While in many ways Darwin’s major works reinforced established Victorian ‘separate spheres’ ideology which constructed men and women as ‘opposite sexes’ with correspondingly opposite gendered characteristics, Darwin’s correspondence offers a less clear-cut and more complex impression of his and his contemporaries’ ideas about sex and gender.
A reading of Darwin’s correspondence alongside his published materials allows us to think about practices as well as ideologies of gender in nineteenth-century Britain. To what extent were Darwin’s ideas shaped by dominant ideologies of gender? And to what extent did dominant gender ideology impact on the lived experiences of the men and women with whom he corresponded?
1. What sorts of characteristics does Darwin identify as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in his published materials? [see extracts]
2. In his published work, what does Darwin say about the nature of sexual difference? [see extracts]
3. What does the correspondence add to our understanding of Darwin and his contemporaries’ views on gender?
4. To what extent do Darwin’s published ideas about gender and sex differences differ from his more private, epistolary ideas?
5. Why might the correspondence offer a different set of ideas about gender from the views included in his published works like ‘Origin’ and ‘Descent’?
Published Statements: Selected extracts
1) “And this leads me to say a few words on what I call Sexual Selection. This depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring….” Read full extract On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, (London: John Murray, 1st ed., 1859), p. 88.
2) “There is one other point deserving a fuller notice. It has long been known that in the vertebrate kingdom one sex bears rudiments of various accessory parts, appertaining to the reproductive system, which properly belong to the opposite sex…” Read full extract The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, (London: John Murray, 1st ed., 1871), vol. 1., pp. 207 – 208.
3) “Man is more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius…” Read full extract Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 316 – 317.
4) “Difference in the Mental Powers of the two Sexes… Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness…” Read full extract Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 326 – 327.
5) “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands….” Read full extract Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 327.
6) “…Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.” Read full extract Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 328 – 329.
7) “In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters….” Read full extract Descent (1871), vol. 2, p. 329.
8) “Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power of selection…” Read full extract Descent (1871), vol. 2, pp. 371 – 372.
Letter 1113 – Darwin to Whitby, M. A. T., [2 September 1847]
In this letter Darwin questions Mrs. Whitby, whom he had met at a meeting of the British Association, about the difference in the flight capacity of male and female silkworm moths. He also requests the results of experiments she has undertaken to determine the heritability of dark eyebrows.
In this letter Darwin writes to his fiancée, Emma, detailing the influence that he hopes her presence will have on his life and character.
Letter 4614 – Hooker, J. D. to Darwin, [16 September 1864]
In this letter, Hooker confesses his admiration of the affection which Darwin shows towards his children. Hooker discusses his great capacity for feeling and confesses his inability to cope as well as his wife with bereavement.
Letter 5576 – Haeckel, E. P. A. to Darwin, [28 June 1867]
In this letter Haeckel shares the news of his engagement with Darwin. Haeckel describes his fiancée’s character and details the influence that he hopes she might have on his life.
Letter 5670f – Darwin to Kingsley, C., [6 November 1867]
In this letter Darwin discusses ‘rudiments’ which, he says, provide evidence that all vertebrates evolved from a single hermaphroditic progenitor.
Letter 7123 – Darwin to Darwin, H. E., [March 1870]
In this letter Darwin thanks his daughter, Henrietta, for editing a manuscript version of chapter two of Descent on the mental powers of man and lower animals.
Letter 7329 – Murray, J. to Darwin, [28 September 1870]
In this letter, written shortly before the publication of Descent, Murray tells Darwin that he believes the book will be a success but will cause a stir among men. He suggests that certain passages might be “toned down” in order to minimise impeding general perusal.
Letter 8146 – Darwin to Treat, M., [5 January 1872]
In this letter, Darwin praises Mary Treat’s observations. Darwin encourages Treat to publish the results of her entomological experiments and congratulates her on the publication of her work on Drosera.
Letter 10546 – Darwin to Editor of The Times, [23 June 1876]
In this letter, Darwin forwards to The Times an article from Nature on the necessity of animal experimentation. He hopes that the article will make women in particular think about the benefits of experimentation to the progress of physiology.
Letter 10746 – Darwin to Dicey, E. M., 
In this letter, Darwin gives his opinion on the education of girls in physiology. He tells Elinor Dicey that he would regret any girl being denied the right to pursue the science. He believes that girls and boys alike should be exposed to the sight of dissection in the course of their training and regrets his personal inability to cope well with the sight of blood.
Letter 11267f – Darwin, S. to Darwin, [3 December 1877]
In this letter, Darwin’s daughter-in-law thanks Darwin for a welcome note which was left at her new marital home while she and her new husband, William, were on their honeymoon. Sara expresses anxiety about her domestic duties but explains that she will take lessons in housekeeping from Mrs Cutting.
Letter 13607 – Darwin to Kennard, C. A., [9 January 1882]
In this letter, Darwin responds to Caroline Kennard’s enquiry about statements made about the sexes in Descent. Darwin reasserts his belief that women are men’s moral superiors and intellectual inferiors but acknowledges the cultural, as opposed to biological, nature of sex differences.
Anon., The English Matron: A practical manual for young wives, (London, 1846).
Anon., The English Gentlewoman: A practical manual for young ladies on their entrance to society, (Third edition, London, 1846).
Landells, W., True Manhood: its Nature, Foundation and Development, (London, 1861).
Smiles, S., Self-Help: With illustrations of Character and Conduct, (London, 1855).
Stickney-Ellis, S., The Wives of England: Their Relative Duties, Domestic Influence and Social Obligations, (London, 1843).
Browne, J. Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography, (London, 2006), chapter 4: Controversy, pp. 84 – 117.
Davidoff, L. and Hall, C., Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Routledge, 2002).
Hubbard, R., The Politics of Women’s Biology, (Rutgers, 1997), chapter 7: Have Only Men Evolved?, pp. 87 – 106.
Kaye, R., ‘The Flirtation of the Species: Darwinian Sexual Selection and Victorian Narrative’ in The Flirt’s Tragedy: Desire Without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction, (Virginia, 2002), pp. 84-117.
Laqueur, T., Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Harvard University Press, 1991), chapter 5.
Richards, E., ‘Redrawing the Boundaries: Darwinian Science and Victorian Women Intellectuals’ in B. Lightman (ed.), Victorian Science in Context, (University of Press, 1997), pp. 119-142.
Rosser, S. V., Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present, (California, 2008), particularly the conclusion.
Vickery, A., ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres: A review of the categories and chronology of English women’s history’, Historical Journal , 36 (1993), pp. 383-414.