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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Seifert

Let’s promote a feminist philosophy of chemistry!

Updated: Apr 26, 2023


Feminist philosophy of science critically analyses the practice of science from a feminist perspective. It studies how gender influences (and should influence) our ideas about knowledge, progress and research. It examines how our systems of knowledge influence our ideas about gender, may provide “scientific” justifications of women’s inferiority and harm underrepresented groups of people. Moreover, it aims at overcoming gender discrimination in science and at improving science by acknowledging the contributions of neglected groups of people and by explicating how their unique perspectives can contribute to scientific progress.





As with other fields in philosophy of science, feminist philosophy of science conducts its research by closely studying science and its history. It examines specific episodes, periods or scientists in the history of science, and focuses on particular fields or domains of scientific inquiry. In this context, the study of biology, anatomy, primatology but also of physics has offered valuable insight about the multifaceted connections between science and gender. Chemistry however has been relatively under explored. Here, I present some of the issues in feminist philosophy of science which could be further informed by a close consideration of chemistry, its actors, and its history. The aim is to show that there are interesting questions to pursue in the context of a feminist philosophy -but also history- of chemistry.[1] Raising such questions are of value not just to feminist studies of science, but also to chemistry and its practitioners.


One central pursuit of feminist philosophy of science is the critique of science and its practices. In this context, the precise methods by which women are persistently excluded from scientific practice have been spelled out. This has revealed many stories of women scientists in physics, biology, astronomy, medicine and mathematics. Of course, stories of chemists have also been revealed, including those of Marie Lavoisier and Ida Freud. However, there are many more under explored stories of women who worked on some aspect of chemistry and about which we still know very little (if anything). Such an inquiry requires not only bringing forward the stories of previously unknown women, but also spelling out the precise obstacles each one faced during the pursuit of her chemical practice. For example, even the most known woman chemist (and scientist) of all time- Marie Curie- faced prejudices in her career due to her gender; a fact that is often left out from the celebrated story of her achievements.





Moreover, standard accounts of chemistry’s history have neglected the role women have played throughout chemistry’s development. While modern chemistry as an organised scientific discipline was established very late in the history of humanity, chemical practices have been pursued and developed for millennia. In fact, there is some evidence suggesting that chemistry was once practiced mostly by women. For example, the study of the first ever chemist- an ancient Assyrian woman called Tappūtī-bēlat-ekalle- reveals that the technical development and production of perfumes was undertaken by an organised industry whose leading practitioners were women (Wills et. al. 2023: 19). This industry created instruments and developed precise chemical processes, including those of filtration, heat extraction and maceration (Wills et. al. 2023: 19).


In light of this, there are at least two interesting sets of questions to ask. First, how important has been the role of women in the progress of chemistry, especially in its early forms? What sort of discoveries, methodological or experimental innovations did they produce and why haven’t these been acknowledged? Secondly, to what extent can we claim that an exclusion of women from chemistry and its historical narrative has lead to the formation of a scientific discipline that is androcentric and gender biased? For example, it is argued that Boyle’s methodology was gender biased, leading to the establishment of a “masculine way to investigate nature” (Sargent 2004: 857; Potter 2001). This has been contested, but regardless of whether it is a fair reading of Boyle’s impact on chemistry, it does highlight that the development of chemistry may be related to the male-domination of its practice (Sargent 2004).


This brings us to a related issue in feminist philosophy of science: namely could the woman perspective contribute in novel ways to the progress of chemistry? This can be discussed in the context of alternative feminist epistemologies of science, each giving their own account of how progress is achieved if we accept that all knowers are situated (Anderson 2020). It can also be connected to the great role of creativity in chemical practice. Given that creativity is a skill that is very much determined by our unique upbringing, personality, and experiences, it seems that underrepresented perspectives (including gendered ones) could produce unique ways of tackling chemical matters.


These are just some of the ways chemistry can inform the feminist study of science. The benefits of such an endeavour are multifaceted. Obviously, feminist philosophy of science gains from bringing forward new and under explored case studies from the sciences. However, there is benefit to chemistry and its practitioners as well. Our understanding and teaching of chemistry in ways that incorporates the neglected role of women can lead to the further progress of chemistry, by overcoming gender discrimination and empowering women chemists to explore chemical phenomena in unique ways.

[1] Admittedly, the historical study of science (including of chemistry) is much more extensive than the feminist philosophy study of chemistry (e.g. articles in Ambix Volume 69 Issue 3; Lykknes and Tiggelen 2019).


Bibliography


Anderson, Elizabeth, "Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/feminism-epistemology/>.


Lykknes, A., & Van Tiggelen, B. (Eds.). (2019). Women in Their Element: Selected Women's Contributions to the Periodic System. World Scientific.


Potter, Elizabeth (2001), Gender and Boyle’s Law of Gases. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Sargent, R. M. (2004). Robert Boyle and the masculine methods of science. Philosophy of Science, 71(5), 857-867.


Wills, H., Harrison, S., Jones, E., Lawrence-Mackey, F., & Martin, R. (2023). Women in the History of Science: A sourcebook. UCL Press

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