Mar 24, 2011

Sexual Science by Cynthia Eagle Russett

Sexual Science by Cynthia Eagle Russett

I suppose it’s only right to begin by giving you fair warning: Sexual Science is chapter one in a new series we shall informally call “Ana reads a lot of nerdy and hard to find, expensive or niche books from the awesome academic library she currently has access to, because she’s mourning in advance the loss of said access come September.” I’m dealing with this approaching loss by a) compiling long lists of library books I want to read (which include titles such as Victorian Suicides: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories, Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers, etc. Hmm, do we have a pattern here?) and b) daydreaming of a world where every reader has access to every library. September is of course a long way away, but it will be hard to find time to pursue this list because of the other list I really have to get through: my list of dissertation-related books. Which I’m also excited about, of course. But as always, the books you don’t have to be reading are a little bit shinier.

Anyway: Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood is, as the back cover so well puts it, a “chapter in the annals of human folly”. Cynthia Eagle Russett takes a close look at how Victorian science, particularly biology and emerging disciplines like psychology and anthropology, was used to maintain and justify the gender status-quo. Scientific claims that naturalised the ideology of the separate spheres – the domestic as the feminine domain and public life as the realm of men – were regularly made.

The justifications of why women were not suited for public life or for professional and intellectual pursuits were varied: some were rooted in brain size and weight, others on phrenology, on the menstrual cycle, on the reproductive system, and so on. The conclusion, however, was always the same. Man was master and Woman his companion. This was a Biological Fact, and therefore it was useless to argue with it.

The Victorians clearly had a passion for stiff hierarchies that told everyone their place. Though race isn’t the focus of this book, Russett acknowledges that there were many parallels between the construction of femininity as a less evolved version of masculinity and the construction of the lesser, “savage races” who were supposedly ages behind white men in terms of evolution. Sexual Science is not only an analysis of this process, but also an analysis of the particular moment in history in which it took place. As Russett puts it,
The rise of sexual science needs, accordingly, to be seen both as part of an ongoing inquiry into the varieties of human existence and as a response to the particular historical moment in which women were asserting new claims to a life beyond the domestic hearth.
The fact that science was used to give a cloak of authority to the status-quo is not, of course, the result of a conspiracy by scientists to keep women behind locked doors: “Scientists never engaged in a conscious conspiracy against women, and they were by no means uniformly misogynist.” The reasons why this happened are far more complex than that, and have to do with the fact that we can never fully dissociate ourselves from the cultural climate in which our ideas come into being. To quote Emerson, who naturally put it better than I could, “[we] cannot wipe out of this work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew”.

The logical consequence of acknowledging the complexity of this process is that we’re force to pause to consider the ways in which this is very much still happening today. This is why Sexual Science reminded me so much of Delusions of Gender (which was where I first heard of it, in fact), even though well over one century separates the scientific claims each of them examines. But in Cordelia Fine’s always wise words, “If history tells us anything, it is to take a second, closer look at our society and our science.” This is as valid now as in the nineteenth-century.

Sexual Science is not, therefore, a book that invites us to laugh at the past while patting ourselves on the back for being oh-so-much-cleverer today. On the contrary: it invites us to examine the continuity of this process. It is also not a book that takes its deconstruction of the scientific process too far – Russett writes with complete respect for the scientific method and for these scientists’ commitment to making sense of the world around them as best as they could. I am leery of postmodern critiques of science that cross the line into well-nothing-is-real-anyway territory; or even worse (pet peeves of pet peeves) misread Heisenberg and then use him to attempt to distort the way the scientific method works. Sexual Science is fortunately not one of those books. It acknowledges that science is pretty awesome, but scientists are only too human.

Interesting bits:
The phenomenon of menstruation was alone fully sufficient to explain why women could never hope to stand on a level of social and professional equality with men. Whatever may have been the reality of the menstrual cycle in Victorian women’s lives (and it would be reasonable to suppose that burdensome clothing, scant exercise, physiological ignorance, and a culture that encouraged female invalidism increased their discomfort), scientists and medical men wrote of it more as a primal curse than a natural process. (…) [James McGrigor] Alan believed menstruation an insuperable obstacle to feminine aspirations in the intellectual realm: “Even if woman possessed a brain equal to man’s—if her intellectual powers were equal to his—the eternal distinction in the physical organisation of the sexes would make the average man in the long run, the mental superior of the average woman. In intellectual labour, man has surpassed, does now, and always will surpass woman, for the obvious reason that nature does not periodically interrupt his thought and application.”

Hardheaded Henry Maudsley sniffed, “Village Hampdens, mute inglorious Miltons, and bloodless Cromwells do not sleep in the graves of the rude forefathers of the hamlet.” As for gifted women, that potential legion of “Shakespeare’s sisters”, their case was the same. They “suffered no other hindrance to the exercise and evolution of their brains and their intellect than those that are derived from their constitution and their faculties of development”. No obstacles hindered, no customs entrapped them: “in poetry, music and painting, if not also in history, philosophy and science, the field has always been open to both.” Indeed, “women by tens of thousands have enjoyed better educational as well as better social advantages than a Burns, a Keats, or a Faraday; and yet we have neither heard their voices nor seen their work.”
(Hahaha. Oh Mr Maudsley.)
Lombroso was particularly struck by the propensity of criminals, like savages, to adorn themselves with tattoos, frequently of an indecent or lawless nature. (Some of Lombroso’s evidence as to the lewdness of criminal tattoos was admittedly inconclusive. Stephen Jay Gould cites one example: “Long live France and French fried potatoes.”)
(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be happy to include it.)

26 comments:

  1. Ana continue reading all about the Victorians. And please continue reviewing!! I'm living vicariously through you and your research. :)

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  2. I will definitely continue. It's good to hear you won't ALL be running away in horror as a result ;)

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  3. Oh Ana, this sounds so damn good!!! And from the sounds of it, I'm likely not going to be able to find it anywhere, huh? Well, I shall try anyway.

    "But as always, the books you don’t have to be reading are a little bit shinier." Or a lot shinier!

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  4. This idea: "femininity as a less evolved version of masculinity " makes me very mad, and I would love to read this book because it seems to address the issue in a very interesting way. I like the fact that the book deals with these things not as ideas gone past, but as ideas that we are even now stretching ourselves away from. Great review, Ana. I really like the sound of this book!

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  5. I did find it. And ordered it. And don't even feel guilty about it because I'm going to give it to Rich as a gift because I know he'll absolutely love it. Win-win-win. :D

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  6. I remember even while growing up, learning that menstruation was why women couldn't be president!

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  7. I eagerly look forward to the rest of the Ana Reads A Lot Of Nerdy series.

    *claps delightedly*

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  8. OMG all these books sound awesome!

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  9. lol So, maybe I should stop reading your blog until September because all the tempting books will just make me sad... Alumni should be allowed to use their university libraries, is my thought. Although, I can ILL from it... hm...

    I won't really go away, but I am going to go see what my chances of getting this book are since my library hasn't had any of the books that are 'easy' to get...

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  10. But as always, the books you don’t have to be reading are a little bit shinier. That made me laugh. I wonder why it is even though we have chosen the books we need to read;)

    When I was studying the history of science, what really struck me time and again was how science always tried to put on a front that it was clinical and unbiased whereas if you take a peek behind the scenes you soon realise that it is actually very human precisely because scientists are human. It's amazing how much white-washing goes on just to preserve the myth. And I'm sure it is even more muddy when it comes to socio-biological subjects. Gah, your reading of all these books isn't doing my wishlist any good!

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  11. Studies like this are so interesting! Science IS rad, but at the same time the so-called culture wars have unfortunately put many pro-science types into a defensive posture from which it's difficult to talk about the fallible, human side of the practice of science. Which is really too bad, not just because these two extreme positions are becoming ever-more polarized, but because I find it totally fascinating to think about how human bias can creep into experiment design and conclusions even when the scientists involved believe themselves completely objective. It sounds like Russett does a great job of treading these challenging waters...

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  12. Anna, this post reminded me that I haven't thanked you yet for your enthusiastic recommendation of "Delusions of Gender," which was everything you promised it would be - readable, witty, and fantastically interesting. This sounds like a must-read as well.

    Rhapsodyinbooks, your comment floored me. Somebody really told you that? Grrrr. Let me at 'em.

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  13. Oops,misspelled your name, Ana! I really do know how to spell it; it's just that I have a daughter called Anna, and my fingers put the extra "n" in without my brain's consent.

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  14. Thank you for continuing to education me on the Victorian era. I have added so many books to my reading list as a result of reading your blog. Now I need to find time to read them!

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  15. So Victorians switched from religion to science to keep women in their place... I wonder what method we're using now?

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  16. “Scientists never engaged in a conscious conspiracy against women, and they were by no means uniformly misogynist.”

    That is one powerful statement, especially the first part - how can the author be sure? Maybe it wasn't a conspiracy, but just their way of finding proof of something they though was true.

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  17. The concept of a "conscious conspiracy against women" is one we talk about when we look at gender theory in both my film and lit class. I always have them imagine a dark little room somewhere with a bunch of men sitting around a table systematically developing a plan for the oppression of women. Culture is so much more fluid and adaptable and socially constructed than that.

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  18. Debi: So glad you found it! Gotta love those triple wins ;)

    Zibilee: It makes me mad too - especially that in the 21st century it's still not gone!

    Jill: Argh! I don't even know what to say :S

    Raych: Good to know :D

    Emily Jane: Don't they? I want to read them all NOW.

    Kelly: Don't leave meeeeee :P But yes, I agree. Alumni should definitely have access. Some academic libraries actually do that, but not all :\

    Sakura: Yes - it's messy and human and flawed, and I wish there were more books that discussed that without throwing away the baby with the bathwater!

    Emily: I agree, and that kind of polarisation really makes me sad. You either have people dismissing the whole issue, or people critiquing E=MC2 for being sexist because it "privileges the masculine speed of light over alternative feminine speeds". You don't need to make things up if you want to critique science from a gender perspective - there are plenty of real things that can and should be discussed! Russett does do a great job of portraying how biases creep into the method - as does Fine in Delusions of Gender.

    Mumsy: I saw your review on LT and it made me very very happy :D Also, no worries about my name!

    Kathleen: Books versus time - the eternal battle!

    Heidenkind: As they say, so much changes, so much stays the same.

    Alexandra: "Maybe it wasn't a conspiracy, but just their way of finding proof of something they though was true" This is actually the whole point of the book :P I think I just worded that in an unfortunate way, for which I'm sorry! Obviously she has no way of knowing what went on in the mind of individual scientists, but it comes down to what Trisha says in her comment. Though I have no doubt there were cases of conscious and intentional discrimination, making it solely about that makes sexism easier to dismiss, if that makes sense. People can go, "I don't deliberately set out to exclude or oppress women, so I'm not guilty of anything and don't have to examine my behaviour". But the problem runs deeper than that, because then as now even the most well-meaning of us has been programmed to think in gendered ways that have unfortunately consequences to us all.

    Trisha: Yes, I absolutely agree. I wish there WAS a dark room conspiracy somewhere, as it would be much, much easier to put a end to.

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  19. Your blog posts are always so informative and illuminating - you summarize info so well! I always learn stuff here =) How long did it take you to read this expensive niche book? =P

    --Sharry

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  20. I've wondered sometimes if the problem with sicence is just the same problem it's always had - in, say, Galileo's time, most scientists were subconsciously seeking proof to explain their already extant conception of the world, and to do the work their benefactors wanted. Since the scientific revolution of the Age of Reason, big parts of the scientific community have been accustomed to holding up the status quo, from the scientists that tried to use details of biology to prove the existence of God, to Eugenics, of course, and on up the ladder. Of course, in the midst of it, I don't think most of these scientists really THOUGHT they were doing this (or think so, today), but in retrospect...

    I see this, even in little ways today - what we pay to research in America, for instance - but I'm sure that, in part, I'm just blind to the bias because I live in it and suffer from it. The Darwins and Einsteins, as it were, exist, of course (and people of similar intellectual honesty who didn't happen to become household names). But still. Not to say that science is the same as any other pursuit, that truth is the same as 'truth', or anything like that. Just that we tend to see what we want in data, whether or not it's the most obvious conclusion.

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  21. Sounds like a fantastic library and a fantastic book. I look forward to the other reviews of books from there :)

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  22. Sounds lika a very interesting book. Those same arguments you mention were also used by many who were against female suffrage.

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  23. God you find some amazing sounding books...I'm going to have to hunt for this one!

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  24. Thinking with a modern mind of course, but how could anyone attribute lack of ability to do intelligent things to periods... A very strange kind of suppression. Sounds a very interesting book!

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  25. I went on a vacation recently in California to visit my friend, and she let me wander around her enormous, pristine, well-stocked academic library. I never miss being in school except when I am in an academic library. The New York Public Library has lots of obscure nonfiction if you don't mind having to sit in the Schwartzman library and read it there. #sigh Please continue to read Victorian nonfiction FOREVER. I will live through you.

    Fun fact: Some academic libraries will let you use them for nominal fees, and some will not let you use them no matter how much you weep and beg.

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  26. If I ever fall in love with Victorian literature, it will be because of you.

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