- Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830–1934 by Melissa N. Stein
In a recent issue of the premier journal Science, an interdisciplinary team of scholars called for the elimination of race from human genetics research. A startling call by any account, only time will tell how geneticists respond. One obvious challenge to removing race from this type of research is that race is already deeply woven into the scientific enterprise—and it has been for centuries. The processes by which this happened need to be better understood to reimagine this research.
In this readable book, Measuring Manhood: Race and the Science of Masculinity, 1830–1934, Melissa Stein offers a meticulously researched history of biological essentialism. Her explicitly intersectional approach, while challenging to write, is a timely contribution to our understanding of how race and gender together informed the emerging sciences of ethnology, biology, and medicine from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. While the discontinuities between nineteenth and twentieth-century medicine, biology, and ethnology and the current moment are numerous, Measuring Manhood illuminates the many continuities, in both ideologies and the material practices of science, between past and present that are easily dismissed as a thing of the past.
Drawing on extensive archival material from the papers of key figures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnology and sexology, including those who contested biological essentialism; scientific texts; thematic tracking of scientific publications; and visual imagery, this fascinating book illuminates the racialization and gendering of the body as it emerged as an object of scientific inquiry in the early nineteenth century. “Never divorced from the questions of the day” (29), racial science shifted with the times. Structured chronologically and featuring in-depth biographies of well-known and lesser-known theorists, she examines in detail the work of prominent scientists, the assumptions their work drew on, and the social policies to which their science responded and which it authorized.
In a period when distinctions between the various scientific endeavors were blurry and fluid, Stein takes care to show that these men were recognized as mainstream, not fringe scientists. They were professors at prominent universities; they were members of key national science organizations; they published prestigious books and articles that were deeply influential in pressing societal debates, most especially over slavery, lynching in the Jim Crow era, and eugenics. Many of the most prominent scientists, such as Samuel Cartwright, Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, Frederick Hoffman, or Benjamin A. Gould (who continues to be cited uncritically in the biomedical literature), will be familiar to historians of racial science. Members of the American School of Sexology, such as Frank D. Lydston or R. W. Shufelt, on the other hand, will be less familiar to readers. In different, overlapping, and unpredictable ways, all contributed to a hardening of ideas of race and gender [End Page 391] difference as rooted in nature, ideas which culminated at the turn of the century in what has been referred to as scientific racism.
From the early colonial period in North America, Stein argues that difference was an organizing principle of society, but one in deep tension with ostensible investments in equality. From Thomas Jefferson to nineteenth-century ethnologists, scientists increasingly grounded their theories of difference in biology. Indeed, difference was codified in United States census categories by 1790. However, race as a “natural” unit of scientific analysis was not yet a given in the early nineteenth century; it was “being made” in the laboratory of the United States. The first three chapters of Measuring Manhood offer fresh insight into the centrality of gender to racial science. In this period, “gender difference offered scientists a convenient reference point and foundation through which to frame their ideas about race as a nascent category of difference similarly ordained by nature itself ” (5). In turn, racial theories shaped the emerging field of sexology at the end of the nineteenth century.
But racial scientists and sexologists were not monolithic in their theorizing. Scientists of a variety of stripes brought their own world...