduction it would be good to remember that the burden of motherhood is not the nine-month gestational period but the lifelong relationship and the emotional commitment that develops between mother and child.

The theories that propose modifications of biological phenomena as important in the struggle for liberation seem short-sighted and contain the promise of a technological “fix”. Technology will not erase 50,000 years of female oppression and technology that tries to dominate Nature is what has brought the human species to the brink of destruction and ecological absurdity.

We do not have to go “beyond” nor to “overcome” biology because the physical body is not what is limiting us. In other words, biology is not where it’s at. When elitist and rarefied research is presented as a service to women we have to realize that the rationalization for most of this research is an updated version of “Biology is Destiny” and another example of the sexual politics of science.


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