Darwin’s Women Film

Dr Philippa Hardman in the Darwin archive at Cambridge University Library

Dr Philippa Hardman in the Darwin archive at Cambridge University Library

To conclude the Darwin & Gender research project a short film has been produced. In the film Dr Philippa Hardman presents the project’s findings saying: “Darwin was no feminist, but our research has shown that his views on gender were a lot more complex than has been acknowledged in the past.”


As a man who, when working out whether to marry, once reasoned that a wife was “better than a dog, anyhow” Charles Darwin is not known to history as a leading advocate of gender equality.


Controversial though his views on other subjects may have been, historians have typically seen the great scientist as the epitome of the Victorian conservative when it came to gender. Famously, Darwin even stated that there were fundamental “differences in the mental powers of the sexes”.


Now, though, it seems that there may have been more to Darwin’s views on gender than he allowed into the public eye.


In his book Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin famously attacked John Stuart Mill’s feminist tract, The Subjection Of Women, arguing that: “Woman seems to differ from man in her mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness”.


The letters show, however, that in private he relied on a range of women correspondents for help with some of his most serious work. These included his own daughter, Henrietta, who was heavily involved in editing Descent – a book which counted as positively risqué by the standards of the time for its explicit information about sexual display.


Other correspondents included scientists like Mary Treat, the New Jersey-based naturalist, Lady Florence Dixie, a British traveler and writer, and Lydia Becker, the Manchester-based secretary of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage.


Philippa regards the stories that emerge from the correspondence as a message as well as an inspiration. “If we really want to honour the achievements of the women whose words we read in Darwin’s letters, we should do more than celebrate their lives,” she concludes in the film. “We should pick up where they left off.”



Learn more about the Darwin & Gender Project on our website and read more about the film in the Cambridge University press release: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/darwins-women#sthash.SKQakeJh.bmbmNjp0.dpuf

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