Harvard Project #2: “Man has Ultimately Become Superior to Woman” – or has he?

Following the success of last year’s collaboration, the Darwin and Gender project is delighted to team up again with students at the Department of the History of Science, Harvard University.


Students of Prof. Sarah Richardson’s Sex, Gender and Evolution course have used the correspondence to produce a series of projects on the theme of ‘Darwin and Gender’ and four of the most  thought provoking, inspiring and entertaining entries will appear here over the next few weeks.


Project #2: “Man has Ultimately Become Superior to Woman” – Darwin’s public and private views on women’s intellect, by Camille Zumwalt Coppola.

Our second entry was created by Camille Zumwalt Coppola. Camille is a sophomore student in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, focussing on the field of Modern and Contemporary Art. Theories of sex and gender as well as epistemology are central to the discourse surrounding modern and contemporary art, and Camille’s drive to learn about the history of her field compelled her to take Professor Richardson’s course on Darwin, sex and gender.


Camille’s engaging essay investigates what we can learn about Darwin’s views on women from his private correspondence. To what extent, she asks, were the typically-Victorian statements that Darwin made about women in Descent shaped by the need to please his audience? As Camille demonstrates, his real-life reliance of the help of women – in particular his daughter Henrietta – suggests that his private views on women differed from his public statements. Was this a deliberate crowd-pleasing strategy? Or did the intelligent women with whom Darwin mixed force him to revise his scientific theories? Perhaps Darwin interpreted the help he recieved from women as more moral than rational in character?


That Darwin’s views on women’s intellect changed over time is supported by his complex attitude to women’s education. See, for example, a letter that he wrote to Elinor Mary Dicey in 1877 in which he expresses new-found support for educating women in physiology. Whether the apparent shift that we witness in Darwin’s attitude to women was the product of his lived experiences of women, of post-Descent debate and the passage of time or simply a reflection of the more private and less constrained context in which he wrote is something which is open to interpretation.

See the first project in this series, The Amazing Dar-Man, here.


Posted by Philippa Hardman

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