‘It seemed clear to me that the history of the life on the earth presents an unbroken chain of evidence going to prove the importance of the female.’
Unconventional ideas can appear from anywhere, even the most conventional of places.
The township of Concord in Michigan is one of those places. Home to scarcely more than three thousand people, it’s an almost entirely white corner of America. The area’s biggest attraction is a preserved post-Civil War house covered in pale clapboard siding. In 1894, not long aft er this house was built, a middle-aged schoolteacher from right here in Concord published some of the most radical ideas of her age. Her name was Eliza Burt Gamble.
We don’t know much about Gamble’s personal life, except that she was a woman who had no choice but to be independent. She lost her father when she was two, her mother when she was sixteen. Left without support, she made a living by teaching at local schools. According to some reports, she went on to achieve impressive heights in her career. She also married and had three children, two of whom died before the century was out. Gamble’s life could have been mapped out for her, the way it was for most middle-class women of her time. She could have been a quiet, submissive housewife of the kind celebrated by Coventry Patmore. Instead, she joined the growing suffrage movement to fight for the equal rights of women, becoming one of the most important campaigners in her region. In 1876 she organised the first women’s suffrage conference in her home state of Michigan.
Gamble believed there was more to the cause than securing legal equality. One of the biggest sticking points in the fi ght for women’s rights, she recognised, was that society had come to believe that women were born to be lesser than men. Convinced that this was wrong, in 1885 she set out to fi nd hard proof for herself. She spent a year studying the collections at the Library of Congress in the US capital, scouring the books for evidence. She was driven, she wrote, ‘with no special object in view other than a desire for information’.
Evolutionary theory, despite what Charles Darwin had written about women, actually off ered great promise to the women’s movement. It opened a door to a revolutionary new way of understanding humans. ‘It meant a way to be modern,’ says Kimberly Hamlin, whose 2014 book From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America charts women’s responses to Darwin. Evolution was an alternative to religious stories that painted woman as merely man’s spare rib. Christian models for female behaviour and virtue were challenged. ‘Darwin created a space where women could say that maybe the Garden of Eden didn’t happen … and this was huge. You cannot overestimate how important Adam and Eve were in terms of constraining and shaping people’s ideas about women.’
Although not a scientist herself, through Darwin’s work Gamble realised just how devastating the scientific method could be. If humans were descended from lesser creatures, just like all other life on earth, then it made no sense for women to be confined to the home or subservient to men. These obviously weren’t the rules in the rest of the animal kingdom. ‘It would be unnatural for women to sit around and be totally dependent on men,’ Hamlin tells me. The story of women could be rewritten.
But, for all the latent revolutionary power in his ideas, Darwin himself never believed that women were the intellectual equals of men. This wasn’t just a disappointment to Gamble, but judging from her writing, a source of great anger. She believed that Darwin, though correct in concluding that humans evolved like every other living thing on earth, was clearly wrong when it came to the role that women had played in human evolution.
Her criticisms were passionately laid out in a book she published in 1894, called The Evolution of Woman: An Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man. Marshalling history, statistics and science, this was Gamble’s piercing counter-argument to Darwin and other evolutionary biologists. She angrily tweezed out their inconsistencies and double standards. The peacock might have had the bigger feathers, she argued, but the peahen still had to exercise her faculties in choosing the best mate. And while on the one hand Darwin suggested that gorillas were too big and strong to become higher social creatures like humans, at the same time he used the fact that men are on average physically bigger than women as evidence of their superiority.
He had also failed to notice, Gamble wrote, that the human qualities more commonly associated with women – cooperation, nurture, protectiveness, egalitarianism and altruism – must have played a vital role in human progress. In evolutionary terms, drawing assumptions about women’s abilities from the way they happened to be treated by society at that moment was narrowminded and dangerous. Women had been systematically suppressed over the course of human history by men and their power structures, Gamble argued. They weren’t naturally inferior; they just seemed that way because they hadn’t been allowed the chance to develop their talents.
Gamble also wrote that Darwin hadn’t taken into account the existence of powerful women in some tribal societies, which might suggest that the present supremacy of men now was not how it had always been. The ancient Hindu text the Mahabharata, which she picked out as an example, speaks of women being unconfined and independent before marriage was invented. So she couldn’t help but wonder, if ‘the law of equal transmission’ applied to men as well as women, might it not be possible that males had been dragged along by the superior females of the species?
‘When a man and woman are put into competition,’ she argued, ‘both possessed of every mental quality in equal perfection, save that one has higher energy, more patience and a somewhat greater degree of physical courage, while the other has superior powers of intuition, fi ner and more rapid perceptions and a greater degree of endurance … the chances of the latter for gaining the ascendancy will doubtless be equal to those of the former.’
Eliza Burt Gamble’s message, like that of other scientifi c suff ragists, proved popular. Their provocative implication was that women had been cheated out of the lives they deserved, that equality was in fact their biological right. ‘It seemed clear to me that the history of the life on the earth presents an unbroken chain of evidence going to prove the importance of the female,’ Gamble wrote in the preface to the revised edition of The Evolution of Woman, which came out in 1916.
But her army of readers, and the support of fellow activists, couldn’t win biologists around to her point of view. Her arguments were doomed never to fully enter the scientifi c mainstream, only to circulate outside it.
But she never gave up. She marched on in her campaign for women’s rights, and continued writing for the press. Fortunately, she lived just long enough to see her own work, as well as that of the wider movement, gain real strength. In 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governing country to grant women the vote. The battle would take until 1918 in Britain, although even then the franchise was extended only to women over the age of thirty. And when Gamble died in Detroit in 1920, it was just a month aft er the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited citizens from being denied the right to vote because of their sex.
While the political battle was – eventually – successful, the war to change people’s minds was taking even longer. ‘Gamble’s ideas were praised in reform magazines and her writing style was generally praised, but the scientifi c and mainstream press balked at her conclusions and at her pretensions to write about “science”,’ says Kimberly Hamlin. The Evolution of Woman was quite widely reviewed in newspapers and academic journals, but it scarcely left a dent on science.
A scathing review of Sex Antagonism, the latest work of the respected British biologist Walter Heape, in the American Journal of Sociology in 1915 reveals just how desperately some scientists clung to their prejudices, even when society around them was changing. ‘It must have been a sense of humor which led the publishers to put this volume in their “Science Series”,’ wrote the Texas University sociologist and liberal thinker Albert Wolfe. Heape had taken his considerable scientifi c knowledge of reproductive biology and applied it somewhat less objectively to society, arguing that equality between the sexes was impossible because men and women were built for diff erent roles.
Many biologists at the time agreed with Heape, including the co-author of The Evolution of Sex, John Arthur Thomson, who gave the book a positive review. But Albert Wolfe saw the danger in scientists overstepping their expertise. ‘It is a fine illustration of the sort of mental pathology a scientist, especially a biologist, can exhibit when, with slight acquaintance with other fields than his own, he ventures to dictate from “natural law” (with which Mr Heape claims to be in most intimate acquaintance) what social and ethical relation shall be,’ he mocked in his review. ‘He sees only disaster and perversion in the modern woman movement.’
Parts of science remained doggedly slow to change. Evolutionary theory progressed pretty much as before, learning few lessons from critics like Albert Wolfe, Caroline Kennard and Eliza Burt Gamble. It’s hard to picture the directions in which science might have gone if, in those important days when Charles Darwin was developing his theories of evolution, society hadn’t been quite as sexist as it was. We can only imagine how diff erent our understanding of women might be now if Gamble had been taken a little more seriously. Historians today have regretfully described her radical perspective as the road not taken.
In the century aft er Gamble’s death, researchers became only more obsessed by sex differences, and by how they might pick them out, measure and catalogue them, enforcing the dogma that men are somehow better than women.