The Loves of the Plants; February 1996; Scientific American Magazine; by Schiebinger; 6 Page(s)
From Aristotle through Darwin and beyond, observers have infused nature with sexuality and gender. The great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus was thus not alone in imagining that plants have vaginas and penises and reproduce on "marriage beds." Although naturalists tended to believe that gender was a given of nature, the traits they ascribed to organisms have changed with shifting notions of masculinity and femininity in Western culture. For Aristotle, mares were sexually wanton, going "a-horsing" to satisfy their unbridled appetites. But in later centuries, females throughout nature--with the exception of Linnaeus's lusty flowers--were said to evince a patient modesty. Even among insects, females were observed to "repel the first [sexual] attacks of the males" and, in so doing, to win the respect of their paramours.
Since the Enlightenment, science has stirred hearts and minds with its promise of a neutral and privileged viewpoint, above and beyond the rough and tumble of political life. With respect to women, however, science is not a neutral culture. Gender--both the real relations between the sexes and cultural renderings of those relations--shaped European natural history and, in particular, botany. Crucial to this story is that Europeans who wrote about nature in this era were almost exclusively male.