Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Evolution Icon Evolution

Darwin: Why Women Are Inferior

Image: Emma Darwin, by George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a preview adapted from Nancy Pearcey’s forthcoming book The Toxic War on Masculinity. The book will be published on June 27, but you can pre-order now!

Any list of toxic male behavior includes disrespect for women, and Darwin bears some responsibility for that as well. He was convinced that males are superior to females — that man attains “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman.” He concluded that “the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” 

Darwin explained male superiority by proposing that among social animals, young males have to pass through many contests to win a female — and many additional battles to retain their females. Over time, he said, natural selection will favor the stronger, more courageous males. Although modern men do not literally fight for a mate, he wrote, 

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. 

By contrast, Darwin wrote, women at home nurturing the young are out of reach of natural selection; thus they have evolved more slowly and their mental powers are lower. (It was assumed in his day that males pass on more of their traits to their sons, and females, to their daughters.) 

Darwin did acknowledge that women have “greater tenderness and less selfishness” than men, and even greater “powers of intuition, and rapid perception.” But he dismissed these traits as “characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization.” Even women’s positive traits were devalued as evidence of their inferiority. 

Darwin’s theory thus gave supposedly scientific authority to the idea that women are intellectually inferior to men — that women have no ideas or insights that warrant male respect. Women were pushed off their Victorian pedestal and relegated to a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder. 

In reality, of course, the survival of the human species depends just as much on characteristically female activities like giving birth and nurturing the young. Nevertheless, evolutionary thinkers preferred to exalt the more typically male activities like hunting and fighting as most important for the progress of the species. 

Beasts at Heart

Other evolutionary thinkers likewise promoted theories of male supremacy. The most influential popularizer of Darwinism in America was the sociologist Herbert Spencer, who argued that survival of the fittest weeds out all but the most aggressive men: 

In the course of the struggles for existence among wild tribes, those tribes survived in which the men were not only powerful and courageous, but aggressive, unscrupulous, intensely egoistic. Necessarily, then, the men of the conquering races which gave origin to the civilized races were men in whom the brutal characteristics were dominant. 

How could women survive in relationships with such brutal men? Spencer’s answer was that women needed to develop the “ability to please.” It would help if they also acquired “the powers of disguising their feelings” in order to hide the sense of “antagonism produced in them by ill treatment.”

The lesson of evolution, apparently, was that men are brutal beasts and that women must appease and placate them, while learning to hide their resentment of “ill treatment.” 

Many leading scientists of the day agreed with Darwin that women were less evolved than men. Anthropologist James McGrigor Allan held that “physically, mentally and morally, woman is a kind of adult child.” Thomas H. Huxley, whose fierce defense of Darwinism earned him the moniker Darwin’s Bulldog, said even education could not lift women to intellectual equality with men. Since women’s inferior abilities were a product of natural selection, he argued, they were not “likely to be removed by even the most skillfully conducted educational selection.” There was no hope, apparently, for women to escape their inferior position.