How Mistakes About Maternal Instinct, Explained By Imagination And Even Poetry By Victorian Scientists Including Darwin, Still Resonate Today

According to Robert J. Stoller in his book “Sex and Gender”, Herbert Spencer, an important English philosopher, biologist and anthropologist of the Victorian era said that

“Given women’s and men’s respective shares in the rearing and protection of offspring, women must have been endowed more than men with that form of the parental instinct that responds to infantile helplessness, that doubtless this biologically given specialized instinct conferred on women special aptitudes for dealing with infantine life”.

Maternal Instinct in a Victorian Era

This belief in the existence of maternal instinct was typical of the time. When the age of industrialization began, this perceived basic difference between men and women was further magnified by the division of labor.

The division of labor resulted in a large degree of division, even segregation, between the worlds of men and women. Women and children were largely isolated within the confines of home and hearth, while men’s lives were largely conducted in the social world of business and commerce outside the home.

Maternal Instinct and the Impact of Darwin

That concept of maternal instinct was one that Charles Darwin himself had written about. He rejected the idea that social feelings were acquired through experience, formulating instead what he called the “associationist doctrine“. According to this doctrine, humans, like animals, also possessed social instincts.

The fact that Darwin’s theory seemed to support the belief in maternal aptitude helped to solidify it in the form of rigid social structures. Darwin wrote in 1871 in his book “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”

“Maternal instincts lead women to show greater tenderness and less selfishness and to display these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree”.

The Ideal Mother with Biological Instinct

Quotes such as these were used to form society’s definition of the ideal mother. However, the concept of women possessing maternal biological instincts was never sufficiently explained by science.

It was explained instead using imagination, and even poetry. For example:

  • some claimed that the maternal instinct was located in the “cerebral organs of sense”(Van de Warker. E., 1875, Sexual Cerebration. Popular Science Monthly 7:289-92), which today we would call the brain
  • others believed them to be located in the “reproductive organs” (Van de Warker. E., 1875, Sexual Cerebration. Popular Science Monthly 7:289-92)
  • with one group further specifying the “uterus” (Thomas, W. I., 1897,  On a Difference in the Metabolism of the Sexes. American journal of Sociology 3:31-63)
  • some even claimed that the instinct was dependent upon the “mineral manganese“.

Relegating the maternal instinct to organs that only women possessed gave these theories further credibility.

Astoundingly, the fact that women’s breasts often produce milk in response to the sound of their babies’ cry was not included in this body of “scientific evidence”.

The Choice Between Motherhood and Public Life

Spencer also explicitly stated that parental aptitude, or maternal instinct, meant that women should not seek at all to enter into public life. Women today seem to agree with the first part, the existence of maternal instinct. However, most would disagree with the conclusions on maternal instinct that the male scientists of two hundred years ago reached. Their own conclusions might be stated in this way: The biological gifts of women to take care of children should be recognized, nurtured and respected in our societies.

What is strange is that even though they did not know what we know now through extensive research, somehow people knew that biology, to some extent, decided the fate of women. Many years later, in the aftermath of the feminist seventies, it still does.

However, there are many women who envision equal participation in the workforce and society, and this is regardless if the existence or scientific proof of a maternal instinct. According to Adrienne Rich, an American poet and essayist, women will achieve sexual liberation when they have learned to think ‘through their body’.

Adrienne Rich was one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century and one of the best-known American public intellectuals. In her book Of Women Born, we see Rich believed women need to connect to their

“our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly developed tactile sense: our genius for close observation; our complicated pain enduring, multi pleasured physicality”.

She definitely offers a different viewpoint than other liberal, socialist or Marxist feminists who see state childcare as a prerequisite to women’s liberation. In fact, she is explicitly opposed to any form of state childcare.

“The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers”

The American sociologist Alice Rossi has also changed her position from that of the liberal feminism of the seventies and rejects the concept of sexual equality. In her book “A Biosocial Perspective on Parenting”, she stated already back in 1977 that

“you do not have to do the same things in order to achieve equality”

This has become a classic phrase in the ongoing social dialogue on the topic of equal rights for women. To a degree, such reactions in the early eighties served as a kind of corrective pendulum swing from the extreme feminism of the seventies.

It was with this pendulum swing that biological essentialism was born. Terms such as “nurturance”, “community sense”, “family support”, “institutional innovation” and “volunteering” became much more in vogue beginning in the eighties.

Women should band together in challenging society to improve and foster childcare while recognizing and rewarding the unique talents and abilities which are bestowed by nature upon women. Indeed, future generations, for both men and women, depend on it.

maternal instinct
Young Mother Gazing at Her Child, William Bouguereau, La Rochelle, 1871

September 11,2015  |