Published by Education Intern, Jackie Guataquira
There are many eye-catching objects in the Museum, but when I began my internship, the one that I found most interesting was the human skeleton encased on the third floor. The label describes how prior to replica skeletons, real human skeletons were used as teaching tools.
The field of science holds itself to be objective and impartial, claiming to operate, at least somewhat, within a vacuum. The intent behind this goal of impartiality is to exclusively produce factual results. The truth, in my opinion, is that it’s nearly impossible to completely separate one’s beliefs from one’s work, including in scientific studies. The personal beliefs, at times prejudicial and discriminatory, of scientists have affected research conducted. In turn, science has been used to further the oppression of marginalized communities throughout history.
When I learned of the skeleton, with no sex identified on the label, I made a connection between popular preconceived notions of women’s bodies and the marginalization of the entire gender. For a long time in Western society, biological sex has been conflated with gender: male humans are men and female humans are women. The sexing of a skeleton, or determining the sex of who the skeleton came from, often begins by examining the pelvis; when there appears to be a bony groove, it often indicates the skeleton is female (Kralick, 2018). While there are examples of apparent differences between male and female skeletons, this isn’t a universal case.
The Western patriarchal society in which scientists work within has influenced commonly held beliefs, framing them to be empirical (Kralick, 2018). In How Human Bones Reveal the Fallacy of a Biological Sex, Kralick explains that the idea of differing pelvises “also depends on the general assumption that larger or more marked traits are male… This idea of a distinct binary system for skeletal sex pervaded—and warped—the historical records for decades” (Kralick, 2018).
Biological determinism, the idea that most human characteristics, physical and mental, are determined at conception by hereditary factors, has affected women in negative ways (Allen, 2015). Mari Mikkola (2017) shares an example of this from the late 1800s–the idea that men and women’s metabolic states functioned in opposite ways was used to bar women from political matters, the popular narrative was that they were “passive, conservative, sluggish, stable and uninterested in politics”. William A. Wilson (2017) writes in The Myth of Scientific Objectivity that “institutions and practices of science are still shaped by covert and overt misogyny and racism” so unfortunately, these issues can still be seen today, they just look different than before.
We are constantly uncovering new scientific knowledge, unlearning and relearning what we know about ourselves and the world we live in. It’s becoming more accepted that gender and sex do not always correlate, and even the notion of biological sex is being challenged as well. “Science keeps showing us that sex also doesn’t fit in a binary, whether it be determined by genitals, chromosomes, hormones, or bones,” Kralick (2018) states, noting how it’s not uncommon for people who are considered female since birth to later find out they have XY chromosomes, which are most often found in males. “About 1.7 percent of babies are born with intersex traits,” meaning that the strictly held idea of what biological sex looks like in humans can be broken out of.
Jon Bardin (2012) explains the case of Spanish athlete Mariá José Martinez-Patiño in the Los Angeles Times article “Olympic Games and the tricky science of telling men from women”. For Martinez-Patiño, Western society’s firm definition of biological sex had only been harmful. In the 1980s, Martinez-Patiño had to undergo a gender test as part of the qualifications for participating in the Olympics. The results that came back were unexpected even to her. It was “revealed that she had a Y chromosome, which normally makes a person male. She also had complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, or CAIS, which prevented her body from responding properly to testosterone and caused her to develop as a woman” (Bardin, 2012). Martinez-Patiño identifies as a woman and had been participating in women’s athletic events prior to this specific test that she hadn’t passed. The outcome of not passing was Martinez-Patiño being barred from competing in the 1988 Summer Olympics.
The origin of the test was as a prevention method from men participating in women’s athletic events, but it’s become increasingly apparent that “biological boundaries of gender aren’t always clear” (Bardin, 2012). Gender tests that analyzed chromosomes, genetics, and even hair patterns have since been abandoned as methods by the International Olympic Committee (Bardin, 2012).
This situation Martinez-Patiño faced is a consequence of sexism in science. In order for Martinez-Patiño to have participated in women’s competitions before her “failing” the gender test, she had to receive her “certificate of femininity”, which was essentially later revoked (Schultz, 2014). There are commonly held notions that women are more petite, fragile, and weaker than men, and these ideas permeate into the field of science through those that are conducting research. In turn, these scientific beliefs are used to further sexism in our society under the guise of fact. The athletic success of Martinez-Patiño and other women athletes are challenged when their appearances don’t fall under the societal norms of what a woman should look like and when they perform at an elite level.
Scientific knowledge is constantly evolving for our own benefit. In order for this to continue, we mustn’t be afraid to question what we currently hold to be fact. Ideas such as “socialization, the (dis)advantages associated with being raised male or female, or those that stem from social class, or geography, or race” (Schultz, 2014) do in fact need to be taken into consideration, because in the end “science is made up of fallible institutions and fallible individuals” (Wilson, 2017).
Allen, G. E. (2018, September 25). Biological determinism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/biological-determinism.
Carpenter, Morgan (2013). An Intersex Flag. https://ihra.org.au/22773/an-intersex-flag/
Clay-Adams Company (c. 1940). Human Skeleton for Study. International Museum of Surgical Science.
Gray, Henry (1918). Anatomy of the Human Body https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Male_vs_female_pelvis_LT.PNG
Kralick, A. (2018, December 25). How Human Bones Reveal the Fallacy of a Biological Sex Binary. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/social-justice/our-bones-reveal-sex-is-not-binary.
Mikkola, Mari, “Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/feminism-gender.
Olympic Games and the tricky science of telling men from women. (2012, July 30). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/science/la-xpm-2012-jul-30-la-sci-olympics-gender-20120730-story.html.
Schultz, J. (2014). Qualifying times: points of change in U.S. womens sport. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Wilson, W. A. (2017, November 1). The Myth of Scientific Objectivity: William A. Wilson.Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/11/the-myth-of-scientific-objectivity.
Jackie Guataquira is the current Education Intern at the International Museum of Surgical Science. She is a designer and youth arts educator based in Chicago. She has an educational background in graphic design and museum and exhibition studies and is currently attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, pursuing a master’s in Art Education. She has gained a passion for design and the arts, youth education, and community work through her educational and professional experiences.