FROM EVE TO EVOLUTION: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America by Kimberly A. Hamlin
Perhaps because the theory of evolution as articulated by Charles Darwin has received its share of blame for the darker side of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century history—most notably, Social Darwinism, eugenics, and genocide—little attention has been paid in recent years to the theory’s potential for fostering a socially progressive vision. A few noteworthy biologists, from Patricia Adair Gowaty to P. Z. Myers, have articulated a feminist vision using evolutionary theory as a starting point, but few feminist activists these days reciprocate the attention, due, no doubt, to the regular misuse of Darwin’s work to justify misogyny (especially in the dubious realm of evolutionary psychology). However, as Kimberly A. Hamlin reveals, there was a time in the feminist movement when women enthusiastically embraced evolutionary [End Page 157] theory, primarily to counter the Genesis narrative of sex relations, but also to further a scientific worldview that took seriously women’s experiences and potential.
From Eve to Evolution tells the story of how activist women in America responded to evolutionary theory, especially Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871), which details his theory of sex selection. As Hamlin notes, “Darwin provided the scientific justification to question whether or not patriarchy, monogamy, and female domesticity were in fact natural when so many alternative domestic and sexual arrangements could be found in the animal kingdom” from which humankind was no longer considered biologically separate (15). The first chapter opens by examining just how much the biblical figure of Eve served as the cornerstone of sex roles in antebellum America, immune to critical reinterpretation until evolutionary theory provided an end-run around her. Though the early days of feminist thought entailed much criticism leveled against orthodox Christianity, by the 1880s, amid resurgent Protestantism, “such arguments were frowned upon and ultimately jettisoned from the formal women’s rights arsenal as leaders prioritized mainstream appeal and expediency over radical critiques of patriarchy,” embracing evolution primarily as a metaphor for social progress (41). As the movement developed, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and those like her found greater welcome in freethought circles than they did mainstream suffragettes.
The influence of Darwin went far beyond merely dethroning old myths, for he unwittingly created a template for scientific materialism that allowed sex differences to be studied systematically—with the potential to overthrow traditional views of female inferiority. Hamlin details how women began actively participating in scientific enterprises and having their own experiences and bodies studied objectively, from Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi’s pioneering 1876 study of menstruation to the 1925 donation by suffrage leader Helen Hamilton Gardner of her own brain to Cornell University for examination and comparison with male brains. Meanwhile, activists and writers like Antoinette Brown Blackman and Charlotte Perkins Gilman employed a Darwinian view to “reimagine the relationships between husband and wife, mother and children, leading to demands for fit pregnancy, the equitable distribution of domestic labor, and, for some, the entrance of women and mothers into the paid workforce” (127). Finally, many women seized upon Darwin’s acknowledgement that female selection of mates was the norm in the animal kingdom in order, first, to critique as unnatural the apparent human norm of male selection, and, second, to demand greater reproductive autonomy for women, including birth control.
As Hamlin remarks in her conclusion, “looking at gender, religion, and evolutionary theory in concert not only helps us better understand the construction of gender and the development of American feminist thought, it also enriches our understanding of the American reception of Darwin, the ongoing controversies over evolution, and the science of sex difference” (170). From Eve to Evolution tells the story of early feminists and evolutionary theory with great clarity and verve, extoling the accomplishments of these generations of women without ever resorting to hagiography—indeed, their regular blindness to the plight of non-white women regularly comes to attention, as does Darwin’s own misogyny and casual acceptance [End Page 158] of racial hierarchy. This is a truly enlightening book, sure to serve for years to come as a model for the exploration of how science and culture interact.