Willa Cather and the Upside- Down Politics of Feminist Darwinism
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Willa Cather and the Upside- Down Politics of Feminist Darwinism

Of all the revolutionary ideas contained in The Origin of Species, none was more so than its account of women’s natural suffrage. Such was the power of the female vote, Darwin observed, that it drove men to “display with the most elaborate care, and show off in the best manner, their gorgeous plumage; they likewise perform strange antics before the females, which, standing by as spectators, at last choose the most attractive partner.”1 Men, that is, looked and behaved the way they did to suit female taste, so that it was women who defined masculinity. Indeed, on the logic of natural selection, this definition was literal: by choosing which men could breed, women determined the physical character of subsequent generations of males.2 As the nineteenth-century Darwinist Ernest Haeckel put it: “the outcome of sexual selection [is] the beard of man, the antlers of the stag, the beautiful plumage of the birds of paradise.”3 This discovery that men owed their beards to female votes was a jarring one for Victorian males. In an age in which women were denied the franchise, it threatened to turn the existing order upside-down, and Darwin and his male followers hurriedly moved to quell this possibility by claiming that in the case of humans female nature was entirely domestic.4 Yet even as men were trying to conceal the consequences of their own theory, a number of suffragettes seized on Darwinism as a potent justification for their cause.5 If nature had enfranchised women, they argued, then it was perverse for human society to do the opposite. In fact it might actually be dangerous: since better-choosing women produced hardier offspring, natural selection must have worked over time to improve female judgment. To deny women the vote was thus to risk the future of the species, and in America this argument helped swing a crucial voting bloc of men to support the suffrage.6 In the squalor of frontier towns and the violence of World War I, these men saw confirmation of the suffragettes’ claim that masculinity had lost its way, and so it was that when Woodrow Wilson appealed the Senate to pass the [End Page 114] Nineteenth Amendment, he deployed the language of Darwinian psychology. Claiming that women possessed a “moral instinct” that was “vital to the right solution of the great problems which we must settle,” he emphasized women’s natural prudence.7 Convinced, the senators responded in favor, fifty-six votes to twenty-five.8

In spite of this practical achievement, however, feminist Darwinism quickly fell into disfavor.9 Over the 1930s natural selection was invoked to justify a ghastly series of social experiments that began with the sterilization of the poor and culminated in the Holocaust, so in the postwar period feminists did their best to disentangle themselves from Darwin. Returning to pre-Darwinian defenses of women’s worth, they resuscitated Romantic claims of neolithic matriarchies, Christian ideals of feminine sentimentalism, and Enlightenment accounts of inalienable rights.10 More recently, many feminists have followed Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Toril Moi in appropriating phenomenology, Lacanian analysis, and other non-Darwinian psychologies, and to the extent that second- and third-wave feminists accept the notion of sex difference, it is usually a “strategic essentialism” that rejects biology for culture.11 Meanwhile, feminist historians have gone back to the suffrage movement and pointed out that Darwinism was hardly a straightforward instrument of equality; it was used not only to confine women to the kitchen but also to elevate white voters over black.12 Taken together, these theoretical shifts thus seem to suggest a permanent parting of the ways between Darwinism and feminism. Where feminism is open-ended and emancipatory, Darwinism appears constrictive, even deterministic. Where feminism is egalitarian and pluralist, Darwinism’s logic of fitness seems inevitably hierarchical. Where feminism is queer and transgendered, Darwinism’s reproductive emphasis cannot but be heteronormative. Whatever connection the two may have shared in the past, feminism has long since put it behind.

As I hope to show over the following pages, however, there remains something valuable...