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Darwin Correspondence Project

Science: A Man’s World?


A peacock
A peacock
Kristine Deppe

Discussion Questions|Letters

Darwin's correspondence show that many nineteenth-century women participated in the world of science, be it as experimenters, observers, editors, critics, producers, or consumers.

Despite this, much of the correspondence suggests that the world of science was perceived to be an inherently masculine sphere that was alien to - and inappropriate for - the 'fairer sex'. Why might this have been the case? And how do we reconcile the gendering of science as masculine with the scientific participation of women?

Associated selected readings.

Discussion Questions

1.What sorts of scientific participation was, and was not, appropriate for i) men and ii) women?
2. What sorts of characteristics and interests are coded here as i) masculine and ii) feminine?
3. To what extent does this correspondence support historians' arguments about the existence and impact of 'Separate Spheres' gender ideology in Victorian Britain?


Darwin’s Notes On Marriage [April - July 1838]

In these notes, written shortly before his courtship with Emma, Darwin weighed the pros and cons of married life for a man of science. In his notes, Darwin contrasts the masculine world of science, travel and work with the feminine world of family, home and sociability.

Letter 489 - Darwin to Wedgwood, E., [20 January 1839]

Written shortly before their marriage, Darwin muses over the influence that Emma might have on his life and character. He believes that she will “humanize” him and teach him “there is greater happiness, than building theories, & accumulating facts in silence & solitude”. Darwin also comments that he has practice in “ill-treating the female sex”, having spoken about geology for half an hour “with poor Mrs. Lyell sitting by”.

Letter 3715 - Claparède, J. L. R. A. E. to Darwin, [6 September 1862]

Claparède acknowledges Darwin’s approval of his review of Origin and praises his theory of natural selection. Claparède also criticises Clémence Royer’s controversial French translation of the text. Self-taught in “semi-masculine education”, Royer is a “singular individual whose attractions are not those of her sex”.

Letter 4038 - Darwin to Lyell, C., [12-13 March 1863]

Darwin secretly passes on Henrietta’s insightful comments on Lyell’s Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man. He declares with pride that she has read Lamarck’s work under her own steam and is a “first rate critic”.

Letter 4377 - Haeckel, E. P. A. to Darwin, [2 January 1864]

Haeckel sends Darwin some samples of Radiolaria. If they are not useful for research purposes, Haeckel suggests that Darwin might pass the “delicate siliceous shells” to the female members of his family “as embroidery patterns or architectural ornaments in the making of feminine works”.

Letter 4441 - Becker, L. E. to Darwin, [30 March 1864]

Lydia Becker sends Darwin a copy of her book, Botany for Novices, (1864). The book is designed to encourage the young, especially ladies, to study nature.

Letter 4940 - Cresy, E. to Darwin, E., [20 November 1865]

Edward Cresy Jnr. seeks Darwin-family support for Elizabeth Garrett’s candidacy for the position of Professorship of physiology at Bedford College for girls. Appealing to Emma’s “feminine sympathies”, Cresy is keen to stress that, despite her education and scientific interest, Anderson is “neither masculine nor pedantic”.

Letter 6976 - Darwin to Blackwell, A. B., [8 November 1869]

Darwin thanks Antoinette Brown Blackwell for sending him a copy of her book, Studies in General Science, (1869). Darwin assumes that Blackwell, known only to him as a published science author, is a man.

Letter 7314 - Kovalevsky, S. to Darwin, [1 September 1870]

Sophia Kovalevsky accepts Darwin’s offer to order books on her behalf from the Royal Society library. Kovalevsky would like to read a book by Jacobi on elliptic and theta functions, entitled Fundamenta Nova Theoriae Functionum Ellipticarum, (1829).

Letter 7329 - Murray, J. to Darwin, [28 September 1870]

Written shortly before the publication of Descent, Murray tells Darwin that he believes the book will cause “men to prick up what little is left of them ears”.

Letter 8055 - Hennell, S. S. to Darwin, [7 November 1871]

Sarah Hennell writes to Darwin in order to discuss the implications of his theory of sexual selection for debates about marriage. Since reading Darwin’s work a “flood of questions” have occurred to Hennell but she cannot get herself listened to as such questions “seem almost out of a woman’s natural thinking”.

Letter 8079 - Norton, S. R. to Darwin, [20 November 1871]

Sarah Norton passes on to Darwin a pamphlet on Goethe and Darwinism from Dresden. She was “not in search of pure science” but stumbled across the pamphlet while looking for a novel to read. Norton is “in true feminine style” convinced that Goethe was “no Darwiniaer” but has not read the pamphlet herself.

Letter 8335 - Reade, W. W. to Darwin, [16 May 1872]

Reade tells Darwin of his plans to write a book detailing his travels and exploration. He will to use scientific language but structure the work around a personal narrative so not to lose the interest of women.

Letter 8341 - Reade, W. W. to Darwin, [20 May 1872]

Reade tells Darwin of his disappointment over negative reviews of his book. His next work, which will detail his travels, will contain language and specific sorts of information which will make it more appealing to women.

Letter 10746 – Darwin to Dicey, E. M., [1877]

Darwin gives his opinion on the education of girls in physiology. He tells Elinor Dicey that he would regret any girl being denied the right to pursue the science. He believes that girls and boys alike should be exposed to the sight of dissection in the course of their training and regrets his personal inability to cope well with the sight of blood.

Letter 12389 - Johnson, M. to Darwin, [January 1880]

Mary Johnson tells Darwin about a recent geological ramble she had taken with her father. During their walk they had stumbled across Prof. Rollerston from Oxford with whom she spent “an interesting day among the bones”. Noting the conspicuousness of her presence, Rollerston commented that she was probably the first woman “except a she bear or so” to have entered the cave “since the flood”.

Letter 13414 - Darwin to Harrison, L., [18 October 1881]

Darwin advises his niece’s friend, Mrs Forsyth, on how best to conduct scientific work. In his sex-inclusive response, Darwin advises that the Natural Scientist, “must first himself or herself become interested in the subject”. He or she should also “read, think, speculate” and possess strong powers of patience.

Letter 13607 – Darwin to Kennard, C. A., [9 January 1882]

Darwin responds to Caroline Kennard’s enquiry about statements made about the sexes in Descent. Darwin argues that if women did become “regular bread-winners as men” the “early education of children not to mention the happiness of our homes” would suffer greatly.

Darwin and Gender University Modules

Introduction: Darwin and Gender

Women and Science

Sex and Scientific Participation

The Gendered Status of Science

Additional Theme Resources

Exercise: Referencing Women’s Work

Harvard Project: Gender and Scientific Work

Keeping it in the Family blog post

Darwin’s Workforce exhibit 

Darwin, sons and masculinity blog post

Clémence Royer blog post


Darwin On Marriage (1838), DAR 210:8.2, Copyright © Cambridge University Library


A Lady of Scientific Habits (KORA, early nineteenth-century lithograph). Reproduced with the permission of the owner.


Lydia Becker, ‘Botany for Novices’ (1864)


Prosobranchia from Haeckel’s Artforms of Nature (1899), GNU Free Documentation License


Sofia Kovalevsky, 1880, Wikicommons


The Entomologist (G. Spratt, 1830), reproduced with the permission of the owner.


Antoinette Louisa Brown Blackwell, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; neg. no. LC USZ 62 53475

Other Gender Resources

Darwin and Gender: The Blog

Top 10 Gender Letters

Darwin Behind the Scenes online exhibition

Audio of selected Gender letters

A complete list of Darwin’s women correspondents

Audio interview with Tina Gianquitto (on Mary Treat)

Darwin’s Notes on Marriage

Jane Gray’s account of Down

Henrietta Darwin’s diary