Lynne Segal: What it means for women to think like men

From a lecture by the Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies at Birkbeck College, London University
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The Independent Online

It can hardly be news that in Western thought the gender of science, indeed, the gender of knowledge, has been seen as masculine. In the 18th century, women and knowledge were a type of oxymoron, placing women in danger of ridicule or ostracism: at best, of banishment from our sex: "Never was a woman so learned as she," as Voltaire praised the Marquise du Châtelet (for promoting Newtonian physics): "a great man whose only fault was in being a woman."

In Britain, when Elizabeth Montague wanted to create and endow the first women's college in 1775, she was turned down by Mrs Barbauld, the scholar she wanted to head it up. Women must keep their learning secret, she was told: "in our sex knowledge must be 'only connived at while carefully concealed'; displayed it will be punished with disgrace."

She was mainly right. Mary Wollstonecraft would be dealt the fate Barbauld feared: seen as betraying her sex and of "thinking like a man" when, inspired by the French Revolution, she formed the radical dissenting community of Stoke Newington and argued for women's education to permit their participation in the public sphere.

It being the time of her time, Wollstonecraft herself would accept with pride the observation that she "thought like a man". Today she, stands condemned by some contemporary feminist scholars for ever aspiring to Enlightenment beliefs in the enticements of rationality.

It is not only the physical and biological sciences that have been regarded as "masculine", authoritative, distanced from women's natural inclination and interests – except as the objects of interrogation. The social or human sciences, as well, have themselves been seen as part of the scientific project to the extent that – and only to the extent that – they arrogated the quantitative methodology thought appropriate to the "hard" sciences, despite the fact that human images, feelings and thoughts do not arrive in quantitative mode.

It is also clear that the attribute of "hardness" sought after here is strictly metonymic of the masculine when its antithesis is not the attribute of being "easy", but rather of being "soft". The recent reworking of more Continental modes of interpretive, narrative or discourse analytic methods in the social sciences exemplify these newer "soft" methodologies.

The social sciences, it is true, are often favoured, though far from exclusively, by the feminist scholars and other dissidents who have scrambled into the academy, changing its nature over the last three decades. Few modes of reasoning should be conceptually more demanding than their origins, in hermeneutics and phenomenological philosophy.

This is why, to let you in on my own duplicity at once, my title ("Thinking like a Man"), after Norman Mailer, is mere advertisement for myself. I would no more affirm than reject the deceptive notion of "thinking like a man", however much I can and will illustrate for you how men's privileged access to knowledge and naming in science is as apparent in their chosen research as in their texts.

We know what supposedly neutral, detached, confrontational modes "Thinking like a Man" conjures up. And for sure, I am frequently berated for just such "masculine" performative pugnacity. Nevertheless, it is now quite as fashionable for Queer Feminists (after Eve Sedgwick, Judith Halberstam) to assert their own claims to "female masculinity". Myself, I see any such gendered identification as always ambivalent and fugitive, however assiduously men (or women) work to embody it.

Masculinity, I believe, exists primarily as symbolic self-authorisation and entrapment, rather than as any adjustable solution, to our continuing entanglements in gender hierarchy, entanglements that none the less materially still pervade the acquisition of knowledge and cultures of science.