Evolution and Feminism in Nineteenth Century America

Kimberly A. Hamlin’s book From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America is a triumphant argument for the ways in which evolutionary theory and feminism interacted with and supported each other in the nineteenth century. Her investigations of the push for birth control and reproductive choice is startlingly relevant to America today.

Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution is startlingly relevant to the tumultuous politics of reproductive rights and female autonomy in America today. If you’ve kept up with the news at all over the past few weeks, you could hardly have missed the fact Alabama just instituted an abortion ban, and more than handful of states are implementing restrictions of their own. Women’s reproductive choices and bodily autonomy are, apparently, up for debate once again. I’ve had Hamlin’s book sitting on my shelf for a while now, and it suddenly seemed like an extremely appropriate time to read and review it. And I cannot recommend it enough.

Hamlin begins with Eve’s curse. Christian or not, most people in America know the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis — or at least the part about Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The original sin, in which Eve convinced Adam to partake in the forbidden fruit and they are subsequently cast out of the paradise God created for them, has long had negative ramifications for women, specifically the pain of childbirth. Eve was also subsequently created from Adam’s rib, meant to be a “helpmeet” for him, therefore earning women their secondary position to men. Then, along comes Darwin with his theory of evolution, casting significant doubt on the idea that the human race descended from the pair cast out of the Garden of Eden. In fact, his theory cast a lot of doubt on the idea humans were specially created at all.

But we know Darwin was no feminist. How then, could his theory have bolstered the feminist movement in the nineteenth century? “Even though Darwin and most other nineteenth-century scientists believed that evolution, like Genesis, demanded women’s subservience to men and total devotion to maternity, his theory of evolution contained the seeds of radical interpretations as well as conventional ones,” writes Hamlin. “Many feminists and other reformers were keen to these revolutionary insights and embraced evolutionary science as an ally.”

In the late 1800’s, the United States was captivated by the implications of Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, and perhaps none more so than those involved in the budding feminist movement. “For those readers who were already inclined to challenge the existing order, Darwin provided the scientific justification to question whether or not patriarchy, monogamy, and female domesticity were in fact natural…Sexual selection theory also introduced the provocative and potentially radical concept of female choice of sexual partners, providing attentive readers with a new way to think about sexual relations and power systems.” Hamlin explores these radical concepts in depth throughout the rest of the book, relying on the writings of a handful of prominent feminist thinkers whose messages grew from Darwin’s revolutionary theories. Leading into this research, she writes, “perhaps the most notable aspect of the American reception of The Descent of Man is that so many women enlisted it for feminist purposes.”

It’s important to remember that science, at this time, was still an ambiguous and all-encompassing term for the research happening in many fields at the time — it was also becoming more masculine and exclusive with each passing decade. “Even though women were, for the most part, excluded from the institutionalization of science, they, too, were inspired by Darwin, especially his materialistic explanation of organic life,” writes Hamlin. This materialistic explanation came at exactly the right time for some feminist thinkers, who saw the belief of creation, Eve’s transgression, and patriarchal Christianity as repressive for women, because “Evolutionary science…allowed women to contemplate a world free from gendered biblical restrictions.”

In the first chapter, Hamlin references feminist Helen Hamilton Gardener’s 1885 essay “Men, Women, and Gods”. The quote she drew made me sit bolt upright: “It is always a surprise to me that women will sit, year after year, and be told that, because of a story as silly and childish as it is unjust, she is responsible for all the ills of life.” “That because, forsooth, some thousands of years ago a woman was so horribly wicked as to eat an apple, she must and should occupy a humble and penitent position, and remain forever subject to the dictates of ecclesiastical pretenders.” Then, Gardener writes with finality, “The morals of the nineteenth century have outgrown the Bible….we, who are fortunate enough to live in the same age with Charles Darwin, know [the Bible] to be the expression of a low social condition untempered by the light of science.”

I cannot tell you what it was like to read those words and know that two centuries ago, a feminist was writing that the morals of her century have outgrown the Bible — as I sit here (a feminist, a woman in science, and an ex-Christian), writing about how America needs to shed the repressive Christian doctrine that holds back women as well as science. It’s difficult to express the depth of how reading that part of Hamlin’s book impacted me, but tears rolled down my cheeks. Have we made no progress? Surely if Gardener could see what women have achieved today, she would be glad and say we have. And yet, at the same time, we are still struggling to protect the right to birth control, abortion, equal pay, and fight everyday sexism around us — which continues to be reinforced by the pseudo-morals of conservative Christianity.

In the nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory of evolution was especially powerful for “presenting an alternative creation story,” thereby offering “to revolutionize popular thinking about gender and sex difference.” But the women (and men) writing about this were not immune to a serious flaw of the time: chasing the rights of white women at the expense of people of color. “As the historian Louise Michele Newman and others have persuasively argued, white racial superiority was a core element of women’s rights rhetoric, and women often invoked evolutionary discourse regarding the racial hierarchy of civilization to support suffrage arguments based on whiteness,” Hamlin writes. Unfortunately, white women placed themselves at the top of the hierarchy with white men as they advocated for the vote, ignoring the needs of others who could have benefited from the suffrage movement. As the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment was this month, it’s important to note that it only granted the vote to white women. Hamlin does a great job recognizing and addressing the inherent whiteness of the women’s suffrage movement without discrediting the work some of the women did do for people of color.

One of the ways Darwin’s theory worked inclusively in favor for all women was opening up opposition to the authority of the Christian church, whose doctrine preached the subordination of women and encouraged it as a form of godliness and an example of faith. The more obedient and compliant with her place a woman was, the greater her reward in heaven. Gender equality threatened the patriarchy of this doctrine. “Recognizing women’s equality would ‘compel an entire change in church canons, discipline, and authority, and many doctrines of the Christian faith,’ [writes Elizabeth Cady Stanton], ‘as a matter of self-preservation, the Church has no interest in the emancipation of woman, as its very existence depends on her blind faith.'” Stanton also wrote, “The Bible rests simply on the authority of man, and its teachings are unfit for this stage of evolution in which the sexes occupy an equal place in the world of thought.”

In order to fight Christian doctrine that preached women were inferior, nineteenth-century feminists needed science. Darwin’s theory of evolution provided the perfect platform on which to build a compelling argument against Eve’s transgression as well as women’s natural (or God-ordained) inferiority. This led to the “Science of Feminine Humanity”, or the objective and scientific study of woman. In 1886, Smith College built the Lilly Hall of Science, “dedicated to women’s scientific studies and experimentation.” It was named after its donor, Alfred T. Lilly, who “was a supporter of women’s education, as well as a critic of Christian orthodoxy,” and who believed science and truth was equally valuable to women as it is for men. And as science made tremendous progress establishing itself as a formal field and distinguishing itself from non-science, the scientific investigation of sex and gender began to really take root. Spying an opportunity, women began to take aim at male scientists who claimed to use science and studies to assert male superiority.

As scientific debates about brain size and physiology raged, “In 1887, [Gardener] turned her attention to convincing the public, especially women themselves, that women’s brains were in no way inferior to men’s and that female physiology did not limit women’s mental powers.” In contrast, the popular thought of the nineteenth century was that “women were intuitive not abstract, imitative not original, and emotional not reasonable. Darwin himself said as much,” but it was a doctor an neurologist named William A. Hammond who first connected the idea of “female inferiority to the structure of the female brain.” The brain debate became public in Popular Science Monthly, and Hamlin delightfully describes the intense debate between Gardener and another female-inferiority convinced brain scientist in a series of letters to the publication. It’s worth noting that the scientists who argued in favor of women’s biological inferiority were greatly influenced by Christian orthodoxy: “The problem then was not science but science improperly practiced owing to the lingering influence of the Genesis creation story and its insistence on inherent female inferiority.”

Hamlin does an astonishing job exploring this debate. Although she is a historian, not a scientist, and her tone can be very academic, her book is a fascinating and riveting read for anyone interested in the subjects she explores. Because the book is only a handful of chapters, it makes for a brief, but intense, read. I can’t help but highly recommend it given the important discussions going on around women’s reproductive rights, and even the science around male and female biological differences and what that means in terms of “superiority” and “inferiority”. If you enjoyed Angela Saini’s book Inferior and want more like it, this is a good book to follow-up with.

One of the final, and most interesting, subjects Hamlin investigates is the role of birth control and its links to science: “In some ways, then, the ultimate success of the birth control movement might tell us just as much about the growing cultural authority of science as it does about the campaign for women’s rights. One might further argue that the particular trajectory of the American birth control movement owed much to the gendered (and racialized) development of scientific establishment (men on the inside as scientists, women on the outside as agitators) and to women’s enthusiasm for science, even though such enthusiasm was often unrequited,” writes Hamlin. “Drawing on science, especially evolutionary theory, allowed feminists, socialists, and sex reformers to claim that their proposals were natural and to attach themselves to the cultural prestige of science, which connoted modernity, research, and truth in contrast to the tradition, moralizing, and dogma associated with religion.”

Finally, Hamlin persuasively argues “Darwinian theory overturned Eve’s curse; inspired women to trust science as an ally; initiated the scientific study of sex; and gave women a credible, scientific concept to draw on in arguing for reproductive autonomy.” She breaks this down further into several succinct points. First, that the biblical conviction men are superior and women are destined to suffer during pregnancy was wrong. Second, that they needed to enlist science as an ally and third, think critically about motherhood and domesticity. Finally, arguments for reproductive autonomy were bolstered by the idea of sexual selection and evolutionary theory in a broad sense.

Hamlin concludes,

“Those interest in countering the claims of biological determinists would do well to recall their turn-of-the-century predecessors who saw in Darwinian evolutionary theory…the potential to revolutionize traditional ideas about gender and sex in order to allow for greater female reproductive autonomy.”

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer and professional bookworm. Wrangling horses and microbes in the Pacific Northwest. Aspiring old cat lady. Genderqueer (she/they).

One thought on “Evolution and Feminism in Nineteenth Century America

  1. Wow. Honor roll blog post here. Christian dogma has done so much damage to women and women’s right’s that it’s sickening to think about it.


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