Evelyn Fox Keller, a theoretical physicist, a mathematical biologist and, beginning in the late 1970s, a feminist theorist who explored the way gender pervades and distorts scientific inquiry, died on Sept. 22 at an assisted living home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 87.
Her children, Jeffrey and Sarah Keller, confirmed the death. They did not specify a cause.
Dr. Keller trained as a physicist and focused much of her early work on applying mathematical concepts to biology. But as the feminist movement took hold, she began to think critically about how ideas of masculinity and femininity had affected her profession.
Like many women in the sciences, she had faced years of disparagement and discrimination, and one of her first efforts was to quantify the effect such a hostile environment had on women — how it held them back, and how it drove many to leave science completely.
Her inquiry soon went deeper, in books like “Reflections on Gender and Science” (1985). “Let me make clear from the outset,” she wrote in that book, “that the issue that requires discussion is not, or at least not simply, the relative absence of women in science.”
The issue, rather, was how people talked about science, and how the scientific community thought about itself and its work — frameworks that, she argued, had been bracketed by gender ideology since the scientific revolution of the 17th century.
Dispassionate objectivity was the rule; scientists disparaged subjectivity and feeling as feminine. She noted that many of the members of the Royal Society of London, Britain’s academy of sciences, which was founded in 1662, were explicit about their desire to construct a “masculine” discipline. “Let us establish a chaste and lawful marriage between mind and nature,” said Francis Bacon, an inspiration for the society.
The problem, Dr. Keller argued, was that gender ideology, and in particular its emphasis on hard, objective thinking, excluded other modes that might prove equally useful. Feeling, empathy, intuition — these were not necessarily feminine aspects of inquiry, but they had all been excluded from “masculine” scientific methods, while potentially disruptive notions of control and domination had been placed at the center. [Continue reading…]