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Yes, Darwinian Feminism Is Real. And It's Growing
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis
is professor of history at the University of Florida. She teaches and writes about the history of science, including modern evolutionary biology, genetics, systematics, paleontology, and ecology.

Darwin and women. I’m sure the conjunction of these two words will arouse the passions of some students of evolution, especially if they have not been following the recent literature in women’s and gender studies now being generated at a brisk rate. Some of this builds on earlier literature that is critical of Darwin, the formulation of his theory or of its many influences; but as hard as it is to believe, some of this early literature is now over thirty years old. To be sure, the feminist criticism of thirty years ago was provocative, pathbreaking, inspirational as well as instructive (see Richards 1983 for one example), but is now only one aspect, albeit an important one, of a staggering assortment of scholarship that is enriching our traditional understanding of Darwin and “Darwinism” as well as modern evolutionary biology.

Some of this recent literature continues to focus on Darwin’s explicit statements about women and gender in his formulation of sexual selection, but moves it forward well into the twentieth century and offers us a more nuanced understanding of the gendered basis of modern evolutionary biology. Milam (2010) is a good starting point for anyone interested in more contemporary renderings of sexual selection theory and “female choice,” for example. Other historical literature builds on earlier studies on Darwin, and Darwinism’s growing influence on constructions of womanhood and women’s movement in the late 19th century Victorian context. Building on the classic study by Cynthia Eagle Russett (1989) for example, Hamlin (2014) gives us a nuanced and more positive understanding of the struggle for equality enabled by Darwinian theories, while Richardson (2003) adds to the rich literature examining Darwinism and the eugenics movement as it was applied to constructions of the “new woman,” in general and to reproduction in particular.

Yet another body of literature focuses on individual women who played vital roles in the translation, dissemination or reception of Darwin in varied national contexts. A biographical study by Joy Harvey (1997) of Clemence Royer, a colorful, but complicated figure prominent in late nineteenth century French feminist circles, who served as Darwin’s controversial French translator, is an excellent source for understand the mingling of women’s history, feminism, science and religion in France.  My own favorite recent literature involves close examination, and indeed recognition, of many of the women around Darwin who served as his enablers (in scientific terms) by providing him with examples or with their own knowledge of natural history. Nicknamed appropriately as “Darwin’s Angels,” they remind us of the fact that modern day evolutionary biology is built on a foundation of natural history that in the nineteenth century, and indeed well into the twentieth century, drew on the expertise of “amateur” naturalists, a number of whom happened to be women. Harvey (2009) offers us one delightful example of the many correspondents who have been neglected by Darwin scholars, while Gianquitto (2007) offers a scholarly assessment of Darwin’s many American correspondents who happen to have been women. Still more bodies of literature focus on Darwin’s family, his sisters, his daughters (Keynes 2001) or his wife, Emma (Healey 2001) bringing to light both the Darwin families involvement in slavery as a “sacred cause”(Desmond and Moore 2009) or in providing us with a window into Darwin’s more domestic arrangements (Derry 2009)

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Finally, let me close by stating that this is but the tip of the iceberg in recent scholarship emerging from not just women’s and gender studies, but also cultural studies, especially in the wake of the Darwin 2009 celebrations. I’m especially keen on approaches coming from visual studies of Darwin or his theory that include cartoons, caricatures or museum exhibits and other scientific illustrations that draw generously on women’s history or gender studies as well as American popular culture (see Clark 2008 for one fine example). Students of evolution may feast on the cornucopia of scholarship now available which is essential reading for anyone interested in its historical study.

Recommended readings:

Clark, Constance. 2008. God—or gorilla: Images of evolution in the jazz age. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780801888250]

Derry, J. F. 2009. Bravo Emma! Music in the life and work of Charles Darwin. Endeavour 33:35–38.

Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. 2009. Darwin’s sacred cause: Race, slavery, and the quest for human origins. London: Allen Lane. [ISBN: 9781846140358]

Gianquitto, Tina. 2007. Good observers of nature: American women and scientific study of the natural world. Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press. [ISBN: 9780820329185]

Hamlin, Kimberly A. 2014. From Eve to evolution: Darwin, science, and women’s rights in Gilded-Age America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. [ISBN: 9780226134611]

Harvey, Joy. 1997. “Almost a Man of Genius:” Clemence Royer, feminism, and nineteenth century science. Trenton, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780813523972]

Harvey, Joy. 2009. Darwin’s “Angels:” The women correspondents of Charles Darwin. Intellectual History Review 19:197–210.

Healey, Edna. 2001. Emma Darwin: The inspirational wife of genius. London: Headline. [ISBN: 9780747275794]

Keynes, Randal. 2001. Darwin, his daughter, and human evolution. New York: Riverhead Books. [ISBN: 9781573229555]

Milam, Erika. 2010. Looking for a few good males: Female choice in evolutionary biology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780801894190]

Richards, Evelleen. 1983. Darwin and the descent of woman. In The wider domain of evolutionary thought. Edited by D. Oldroyd and I. Langham, 57–111. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel. [ISBN: 9789027714770]

Richardson, Angelique. 2003. Love and eugenics in the late nineteenth century: Rational reproduction and the new woman. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780198187004]

Russett, Cynthia E. 1989. Sexual science: The Victorian construction of womanhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. [ISBN: 9780674802902]

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4 Comments

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4 Comments

  1. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for this nice overview of a literature I was not previously aware of!

  2. […] Evolution Institute: Yes, Darwinian Feminism Is Real. And It’s Growing […]

  3. Kimberly Hamlin says:

    Thanks for this great overview and mention of my recent book! To help people find my work more easily, please note that my last name is spelled Hamlin (no “b”) and my first name is Kimberly (one “e”). Thanks again and best wishes.

    • Ashle Bailey says:

      Dear Kimberly,

      Thank you for letting us know and we apologize for the misspelling. Please note that the correct spelling of your name has been updated.

      Best,
      Ashle