As the first of a planned series of collaborations, The Darwin Correspondence Project and Cambridge University’s Centre for Gender Studies hosted a public lecture by Professor Dame Gillian Beer on ‘Darwin and the Descent of Woman’ at the Pitt Building, Cambridge, on 2 June 2010. The lecture was followed by a discussion with Professor Juliet Mitchell, Emeritus Professor of Psychoanalysis and Gender Studies, chaired by the Project’s Director, Professor Jim Secord. The lecture and reception were attended by more than one hundred people. There is more information, including the suggested readings from Darwin’s Descent of Man, available on the Gender Studies website.
Professor Beer used unpublished letters in her lecture the texts of which were provided by the Darwin Correspondence Project. These included an exchange of letters between Darwin and the poet Emily Pfeiffer (1827–90) in 1871 in which they discussed Darwin’s conclusions in Descent of Man about beauty and aesthetic sense and their role in sexual selection. Pfeiffer suggested that ‘beauty does not necessarily fascinate, & that fascination does not always imply beauty’ (letter from E. J. Pfeiffer, [before 26 April 1871]). Their letters will be published in volume 19 of The correspondence of Charles Darwin, and the full texts made available ahead of normal schedule through this website as part of the ‘Darwin and Gender’ project.
Pfeiffer is best known for her poetry exploring the role and status of women, some of it clearly inspired by her reading of Darwin’s works. Self-taught, she was a supporter of formal education for women and left money to found a number of women’s education initiatives.