At first glance, it seems Charles Darwin toed the party line when it came to the Victorian orthodox position on women. His brief, critical remarks on John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women” in Descent of Man, for example, helped cast him in a thorough-going conservative light.
In a short film based on her research on the “Darwin and Gender” project funded by The Bonita Trust and part of the Darwin Correspondence Project based at Cambridge University Library, Dr Philippa Hardman suggests a different, more nuanced picture of Darwin. This film offers insight on Darwin’s personal, private views about women, enabling us to untangle him from the Victorian conservative public image and providing us with a more complete account of Darwin’s thinking.
Hardman discusses how Darwin seems to bolster an establishment perspective in print, while privately and through his letters he conveys a different perspective. Through the correspondence, says Hardman, Darwin demonstrates his support of women in more unconventional roles, particularly in science.
This film brings to life examples of Darwin relying on women as useful and valuable members of his scientific practice: as scientific observers, editors, and sounding boards. While Hardman is careful not to imply Darwin consciously acted as an activist for women’s rights.
On that note, Hardman concludes with a firm reminder. In addition to providing insight into Darwin’s thinking, these letters offer a unique view on women’s lives during this period. They underscore the importance of remembering, recovering, and appreciating the voices of women in science, who attempted to gain an equal footing with men of their day.