Empowerment of women definitely took a nose dive in the 19th century and slow social change for women followed. Most of us are familiar with the creation vs. evolution theory which is almost always associated with Charles Darwin, a scientist of the 19th century. While there were other scientists who supported his views even earlier than Darwin, he remains the predominant scientist of evolution.
He had other influences on social science besides evolution and two that still affect us to today are eugenics and the inferiority of women. Because of his huge and lasting influence slow social change for women was an indirect result. It is still hard to believe, but his beliefs about women and eugenics elucidated in his writings were not challenged until the 1970s in the scientific and public arenas. His beliefs have greatly influenced all theories, including the ones on childcare, motherhood in general and more particularly our concepts of the Ideal Mother.
Darwin’s Scientific Approach
One of the last things on the mind of Charles Darwin was the empowerment of women. While raised Unitarian (one of the Christian theological movements, known for its rejection of the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, predestination, and biblical inerrancy) due to the early death of several family members, Darwin became and stayed an avowed atheist. Since his work led him to disavow the Genesis account in the Bible, this made it easier for him to support his work. However, unlike Genesis which states that
“Then the lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
Darwin finally established that if evolution was the survival of the fittest, then certainly man was the ultimate goal of evolution.
Darwin felt the following,
“My object … is solely to show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.”
Comparing an assortment of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic arguments, Darwin placed Savages, who were said to possess smaller brains than the higher races, and whose lives were led by instinct and less by reason in an intermediate position between animals and man. Darwin extended this placement to include children, congenital idiots and women, whose intuition, perception and imitation were
“characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.”
Darwin, then felt that empowerment of women was only gained by serving under their master or caretaker. His view of marriage was that a wife did not set to be her husband’s intellectual companion, but rather to amuse his leisure hours and look after his person and his house, freeing and refreshing him for more important things. Although he had revolutionary thoughts on many levels, and accepted the social consequences pf these thoughts, on other matters social change was slowed down because of him.
Darwin’s theory was picked up by Carl Vogt, an anthropologist of the time who wrote,
“hence we should discover a greater [apelike] resemblance if we were to take a female as our standard… and because her evolution stopped earlier, a woman was “a stunted man.”
Vogt felt that the gap between males and females increases with civilisation’s progress, and is greatest in the advanced societies of Europe. There were other scientists who wrote papers along a similar viewpoint. The fact that their country was ruled by a queen during this time seemed to be of no mind to the scientific community, nor the other female rulers during this time including Catherine the Great.
Darwin’s Theories Spread in the Scientific Community
Moving along on this path, Darwin’s main point was that women were essentially a stilled part of the evolutionary tree. Further, Darwin felt males were not only
“more powerful in body and mind than women”
but had even
“gained the power of selection”.
Evolution was in the males’ hands. Women, consequently, were less evolved and this is why instinct and emotions dominated women, her “greatest weakness”.
Clearly, Darwin had no knowledge of genetics as it relates to inheritance of genes from both parents. He seemed to feel that since all evolution was taking place through the male, the female was merely passing on the results of evolution as determined by the needs of the male of the species. Once genetics was more thoroughly understood (see here), it underscored the difficulties with Darwin’s theory on women, people of color and his theory of evolution itself.
Slow social change for women as a result
Why were such easily disprovable theories clung to for so long? The answer is and has always been a loss of power and fear of the unknown. During the early 20th century, most of the world was at war, experienced several economic collapses and other disasters which led to a changed world. Many people associate change with chaos, slow social change with stability and history does bear this out to some extent.
A review of the history of the Mideast or Asia bears this out. However, in the 1970s, most longstanding views were being challenged, including the view of women as inferior. Study after study refuted the long held views on brain size, emotions and intelligence. Yes, men and women do look at things differently, but there is no proof one way is better than the other in every situation.
Thus, we have arrived at where we are today, where women can do many things that their grandmother’s or parents generation could not. This does not mean all is settled. Empowerment brings responsibility along with choices. It is clear that empowerment of women will empower the rest of the human race as well.
- Carl Vogt, Lectures on Man: His Place in Creation, and the History of Earth, edited by James Hunt, (London: Paternoster Row, Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1864), xv.
- Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (Ed. by Nora Barlow), (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.)
- Carol Tavris, The Mismeasure of Women: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992)