The Woman Who Challenged Darwin’s Sexism
How a preacher with no scientific training ended up writing the first feminist critique of Origins
In 1869, Antoinette Brown Blackwell published her first book, titled Studies in General Science. She sent a copy across the Atlantic Ocean to Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species had taken the world by storm a decade earlier. Darwin replied to Blackwell personally, thanking her for her book and noting that, “[i]n turning over the pages I notice that you quote some statements made by me & very little known to public.”
Darwin made one mistake in his response, though: His letter was addressed, “Dear Sir.”
At the time, Blackwell made no acknowledgement of this (admittedly minor) oversight. But what happened next suggests that the error did not go unnoticed. In fact, it was this assumption that minds of learning must be, by default, male that she would address in her second book—one aimed squarely at Darwin and other elite male scientists of his time.
That book, a collection of essays entitled The Sexes Throughout Nature, would come out 6 years later. In it, Blackwell directly challenged conclusions made by Darwin as well as the social scientist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” In the time between the publication of Studies in General Science and Blackwell’s new book of essays, Darwin had published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that evolution made man “superior” to woman. For Darwin, that superiority largely played out in the intellectual and artistic realm. He wrote: “If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music—comprising composition and performance, history science and philosophy … the two lists would not bear comparison.” Spencer echoed Darwin’s sentiments and went further, postulating that in order for the human race to flourish, women must devote their lives to reproduction.
For the 44-year-old Blackwell, who had devoted her life to promoting women’s equality, Darwin and Spencer’s conclusions were unacceptable. By penning what would become the first published feminist critique of Darwin, she set out to prove that not only were their many of their claims morally distasteful—they were unscientific.
Blackwell’s campaign for women’s rights began 20 years earlier, when she attended Oberlin Collegiate Institute, now Oberlin College, in Ohio. Her older brother had graduated from the Theological Seminary, and Blackwell intended to do the same. Although her mother suggested that she serve as a missionary, Blackwell sought to become ordained as a Protestant minister—despite the fact that no woman had been ordained as a Protestant minister in the United States before.
Despite her early calling to the Congregationalism, she had not yet reconciled her religious teachings with her views on women’s rights. When Blackwell arrived in Ohio, she found that although women could matriculate and receive degrees from the Institute, the Theology Department banned women.
The faculty, and even her advisor, initially opposed her efforts. But they relented, on one condition: she would not receive a degree for her work. While at Oberlin, she continued to advocate for herself and other women students. As a result of religious edicts, women were not allowed to partake in public speaking exercises. Determined to practice the skills necessary for her chosen career, she formed a clandestine women’s debating club. Once she finished the coursework, she left Ohio in search of a job as a preacher.
To financially support herself while searching for a church that would ordain and employ a woman preacher, Blackwell traveled throughout the eastern United States lecturing on women’s rights and abolitionism. Effusive and determined, she refused to let stumbling blocks impede her; when a stagecoach was too full to carry her to a speaking engagement, she walked seven and a half miles in a snowstorm. When asked to address the first national women’s rights convention assembled in 1850 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Blackwell pointedly denounced biblical prohibitions of women speaking in public.
In 1853, Blackwell secured a post as a preacher at a Congregationalist church in South Butler, New York. At the time, both sides of the Atlantic were struggling to fit powerful new scientific theories into their previous worldviews. The discovery of dinosaur fossils caused scientists to consider the possibility of the extinction of species; the fossil record suggested that the Earth was much older than traditional Christian teachings suggested. These scientific currents came to a head with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859: Suddenly, people were forced to reckon with the idea that science was at odds with the Christian Bible.
Blackwell was among those grappling with science’s social implications. Reading works by scientists and social scientists such as Darwin and Spencer forced Blackwell to come to terms with her moral, religious and scientific beliefs. Just as Blackwell preached against Biblical passages that were at odds with her ethics, she began to write against scientific theories that she believed to be biased. Through her writing, she reconciled her understanding of science with her religious beliefs: “If one can perceive a truth,” she wrote, “it matters very little whether he got it at first hand from God’s book, or from man’s."
Blackwell had no formal scientific training, which she freely admitted. But she read widely. Although she knew her critique of Darwin and Spencer—who she called “the great masters of science and scientific inference”—would be seen as presumptuous, she believed she had one qualification to address inequality of the sexes through evolution: she was a woman.
To refute Darwin and Spencer’s claims that the process of evolution made man superior to women, it was vital to Blackwell that women weigh in. Male scientists, Blackwell wrote, stood on “a learned masculine eminence, looking from their isolated male standpoints through their men’s spectacles and through the misty atmosphere of entailed hereditary glamour.”
In other words: Men, by virtue of being men, were biased, and so too were their scientific theories. And if women, such as herself, had little scientific training, so be it. “There is no alternative!” Blackwell exclaimed. “Only a woman can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint; and there are none but beginners among us in this class of investigations.”
To surmount her lack of scientific training, Blackwell utilized Darwin’s own data in The Sexes Throughout Nature. Although she held an unwavering belief in math, reason and quantitative data, her conclusions were more philosophical than scientific. But in the 1870s, Darwin’s own conclusions hinged on the uncertainties of genetics, a field not yet widely understood. For instance, he believed (incorrectly) that organisms inherited characteristics largely from the parents of the same sex.
Darwin’s conclusions, Blackwell argued, did not take into account the unique characteristics of females throughout all species, so Blackwell took on the task herself. She made charts split into the categories of plants, insects, fish, aquatic mammals, birds, herbivores, carnivores and humans. Then, she evaluated the characteristics of the male and female of each group. For example, Blackwell notes that male lions are physically larger and stronger, while female lions are “more complex in structure and in functions” through their ability to reproduce and feed their young.
By reexamining Darwin’s data, Blackwell concludes: “As a whole, the males and females of the same species, from mollusk up to man, may continue their related evolution, as true equivalents, in all modes of force, physical and psychical.” She maintained that males and females in all species had different strengths, but ultimately, their strengths existed in equilibrium.
Although some reviews of The Sexes Throughout Nature lauded the work, Popular Science Monthly suggested that Blackwell’s hypothesis was impossible to prove scientifically because it concerned human character and values. This was true—but also a criticism that could be leveled at many theories within social science. Ever determined, Blackwell continued to write tracts on science, philosophy and women’s rights, and she presented papers at the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Today Blackwell isn’t usually remembered as a scientist, and indeed, much of her work wouldn’t be recognized as science by modern standards. However, her project to dismantle the barriers to women in science and other research and intellectual fields is no less important.
“Many women have grievously felt the burden of laws or customs interfering unwarrantably with their property, their children, or their political and personal rights,” Blackwell wrote. “I have felt this also; but more than any or all other forms of limitation and proscription, I have realized in my inmost soul that most subtle outlawry of the feminine intellect which warns it off from the highest fields of human research."