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Darwin Correspondence Project

Intellectual capacities: From Caroline Kennard, 26 December 1881


Caroline Kennard
Caroline Kennard 1827–1907

We might assume that among female admirers of Darwin’s work, many would have been disappointed by his views on the comparative intellectual capacities of the sexes expressed in The Descent of Man (1872). This was certainly true of the American feminist Caroline Kennard. But there is a twist to this tale.

Married to a Boston businessman and with five children, Kennard found time to pursue her botanical interest in mosses and ferns as well as campaigning for science education for women and children. This presumably led her to focus on Darwin’s botanical works as she clearly had not read Descent when, in December 1881, she heard a paper at the New England Women’s Club on the inferiority of women that claimed to be based on scientific principles and cited Darwin as an authority.

Kennard, who admired Darwin’s ‘cautious and candid methods of conveying great results of learning and investigations to the world,’ was clearly anxious about the association of the speaker’s views with the New England Women’s Club (of which she was a staunch member). On 26 December 1881, she wrote to ask Darwin ‘whether the Author of the paper rightly inferred her arguments from your work: or if so, whether you are of the same mind now, as to possibilities for women, judging from her organization &c’. She wished to point out to Darwin that if the speaker had been mistaken, ‘the great weight of your opinion and authority should be righted’. 

Darwin replied that women would become men’s intellectual equals only when they became breadwinners, which, in his view, would threaten family life. Kennard was disappointed and sent a robust response. She argued that all women were already breadwinners if housework and the early education of children were measured in economic terms, and while she agreed that the family must be ‘righteously’ maintained, intellectual capacities could be properly measured only when women were placed in the same environment as men and offered the same opportunities. 

This is a well-known and oft-quoted exchange, but until the Darwin Correspondence Project edited Kennard’s first letter, the ‘Author’ of the paper on the intellectual inferiority of women that Kennard heard at the New England Women’s Club remained nameless. Her identification confounds expectations. Martha Hardaker was not a Victorian ‘angel in the house’, but a single woman who worked as a newly-appointed newspaper reporter for the Boston Evening Transcript. As such, she appeared a contradiction in terms, as pointed out by an Oregon newspaper on her departure for Boston: ‘Miss M. A. Hardaker brings scholarship and ability to her new post, and is herself a proof of the falsity of her pet theory of the inferiority of women’. 

Anne Secord