Darwin and Feminism

As previous posts have shown, Darwinian evolution acted in some ways to shore-up established Victorian ideas about intellectual, breadwinning masculinity and reproductive, maternal femininity. In identifying patriarchal gender order in the natural world, Darwin might be charged with putting the ‘gender question’ further beyond debate than ever before, making ideas about the sexes the stuff of nature and science as well as culture and politics.


This, however, was not quite the case. A closer inspection of Darwin’s work alongside his correspondence reveals that the Darwinian canon was not straightforwardly conservative, particularly when it came to sex and gender. Alongside Darwin’s explicit conservative arguments about the sexes sits a rarely acknowledged, decidedly more implicit and subversive set of ideas and arguments about gender.


Tellingly, perhaps the most subversive element of Darwin’s discourse on gender appears to have remained unexplored in the nineteenth century, and indeed arguably ever since. At the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution (evident both Origin and Descent) lies an argument which centres on the concept of monism – a belief that the sexes are descended from a  a single, hermaphroditic life form.


As Darwin put it in Descent of Man, “Some remote progenitor of the whole vertebrate kingdom appears to have been hermaphroditic or androgynous”. In short, all life forms (and the two sexes) evolved from the same, genderless descendant or, as Darwin scribbled in a notebook on transmutation of the species in 1838, “every man and woman is hermaphrodite”. For Darwin, then, sexual differentiation was merely a process of speciation; having evolved according to variations in their environment and experience, men and women were different in degree rather than kind.


Perhaps because the notion of sexual difference or ‘opposite sexes’ was so engrained in nineteenth-century Western culture, those who sought to use Darwin’s canon to make radical arguments about gender drew not on his arguments about fundamental sexual monoism. Instead,  feminists drew, first, on Darwin’s methods and, second, on his linking of the animal, plant and human worlds.


Nineteenth-century Feminists thus turned their eyes to nature in order to offer alterative and – they believed – more objective readings of ‘natural’ sexual order. In her 1869 publication, Sexes Throughout Nature, for example, Darwin’s correspondent Antoinette Brown Blackwell applied her intellectual mentor’s careful methodology and his vision of a single animal, plant and human kingdom in order to highlight the unnatural character of existing gender ideology and sexual order.


Drawing attention to male fish who helped their females partners build nests and gestate eggs and to female insect rulers who took charge over the organsiation of their communities, Blackwell offered authoritative proof direct from the natural world that female inferiority was neither inevitable nor natural. The extent to which these sorts of ideas impacted in real terms need further investigation but preliminary evidence suggests that Darwinian ideas, methodologies and discourse impacted significantly on debates about gender in the nineteenth century.


What is clear is that Darwin’s work contained not one but two discourses on gender; while his work in many ways helped to sure-up established ‘separate spheres’ gender ideology in the West, it also presented a new way of thinking and talking about the sexes which had significant subversive potential for those seeking to rethink or reshape ideas about gender.


Indeed, it was perhaps the subversive potential of Darwin’s ideas and methodologies which helps to explain why we find so many nineteenth-century feminists (both British and American) among his women correspondents, from Mancunian leader of the suffrage movement and promoter of women’s education, Lydia Becker, to America’s most voracious nineteenth-century promoter of women’s rights, Phebe Ann Hanaford.


Posted by Philippa Hardman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *