Meet the Woman Who Decided to Take on Darwin's Sexist Scientific Theories

Eliza Burt Gamble published a book in 1894 revealing the inconsistencies and double standards in the evolutionary scientist's arguments.

Photo Credit: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock

Excerpted from Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Storyby Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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 fewer 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 after 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 had lost her father when she was two, her mother when she was around sixteen. Left without support, she made a living by teaching at local public 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. She could have been a quiet, submissive housewife of the kind celebrated by the poet 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 organized 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 fight for women’s rights, she recognized, was that society had come to believe women were built to be lesser than men. Convinced this was wrong, in 1885 she set out to find hard proof for herself. She spent a year studying the collections at the Library of Congress, 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 offered great promise to the women’s movement. It opened a door to a revolutionary new way to understand humans. “It meant a way to be modern,” says historian 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 man’s spare rib. Christian models for female behavior 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 realized just how devastating the scientific method could be. If humans were descended from lesser creatures, the same as 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.

In reality of course, for all the latent revolutionary power in his ideas, Darwin himself never believed that women were the intellectual equals of men. And 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. “It was shocking,” says Hamlin. Marshalling history, statistics, and science, this was Gamble’s piercing counterargument 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 on the one hand, Darwin suggested that gorillas were too big and strong to become higher social creatures like humans. Yet 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 associated more commonly 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 narrow-minded 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 suggested that Darwin hadn’t accounted for the existence of powerful women in some tribal societies either, which might prove that the supremacy of men now was not how it had always been. The ancient Hindu text the Mahabharata, which she picks out as an example, spoke 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 female of the species?

“When a man and woman are put into competition, 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, finer 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,” she argues.

Eliza Burt Gamble’s message, like that of other scientific suffragists, proved popular. Their provocative message 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 writes in the preface to the revised edition, which came out in 1916.

But even an army of readers and the support of fellow activists couldn’t help win biologists around to her point of view. Her arguments were doomed to never fully enter the scientific mainstream, only 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 only for women over the age of thirty. And when Gamble died in Detroit in 1920, it was just a month after the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited citizens from being denied the right to vote because of their sex.

While the political battle was a success, the war to change people’s minds was taking much longer. “Gamble’s ideas were praised in reform magazines and her writing style was generally praised, but the scientific and mainstream press balked at her conclusions and at her pretensions to write about ‘science,’” says Hamlin. The Evolution of Woman was quite widely reviewed in newspapers and academic journals, but scarcely left a dent on science. “They were just like, ‘Those silly women and their silly ideas.’”

A scathing book review 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 about Sex Antagonism, the latest work of the respected British biologist Walter Heape. Heape had taken his considerable scientific 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 different roles.

Many biologists at the time agreed with Heape, including Scottish naturalist and coauthor of The Evolution of Sex, John Arthur Thompson, who gave the book a positive review. But Wolfe immediately saw the danger in scientists like him overstepping their expertise. “It is a fi ne 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,” Wolfe 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 always, learning few lessons from critics such as 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 developed his theories of evolution, society hadn’t been as sexist as it was. We can only imagine how different our understanding of women might be now if Gamble had been taken more seriously. Historians today have regrettably described her radical perspective as the road not taken.

In the century after Gamble’s death, researchers became only more obsessed by sex differences, how they might pick them out, measure and catalogue them, enforcing the dogma that men are somehow better than women.

Excerpted from Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Storyby Angela Saini (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist whose print and broadcast work has appeared on the BBC and in the Guardian, New Scientist, Wired, the Economist, Science. A former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, she won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Kavli Science Journalism gold award in 2015. Saini has a master’s in engineering from Oxford University, and she is the author of Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World.

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