Darwin’s Dim View of the Second Sex

“If I live till I am 80 years old,” Charles Darwin wrote to a friend in November 1837, “I shall not cease to marvel at finding myself an author.”

Recently he had received proofs of his first book and he could not stop admiring its crisp type and smooth paper. “Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle” read the spine, and below that VOL. III, and below that DARWIN. The third of three planned volumes by different authors, it was first to be completed. He disliked the minutiae of proofing pages. “If I attend to sense,” he complained, “I forget the spelling and vice versa.”

Darwin was 28. Bronzed by five years aboard the Beagle, he had returned to England to find himself already known in scientific circles for his dispatches home detailing his findings. A career in science had usurped his plan to work as a country parson who dabbled in natural history.

Since March he had lived in a flat on Great Marlborough Street near the British Museum, close by his brother, Erasmus. London’s filthy streets were a bedlam of costermongers, urchins, coffee wagons and tall-hatted bobbies. Lifted above the fray by his family’s money, Darwin sat at his desk amid papers and books, gazing at an ugly building across the street and thinking about reproduction, competition and the struggle for life. It would be 22 years before he published “On the Origin of Species.”

The following spring, he walked to his brother’s nearby flat for a party. At 33, Erasmus resembled Charles: high forehead, easy smile, side whiskers. Darwin considered Erasmus a host of “very brilliant” dinner parties. He admired his sly wit, his knowledge of art and literature. Less robust and energetic than Charles, Erasmus pursued no career beyond surrounding himself with accomplished people. These included the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle and the mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage, who only the year before had unveiled his mechanical computer the Analytical Engine, a successor to his earlier Difference Engine.

Charles was pleased that Erasmus’s servant Sally had prepared an appetizing spread that included a salmon. He noted that dessert alone cost Erasmus eight shillings and sixpence.

This party afforded the young writer an opportunity to talk shop with Harriet Martineau, a prolific journalist and pioneer sociologist who supported herself by her writing. Queen Victoria was a fan and Martineau would attend her coronation that June. She enjoyed a level of influence and fame that Darwin could not imagine.

Moreover, Martineau had built her impressive bibliography without the advantages that provided stepladders and safety nets for men of Darwin’s class. He had never known want. His father made it clear that Charles, like Erasmus, need not concern himself about money. At a young age Martineau, in contrast, had been forced by the collapse of her father’s textile business to help support her family through needlework and writing.

Darwin had met her a year and a half earlier, during his first visit to London upon returning to England. Erasmus was a close friend of Martineau’s — if not more — and was “with her noon, morning and night,” Darwin wrote to his sister Susan. His friend and mentor the geologist Charles Lyell had recently called on Martineau and found a beautiful rose on a table, about which she remarked casually, “Erasmus Darwin gave me that.”

Lyell found her surrounded by editors and writers for the liberal quarterly Edinburgh Review. She presided over these salons despite deafness that required visitors to all but shout into her ear trumpet. Rebutting the notion that femininity was a handicap, she insisted, in “Society in America,” that only deafness posed a serious obstacle. “I carry a trumpet of remarkable fidelity,” she added, “an instrument, moreover, which seems to exert some winning power, by which I gain more in tête-à-têtes than is given to people who hear general conversation.” At times Martineau smoked cigars. She was a colorful figure welcome at gatherings of artists, intellectuals and politicians.

Martineau had an unkind reputation for plainness and lack of feminine polish. “I was astonished to find,” Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline after their first meeting, “how little ugly she is.” They talked “on a most wonderful number of subjects.” Like other men who knew her, Darwin considered Martineau “overwhelmed with her own projects, her own thoughts and own abilities.” Rather than nodding at men’s ideas, she was known for responding with her own.

In 1833, the conservative Fraser’s Magazine had acknowledged the status of Martineau, then 31, by devoting considerable space to arguing with her conclusions and mocking her appearance. Her second published work, “On Female Education,” a defense of her own passion for learning and a critique of the expectation that her education would end when she reached adulthood, came out when she was 20. Her most famous book, “Illustrations of Political Economy,” dramatized human stories featuring the economic theories of Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus and James Mill. Didactic, at times simplistic, it was lucid and accessible and considered a step forward for progressive, human-centered economics.

Her most recent success was “Society in America,” based on two years of travel during which she was feted by artists and legislators. She visited President Andrew Jackson and lodged with the former president James Madison. Both owned slaves, but Martineau did not shrink from portraying the horrors of slavery. She had been writing about it, as both a moral sin and an economically inefficient system, since early in her career. She would have found common ground on this topic with Darwin, a passionate abolitionist who had witnessed slavery’s abuses from Africa to Brazil. His theories about natural selection were motivated in part by a desire to undermine racist notions promulgated by scientists.

They compared writing methods. Several of Martineau’s books grew out of her detailed travel journals, which was how Darwin had constructed his own book about his voyage around the world. Martineau was said to require little revision for the many pages that flowed from her pen. Darwin thought her invincible and seems to have expressed this idea.

Not at all, she replied; a few consecutive hours of hard work tended to exhaust her. Darwin felt the same. He recorded that he felt gratified to learn that Martineau was “not a complete Amazonian.”

Decades later, despite many respectful and admiring interactions with Martineau and other female writers and thinkers, as well as with his intelligent and well-read sisters, wife, cousins and colleagues’ wives, Darwin comprehensively dismissed women’s intellectual potential. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes,” he stated in “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871), “is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman — whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”

In 1881 the American educator and social reformer Caroline Augusta Kennard wrote to ask Darwin if she correctly understood him on the inferiority of women. Missing the irony, he responded by saying, “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually.”

He conceded that there was “some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages)” men and women demonstrated comparable intelligence, thus implying the possibility of regaining such equality in the modern world. “But to do this, as I believe,” he added, “women must become as regular ‘bread-winners’ as are men; & we may suspect that the early education of our children, not to mention the happiness of our homes, would in this case greatly suffer.”

Martineau, in contrast, described Darwin as “well employed, earnest-minded, accomplished and genial.” She found him “simple, childlike, painstaking, effective.” Later she was quick to support his “Origin of Species.” Unlike the young writer who admired her at a party, she did not try to set herself above half the human race.

Back in 1838, however, before he joined the evolutionary game and fathered 10 children borne by his wife and tended by nursemaids whose work gave him the opportunity to now be considered the most doting father of the Victorian era; before he wrote about women as if having forgotten the countless ways he had learned from them throughout his life, Darwin summed up his admiring view of Harriet Martineau, writing to his sister Susan, “She is a wonderful woman.”

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