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The Ascent of Women

Ann Kennedy Smith

Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters, by Samantha Evans, Cambridge University Press, 298 pp, £29.99, ISBN: 978-1107158863

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. The pen has been in their hands.
Anne Elliot, the heroine of Persuasion by Jane Austen, one of Darwin’s favourite authors

The difference between the “intellectual powers of the two sexes” was apparent, Charles Darwin confidently asserted towards the end of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Whatever a man did, he did it better than a woman, therefore “the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women”. Darwin’s statement that women were intellectually inferior to men was contentious in his own lifetime, and, unsurprisingly, has continued to be criticised ever since. As Samantha Evans, the editor of this new collection of letters points out, it was a strange thing for Darwin to write, given what he knew about the wide-ranging social disadvantages still faced by women: their lack of access to a good education, their exclusion from professional and political life and their continuing legal disenfranchisement. It was also surprising given the talented and active women he knew personally, and the many others he corresponded with.

This new book, Darwin and Women, throws light on the lives and work of the women with whom Darwin came into contact. It is a compilation of selected letters from the ongoing 30-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin project (Cambridge University Press, with much available online for free*); to which have been added extracts from previously unpublished Darwin family letters held at Cambridge University Library. Darwin’s correspondence was huge, but this relatively slim volume has less than 300 pages, and fourteen short chapters. It is organised by theme rather than chronology, over a period from 1821 to 1882, the year of Darwin’s death. The topics covered in the letters include Austen-like details of family life, some eye-popping observations about animals and humans and serious discussions concerning religion, education and women’s rights. There is an illuminating foreword by Gillian Beer, author of the groundbreaking Darwin’s Plots (1983) who has recently awarded the prestigious Truman Capote prize for her study of Lewis Carroll.

Throughout his life Darwin was aided by the work of women, not just at home, where his wife Emma’s smooth running of the household and dealing with more routine correspondence allowed him to concentrate on matters that interested him, but in his scientific research. The chapters which deal with his childhood friends, family marriages and his own young children are charming, but the book really takes off in the middle section when it shines the spotlight on the women working in the fields of botany, entomology and education who corresponded with the great scientist. Victorian women were excluded from public debate, but could engage with Darwin directly by writing to him to discuss their scientific discoveries and share valuable information.

Their work was very useful to him. In his Insectivorous plants, published in 1875, he frequently cited the findings of Mary Treat, an American botanist and entomologist from New Jersey. She was separated from her husband and earned her living by collecting plant specimens for male scientists and writing popular scientific articles. When she chose to publish her article on carnivorous plants in Harper’s Magazine rather than American Naturalist, she had to spell out to Darwin the reason why: “you may wonder at my selecting a literary Magazine rather than a scientific one, but I am wholly dependent upon my own exertions, and must go where they pay best”.

Darwin was aware that most of the women with whom he corresponded did not have his independent wealth and extensive network of supportive friends and colleagues. He encouraged his female acquaintances and helped them in practical ways, giving them advice on their scientific articles, writing letters of recommendation and supporting their applications for sponsorship. The suffragist and botanist Lydia Becker was grateful in 1867 when, at her request, he immediately sent her two of his recent botanical papers to be read out at the first meeting of her women’s scientific group in Manchester. This was extremely helpful, because women could not join any of the main scientific societies and so had little or no access to up-to-date research and discussion. In 1880 Darwin wrote to Arabella Buckley to praise her book on evolution, telling her “it will be a very savage heretic-hunter that will persecute you for your views. I daresay that you will escape, and you will not be called a dangerous woman.”

Darwin and Women shows that there was a contradiction between the public pronouncements of the eminent man of science and the man revealed through his personal dealings with women. He was invariably respectful and interested, even when some of the letters he received were distinctly odd. It is hard not to warm to a man who took seriously a letter, sent to him by a shy “young lady”, about her blushing hands. In 1872 he wrote to Frances Power Cobbe, the Irish campaigner for women’s rights and anti-vivisectionist, to tell her how much he admired her article in the Quarterly Review, although, he said mildly, he could not agree with her assertion that dogs commit suicide. Another Irish correspondent with a passionate love of dogs was Gould Anne Wolfe, the widow of a clergyman. She wrote a heartfelt letter to Darwin from Upper Leeson Street in Dublin to tell him that his Descent of Man “has been the means of rendering many nights of suffering more endurable”.

The book fills in valuable information about the domestic substructure of science by setting Darwin’s work in the context of the daily lives of the women around him. His daughter Henrietta was a valued editor of several of his books (he paid her small “memorials” for her help), and she could be, in her own words, “bald and dictatorial” when it came to handing out advice to her father. On one of her frequent trips to Europe she discussed women’s rights with Josephine Butler and smoked cigarettes with the suffragist Caroline Stansfield. Victorian women writing to other women, Samantha Evans points out, were “often a good deal more forthright and unsentimental than women writing to men” and we can safely assume that they were even more outspoken in their private conversations. Darwin’s daughters and their friends were, according to Evans, “extraordinarily active: they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; [...] they attended university lectures if they were open to women”.

Other important, though less acknowledged, women in Darwin’s life were the family's servants and governesses. These female breadwinners were part of what Evans calls “the great army of women earning their own living” in the nineteenth century: according to Harriet Martineau, more than two million English women were self-supporting workers in 1864. In this book we get a flavour of the Darwin servants’ lives, though inevitably it is mostly from their employers’ point of view. By 1874 Henrietta was married and living in London, and dreading the prospect of sacking an unsuitable cook: “I’d sooner turn a man away ‑ for you feel as if a woman was so much less civilized & might take to scratching you or breaking your china.” She had to return to the family home in Kent for a holiday to recover from the ordeal.

The final chapter, brilliantly titled “Ascent of Woman” forms the editor’s subtle riposte to Darwin’s Descent of Man. It focuses on the women who challenged the great scientist’s views on the place of women in society, several of whom went on to be formative in the campaign for equal access to higher education and the later suffrage movement. In his last years Darwin had come to support the idea of scientific education for women, but he stubbornly clung to his belief that men were superior intellectually. In a courteous letter to Caroline Kennard from Boston in 1882 he explained that for women to become men’s equals, they would have to become “breadwinners”, and if they did that, then the family would suffer. The no-nonsense Caroline will have none of this, and points out how much of women’s work is unacknowledged both in and out of the home. The final word, appropriately, goes to her: “Let the ‘environment’ of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior, please.”

Darwin and Women contains a wealth of fascinating stories about the lives of nineteenth century women and the slow growth in professionalisation of their work. The only drawback of having so much material is, I think, that this book tries to pack so much in. The effect is similar to eavesdropping on many different but equally fascinating conversations of which we hear tantalising scraps, but just as we are getting interested in the discussion the speakers move out of hearing and are replaced by others. There is no doubt that these stories could ‑ and should ‑ be followed up in greater depth elsewhere by students and researchers. But it would be a great shame if this book did not also reach a wider audience of readers, because it is such a pleasure to read and to look at, with its engaging photographs and illustrations. Through his correspondence with women Charles Darwin is revealed in a new light; the book’s editor, Samantha Evans, has made an astute selection, and served it up with her own insightful and droll commentary. The book is as entertaining as it is enlightening, and allows us to hear many of the voices of women that would otherwise be lost to history.


Ann Kennedy Smith is a freelance writer and tutor. She has contributed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and is working on a biography of Ida Darwin and her circle.