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“.
Given 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.
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. 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
 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.