International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women, particularly those who have struggled to participate in society on an equal footing with men. Darwin’s correspondence is a rich source of evidence of extraordinary women who did just that; from international travellers and diamond prospectors to naturalists, botanists, entomologists and pioneering members of the suffrage movement.
Lydia Becker (1827 – 1890), for example, was not just paid secretary of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage, president of the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society, editor of the Women’s Suffrage Journal and founding member of the Married Women’s Property Commission — she was also a keen botanist, a published science writer and a correspondent of Charles Darwin.
Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825 – 1921) was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the United States, a vociferous social reformer and promoter of women’s rights. She was also a keen philosopher and scientist who, like Becker, published scientific works and corresponded with Charles Darwin.
The achievements of women like Becker and Blackwell should not be underestimated; at a time when science was deemed a gentlemanly pursuit reserved for the so-called “rational sex”, they were part of a select group of women who broke the trammels and defied gender ideology in order to participate in the masculine world of science. In this way Becker and Blackwell’s science embodied their politics; they attempted to eradicate inequality and make a masculine pursuit sexless and universal.
In real terms, however, Becker and Blackwell were far from the equals of Darwin and his male corespondents. Denied access to formal scientific education and refused membership of formal societies, women scientists existed somewhere on the periphery of the world of institutional science. While Becker and Blackwell were able to access the world of science through the private and appropriately feminine channel of letter-writing, their involvement in the public world of science was severely limited by dominant gender ideology which celebrated women as moral and feeling but ultimately irrational and thus destined by their nature to be domestic, nurturing creatures.
The notion of the private, domestic middle class woman was so pervasive in nineteenth-century Britain that scientific women often felt compelled to publish their works anonymously; Becker’s 1864 publication Botany for Novices , for example, was published under her initials, a strategy which – alongside her detached narrative and deliberate use of gentlemanly discourse – left her work free from any suggestion that it might have been produced by a woman.
Darwin’s letters suggest that while he was open to the concept of women being involved in the world of science (he relied heavily on women observers, for example), his default position was that science and scientific correspondence was the preserve of men. Thus, when Antoinette Brown Blackwell sent a copy of her Studies in General Science to Darwin in 1869, he assumed from its content and subject matter that its author – “A. B. Blackwell” – was male; “Dear Sir,” Darwin wrote in reply, “I am much obliged to you for your kindness in sending me your “Studies in General Science”, over which, as I observe in the Preface, you have spent so much time.”
International Women’s Day offers us an important opportunity to celebrate the achievements of great women past and present. Celebrating the achievements of women should not, however, make us blind to the cultural barriers which stood and continue to stand in the way of sexual equality. Today should not just be about celebrating the achievements of great women but also about appreciating the ongoing nature of their struggle. In a world where girls continue to be deterred from studying science at school and where women still find it difficult to enter the scientific professions, it is clear that while some women’s battles have been won, others – including that of Becker and Blackwell – are ongoing.
 For a discussion of the so-called “masculinisation” of science – particularly botany – in the nineteenth century see A. Schteir, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, (John Hopkins University Press, 1999).