Love and power in a scientific climate

Love, Power and Knowledge:
February 17, 1995

The title of Hilary Rose's book Love, Power and Knowledge is the most opaque aspect of a book that is remarkable for its clarity in a field where recent literature has often been barely comprehensible - particularly to students. "Love" is in the title because it is "love", defined by Rose as "caring respect", which is what she believes feminism brings to an understanding of scientific knowledge and power.

Rose declares the purpose of her book to be a celebration of feminist criticism and theorising about the sciences, but it is rather more than this. The first third of the book does examine the different strands of the feminist critique of science but in doing so Rose also takes us through her own intellectual biography, from the early radical science movement and socialism to a commitment to a feminist realism.

Feminist studies of science are different, she argues, from the usual studies of science because they are committed to the possibility of making better and more reliable representations of the world. To do this we must care about truth claims - and we must care, as must all social activists, about "hard facts".

She acknowledges that feminist theory has learned much from postmodernism, but because she retains a belief that oppression is a reality and she cares about it, Rose looks at how it can be "known". These are the "truth-claims" of feminism. She allies herself with Sandra Harding in claiming that feminist realism or standpoint theory empowers women by legitimating their experience and knowledge as "real". What she argues for are new conceptions of rationality and science which embody the values of care (love).

One set of "hard facts" she examines concerns the material resources necessary for any intellectual production. She asks, for example, why those resources have been made available for feminist scholarship and writing in the United States and Scandinavia and not in the United Kingdom, and goes on to examine how resources have been denied to women working in science.

Rose's writing stands out not only for its clarity but for its generosity. She gives credit to a variety of women who have contributed to her own intellectual journey, even when she disagrees with their ideas. For her the creation of ideas is a shared activity where all participants deserve credit. She describes various women Nobel prize-winners as having a similar concern to share credit, counter to many of the men in the Nobel story who seem mainly determined not to share credit, certainly in public even if they do so through some private gesture.

Rose also takes pains to credit some men, even while arguing that these same men have successfully perpetuated a system of male power. A fellowship of the Royal Society or the receipt of a Nobel prize, she argues, gives the holder (overwhelmingly male) great power since they have acquired the right to be heard in areas where they have no expertise. But at the same time she writes of her gratitude towards some of these same (male) scientists when they have used this acquired authority to support anti-establishment, socialist or anti-militarist campaigns and so put their individual reputations at risk.

In the middle part of her book Rose celebrates something different: those women scientists who have fought for, and in some cases got the recognition for their work that it deserved. In doing this she examines the structure of the scientific establishment and how it actively resists the inclusion of women by avoiding giving recognition to them and their work and therefore excludes women from those elite positions of power that come automatically with the title FRS or Nobel prize-winner.

As the archives of the Royal Society become available the past attitude of the society towards women appears shameful, but there is no sense that the society is at present attempting to compensate for past failure. It is too easy to think that exclusion is a thing of the past. Rose notes that in 1990 there were still only 31 living women and 1,059 men fellows, and Nobel prizes seem to have been restricted in the later part of this century to women over 70 years of age who did their significant work many years earlier.

The final third of the book is perhaps the least coherent. In it Rose deals with two issues: developments in the reproductive sciences and the Genome Project; and the role of feminist science fiction in re-imagining science and technology. Again her interest is to celebrate the work of women: activists and health workers in the first case, creative writers in the second.

Unfortunately in the first case the issues are so wide-ranging and complex that they swamp any sense of celebration. Perhaps this chapter is really the outline for another book. I hope so for it is needed. Rose appears to be one of the best people to write it.

The science fiction chapter fits better into the structure of the book and provides an optimistic conclusion, although it is perhaps the weakest chapter. A great deal of feminist science fiction has been written, and written about since the publication of an early version of this chapter in the journal Hypatia in 1988. The present chapter, although excellent in its historical discussion of the science fictions of Mary Shelley and Margaret Cavendish seems thin in its discussion of more recent works.

"Feminists," says Rose, "have to look at technoscience with pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will." According to Rose we must believe in the possibility of a future which is better than, not simply different from our present.

Gill Kirkup is a senior lecturer in the institute of educational technology, Open University.

Love, Power and Knowledge:: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences

Author - Hilary Rose
ISBN - 0 7456 1000 5 and 1001 3
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 326pp

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