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Posts Tagged ‘women in science’

John Stuart Mill, Vanity Fair (1873).

J. S. Mill, caricatured in Vanity Fair as "feminine" for his promotion of sexual equality

Charles Darwin is not well known as a promoter of women’s rights. Indeed, much of his work explicitly opposed the arguments for sexual equality put forward by first wave feminists of the nineteenth century. In The Descent of Man, for example, Darwin makes explicit reference to Harriet and John Stuart Mill’s early feminist work The Subjection of Women (1869) which, he said, ignored the fact that there existed fundamental and enduring “differences in the mental powers of the sexes“.

The differences in the intellectual capacities of men and women, Darwin said, were the inevitable product of the evolutionary process; where men had honed their brainpower and skills of dexterity through combat with rival males, women had evolved primarily off the back of their physical attractiveness and as such were creatures of beauty but not intellect;

“Although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives,” Darwin said, “…yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes”. Thanks to the workings of the evolutionary process, then, women were naturally inclined toward a life of domesticity centered around “the early education of our children” and on ensuring “the happiness of our homes“.

Lydia BeckerGiven his views on women’s intellect and their corresponding social role, Darwin’s correspondence with Lydia Becker comes as something of a surprise. Becker was a leading member of the suffrage movement, perhaps most well known for publishing the Women’s Suffrage Journal between 1870 and 1890. She was also a successful biologist, astronomer and botanist and, between 1863 and 1877, an occasional correspondent of Charles Darwin.

Initiated tentatively by Becker in a detached letter in 1863, the majority of correspondence between Becker and Darwin concerned the suitably a-political topic of botany. Becker provided Darwin with samples from plants indigenous to her home town, Manchester. She also provided detailed observations which helped feed into his ongoing work on plant dimporhism. In return, Darwin acted as something as mentor to Becker; he responded to her questions, gave feedback on her writing and advised on where best to publish her articles.

Letter from Lydia Becker to Darwin (13th Jan, 1869)

Letter from Becker to Darwin written on the headed paper of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage

Perhaps most surprising, though, was Darwin’s willingness to provide Becker with material to be used as part of an education initiative at her local scientific feminist organisation, the surreptitiously titled Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society. Thus, on December 22nd 1866 Becker wrote to Darwin to ask if he would “be so very good as to send us a paper to be read at our first meeting”. “Of course we are not so unreasonable as to desire that you should write anything specially for us” Becker said, “but I think it possible you may have by you a copy of some paper such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness.”

Darwin responded by sending not one but three papers to be read at the ladies’ inaugural meeting.[1] Whether Darwin realised that he was providing materials for a feminist organisation is unclear, although Becker’s use of headed paper and the enclosure in her letter to Darwin of the society’s first pamphlet certainly made no secret of her political affiliations.

Regardless, what is interesting is that despite what he said in the public context about women’s intellectual in-capabilities and designated social role, in private his thoughts and actions were very different. Darwin was happy to work in collaboration with many women like Becker. He encouraged women’s scientific interests wherever possible, frequently sharing observations, samples and reading materials with women across the world. In some rare instances he was even happy to acknowledge that a woman’s scientific skill and knowledge might be superior to his own!

Why Darwin’s private actions so dramatically defied his public statements on women is difficult to decipher. Seen in the context of attacks on men like J. S. Mill – whose support for sexual equality rendered him “feminine” to the Victorian mind – it might have been the case that Darwin was anxious to protect his masculinity. This might have been particularly important at a time when science was increasingly deemed to be a pursuit for strong-minded, rational, perhaps even pedantic individuals – all distinctly masculine characteristics.

As we’ve seen elsewhere, it might also have been the case that respectable men of science were required to tow the ‘establishment’ line, irrespective of their personal convictions. Regardless, what Darwin’s correspondence with women like Lydia Becker shows very clearly is that however dominant nineteenth-century gender ideology might appear through analyses of mainstream published material, we need to look more broadly and think critically about the impact of ideology in real terms if we’re ever properly to understand the nature and workings of nineteenth-century gender in all its complexity.

[1] In addition to `Climbing plants’, Darwin sent `Dimorphic condition in Primula‘ and probably `Three forms of Lythrum salicaria‘. See Becker’s letter of thanks for more detail.

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International Women's DayInternational 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 BeckerLydia 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 BlackwellAntoinette 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.[1] 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.

Botany for NovicesDarwin’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.

[1] 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).


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