What Did Darwin Say about Women’s Emancipation? And Why Don’t We Hear More about Clémence Royer?
All around the western world, scientists, museums, and others are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English scientist whose Origin of Species (1859) forever changed the way we think about evolution and set off a huge protest by fervent Christians threatened by the notion that creation was not entirely the work of God, accomplished in six days some 6000 years earlier, and authoritatively documented in the Bible. Conflicts between defenders of Biblical creation and advocates of evolution filled the press for years thereafter. Not only that, but the very thought that man might have descended from the apes made traditionalists extremely nervous.
But Origin had not directly broached another subject that was already on many people’s minds from the 1830s – the evolution of humankind and the emancipation of women. What did Darwin say about women’s emancipation?
Darwin clarified his views on human evolution in a new landmark work, The Descent of Man (1871). There he proposed the evolutionary importance of sexual selection, or choice of mate, for increasing the differentiation between men and women – not only physiologically but also mentally and emotionally. Darwin was no misogynist but found it difficult to accept the arguments for women’s emancipation of such liberal thinkers as John Stuart Mill, author of The Subjection of Women (1869) and proponent of woman suffrage in the British Parliament a few years earlier. In Darwin’s eyes, historically speaking, women, however much preyed upon by men, had become increasingly protected by them as societies grew more complex. This suggested to him that women had lost the necessity of having to sharpen their faculties in the unremitting struggle for survival, thereby assuring their relatively inferior development; he was convinced that the results of evolutionary sexual differentiation could never be undone, whatever 19th century women’s rights advocates might desire.