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Women and the Great Darwinian Divide

From Eve to Evolution.jpegFrom Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago), by Miami University associate professor Kimberly A. Hamlin, proposes to examine "evolutionary theory through the lens of gender." The author seeks to show how key leaders of a "tiny but growing minority of white, middle-class American women" — such as Helen Hamilton Gardner (1853-1925), Eliza Burt Gamble (1841-1920), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) — "forged an evolutionary feminism."

They did so, we learn, by employing, among other things, a radically feminized version of Darwin’s sexual selection theory. It was, according to Hamlin, Darwin’s Descent of Man that "inspired some freethinking . . . feminists to renounce Eve and Christian orthodoxy all together, forcing a split in the women’s rights movement" (p. 22). These women used a particular reading of the Genesis story, not uncommon at the time, that made Eve a derivative creation of man from "one of his ribs" and then cast her as the deceived and deceiving temptress that led Adam astray into the Fall, guaranteeing her divine submission to man as God’s judgment. Against this exegetical backdrop, Hamlin’s dramatis personae become heroines freeing themselves and their sisters into the "liberating" land of "science":

Read in this light, From Eve to Evolution charts the preconditions necessary for reproductive autonomy to be conceptualized and successfully articulated as a demand by women. First, women needed to find a way to challenge the long-standing biblical conviction that they were destined to be subservient to men and suffer pregnancy; second, they had to trust in science and have reason to enlist it as a force for positive change; third, they had to think critically about motherhood and female domesticity and be able to imagine alternatives to patriarchal heterosexual gender roles; and fourth, women’s arguments for reproductive autonomy were bolstered by the natural precedent of female choice in the animal kingdom and by the popularity of Darwinian evolutionary theory more broadly. [p. 170]

Thus her book concludes in this revelry of partisan enthusiasms. This is history as polemic.

Darwinian Feminists — Strange Bedfellows

Despite her consternation at the "discord, misunderstanding, and exclusion" between many subsequent evolutionary biologists and women’s rights advocates following this "promising start," Hamlin praises "nineteenth-century Darwinian feminists" for pointing out that "science needs women just as much as women need science" (p. 171). Science needs everyone, who would argue otherwise? But in Hamlin’s hands science becomes the land of feminine promise with Darwin as the Moses-like deliverer of his freedom-loving, deliverance-seeking female firebrands. This is a bizarre mental picture indeed for a patriarch’s patriarch who talked about man’s "absolutely larger" brain compared to women and who argued that every aspect of intellectual life demonstrated "man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman" (see The Descent of Man, one-volume edition, 1896, p. 557, 564). Darwinism as a support to this narrowly construed women’s movement can only be sustained through half-truth, distortion, conflation, and confusion. A case of Stockholm syndrome? Perhaps.

Let us consider some phrases used by Hamlin in the passage quoted above. Is it fair to assume that women’s subservience was, in fact, a "long-standing biblical conviction" drawn ineluctably out of this singular exegesis of female submission and subservience? To what extent did Darwin’s sexual selection theory and his insistence upon man-animal continuity form a coherent foundation for a meaningfully "conceptualized and successfully articulated" demand for "reproductive autonomy" or, frankly, for any kind of autonomy for women? Finally, a question not asked by Hamlin is, at what cost was this Darwinian/feminist alliance forged?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic, No! Hamlin’s problem is that she gives only one of several possible interpretations of the Adam and Eve account in Genesis. The women who indicted the biblical account of Eve as relegating them to a servile status ignore less polarizing interpretations. For example, Barbara Welter has pointed out that during this period many feminists embraced the church as their special purview and even talked of the "feminization of American religion" with its "softening of harsh dogma, the exaltation in sermons and hymns of meekness, humility, love, and forgiveness, and the reinterpretation of Christ as an embodiment of these sex-linked virtues" (Women in American Religion, p. 7).

Hamlin’s patriarchal Bible thumpers must be counterbalanced against other religious leaders such as Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and Charles Finney (1792-1875). Hamlin seems to cast Finney as one of those "women should keep quiet in public" types, but in fact, as Nicola Hoggard-Creegan has pointed out, "Finney’s less Calvinistic theology promoted activism, and his egalitarian interpretation of Genesis encouraged women to be bold" (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 1287).

Furthermore, women like Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) and Catherine Booth (1829-1890), both of whom are absent in this book, had brilliant public careers as evangelicals. Why did the women discussed by Hamlin choose to indict the church as oppressive and obstructionist rather than follow a less strident course that was clearly, if not the majority view, an emerging voice in Protestant America? That is a question unasked by Hamlin. Instead she recounts how Isabella Beecher Hooker (1822-1907) and Catherine Waugh McCulloch (1862-1945) engaged in the absurd "I’m-better-than-you-are" theology of "proving" women’s superiority in Genesis, an approach that ignores the sex equity emphasis of Genesis 1:27-28. The fact is, whether one agrees with them or not, biblical arguments like those offered by N.T. Wright and J. Lee Grady can be made for full, active participation of women in the church, and they don’t even rely primarily upon Genesis or the creation story.

Probably one big reason so many of the women in From Eve to Evolution did not adopt thoughtful and serious alternatives to patriarchal Genesis accounts is that they, like Darwin, saw religion — indeed God — as irrelevant. They preferred the spurious "science" of Darwin’s sexual selection. While many naturalists of their day rejected the idea, Darwin believed virtually all animal and human traitscould be ascribed to natural selection, sexual selection, or both. For Darwin, in humans the male rather than the female took the lead in sexual selection. By emphasizing animal and human continuities, Hamlin’s feminists proposed to stand Darwin’s theory on its head and reassert the primacy of female choice in mate selection.

Of course, we know today that Darwin’s favored example of the peacock’s tail developing out of the peahen’s "choice" of plumage simply isn’t borne out in reality. Peahens, it seems, do not prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains. Nor such a preference much in evidence in the house mouse, the stickleback fish, or for speciation in general. One team of researchers led by Judith A. Howard found that in the balance sheet between biological versus social factors in human mate selection that the latter held sway. Even anthropologist and noted humanist Ashley Montagu (1905-1999) rejected the idea of sexual selection as a significant factor in human development and edited it out of Descent for Easton Press’s interesting "Collector’s Edition" in 1979.

I will have more to say on Hamlin’s book tomorrow.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.