The Master’s Tools: Masculine “Success” as a Placebo Emancipation of Femininity

The Master’s Tools: Masculine “Success” as a Placebo Emancipation of Femininity

Katie Clarke is going into her fourth year in Contemporary Studies and Psychology. This summer, Katie is in Halifax working for the Halifax Cycling Coalition. She is writing her Contemporary Studies thesis on the intersections of abolitionist feminism, domestic violence, and masculinity. Currently, Katie is writing and thinking about place, community, and the uses for utopias.

In “Reflections on Gender and Science,” Evelyn Fox Keller compiles her essays in a cohesive and dynamic overview of misogyny and sexism in science. Examining Bacon’s “The Masculine Birth of Time,” she identifies the complex interplay of autonomy, objectivity, knowledge, and power in the masculinist scientific canon. Rooting the overbearing hegemony of scientific discourse in social, historical and psychological tendencies, Keller is critical of the pseudo-feminist discourse that pretends to give women more autonomy and control in male-centric fields and professions, while leaving the harmful institutions intact. Keller demonstrates how a search for individual autonomy and power over the subjective self distances the “other” or object of examination — the subject of scientific inquiry, for example. Objectivity holds the “other” at arms length and asserts that the subject (viewer, scientist) can access total and complete knowledge of the object, being separate from it. She argues: “objectivity implies a reductive disjunction of subject from object […] [it] correlates with a conception of masculinity denying all traces of femininity,” and “a conception of power as power over others” (97). Power over the self, and self-control in the sense of autonomy, is as such quickly manipulated into power over other things, beings, and people. The masculine urge to dominance, conquest, and control, both over women and the natural world, is traced throughout Keller’s work.

Keller begins by discussing the human desire for mastery, or at least competence, as a priori to gender and misogyny. When feelings of self-esteem and self-satisfaction are robbed from us in humiliation, degradation, or defeat, it can be destabilizing. However, Keller explains that the need for competence is often perverted in the archetypes and oppressions of institutional and interpersonal misogyny: “competence does not necessarily imply control; any more than self-mastery implies mastery over another” (96). Competence relies on others, and recognition as such by others: “the satisfactions of competence are not a purely individual matter” (98). As such, when people feel incompetent or unrecognized by others, they may seek control and dominance. Keller argues:

men tend to be especially preoccupied with questions of their autonomy […] [and] seek to support that autonomy through the pursuit of mastery and domination. This fact reflects not simply the greater access that men have to power but, more deeply, our very definition of what it means to be masculine” (106).

Existing in a world ridden with conflict and discomfort, recourse to power and dominance can seem like the only resistance to inferiority and loss of self. However, Keller explains that the conceptualization of “dominance” or “power over” another is, ironically, dependent on the inferior:

“if control is a natural and necessary response to conflict, an attempt to preserve or foster autonomy under conditions of adversity, domination is a response to conflict in a world of definitively unequal contestants. It is a means of establishing one’s place in an already established hierarchy, in a world in which the alternative to dominance is perceived as submission” (103).

However, while men are the main benefactors of this dominance discourse, people who are not men also participate in the dialogic. Keller explains: “[behaviour of dominance] is self-reproducing: it perpetuates a preoccupation with superiority and inferiority, and the equation of self-esteem with the position in the power hierarchy” (104). The subjugated (i.e. women) are also implicated in the struggle for competence — reaching for and resorting to mastery — as it is part of an ingrained social dialogue. In the sciences, as men vastly outnumber women (particularly in those fields which are seen as more “objective,” i.e. physics). Keller posits that women scientists are obliged to undergo “a radical disidentification from self” in order to “share masculine pleasure in mastering a nature cast in the image of woman as passive, inert, and blind” (174–175).

We need to eliminate claims of masculinity and recourse to this kind of dominating dialogue in science — for people of all genders. However, recourse to an ideology of first wave feminism (liberation mostly aimed at and promoted for white, middle to upper class women) is not uncommon in concepts of scientific discourse today, in both the professional and academic sphere. The “man’s world” mentality of competition, domination, and intimidation over peers by women in positions of (relative) power is a seemingly sensical stance in a search for competence and control amid the automatic subordination of gender.

Powerful, inspiring women in male dominated fields are often strong proponents of embodying masculine “success” in a male economy and social system. This attitude and conception of success as a stoic, hardworking resilience often becomes a replacement for critical examination of oppressive systems and the necessity of radical change to the masculinist ideology of science. Keller acknowledges that the scientific tradition needs to break with this matrix of masculine power and domination: “the answer, I suggest, is rooted in the fact that the cognitive claims of science are not themselves objective in origin but in fact grow out of an emotional substructure. The scientist is not the purely dispassionate observer he idealizes, but a sentient being for whom the very ambition of objectivity carries with it a wealth of subjective meanings” (96).

However, it seems that Keller fails to recognize the urgency and necessity of this radical search for new a new feminist methodology. She posits, “just as surely as inauthenticity is the cost a woman suffers by joining men in misogynist jokes, so it is, equally, the cost suffered by a woman who identifies with an image of the scientist modelled by the patriarchal husband” (174). She states that the female scientist faces both “inauthenticity” and “subversion” (174). I argue that both these terms are inadequate to the scope of what non-male scientists experience in the professional and academic world. “Inauthenticity” is both an understatement and a deflection of the true cost of the privilege of masculine norms. “Inauthenticity” fails to capture the potential harms of this recourse to a dominant, masculine identity in the professional or academic sphere. Stepping into this sphere requires insensitivity, suppressed emotionality and a constant defensiveness — for people of all genders. For one woman in a class of 200 engineers, misogynistic jokes (both by faculty and peers) are not just an occasional inconvenience, but rather, left unchecked, a dominant and pervasive worldview. As Keller explains, when “rigid” (traditionally masculine) men degrade women or more “effeminate” men, it is often a reflex stemming from a sense of inferiority, a failing to meet socially prescribed masculine criteria (such as power over others, typically represented by physical appearance as well as social abilities) (104). The subjugated people (of all genders) are forced to compete in this unhealthy economy of “masculinity” or they will likely have no friends, sources of support, or sense of group identity, all of which are essential to psychological wellbeing. As such, the masculine hierarchical powers reinforce themselves cyclically.

Even if the privilege of this pseudo-masculinity could be painted as a sort of “inauthenticity” for those non-men who have access to it (i.e. majority white, upper middle class women), most non-male scientists and professionals are likely to be excluded from this opportunity entirely. Women, and particularly women in poverty, are far more likely to be occupied with unpaid care work (i.e. taking care of sick or elderly relatives or young children), which is one of the many reasons for limited access to professional and academic opportunities in the field (Oxfam 2019). Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour, as well as gender variant people, are even more likely to face barriers, as well as outright discrimination, harassment, and violence in institutions of Science and higher education. The idea that embodying traditional masculinity is “inauthentic” is a deflection of a greater problem — for most people, it is simply impossible.

Coming from a place of privilege, it can seem easier to imitate these distorted masculine ideals than unpack the whole range of things that come with admitting that a social economy of competition, mistrust and putting down others is an obstacle for people of all genders. Audre Lorde’s essay, “Sister Outsider,” examines the fallacy of overcoming oppression through the system of oppression itself. Lorde addresses the struggle that Black women and other women with marginalized identities face in this context:

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support (Lorde, Sister Outsider).

Pluralistic and diversified approaches to knowledge and objectivity can be made accessibly if we recognize the intersecting oppressions (in the words of Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw) that are handed down in the masculinist scientific tradition.

Keller acknowledges the need for a more pluralistic, feminist discourse in scientific analysis, but the complexities of privilege and power extend far beyond the space of her essay (and this one). She recognizes the complexity of toppling a system of binaries and power over others that is both socially codified and, in part, bound in human instinct, yet she holds hope: “almost certainly, human nature is such that tension between autonomy and intimacy, separation and connection, aggression and love, is unresolvable. But tension is not the same as opposition” (Keller 112–113). The tension of identity, the search for competence and recognition, and the sharing of spaces (professional, academic, and personal) can be achieved — and can self- perpetuate — through an abundance of ideas and perspectives. In our search for self-esteem and a better understanding of ourselves and our environments, “flexibility — not rigidity — reflects active self-direction” (Keller 102).

Works Cited

Fox Keller, Evelyn. Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, 1995.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Ten Speed Press, 1984.

“2019 Election Guide.” Oxfam Canada. https://www.oxfam.ca/2019-election-guide/unpaid-care/. Accessed January 16, 2020.

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