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Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Gendered Forgetting:
Plants, Abortion, and the Politics of Knowledge
in the 18th Century Atlantic

Londa headshotWe know that gender constructs play an enormous role in shaping social structures, but what we may not realize, according to Londa Schiebinger, is how gender politics shape and have shaped so-called “objective” scientific thought.  Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science at Stanford, spoke to the CSWGS community earlier this semester at the first Gray/Wawro lecture of 2011, "Sex, Botany, and Abortion: the Gender Politics of Plants in the 18th Century Atlantic World."  Focusing on the passage of the Peacock Flower from the Caribbean to Europe in the 18th century, Schiebinger’s talk detailed how knowledge about the plant’s abortive properties disappeared when it completed its voyage across the Atlantic.  Why did this information disappear?  Why was the flower, planted in English gardens after its introduction to Great Britain, listed in the Pharmacopeia in 1728 as having “no known virtues”?  Gendered influences on the sciences, Schiebinger argues, often radically determine the formation of scientific knowledge.

The native and enslaved populations of women in the Caribbean in the 18th century knew the Peacock Flower induced menstruation, and midwives often prescribed it to women who refused to bear children into the conditions of slavery.  As trade increased between Caribbean islands and Europe, the Peacock Flower found its way from warmer climes to Europe, but while the plant itself crossed the Atlantic, the knowledge of its properties was left behind.  Few Caribbean women, Schiebinger argued, were sailing East at this time, and the abortifaciant qualities of the Peacock Flower constituted women’s knowledge that had difficulty traveling without the presence of women’s bodies.

Schiebinger concluded that the reasons were twofold for Europeans’ cultural ignorance of not only the Peacock Flower’s abortive properties, but numerous other abortifacients as well.  Firstly, the wish to counter fertility ran in direct opposition to the desire for countries to increase their populations, thereby increasing their wealth.  Furthermore, the 18th century saw the growth of new medicinal disciplines.  Midwifery slowly faded, and male obstetricians overtook women’s care and health.  Abortions became surgical procedures, and the herbal knowledge of midwives was lost.  Schiebinger traces many of the medical hazards of 21st century abortion to these very historical circumstances.

In addition to detailing how gender politics influence the development of scientific knowledge, Schiebinger’s discussion also focused heavily on the processes of agnotology – the study of how our worldviews are often structured by what we don’t know, refuse to know, or forget over time.  Agnotology has particularly influenced the history of women’s health in the western world, as we have largely ignored alternative methods of contraception in favor of surgical or hormone-based pharmaceutical solutions.  As the fate of the Peacock Flower reveals, local and global priorities of information have determined the regulation of women’s bodies, as a consequence of both the accumulation of scientific knowledge and the cultivation of scientific ignorance.