We can see from this story of hormone discovery that the interchanges between social and scientific gender are complex and usually indirect. Scientists struggled with nomenclature, classification, and measurement for a variety of reasons. In scientific culture, accuracy and precision have high moral status, and as good scientists, using the highest standards oftheir trade, endocrinologists wanted to get it right. Yet in terms of nomenclature, only Parkes seems to have come up with the ‘‘correct’’ proposal, and his views fell by the wayside. One reason for this (but not the only one) is that in the struggle to get it right, ‘‘it’’ was a loaded term—denoting a variety of social understandings of what it meant in the years 1920 to 1940 to be male or female.
Whatever ‘‘it’’ was defined both biological and social normality. For example, Eugen Steinach proposed that hormones kept underlying bisexual potentials from appearing, abnormally, in the wrong body.92 Males made only male hormones that antagonized or suppressed female development even in the presence of female hormone. Females made female hormones that antagonized or suppressed male development even in the presence of male hormones. Each sex normally had its own sphere. Steinach’s views influenced more than a decade ofhormone researchers, including Lillie. But as itbecame clear that the body regulates hormones through complex and balanced cycles that involve feedback with the pituitary gland,93 the notion of direct hormone antagonism gave way, even though scientists such as Lillie held on to the notion of separate spheres.94
Because of their loyalty to a two-gender system, some scientists resisted the implications of new experiments that produced increasingly contradictory evidence about the uniqueness of male and female hormones. Frank, for example, puzzling at his ability to isolate female hormone from ‘‘the bodies of males whose masculine characteristics and ability to impregnate females is unquestioned,’’ finally decided that the answer lay in contrary hormones found in the bile.95 Others suggested that the finding of adrenal sex hormones could ‘‘save’’ the hypothesis of separate sex-hormonal spheres. In a retrospective piece, one of the Dutch biochemists wrote: ‘‘By proposing the hypothesis of an extra-gonadal source to explain the presence of female sex hormones in male bodies, scientists could avoid the necessity to attribute secretion of male sex hormones to the ovary.’’96
But scientists are a diverse lot, and not everyone responded to the new results by trying to fit them into the dominant gender system. Parkes, for example, acknowledged the finding of androgen and estrogen production by the adrenal glands as ‘‘a final blow to any clear-cut idea of sexuality.’’97 Others wondered about the very concept of sex. In a review of the 1932 edition of Sex and Internal Secretions (which summarized the first ten years of advances funded by the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex), the British endocrinologist F. A. E. Crew went even further, asking ‘‘Is sex imaginary? . . . . It is the case,’’ he wrote, ‘‘that the philosophical basis of modern sex research has always been extraordinarily poor, and it can be said that the American workers have done more than the rest of us in destroying the faith in the existence of
the very thing that we attempt to analyze.’’ Nevertheless, Crew believed that science would ultimately define sex, ‘‘the object of its searchings,’’ instead of vice versa. ‘‘If in a decade so much has been disclosed,’’ he wrote, ‘‘what shall we not know after a century of intelligent and industrious work?’’98 Despite growing scientific evidence to the contrary, sex must exist.
Scientists struggled to understand the role of hormones in constructing sex difference, in a cultural milieu awash with changes in the meaning and structure of gender systems. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle stunned the world by becoming the first woman to swim the English Channel, besting the preexisting men’s record in the process. Two years later, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. While the symbols were dramatic, far-reaching changes proceeded a bit more doggedly. From 1900 to 1930, gainful employment of married women outside the home doubled, but only to about 12 percent, and in the decade following the passage of the 19th Amendment, feminist efforts to infiltrate all corners of the labor market remained an uphill struggle.
But while resistance to complete economic equality persisted, during the period from 1920 to 1940, a major reconceptualization of the family, gender, and human sexuality took place. For example, in Kinsey’s famous survey, only 14 percent of women born before 1900 admitted to premarital intercourse before the age of twenty-five; for those born in the first decade of the twentieth century, the percentage rose to 36.99 Feminism, the growing popularity of Freudian psychology, the new field of sexology, and the increasing knowledge about sex hormones and internal secretions all ‘‘swelled a tide of scorn for ‘Victorian’ sexual morality.’’100
Diversity in scientific voices paralleled diversity within feminism itself. For example, some feminists argued that women could labor in any field on a par with men; others thought that their special reproductive differences made them deserving ofprotective legislation governing their hours and the degrees of danger in which their jobs might place them.101 By the end of the 1930s feminists faced a dilemma of their own rhetorical making (one, I might add, with which contemporary feminism also struggles): if women and men were complete equals, then organizing as members of one or the other sex made little sense. If, on the other hand, they were truly different, then just how far might one push the demand for equality? In 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt summed up the problem with precision: ‘‘women must become more conscious of themselves as women and of their ability to function as a group. At the same time they must try to wipe from men’s consciousness the need to consider them as a group or as women in their everyday activities, especially as workers in industry or the professions.’’102
Amid such gender turmoil, it was never possible to resolve the identity of the sex hormones. In 1936, John Freud, a Dutch biochemist working on hormone structure, suggested abandoning the entire concept of sex hormones. Estrogen and its relatives acted as ‘‘growth-promoters to the smooth muscle, stratified epithelium and some glandular epithelia of ectodermal origin.’’103 Envisioning hormones as catalysts would make it ‘‘easier to imagine the manifold activities of each hormonal substance.’’ He imagined that ‘‘the empirical concept of sex hormones will disappear and a part of biology will definitely pass into the property of biochemistry.’’104
While we should honor (albeit with some feminist hindsight) the intellectual heritage of hormone research, starting with Berthold’s experiments on gonad implants in capons, the time has come to jettison both the organizing metaphor of the sex hormone and the specific terms androgen and estrogen. What could we put in their stead? Our bodies make several dozen different, but closely related and chemically interconvertible, molecules belonging to the chemical group we call steroids. Often, these molecules reach their destination via the circulatory system, but sometimes cells make them right at the site of use. Hence, it is usually appropriate to call them hormones (given the definition that a hormone is a substance that travels through the bloodstream to interact with an organ some distance from its place of origin). So, for starters, let’s agree to call them steroid hormones and nothing else. (I’m willing to keep their technical biochemical designations, provided we remember the etymological limits of the naming system.)
A variety of organs can synthesize steroid hormones, and an even wider variety can respond to their presence. Under the right circumstances these hormones can dramatically affect sexual development at both the anatomical and the behavioral level. They are present in different quantities and often affect the same tissues differently in conventional males and females. At the cellular level, however, they can best be conceptualized as hormones that govern the processes of cell growth, cell differentiation, cell physiology, and programmed cell death. They are, in short, powerful growth hormones affecting most, if not all, of the body’s organ systems.
Retraining ourselves to conceptualize steroid hormones in these terms provides us with important opportunities. The theoretical near-unity achieved by hormone biologists at the end of the 1930s is dead. If any possibility exists for obtaining a meaningful, all-encompassing theory of action and physiological effect of these cholesterol-based molecules, we must leave the sex paradigm behind. Second, if we are to understand the physiological components of sexual development, and of mating-related animal behaviors, we must be willing to break out of the sex hormone straitjacket, looking at the steroids as one of a number of components important to the creation of male, female, masculinity, and femininity. Not only will we then start to see nonsteroid, physiological constituents of such development, but we will become able to conceptualize the ways in which environment, experience, anatomy, and physiology result in the behavior patterns that we find interesting or important to study.
One of the lessons of this chapter is that social belief systems weave themselves into the daily practice of science in ways that are often invisible to the working scientist. To the extent that scientists proceed without seeing the social components of their work, they labor with partial sight. In the case of sex hormones, I suggest that widening our scientific vision would change our understanding of gender. But of course, such changes can occur only as our social systems of gender change. Gender and science form a system that operates as a single unit—for better and for worse.