- From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America by Kimberly A. Hamlin
From Eve to Evolution looks at American feminists (the author’s term) who used the ideas of Charles Darwin to rethink how sex difference and reproduction shaped women’s lives and to challenge science to look anew at definitions of gender. Along the way, Kimberly Hamlin gently resists the pervasive suspicion that a drop of Darwinism taints intellectuals and leaders as partners in patriarchy and/or enablers of racial hierarchies. Hamlin believes that Darwin’s evolutionary science, in the hands of a small number of women, contained “the seeds of radical reinterpretations as well as conventional ones” (3) about women’s place. The objects of her attention find subversive potential in evolutionary science.
The book’s first chapter considers how a scientific story of human origin provided feminists with tools to challenge the story in Genesis in which a deity prophesies women’s subservience. This is in several respects the book’s weakest chapter. Hamlin highlights Elizabeth Cady Stanton but, oddly enough, seems not to have read much of what this women’s rights activist and social reformer wrote. There’s little to show whether Stanton fits into the book’s cadre of intellectuals and no consideration of whether an encounter with Darwin shifted her thought. Hamlin makes a pretty good case in the book as a whole that evolutionary science changed how certain intellectuals constructed an argument and also directed them into new areas of reform. Science affected process and substance. But she implies that feminism was born of Darwin, ignoring earlier agitations for women’s rights that pursued similar reforms with different analytical tools. Lydia Maria Child’s two-volume History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (1835), for example, was a thoroughly researched attempt to undermine both the myth of Eve and the separate spheres ideology of the bourgeoisie by uncovering variety across history and cultures. Early agitators for women’s rights relied on Child because her work illustrated the human construction of gender. It is easy nowadays to fault many of Child’s interpretations of her [End Page 530] research, but the fact remains that she published nontheological evidence about multiple aspects of women’s lives before she and her peers had ever heard of Darwin. Many similar examples exist. Hamlin’s contributions would be clearer had she examined what changed when evolutionary science interacted with rich and active traditions of reform.
In chapter 2 Hamlin considers examples of women laying claim to scientific education, conversation, argument, and experiments. She points to the hall for science built at Smith College in 1886 and the attention paid to science at congresses of the Association for the Advancement of Women in the same decade. Of particular interest to her are women who saw a potential in science to redraw boundaries of sex difference, chief among them Helen Hamilton Gardner. A writer and activist, Gardner grasped how science itself was gendered, and she challenged some of the country’s top scientists for their unscientific assumptions about women. Most famously, she promised her own brain for scientific study, assuming that hers would be found equal to that of any man.
It is difficult to explain Hamlin’s progression from one chapter to another in this work. She tells readers little of how her characters exist in the world: What did they write about before they read Darwin? Did they know each other? Did they read each other’s work? Does any one of them build on the work of another? Are we hearing a scientific conversation among women? The usual stuff of historical narrative is absent. Instead, Hamlin hypothesizes a series of stages or intellectual steps that carried women closer to liberation, explaining in her conclusion that this book “charts the preconditions necessary for reproductive autonomy to be conceptualized and successfully articulated as a demand by women” (170). Thus, in the first...