Power, Resistance and Science

Naomi Weisstein

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series),
whole no. 22, Winter 1997]



Naomi Weisstein has worked in cognitive visual neuroscience since she received her PhD from Harvard in 1964. She pioneered in demonstrating the capacity of simple neural circuitry to figure out complex visual relations, ran head on into the scientific establishment, but went on to see her ideas help to give birth to the cognitive revolution in visual neuroscience. She is Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a Guggenheim Fellow, and is on the editorial boards of several scientific journals.

Weisstein has been an active feminist since she co-founded the Chicago Westside Group in 1967. She went on to co-found the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and to organize and play keyboard in the Chicago Women's Liberation Rock Band, and to found women's caucuses in several professional associations. She has published on a wide range of feminist topics.

In 1968 Weisstein wrote: "Psychology Constructs the Female; or The Fantasy Life of the Male Psychologist."1 In this paper, she argued that gender is socially constructed and that therefore the focus by Freudians and other psychologists on an "inner dynamic," particularly in women, was unfruitful and was more often an expression of prejudice than of science. This work has been extremely influential and has been reprinted some three dozen times in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In 1993, on the 25th anniversary of its publication, "Psychology Constructs the Female" was reprinted in the British journal Feminism and Psychology in an issue devoted to discussion of it. (Unless otherwise noted, references in parentheses are to that issue.) As comments came in from other feminist psychologists, Weisstein was struck by their subjectivism and anti-science attitudes. She wrote a reply in the same issue of Feminism and Psychology, pointing out the dead-end nature of such current feminist epistemology and chastising feminist psychology for losing sight of important issues of gender.

More recently, debate has erupted around Social Texts' publication of Alan Sokal's parody of postmodernist notions of science. This raised anew important issues concerning science and scientists, truth and objectivity, and social constructionism. It spurred Weisstein to expand and develop her earlier piece to include discussion of various matters which shed light on and extend the Sokal-Social Text confrontation. In particular, drawing on her experience as a laboratory scientist, she addresses the realities of scientific research, including its uncertainty and creativity. She shows the capacity of science to overturn existing paradigms, regardless of the interests that may support them. Turning to matters of gender, she discusses questions concerning "male" and "female" science (touching on the influential work of Sandra Harding), and rejects the characterization of science as ineradicably male. She shows how social constructionism has left its empirical foundations and become the underpinning for an epistemology and metaphysics that dismisses the existence of truth. She concludes with mention of the paralysis of postmodernist feminism due to a conservative and subjectivist epistemology.

--Jesse Lemisch


WHEN I WROTE "PSYCHOLOGY CONSTRUCTS THE FEMALE" IN ITS ORIGINAL FORM in 1968, the Second Wave of 20th-century U.S. feminism had begun to sweep the country. Transformation charged the air. Women like myself, who had been too intimidated to speak in public, were delivering fiery orations to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Women who had previously considered lesbian sex a crime worse than infanticide suddenly claimed that they had been dykes since the moment of conception. Even the resentment that women of different classes and races usually felt for each other was temporarily muted. We were creating and beginning to live within an alternative social context which, in turn, redefined who we were. Thus I was writing from a consideration of direct experience when I said in "Psychology Constructs the Female,"

A study of human behavior requires first and foremost a study of the social contexts within which people move, the expectations as to how they will behave, and the authority which tells them who they are and what they are supposed to do.

But what has happened to social constructionism! It is being used where it shouldn't be, and it is not being used where it should be. And where it is being used, it is leading us back into the cave, away from reality and away from an understanding of our world and how to change it. An understanding among mainstream psychologists of how important the social context is in determining behavior seems now to have faded from consciousness. We have a psychology which is again depoliticized, individualized and decontextualized, a psychology which is still looking for the allegedly true and different natures of men and women (for critiques, see Rhoda Unger, and Sandra Bem). Individual acts that cry out for contextual and political explanations are again being enfolded in theories of personality that look no further than individual traits or that invoke bio-psycho-sexual ritual curses, like, bad moms, evil primate imperatives, and rotten genes. Meanwhile, social constructionism is being used to clear our heads of the facts of social reality in an area which should know better -- feminist psychology. Feminist psychologists are averting their eyes from the larger barbarism of the social context in which we operate. They choose instead to put forth a notion of female difference which, while no longer biologically based, is nevertheless essentialist, or at least highly decontextualized, for example, Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (1982); Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace (1990). That is, they assume that female difference is fixed, rather than contingent on social context.

Feminist psychology has also claimed that females have a different way of knowing, or know different things than men do, and therefore that science, a male pursuit, is the wrong way to study women (Una Gault; see also Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, 1991). Individual biography, participatory interaction and something called "feminist theory,"2 also known these days as, simply, "theory," are presumed to get us closer to the truth -- "whatever that is" (Harding's phrase). Sadly, such challenges to science further unmoor us from the reality of women's lives, and make it even more difficult to figure out how we can fight our oppression.

In this paper, I will suggest that we feminist psychologists open our eyes once more to a larger social context and begin to focus on questions of social change. This means that we should return to an inquiry into power and how people resist power. Then, I will suggest that my focus on social change puts me at odds with the current feminist obsession with the limitations of science, an obsession which is essentially conservative.


I WOULD STUDY POWER (SEE FOR EXAMPLE UNGER; SANDRA BEM'S BRILLIANT BOOK, The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality (1993)). It is clear to me that if we are ever to replace our gendered, genocidal world with a less barbaric, more just and generous one, we must understand how "cultural, institutional, situational, interpersonal and psychological power" (Bem) -- and, I might add, economic power -- sustains the current brutality. Bem summarizes the task perfectly in her questions to feminist psychologists: "where is psychology's analysis of how power and privilege operate to maintain the status quo with respect to gender, sexuality, race, or class ... how power gets into the heads of both the marginalized and the powerful alike?" (Bem). I would add one other question as well: where is psychology's analysis of the brutality that accompanies power?

Consider the hatred, sadism and violence that men direct against women everywhere. Two and a half decades of feminist research, analysis and agitation have shown us the violence that women suffer all over the world. The UN reports that there are one hundred million females who should be part of the earth's population, but are missing from it (see Amartya Sen, "More Than One Hundred Million Women are Missing," New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990). Where are they? Rape, child molestation, wife beating, and murder are the dark underside of male power over women. Such eruptions of violence are considered "random," "inexplicable," a product of "male rage, out of control." But are they? Certainly, such action is not just random, but is rather to be understood within the context of a sexist ideology, which permits and promotes it. However, beyond that, this kind of violence seems to happen to every marginalized group: violence against the powerless seems to accompany every hierarchical culture that I know about. I am convinced that violence is an inevitable accompaniment of the interactions between the powerful and the powerless, regardless of gender. So, to repeat Bem's question, where is the feminist psychology that deals with this violence? Where are the explanations of how to get rid of this brutality? At a time when women are dying all over the world, feminists are questioning whether there is such a thing as objective reality. It would be putting it charitably to call this a diversion.


AND WHERE, IN ALL THIS, IS PSYCHOLOGY'S STUDY OF RESISTANCE? As long as men have power over women, our gender oppression will continue. As feminists, we need to oppose male power in all its cultural, institutional, situational, interpersonal and psychological forms. As feminist psychologists, we need to understand how this resistance can arise and the circumstances under which it is effective. This leads to a variety of questions dealing with: individual agency despite gender hegemony; individual defiance vs. collective resistance; the dynamics of collective resistance.

If we are to have social change, we need more than individual resistance. This may occasionally start things rolling, but it cannot change the relations of power by itself. The status quo is a social conspiracy against the powerless, and nothing is more feeble against a social conspiracy than individual defiance. We have to oppose power with power -- it's as simple as that; we need collective resistance.

As anybody who has ever tried it knows, it is extremely difficult to oppose power and authority. How, then, do we persuade substantial numbers of people to do it? In other words, how do we develop collective resistance? And how do we maintain it? Part of the answer is that collective resistance sets up an alternate context which in turn maintains the resistance. But it's a tricky business, and it often does not work. We know, for instance, from Stanley Milgram's experiments in obedience, that there must be more than one dissenting voice present to convince most people to change their behavior so that they move away from complicity with authority. Can we discover other such rules? We need to build an arsenal of such psychological techniques that will help us to initiate and maintain collective resistance. Alongside this crying need, much of current feminist intellectual activity seems like negligence.


FEMINIST PSYCHOLOGY HAS TO A GREAT EXTENT ABANDONED A CONCERN with subjugation and sedition and has begun to focus reflexively on issues of methodology and epistemology. If science is male, as many feminist psychologists claim, then women should avoid it. So, for instance, "Psychology Constructs the Female" has been welcomed over the years for its social constructionism, but it is now being attacked by social constructionists, on the grounds that it is naive about science and that it believes in scientific method. It is now thought by many feminist psychologists that scientific method is a useless approach to the study of gender.

At first, I was perplexed by these attacks on "Psychology Constructs the Female." The paper criticized a sexism in psychology that cloaked itself in the authority and grandeur of science. What better way to criticize this pretense than by showing that the psychology was sexist and not at all scientific? But now I understand the postmodernist feminist psychologists' anti-science attack on "Psychology Constructs the Female." The attack argued that science was a useless enterprise. And, they argued, even if the science had been perfect, the psychology of women propounded in those days would have been wrong, whether or not it met the criteria of "good science." I imagined that they imagined me at the most elegant resort in Monaco, where internationally known gangsters were meeting. I am standing outside wearing my science-nerd beanie hat with the airplane propellers on top of it, screwing up my little face, purple with indignation, and yelling, "You guys are not telling the Twuth! You pwomised to tell the Twuth!" As if it mattered. Even if they did tell the truth, they would still be international gangsters. In other words, how could I have been so naive as to think that science could have told us anything useful in the first place? Science, according to such feminist epistemologists as Harding, is a "western," "bourgeois," "imperialist," "androcentric project," whose knowledge is "embedded in social relations." (In the old days, we used to call this abuse of power "pig" science (Weisstein, V. Blaisdell, and J. Lemisch, The Godfathers: Freudians, Marxists, and the Scientific and Political Protection Societies (1976)). In short, Harding claims that science describes not ultimate reality but merely the relativist and subjective reality of those who serve it and those whom it serves.

I agree with parts of this characterization of science. I speak from 30 years of experience as a woman neuroscientist who has done insurgent research in vision and cognition that has often been infuriating to the scientific establishment, because of both my gender and the work itself. However, just because knowledge is obtained under androcentric conditions doesn't mean that the knowledge itself is invalid or hopelessly androcentric. Science often does not get us to the noumena, that is, to the ultimate truths about the world.

Our ideas are filtered through our cultural and social categories, the ongoing social context and our social rank -- but filters do indeed pass information, and science is one of the intellectual procedures that holds open the possibility of constructing a model of reality that works and predicts and that others can replicate. I believe science can not only change our relation to the natural world (think: penicillin), but it can also change our social world. (For instance, if we really could figure out how resistance to power arises and is maintained, then we could suggest ways to begin to dismantle patriarchy.) Science affords prediction and control, and therefore it can give us roadmaps for social change, providing us feminists with a plan for a kind of countervailing power.

Moreover, science has its own internal momentum which makes it partially independent of the social relations in which it is embedded. Arrogant, dogmatic and bullying as science is, the ideas of science do change when the old paradigms are found to be inadequate. Even scientific ideas wedded to existing power relations can be overturned. "Male" science can indeed be coerced into demonstrating truths that are considered "female." It happened before my very eyes. Brain structures that were considered incapable of registering anything but simple sensory information -- lights flashing on and off, and so forth -- have now been shown to figure out the most complex relations between the simple stimuli that they respond to. In other words, what Harding has called a "male" explanation, focusing on brute physical events, has been replaced by a "female" explanation, focusing on relationships. (See Weisstein, "Neural Symbolic Activity: A Psychophysical Measure," Science, 168(1970)).

What does this example mean? Does it mean that:

  1. female scientists' brains are different from males'?

  2. female scientists have different experiences from males?

  3. certain kinds of scientific discoveries are more likely to be made by one gender or another?

  1. Maybe. However, there is no convincing evidence one way or the other that females' brains are different from males in the structures relevant to science.

  2. Yes. Female scientists do have different experiences from males, and this may indeed open them to see things differently.

  3. No. Certain scientific discoveries are not more likely to be made by one or another gender.

Curiously, women in science do not seem to make gender-distinctive contributions. The evidence is that females don't really make discoveries that are qualitatively different from those of males, nor can their discoveries be characterized as "female." If you are not aware that the author of a particular scientific study is a woman, there is no way of divining it from the content. I have had many female graduate students as part of an effort on my part to bring women into neuroscience. Many of them have been brilliant and creative; not one of them has discovered something that I would consider unavailable to a man's brain or work.

But isn't the fact that I found something relational in my work on neural symbolic activity (females are good at relations) prima facie evidence that women think differently than men? Not in neuroscience, or at least not anymore. Most researchers I know, men as well as women, are now looking at neural response to relations between stimuli, and men do not seem at all handicapped in this pursuit.

Certainly in my field, neuroscience, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. But these deficiencies cannot be characterized by the crude categories, "male" and "female." And neuroscience hasn't yet begun to explain how agency works -- how the mind with its purpose, play and creativity can be explained by a brain full of mindless matter.

(I should add that when I first reported the above finding about relationships in visual processing, nobody believed me. Indeed, one colleague threatened to drive me out of the field completely. But others came along, with a variety of motives, genders and social ranks, ran my experiment in their own laboratories and replicated my results. My findings did not go away with changes in fashion or fortune. There seems to be an objective reality out there.)

I think that what Harding and the other feminist critics of science have in mind when they think about science is an archaic, hard-case, narrow endeavor which does not at all fit the realities of how contemporary science is done. It's easy to hate science if you don't understand the uncertainty, creativity, subtlety and anxiety about what is true which permeates contemporary scientific investigation. Harding has constructed and attacked a straw scientist, a way of doing science that lives on only in sixth-grade introductions to science. Such ignorance is widespread among leftists and feminists.

I'm still wearing my beanie hat, aren't I? I don't think I can take it off. Feminist epistemologists would argue that, although the scientific method may eventually lead to recognition of dissenting information within its domain, the domain itself is highly limited. But the domain is in fact practically unlimited. Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypotheses generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential -- from a person's social location, from their quirky brains, or from their utterly conventional application of "male" rules. It only asks us to make sure that our observations are replicable and that our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is, to objective reality.

"Objective reality"? OBJECTIVE REALITY. "There is no such thing," feminist epistemologists might cry, "or at least none that we could ever know.3 But here the argument stops cold. Whether or not there is objective reality is a 4000-year-old philosophical stalemate. The last I heard was that, like God, you can't prove there is one and you can't prove there isn't one. It comes down to a religious and/or political choice. I believe that current feminist rejection of universal truth is a political choice. Radical and confrontational as the postmodern feminist challenge to science may appear, it is in fact a deeply conservative retreat. It is deeply conservative because it denies what's out there, or at least it denies the possibility of our knowing what's out there, and how can we change what's not there? We are left with no practical ways to alter our murderous world.

Ros Gill mentions the "tentativeness," "anxiety" and "paralysis" of post-modernist post-structuralist counter-Enlightenment feminism . Of course, there is paralysis: once knowledge is reduced to insurmountable personal subjectivity, there is no place to go; we are in a swamp of self-referential passivity. Sometimes I think that, when the fashion passes, we will find many bodies, drowned in their own wordy words, like the Druids in the bogs. Meanwhile, the patriarchy continues to prosper.

It has been my experience that, in times of no movement, reality itself falls into question. In times of dynamism, change and movement, people abandon doubts about reality, properly seeing them as part of the conservative past which they are rejecting. The fog lifts. The fact of movement gives us a clearer picture of what is really out there -- what we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. We need a feminist scholarship which will, once again, be infused by, revitalized by, renewed by movement.

Women are subjugated all over the world, and with the consolidation of corporate male rule, our situation will continue to deteriorate. Let us return to an activist, challenging, badass feminist psychology. One hundred million women missing from the face of the earth. We can help to insure that future generations of women will not suffer this holocaust.


As I am in poor health with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, I am particularly grateful for the support, both intellectual and logistical, of Jesse Lemisch and Anne St. George.



  1. After first presentation to an audience of feminist activists at Lake Villa, Illinois, in October 1968, this paper was presented as "Kinder, Kirche, Kuche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female" at a conference sponsored by the American Studies Program at the University of California, Davis, in November 1968. The paper was published, more or less as delivered, by the New England Free Press and, has since been widely reprinted, most recently in Feminism and Psychology [London], III, no. 2(1993), 195-210. return

  2. Perhaps the best development of feminist theory can be found in Schwartz-Belkin, ed., Listening to Ourselves Talk: The New Feminist Project (New York: Ponzi Press, 1995). return

  3. I should note that I am delighted with the new feminist methodology as a means to develop better hypotheses. Biography, emphasis on the experiential and the requirement that those gathering information must be empathic, egalitarian and participatory are all, I think, great advances in our ability to know the world. But all these methods have their own pitfalls: biography and accounts of direct experience are subject to the fictions that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Postmodernist suggestions that observers can only be fairly observed by like-minded observers may make sense in some areas. But no interpersonal interaction is free from the distorting expectations of the participants. return

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