Charles Darwin’s published materials (in particular The Descent of Man, published in 1871) give the impression that he held very clear and – perhaps surprisingly – conservative ideas about gender. His correspondence, however, offers a far more complex and less clear-cut picture. This selection of letters highlights the complexity of Darwin’s ideas about gender and, more generally, explores how gender ideology is constructed and how it impacts on the lived experiences of men and women.
Letter 8146 : Darwin, C. R. to Treat, Mary, [5 Jan, 1872]
Mary Treat was a Naturalist from New Jersey and one of the many women correspondents with whom Darwin exchanged samples, observations and ideas. Here we find Darwin congratulating Treat on her observations, asking her to repeat them on his behalf and encouraging her to publish her work.
“Your observations and experiments on the sexes of butterflies are by far the best, as far as known to me, which have ever been made. They seem to me so important, that I earnestly hope you will repeat them & record the exact numbers of the larvæ which you tempt to continue feeding & deprive of food, & record the sexes of the mature insects. Assuredly you ought then to publish the result in some well-known scientific journal.”
Letter 7124 : Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, H. E., [8 Feb, 1870]
Henrietta was Darwin’s daughter and his trusted editor; she ensured that his prose was accessible and played a key part in clarifying his ideas and sharpening his arguments. Here Darwin asks Henrietta to critique both the style and content of The Descent of Man, which was published the following year.
“I suspect that here & there style will want a good deal of improvement, though I hope greater part fair.— I fear parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?”
Letter 7666 : Darwin, C. R. to Crichton-Browne, James, [7 Apr, 1871]
At the time of his correspondence with Darwin, James Crichton-Browne was medical director of the West Riding Asylum in Wakefield from where he provided Darwin with observations of his patients’ behaviour. Some – but not all – of these observations fed into Darwin’s 1872 publication Expression of the Emotions. In this letter we witness the cultural pressures that Darwin laboured under as a respectable middle-class man and get a sense of the sorts of strategies that he used in order to maintain his reputation.
“The case of the pregnant woman is truly wonderful, and I am particularly glad to have read it, as it seems conclusive; but I doubt whether it will do to give it in any work not strictly medical.”
Letter 13607 : Darwin, C. R. to Kennard, C. A., [9 Jan, 1882]
In January 1882, Caroline Kennard wrote to Darwin to question the statements he made about the sexes in his Descent of Man. Kennard and Darwin’s exchange highlights how Darwin’s ideas were open to ongoing consideration, debate and revision. It also demonstrates a certain degree of nuance in Darwin’s attitude to sex-roles which is not evident in the markedly less sociological and more concrete biological statements offered in his published work. Whether this represents a change in Darwin’s ideas over time or was the product of a change of context and audience (or indeed both) is unclear.
“On the other hand there is some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages) men & women were equal in this respect, & this wd. greatly favour their recovering this equality.”
Letter 12781 : Dixie, F. C. to Darwin, C. R., [29 Oct, 1880]
Lady Florence Dixie was a war corespondent, writer, feminist and traveller. In the 1870s she travelled around Patagonia and, as a fan of his work, wrote to Darwin on her return detailing observations that she had made in the wild. In many ways Dixie’s life defied middle-class ideals of domestic femininity; she travelled widely, had a keen interest in the Natural Sciences and was knowledgeable and well-versed in specialised language. Her correspondence thus raises interesting questions about the relationship between Victorian gender ideology on the one hand and the lived experience of nineteenth-century middle class women on the other.
“In 1879, I spent 6. months on the Pampas and in the Cordillera Mountains of Southern Patagonia and during my wanderings over the plains I have had occasion to notice in places tenanted by the tucutuco, as many as five or six of these little animals at a time outside their burrows.”
Letter 4377 : Haeckel, E. P. A. to Darwin, C. R., [2 Jan, 1864]
Ernst Haeckel was an eminent German Naturalist who exchanged a large number of samples with Darwin and played an important part in promoting his work to a German audience. Here, Haeckel sends Darwin some Radiolarian (mineral skeletons), along with some casual but telling comments about how the significance of the sample will vary according to the sex of the recipient. The letter is translated from the German, probably by Camilla Ludwig - the Darwins’ governess and chief translator.
“Perhaps the delicate siliceous shells can provide you an aesthetic pleasure, or at least, perhaps, they might serve the female members of your family as embroidery patterns or architectural ornaments in the making of feminine works.”
Letter 4940 : Cresy, Edward, Jr to Darwin, Emma, [20 Nov, 1865]
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain and, here, the subject of an exchange between Edward Cresy Jr and Emma Darwin. This letter flags up a series of interesting points about the content and workings of Victorian gender ideology. While Cresy appears to have held a typically Victorian sense of what constituted “feminine” behaviour, at the same time he petitions on Garrett Anderson’s behalf for help in defying the constraints placed on women by nineteenth-century gender ideology. This letter also raises interesting questions about what were deemed “feminine” issues and highlights nicely the indirect but not inconsequential influence that the female relatives of nineteenth-century scientists could – and did – exercise over their male relatives.
“The very special career to which she has devoted herself has nothing impaired the charm of her manner or her social converse she is neither masculine nor pedantic & except you knew her intimately you would only recognise a well bred English Lady”.
Letter 7411 : Pfeiffer, E. J. to Darwin, C. R., [before 26 Apr, 1871]
Emily Pfeiffer is best known as a poet but was she was also a feminist who was actively involved in the debate which raged over the issue of female agency in the wake of the publication of Descent. Darwin’s suggestion that sexual selection was driven not by masculine ‘rough characteristics’ like hunting prowess and physical strength but by female choice based on feminine aesthetic taste sparked a considerable debate over the workings of sexual selection and eventually led to the revision of his theory to better fit Victorian gender ideology. Through this letter, then, we get to glimpse first hand the relationship between science and culture. At the same time we witness how some radical Victorian women engaged with the potentially empowering aspects Darwin’s theories.
“Could it not be that beauty, when of a nature thus recondite, has been only an incidental result, while the end towards which sexual selection has directly tended has been the perfecting of characters calculated simply to fascinate or allure?”
Letter 4170: Becker, L. E. to Darwin, C. R., [18 May, 1863]
Lydia Becker was a feminist and a founding member of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage. She was also a keen Botanist and correspondent of Darwin, with whom she exchanged observations, ideas, samples and publications. This is the first of fifteen known letters exchanged between Becker and Darwin over the period 1863 – 1877. Perhaps surprisingly given Becker’s radical feminist politics, the letter is notable for its indirect and depersonalised style and its tentative and apologetic tone.
“Miss Becker presents her compliments to Mr. Darwin and takes the liberty of sending him the enclosed flowers of a variety of Lychnis dioica common in the woods here but which she has not observed elsewhere”.
Letter 10746 : Darwin, C. R. to Dicey, E. M., 
This letter, written to Elinor Mary Dicey, highlights the value of Darwin’s letters as an historical source. The exchange demonstrates neatly how, contrary to the impression made by his published works, Darwin’s ideas about gender were complex and fluid. Whether the apparent shift that we witness here in Darwin’s attitude to women was the product of post-Descent debate and the passage of time or simply a reflection of the more private and less constrained context in which he wrote is something which is open to interpretation.
“I should regret that any girl who wished to learn physiology sh^d be checked, because it seems to me that the science is the best one or sole one for giving to any person an intelligent view of living beings”.