Lady Florence Dixie: a woman who had it all?

On October 29th 1880, Lady Florence Dixie wrote a letter to Charles Darwin from her home in the Scottish Borders; “Whilst reading the other day your very interesting account of A Naturalist’s Voyage round the world,” she said, “I came across a passage…of the subterranean habits of the tucutuco”. The Tuco Tuco was, according to Darwin, a “curious, small” mole-like creature which “never comes to the surface of the ground“. Florence Dixie, however, disagreed; “I am sure it will be interesting to you to know,” she said, “that tho’ this may be the usual habits of the tucutuco that there are exceptions”.


The previous year Lady Florence Dixie had spent six months travelling around Patagonia where she had experienced first hand not just the Tuco Tuco but a great variety of exotic species, as detailed in her book Across Patagonia (1880). Perhaps most famously, Dixie encountered a family of jaguars which, she explained to Darwin, “attacked me & followed me up a tree”. “In self-defence,” she said, “I was obliged to shoot [the mother] but saved one of the cubs from the gauchos”.  Dixie was so taken with the jaguar cub that she took him home to London with her. Affums, as she called him, lived happily with the Dixie family until he attacked several deer in Windsor Great Park and, as a result, was sent to London Zoo.


Lady Florence Dixie actively rejected a life of maternal domesticity; “It is all very well to declare that it is a woman’s business to bear children, to bring them up, to attend to household matters and leave the rest to men”, but some women, she argued, sought a different sort of life. [1] So, having fulfilled her duty to marry and bear children [2], Dixie left England to travel around south America, indulging her passion for adventure (specifically, her love of hunting and eating wild game!).


On her return from South America, Dixie was the first woman ever appointed as a field correspondent for the Morning Post (later the Daily Telegraph). She reported on the first Boer War and, later, moved with her family to Cape Town in order to investigate the aftermath of the Anglo-Zulu war.


As well as a traveller, hunter, writer and journalist, Dixie was also a keen political activist. She was a vociferous promoter of Irish home rule and women’s rights, endorsing votes for women and equality in marriage and divorce.  Like many of her feminist contemporaries, Dixie was also an active member of the Rational Dress movement, which promoted practical and comfortable clothing for men and women alike (most famously the unisex ‘Bloomer Suit’, pictured). She also played an instrumental part in establishing women’s football and, in 1895, was elected president of the British Ladies’ Football Club.


In 1890, Dixie published perhaps her most well-known work, Gloriana. A utopian feminist novel, Gloriana invoked a fantasy world in which men and women lived as equals. For Dixie, women’s lack of access to education, their lack of political power and the expectation that they dedicate their lives exclusively to child-rearing and house-keeping was, “arbitrary and cruel, and false to Nature”.


On International Women’s Day, it’s interesting to reflect on how much women’s lives have changed over the past 120 years.  It is perhaps striking that even today Dixie’s life remains remarkable for its peculiarity and variety. Educated, politically informed and backed by supportive familial and institutional structures, Dixie was able successfully to balance her multiple responsibilities as a wife, mother, writer, poet, journalist, traveller, political activist and amateur Naturalist. Whether we’ve come any closer to achieving Dixie’s sexually-equal utopia and whether women of the twenty-first century have the choices, opportunities and aspirations that were available to Victorian women like Lady Florence Dixie is open to debate.


Posted by Philippa Hardman


[1] F. Dixie cited in M. Anderson, Women and the Politics of Travel (FDU Press, 2006), pp. 122 – 123.

[2] Dixie married Sir Alexander Beaumont Churchill Dixie in 1875 had two sons, George and Albert, born in 1876 and 1878 respectively.

Darwin and Feminism

As previous posts have shown, Darwinian evolution acted in some ways to shore-up established Victorian ideas about intellectual, breadwinning masculinity and reproductive, maternal femininity. In identifying patriarchal gender order in the natural world, Darwin might be charged with putting the ‘gender question’ further beyond debate than ever before, making ideas about the sexes the stuff of nature and science as well as culture and politics.


This, however, was not quite the case. A closer inspection of Darwin’s work alongside his correspondence reveals that the Darwinian canon was not straightforwardly conservative, particularly when it came to sex and gender. Alongside Darwin’s explicit conservative arguments about the sexes sits a rarely acknowledged, decidedly more implicit and subversive set of ideas and arguments about gender.


Tellingly, perhaps the most subversive element of Darwin’s discourse on gender appears to have remained unexplored in the nineteenth century, and indeed arguably ever since. At the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution (evident both Origin and Descent) lies an argument which centres on the concept of monism – a belief that the sexes are descended from a  a single, hermaphroditic life form.


As Darwin put it in Descent of Man, “Some remote progenitor of the whole vertebrate kingdom appears to have been hermaphroditic or androgynous”. In short, all life forms (and the two sexes) evolved from the same, genderless descendant or, as Darwin scribbled in a notebook on transmutation of the species in 1838, “every man and woman is hermaphrodite”. For Darwin, then, sexual differentiation was merely a process of speciation; having evolved according to variations in their environment and experience, men and women were different in degree rather than kind.


Perhaps because the notion of sexual difference or ‘opposite sexes’ was so engrained in nineteenth-century Western culture, those who sought to use Darwin’s canon to make radical arguments about gender drew not on his arguments about fundamental sexual monoism. Instead,  feminists drew, first, on Darwin’s methods and, second, on his linking of the animal, plant and human worlds.


Nineteenth-century Feminists thus turned their eyes to nature in order to offer alterative and – they believed – more objective readings of ‘natural’ sexual order. In her 1869 publication, Sexes Throughout Nature, for example, Darwin’s correspondent Antoinette Brown Blackwell applied her intellectual mentor’s careful methodology and his vision of a single animal, plant and human kingdom in order to highlight the unnatural character of existing gender ideology and sexual order.


Drawing attention to male fish who helped their females partners build nests and gestate eggs and to female insect rulers who took charge over the organsiation of their communities, Blackwell offered authoritative proof direct from the natural world that female inferiority was neither inevitable nor natural. The extent to which these sorts of ideas impacted in real terms need further investigation but preliminary evidence suggests that Darwinian ideas, methodologies and discourse impacted significantly on debates about gender in the nineteenth century.


What is clear is that Darwin’s work contained not one but two discourses on gender; while his work in many ways helped to sure-up established ‘separate spheres’ gender ideology in the West, it also presented a new way of thinking and talking about the sexes which had significant subversive potential for those seeking to rethink or reshape ideas about gender.


Indeed, it was perhaps the subversive potential of Darwin’s ideas and methodologies which helps to explain why we find so many nineteenth-century feminists (both British and American) among his women correspondents, from Mancunian leader of the suffrage movement and promoter of women’s education, Lydia Becker, to America’s most voracious nineteenth-century promoter of women’s rights, Phebe Ann Hanaford.


Posted by Philippa Hardman

Women, Fashion and Frivolity

If, as we saw in an earlier post, evolutionary theory could account for the peculiarities and embellishments of men’s dress, what about women’s fashion? In “Development in Dress,” George Darwin argued that the apparent fancy points of men’s coats, hats, and cloaks ultimately derived from manly pursuits like horseback riding and sword fighting.


Given this emphasis on mobility and utility in men’s fashion, what perspective did he take on women’s dress? The answer is: apparently none. While “many things apparently meaningless [could] be shown to be full of meaning” in men’s fashion, when it came to the women’s raiment, George Darwin had only this to say:


Women’s dress retains a great similarity from age to age, together with a great instability in details, and therefore does not afford so much subject for remark as does men’s dress. [1]


A 1903 plate of an Ulster coat

In fact, George’s explicit comments about men’s dress implicitly reveal almost as much about women’s dress as they do about trousers and top boots. Where men’s dress was useful – shaped by the need to move freely and wield weapons – women’s dress was, by contrast, static in its fundaments.


If, as George argued, the Ulster coat was borne out of the rise of rail travel (the larger size of railway carriages, he said, allowed for bulkier garments than had horse-drawn conveyances), then the supposedly unchanging nature of women’s dress suggests the nineteenth-century transportation revolution simply passed women by. This, of course, is absurd. But George Darwin’s remarks reflect a middle-class ideal prevalent at the time which envisaged women as “angels of the house” – private, domestic creatures rather than active participants in the manly public world.


At the same time, in pointing to the “great instability in details” of women’s dress, George’s language suggests that women’s fashion was somehow frivolous and thus not an appropriate subject for serious research. He was certainly not alone in this view.


During the nineteenth century women’s dress was stereotypically ridiculous: large skirts, high bustles and plumed headgear alike were grist for the satirical mill. Mockery of women’s dress was so widespread that reference to its ridiculousness cropped up in the most unexpected of contexts.


In 1875, for example, a writer in the Live Stock Journal  - the premier agricultural journal of the nineteenth century - likened the restrictive cattle stalls of railway cars to ladies’ crinolines, concluding that he “should certainly not like to see any animals relapse into that narrowly got mannerism of dress in which women now embarass [sic] themselves.” [2]


But these extremes of women’s fashion were, of course, hardly the norm. Indeed, evidence suggests that the examples of women’s dress which George would have seen in his parents’ home gave lie to the images put forward in the press.



Emma Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

Emma Darwin, 1840, by George Richmond, ©English Heritage. Credit: Darwin Heirlooms Trust.

For Emma Darwin and her daughters, Henrietta and Bessy, evidence suggests that personal adornment took up little time and generated little interest interest. While Emma made pressing references to the pleasure of a pretty gown, and to the value of observing propriety in dress, she also spoke of the limits of fashion and – crucially – the importance of practical concerns.


Although she was rarely critical without reason, Emma did not hesitate to point to a fashion faux-pas when an unfortunate dinner guest “came in a low dress[,] and as every body els[e] had a high dress she must have felt rather uncomfortable I think.” [3] But it was her friend and neighbour, Lady John Lubbock, who most often drew Emma’s fire on matters of dress and adornment.

According to Emma, Lady Lubbock frequently dressed unseasonably (“She was so oddly dressed for the season in a white muslin de laine & a thin scarlet shawl”) [4] or inappropriately (“Lady L. in a purple velvet gown which is an absurd dress for a quiet m[eetin]g in the country[.]“) [5] Worst of all, though, Emma suspected Lady Lubbock was a follower of fashion: in the spring of 1868, she found Lady L. “at home in a white gown & enormous eggs hanging about her like Lizzy’s bracelet.” [6] This “extravagant” clothing, Emma concluded,  must “be in the fashion.” [7]

Woman "Bird of prey", from Punch, 14 May 1893

Even if Emma herself privileged utility in dress, her disapproving attitude toward embellishment and impracticality supports the negative views on the frivolity of women’s fashion put forward by men like George. But where did Charles stand on all of this? For him, the frivolity of women’s dress was the product not just of fashion but also evolution.

Men, Darwin said, were – like other creatures – innately drawn to beauty, as demonstrated “by our women, both civilised and savage, decking their heads with borrowed plumes, and using gems which are hardly more brilliantly coloured than the naked skin and wattles of certain birds.” [8] How Emma felt about her husband’s views on the frivolous aspects of women’s dress and how Charles felt about his wife’s understated attire is, unfortunately, something we we will never know for sure.

[1] G. Darwin, Development in Dress, (London, 1872), p. 411.

[2] “The Future of Live Stock.” The Live Stock Journal and Fancier’s Gazette, (vol. 2 : 64) (25 June 1875), p. 230.

[3] DAR 219.8: 9

[4] DAR 219.9: 51

[5] DAR 219.9: 39

[6] DAR 219.9: 57

[7] Ibid.

[8] C. Darwin, The Descent of Man, Vol. II, (London, 1871), p. 49.

For more information see also, J. Smith, Charles Darwin and Victorian Visual Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Posted by Philippa Hardman. This post was researched and written in collaboration with Rebecca Woods, PhD student in History and Anthropology of Science and Technology at  MIT, and a member of the Darwin Correspondence Project Harvard office.

What’s the difference between a peacock and a pocket flap?

George DarwinWhy do hats have hatbands? Why are there buttons on a cuff, or tails on a coat? What does a peacock have in common with a pocket flap? According to Charles Darwin’s son George, the answer to all these questions lies in evolutionary theory.


Shortly after his father published The Descent of Man, George Darwin (aged 25) wrote and published an article on the perhaps unexpected topic of fashion. In “Development in Dress”, George put forward the argument that every peculiarity of men’s clothing – from the fold at the top of a boot to the fastenings of an overcoat – could be explained with reference to the workings of evolution.


The oddities of men’s dress, George argued, were analogous to the vestigial or redundant parts of organisms – decorative features retained long after their original purpose had faded or, as George put it, “handed down in an atrophied condition”.  So, just as life on earth evolved across the ages from one form to the next, so elements of what was generally referred to as men’s “costume” had changed and developed over time.


Typical nineteenth-century Court wear

According to George Darwin, then, evolutionary theory could explain aspects of men’s clothing which, on the surface, seemed arbitrary and non-functional, perhaps even fancy. The purely decorative pocket flaps of nineteenth-century court wear, for example, were a feature which had been “fostered and exaggerated by the selection of fashion…then retained and crystallized, as it were, as part of our dress, notwithstanding that their use is entirely gone.”


George’s creative application of evolutionary theory to the finer points of men’s dress testifies that the explanatory power of evolutionary theory was far-reaching; natural selection could reveal the random as rational and bring meaning to the meaningless, whether in the multitude of life on earth, or in the peculiarities of dress. In George’s case, evolutionary theory and discourse offered the opportunity to put forward a rational and – as such – manly explanation for features of middle class men’s dress which might, on first glance, appear more than a little Dandy-ish.


Much-feared effeminate French DandyAt the time, the figure of the Dandy represented everything that a “real” middle class British man was not; he was shallow, over-refined, vain, idle and – more often than not - effeminate. [1] George’s work on men’s fashion can be located within a body of nineteenth-century literature which sought actively to define middle-class masculinity as something qualitatively different from its more effeminate, Dandy-ish equivalent. [2] The core message of George’s work was clear: Even the most apparently fancy vestigial elements of middle class men’s costume had functional, practical roots.


Thomas Rowlandson's "Royal Navy Captain", complete with manly pinned hat


So, unlike the showy plumage of the peacock which had evolved purely for its aesthetic value, the fancy features of British men’s dress could – if traced back far enough – be identified as having robust, utilitarian and thus manly roots. Men’s long flowing coattails, for example, had evolved out of a practical need to cover one’s back while riding a horse and saddle. Similarly, pinned or “cocked hats” (also known as Bicorns) had evolved from the decidedly masculine need to be able to move the sword arm above the head, should one find oneself suddenly drawn into combat.


In emphasizing function and utility as the driving forces behind the fancy elements of men’s dress, George Darwin helped defend certain features of middle class men’s fashion from accusations of Dandyism, effeminacy and un-masculine vanity. While it was important for middle class men to be turned out according to polite standards, a careful balance needed to be struck between manly refinement on the one hand and effeminate aestheticism on the other. The part played by evolutionary theory in the ‘manning-up’ of fashion and – more broadly - the construction of middle class masculinity was, in George’s case at least, crucial.


PeacockWhat did Charles think of his son’s article? Having read over the first draft, his only comment was that George should rethink the wording of a line or two. Given the generally highly critical nature of Charles’ feedback (even to his sons), one can justifiably assume that he was happy with the arguments put forward and the ends to which evolutionary theory had been put.


This is perhaps surprising given that, in Descent, Darwin argues that beautiful male birds like the “Dandy” peacock (as he called it) evolved fancy features purely for the aesthetic pleasure and enticement of females. When it came to human beings, the rules were clearly more complex. While in Descent the peacock “appears more like a Dandy than a warrior“, George’s article was designed to prove that, when it came to middle class men’s adornments, the very opposite was the case.


[1] For more on Darwin and the danger of the ‘Dandy aesthete and decadent’ see R. Kaye, The Flirt’s Tragedy, (Virginia, 2002).


[2] For an introduction to how hostility towards figures like the Dandy were tied up with tensions between the British and French, see L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, (London, 1994).




Posted by Philippa Hardman. This post was researched and written in collaboration with Rebecca Woods, PhD student in History and Anthropology of Science and Technology at  MIT, and a member of the Darwin Correspondence Project Harvard office.


The Public and Private Face of Mary Treat

Mary TreatMary Treat was a Naturalist from New Jersey and a major contributor to botanical and entomological developments of the nineteenth century. Over the period 1871 – 1876 she exchanged fifteen letters with Darwin – more than any other woman Naturalist.


As Tina Gianquitto’s research into Treat’s published materials has shown, in the public context Treat crafted a very carefully and finely honed version of herself designed to sit comfortably with contemporary notions of what constituted acceptably feminine behaviour.


Home Studies in NatureIn publications such as Home Studies in Nature, Treat’s dangerously masculine interest in the rational world of Natural Science was tempered by the use of domestic discourse and imagery which identified her work as appropriately feminine and – in so doing – imbued it with an important sense of sexual hierarchy.


In speaking collectively (“Our Familiar Birds”, for example) Treat minimised the distance between her and her audience, in the process differentiating her brand of science from its detached, disinterested and characteristically masculine ‘expert’ equivalent.


Treat’s private correspodence raises some interesting questions about the extent to which Treat’s public self was the result of a deliberate strategy and the extent to which it was the inevitable product of the implicit workings of culture.


Asa GrayThe Treat we encounter in the corresopdence is undoubtedly more complex than her public equivalent. Indeed, one of the first things which leaps out on a reading of her first letter to Darwin is the fact that she wrote at the request of their mutual friend and colleague, Asa Gray. From the very off, then, we see Treat in quite different terms — she is part of the very network of experts from whom she actively differentiated herself in the public context.



Treat's first letter to DarwinIn her correspondence with Darwin, Treat communicates in a tone at once more confident, authoritative and direct. In her first letter, for example, she confidently declared that, “I will give you my observations on Drosera, which have escaped the attention of botanists”. Treat’s language too is more notably technical and ‘expert’ in the private context. While describing her ground breaking experiments on the sex of butterflies, for example, she explained to Darwin that, “These larvae fed on two quite dissimilar Umbelliferous plants—the Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), and the Caraway of the gardens (Carum Carni)”.


While her private voice is undoubtedly more confident, confrontational and recognisably ‘scientific’ in character than its public equivalent, Treat’s dual identities were not entirely separate. While she was more likely to use technical language in her private correspondence, for example, her scientific jargon was consistently framed within very colourfully described, storytelling-style narratives which had strong echoes of her published work. In the process of describing her experiments to Darwin, for example, she often cast insects as courageous “little fellows” who were embroiled in a tragic and ultimately unsuccessful struggle for survival.


Treat’s correspondence also sometimes contains incidental details about her home which, again, helps align it with her familiar,  ’non expert’ published works. She first undertook observations of Drosera, she told Darwin in one letter, when she found that “I had two or three species of these pretty plants growing for window ornaments“.


The extent to which Treat was able to escape the confines of Victorian gender ideology is thus open to debate. While she showed considerable agency in her ability carefully to craft a palatable public persona, the characteristically feminine elements of her private epistolary voice suggests she was perhaps to some extent restricted by the implicit workings of culture and the influence it had on the way she saw and described the world around her.


Nymphaea mexicana - one of Mary Treat's original discoveries

Perhaps most telling was Treat’s tendency in the public and private contexts alike to differentiate herself from ‘experts’ . Despite her ground breaking experiments, despite her large body of published work and her “considerable Botanical success” (as Darwin described it) , Treat never aligned herself with with ‘real’ Natural Scientists. The extent to which her subordinate sense of self was tied up with contemporary gender ideology is a question well worth considering.


Posted by Philippa Hardman

“One of the cleverest and oddest women in Europe”

Getting Origin translated into French was harder than Darwin had expected.  The first translator he approached, Madame Belloc, turned him down on the grounds that the content was ‘too scientific‘, and then in 1860 the French political exile  Pierre Talandier rescinded his offer to translate it on the grounds that no publisher was willing to work with such a politically controversial figure. Shortly after, Darwin’s luck changed when Clemence Royer, a French author and economist living in Geneva, agreed to translate Origin into French.


Royer was an extraordinary nineteenth-century woman; a politically active left-wing thinker, she promoted social progression and advocated women’s rights. Royer’s unconventional outlook echoed through her private life, living openly as she did with a married man. Unfortunately for Darwin, her radical politics echoed also through her translation of Origin.

First published in 1862, Royer’s translation of Origin was remarkable. Prefaced with a long anti-clerical rant, Royer added numerous footnotes to the body of Origin which over-ruled Darwin’s apologetic tone. She also took the opportunity to explore the issue of eugenics, to alert readers to the perils of nineteenth-century marriage and to ‘correct’ Darwin’s theory of an ongoing, universal war in nature. Royer even went so far as to edit Origin‘s title, inserting the non-Darwinian, distinctly Lamarckian phrase  ”laws of progress” into her revised subtitle.


Unsurprisingly, on reading Royer’s ‘translation’ of Origin Darwin was perplexed to say the least; “I received 2 or 3 days ago”, he told Asa Gray in 1862, “a French Translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe”. Royer, he said, was an “ardent Deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politicks &c &c!!!.” ”Almost everywhere in Origin,” he told Joseph Hooker, “when I express great doubt, she [Royer] appends a note explaining the difficulty or saying that there is none whatever!! It is really curious to know what conceited people there are in the world”.


Royer’s translation of Origin was often poorly-informed and undeniably politicised. What is interesting, however, is that criticisms of her work always made reference to her sex. In 1862, Edouard Claparede wrote to Darwin to explain that he had tried but failed to prevent Royer from “disfiguring your work completely”. “Mlle. Royer”, he concluded, “is a singular individual whose attractions are not those of her sex”. Here, Claparede echoed the sentiment of French philosopher Ernest Renan who famously described Royer as “almost a man of genius”. [1]

To rewrite and actively politicise another’s work was not just bad scientific practice – it was also, and more importantly, a decidedly masculine way to behave. In the scientific context, a woman’s role was to act silently and diligently (as an editor, proof-reader or translator) in order to aid the flow of men’s ideas. To take a more active and public role was – as a caricature of Royer published in Les hommes d’aujourd’hui in 1881 demonstrated – to display what were deemed to be unequivocally masculine characteristics.


This point was not lost on Royer. In 1874 in front of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, she criticized a male-controlled scientific establishment in no uncertain terms: “Up until now,” she declared, “science like law, made exclusively by men, has too often considered woman as an absolutely passive being, without instincts or passions or her own interests; as a purely plastic material capable of taking any form given her without resistance; a being without the inner resources to react against the education she receives or against the discipline to which she submits as part of law, custom or opinion. “Woman,” she concluded, “is not made like this.” [2]


Posted by Philippa Hardman

[1] See J. Harvey, Almost a Man of Genius: Clemence Royer, Feminism and Nineteenth-Century Science (London, 1997).

[2] From a paper by Royer titled ‘Sur la natalité which was read before the Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris in 1874.






Darwin, Becker & Sexual Equality

John Stuart Mill, Vanity Fair (1873).

J. S. Mill, caricatured in Vanity Fair as “feminine” for his promotion of sexual equality

Charles Darwin is not well known as a promoter of women’s rights. Indeed, much of his work explicitly opposed the arguments for sexual equality put forward by first wave feminists of the nineteenth century. In The Descent of Man, for example, Darwin makes explicit reference to Harriet and John Stuart Mill’s early feminist work The Subjection of Women (1869) which, he said, ignored the fact that there existed fundamental and enduring “differences in the mental powers of the sexes“.


The differences in the intellectual capacities of men and women, Darwin said, were the inevitable product of the evolutionary process; where men had honed their brainpower and skills of dexterity through combat with rival males, women had evolved primarily off the back of their physical attractiveness and as such were creatures of beauty but not intellect;


“Although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives,” Darwin said, “…yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes”. Thanks to the workings of the evolutionary process, then, women were naturally inclined toward a life of domesticity centered around “the early education of our children” and on ensuring “the happiness of our homes“.


Lydia BeckerGiven his views on women’s intellect and their corresponding social role, Darwin’s correspondence with Lydia Becker comes as something of a surprise. Becker was a leading member of the suffrage movement, perhaps most well known for publishing the Women’s Suffrage Journal between 1870 and 1890. She was also a successful biologist, astronomer and botanist and, between 1863 and 1877, an occasional correspondent of Charles Darwin.


Initiated tentatively by Becker in a detached letter in 1863, the majority of correspondence between Becker and Darwin concerned the suitably a-political topic of botany. Becker provided Darwin with samples from plants indigenous to her home town, Manchester. She also provided detailed observations which helped feed into his ongoing work on plant dimporhism. In return, Darwin acted as something as mentor to Becker; he responded to her questions, gave feedback on her writing and advised on where best to publish her articles.


Letter from Lydia Becker to Darwin (13th Jan, 1869)

Letter from Becker to Darwin written on the headed paper of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage

Perhaps most surprising, though, was Darwin’s willingness to provide Becker with material to be used as part of an education initiative at her local scientific feminist organisation, the surreptitiously titled Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society. Thus, on December 22nd 1866 Becker wrote to Darwin to ask if he would “be so very good as to send us a paper to be read at our first meeting”. “Of course we are not so unreasonable as to desire that you should write anything specially for us” Becker said, “but I think it possible you may have by you a copy of some paper such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness.”


Darwin responded by sending not one but three papers to be read at the ladies’ inaugural meeting.[1] Whether Darwin realised that he was providing materials for a feminist organisation is unclear, although Becker’s use of headed paper and the enclosure in her letter to Darwin of the society’s first pamphlet certainly made no secret of her political affiliations.


Regardless, what is interesting is that despite what he said in the public context about women’s intellectual in-capabilities and designated social role, in private his thoughts and actions were very different. Darwin was happy to work in collaboration with many women like Becker. He encouraged women’s scientific interests wherever possible, frequently sharing observations, samples and reading materials with women across the world. In some rare instances he was even happy to acknowledge that a woman’s scientific skill and knowledge might be superior to his own!


Why Darwin’s private actions so dramatically defied his public statements on women is difficult to decipher. Seen in the context of attacks on men like J. S. Mill – whose support for sexual equality rendered him “feminine” to the Victorian mind – it might have been the case that Darwin was anxious to protect his masculinity. This might have been particularly important at a time when science was increasingly deemed to be a pursuit for strong-minded, rational, perhaps even pedantic individuals – all distinctly masculine characteristics.


As we’ve seen elsewhere, it might also have been the case that respectable men of science were required to tow the ‘establishment’ line, irrespective of their personal convictions. Regardless, what Darwin’s correspondence with women like Lydia Becker shows very clearly is that however dominant nineteenth-century gender ideology might appear through analyses of mainstream published material, we need to look more broadly and think critically about the impact of ideology in real terms if we’re ever properly to understand the nature and workings of nineteenth-century gender in all its complexity.


Posted by Philippa Hardman


[1] In addition to `Climbing plants’, Darwin sent `Dimorphic condition in Primula‘ and probably `Three forms of Lythrum salicaria‘. See Becker’s letter of thanks for more detail.

The Scent of Woman

Gaston de SaportaIn March 1872 Gaston de Saporta, a French paleobotanist, penned a letter to Darwin offering two pieces of evidence in support of Darwin’s theory on the common ancestry of man and ape.


The first point of similarity between the two species, Saporta argued, was dentition; the arrangement of teeth in the mouth of humans and simians , he said, “seems to denote an exclusive link with the Monkeys of the old continent“. The second similarity was decidedly more risqué, namely “female menstruation and, as a corollary, the odour which makes women attractive to many monkeys“.


Alongside other similarities – including bald foreheads and the direction of hairs on the forearm - analogous dentition in apes and humans was something which Darwin had already discussed at length in Descent of Man, published the previous year. Nowhere in the body of Descent, however, did Darwin mention the menstrual cycle or, more specifically, scent-based sexual attraction between monkeys and humans.


Latin footnote from Descent of Man (vol., 1, p. 13)That is not to say, however, that Darwin was ignorant of the issue. Embedded in a footnote and suitably “veiled in Latin”(just as his cautious editor, John Murray, had recommended) Darwin refers to the role of smell – “odoratu” – in the courtship processes of humans and apes alike. By presenting this sort of content in Latin, Darwin was able to protect the sensibilities of his general readership without depriving his learned audience of a piece of evidence which corroborated his theory of the shared heredity of man and ape. [1]

Interestingly, even once shrouded in a decorous cloak of Latin, Darwin remained sketchy on detail: “Males from various species of mammals”, he said, “clearly distinguish anthropomorphous females from male. First, I believe,  by smell, then by appearance.” In conceding that the topic in question was “turpius” (i.e. unseemly) in character, one can justifiably conclude that the odaratu to which Darwin referred was similar in kind to that observed and communicated by Saporta.


What was it about this topic which rendered it taboo? Evidence from elsewhere in the correspondence suggests that Darwin felt uncomfortable discussing the topic of menstruation, at least in public. When the medical director of Wakefield Asylum wrote to him to report the case of a woman inmate who believed that she was pregnant until “a distinct return of menstruation”, for example, he replied that while “truly wonderful” the topic could not feature “in any work not strictly medical”. “Perhaps I may manage to give it wrapped up,” he said, “or anyhow allude to it”.


Descent of Man (Punch 64, 1873)Darwin might also have felt uncomfortable about the potential impropriety of drawing parallels between the courtship processes of man and ape. As Gillian Beer has noted, in the wake of the publication of Descent there existed a certain “sexual distate…for many Victorians in the idea of kinship with other animal species”. [2]

That Troubles Over Our Monkey Again (Fun 16, 1872)Distaste at the sexual implications of Darwin’s theory of shared heredity was played out at length in the popular press where images such as The Descent of Man and That Troubles Over Our Monkey Again encapsulated Victorian society’s sense of unease with the notion that humans had, at some stage, shared their beds with apes. [3]

Gaston de Saporta’s correspondence helps bring to light the strategies which Darwin could (and indeed did) employ in order to pitch his work both as a palatable read for his respectable popular audience and – at the same time – a robust and convincing work of science. It also helps us to better understand hierarchies of impropriety in Victorian Britain. Thus, while Darwin deemed certain risqué topics to be suitable for a learned (if not popular) readership, other subjects – including menstruation –  remained taboo in all but the most private of contexts.


Posted by Philippa Hardman


[1] For more on this subject see Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability, (Cambridge, 2007), p. 37.

[2] Gillian Beer, ‘Forging the Missing Link’ in Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, (Oxford, 1999), pp. 131 – 132.

[3] Gordon Thomson, That Troubles Over Our Monkey Again (Fun 16, 1872) featured Darwin as half-man half-monkey, complete with conspicuously erect tail. George du Maurier, Descent of Man (Punch 64, 1873) complete with lewd reference to a sexual encounter between an ape and the featured character’s ancestor.

Darwin’s Invisible Workforce

Emma and Leonard DarwinCharles Darwin was not just a eminent Naturalist – he was also the head of a thriving family economy who drew on the help of his relatives at any (and, it seems, every!) opportunity. His eldest son, William, was regularly tasked with observing plants and animals for him, while Charles’ second son, George, helped him with complex maths problems. Francis, meanwhile, was always on hand to check and correct Darwin’s mediocre Latin.


Darwin’s women relatives weren’t left out; his daughter, Henrietta, acted both as an observer and a trusted editor, while his wife, Emma, would copy out his manuscripts and check his proofs. As Francis Darwin recalled, Emma would read Charles’ work, “chiefly for misprints and to criticise punctuation; & then my father used to dispute with her over commas especially”. [1]

Darwin’s workforce wasn’t limited to his nuclear family; he also drew on the advice of his cousin, on the observational skills of his nieces and, later in life, on the advice of Henrietta’s husband and the observational skills of Francis’ fiancée.


Darwin’s work, then, was the product of a collective familial effort and his private letters suggest that he was extremely grateful for the contribution made by his relatives; “All your remarks, criticisms doubts & corrections are excellent, excellent, excellent”, he told Henrietta in 1867. “My dear Angels!,” he wrote to his nieces in 1862, “I can call you nothing else.—I never dreamed of your taking so much trouble; the enumeration will be invaluable.”


While Darwin clearly valued the work of his relatives regardless of their sex, in the public sphere the case was very different. Thus, while the contributions of Charles’ male relatives were methodically acknowledged in his published works, the input of women was not.


George DarwinIn his 1862 publication The Fertilisation of Orchids, for example, Charles publicly acknowledged the observational contributions made by “my sons” George (p. 16), William (p. 99) and Francis (p. 273). Charles was careful to acknowledge his sons’ work in all of its forms; regular – and notably proud – references were made in Insectivorous Plants, for example, not just to his boys’ skills of observation but also to other sorts of labour, including the illustration of botanical diagrams (p. 3) and mathematical skills (p. 173).


Charles was equally careful to acknowledge the contributions – however fleeting – of other male family members. Richard Litchfield’s contribution to a discussion of music (discussed in this letter), for example, was carefully referenced in Expression (p. 89). Similarly, Hensleigh Wegwood – Darwin’s cousin – was acknowledged for the contribution that he made (discussed here) to a section on language in Descent (p. 56).


Darwin’s published materials give only a partial insight, however, into the workings of the Darwin family economy.  Indeed, without Darwin’s letters, a large and significant part of his workforce would remain entirely invisible. The key question, of course, is why did Darwin’s female workforce remain invisible to the public eye?


Image from section on cats in Expression of EmotionIt wasn’t, it seems, an issue of trust: Evidence shows very clearly that Charles respected the work undertaken by his women relatives. Henrietta’s observations of domestic cats and her (and her female friends’) observations of babies, for example, both featured (albeit anonymously) in Expression of Emotion. [2] Samples and observations provided by Lucy Wedgwood were similarly referenced in Forms of Flowers (p. 70),  referred to simply (and anonymously) as having been provided by “a friend in Surrey”.


It seems, then, that Charles’ anxiety lay not with the type or quality of work that his women relatives produced but with the consequences of making that work public.  At a time when a middle class woman’s femininity was measured by her modesty and unwavering dedication to the well-being of her home and family, Darwin’s concerns about making the work of his daughter, wife and other female relatives public were, on some level, entirely understandable.


Posted by Philippa Hardman


[1] The recollections of Francis Darwin; CUL DAR 112:144.

[2] See, for example, Expression, pp. 126 – 9. See also letter 5332and 7153 in which Henrietta and Mary Lubbock provide observations which fed into Expression (p. 153). Henrietta’s observations on house cats’ cries from DAR 189:7 are also mentioned on p. 60 of Expression).

Harvard students create exceptional Darwin & Gender themed projects!

As part of a course on Gender, Sex and Evolution led by Professor Sarah Richardson, students at Harvard University have road-tested our resources and produced a series of projects on the theme of Darwin and Gender.


The students’ brief was 1) to design a set of projects which highlight the value of the Darwin and Gender research initiative and 2) to explore the contribution that our work might make to Gender History and Gender Studies.


Five of the most exciting projects will appear on the Darwin Correspondence Project website in the very near future. For now, take a sneak peek at one student’s inspired, TV-quiz-show-themed video response.


Posted by Philippa Hardman