19th Century Science
The Woman Question

Note: This paper was written sometime between 1993-1995.

Table Of Contents

_____In his theory of evolution, Darwin, like his predecessors, delegated women to a position subordinate to men because of their role in reproduction. He assumed women were inferior to men because nature had delegated to women the simple task of bearing and nurturing children. A woman's worth was in her reproductive organs. While Darwin based his conclusion on his observations of various aspects of nature (the animal/insect kingdom, flora and fauna), his contemporaries tried to use craniological data and the laws of physics to support his beliefs. The medical community accepted the ideas promulgated by these scientists (especially those of Spenser) and adopted the practice of treating women by "fixing" their reproductive organs. Scientists and non-scientists citing this "evidence" of women's inferiority argued against women becoming politically active or overly educated.

_____Darwin's theory of evolution claims that women are naturally inferior to men because of their role in reproduction. A woman's natural role is to bare and care for children, while man's natural role is to support and protect his family. The task of a man requires intelligence. He must think of ways to provide the basic necessities for his family (food, shelter, etc.) and shield his offspring from danger. The intellectual prowess of men increased because they used logic and reason to survive. Nature requires less from a woman because her role in procreation is purely physical. Neither the formation of the child inside of her womb nor the production of milk in her breast is dependent on a female's ability to think. Because women did not exercise their gray matter, their minds evolved at a much slower rate than their male counterparts. Herbert Spenser, an evolutionist, believed that women lacked in the ability to reason and comprehend general principals because they were the latest characteristics passed on to man from evolution.
_____According to Darwin's theory, women would not have evolved mentally at all if it were not for the law of equal transmission. Though females did not actively participate in the strengthening of their minds, nature allowed them to evolve for the survival of the human race. Men acquired the talent of thinking first. Since this trait proved key in the survival of the species, the trait then passed over to women. If this passing of traits did not happen, men could have eventually evolved into a different species. This great mental endowment would at first seem to be a benefit but members of different species cannot reproduce; hence, the human race would have become extinct. The realization of this caused Darwin to exclaim:

It is indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals; otherwise, it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen." 1
_____Through various methods of analyzing the brain, many craniologists and neuro-anatomists sought to give merit to Darwin's ideas of female inferiority. Both groups studied skulls and the cranial regions of cadavers. Male and female brains look and operate in the same fashion, but male brains were relatively larger. According to these scientists, this difference proved women did not have the mental capacity of men. Reporting as much as a 12% to 19% difference in brain weight and size, they reassured men that they would never lose their evolutionary edge. 2
_____Assuming the size of one's brain corresponded with one's intellectual capabilities, craniologists labored intensively to prove the brains of women were smaller than the brains of men. Techniques used to ascertain a brain's weight or size included filing an empty skull with seed or shot, weighing the actual brain, and measuring the facial angle of the skull. These methods often provided favorable but erroneous results. The amount of seed or shot which could fit inside of a skull varied according to how it was packed in. The weight of a brain can be affected by old age, disease, or the manner in which it is preserved. Formalin, a popular preservative in the nineteenth century, caused a brain to expand and then shrink. Usually, the craniologists themselves hindered the research. It was not unusual for one not to have prior knowledge of the sex of the person whose brain or skull he measured. Because these scientists brought their own personal biases to the laboratory, all large skulls or brains were immediately thought to come from a male.
_____Craniologists who opposed judging one's mental capabilities by brain size used the arguments of their own colleagues against them. They claimed that if only brain size determined intelligence some animals would have to be considered more intelligent than man. French scientist Louis Pierre Gratiolet tried to show that brain size was irrelevant to intelligence by proving that the brain of a German male was 100 grams larger than the brain of a French male. The scientific community ignored Gratiolet's findings because the difference in weight was too small to be considered significant.
_____Rather than the entire brain, Neuro-anatomists concerned themselves with the size of frontal lobes, the portion of the brain once associated with intelligence. Neuro-anatomists believed the frontal lobes accounted for the highest mental and intellectual functions in a human being. The sutures of a woman's skull close earlier than those of a man which results in her having smaller frontal lobes and larger parietal lobes. In 1854, one scientist went so far as to label men homo frontalic and women homo parietalic. During the turn of the century, it was discovered that the parietals were the seat of human intelligence. Anatomists reversed their earlier ruling by "discovering" that a woman's parietal lobes were not really larger than a man's.

_____To strengthen their position, evolutionists combined the laws of physics with Aristotle's theory of human development. Aristotle built his opinion about biology on the premise that heat (energy) is key to the perfection of an organism. "Heat 'concocts' matter, enabling it to develop. The more heat an animal generates the more developed it will be." 3 Evolutionists adopted his beliefs which automatically classified men as superior to women by the virtue of their physical stature. Spenser applied Hermann von Helrnhotz law of the conservation of energy. to the human body. Helrnhotz discovered that though it can change form, energy can not be lost or created. Because a female's main function was to reproduce, she necessarily devoted her energy to maintaining the mental cycle. Men do use some energy to fuel their reproductive organs, but, because they do not perform mothering tasks, they can devote most of their energy to thinking. Evolutionist Patrick Geddes believed men possessed a kalabotic metabolism; they have physiological habits which expend energy. Women possessed an anobolic metabolism; they have physiological habits which tend to store energy.
_____Not only were women found lacking intellectually because of how they used their energy, but the amount of energy they generated in comparison to men also rendered them inferior. Since men consume more food, the fuel that provides the body with energy, than women, physics minded scientists declared men had to be smarter:
Again, it is an accepted truth of modern science that all human energy is derived from the food, an is an exact equivalent of the amount of food consumed and assimilated. The amount of food assimilated by men exceeds the amount assimilated by women by about twenty percent . . . It follows, with mathematical certainty, that the amount of power[mental] evolved by men must exceed that evolved by women. (Hardaker, 579)
The theory of the small female brain offered by craniologist conflicts with this aspect of the argument. Because a woman's brain is smaller than a man's brain, she would require less energy to perform the same tasks including thinking. Scientists refuted this fact by insisting the reproductive organs require more energy than her brain does.

_____Darwin's theory of evolution provided a formidable argument against women being allowed more than an elementary education. According to the evolutionist, the small less evolved brain of a woman was not equipped to think logically. Women, those who were white and privileged, were taught to read, write and compute to a level at which they could effectively manage a home. Women were skilled at intuition, but they could not adequately grasp knowledge.
_____Those opposed to women receiving a vigorous educated also easily cited physics based arguments. For a woman's brain to even attempt to understand difficult, intellectual problems, it would have to divert energy from the reproductive organs. This would impair the woman's ability to reproduce. Because the intelligence of a woman can never match that of a man, it is a wasteful sacrifice. An educated, nonproductive woman, in nineteenth century England was considered a waste of ovaries:
Women beware. You are on the brink of destruction. You have hitherto been engaged in crushing your waists, now you are attempting to cultivate your mind. You have been merely dancing all night in the foul air of the ball room; now you are beginning to spend your mornings in study. You have been incessantly stimulating your emotions with concerts and operas; now you are exerting you understanding to learn Greek, and solve propositions in Euclid. Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost. 4

_____Opponents of the women's suffrage movement found much evidence from the evolutionist to support their beliefs. From an evolutionary standpoint, those who advocated political quality between the sexes were resisting natural selection. Nature simply had not endowed women with the mental capacity to understand politics. Because political bodies arose from the need to secure territory, men were better equipped to handle political affairs:
the 'woman's-rights movementí is an attempt to rear, by a process of unnatural selection, a race of monstrosities-hostile alike to men, to normal women, to human society, and to the future development of our race. 5
Mary Sedgewick, a woman against women's suffrage, thought equality was a movement toward de-evolution:
the suffrage agitation is a retrograde movement, which carried to its logical conclusion would take the race back towards the condition in which no sex characteristics existed. for, the farther back we go in the scale of animal development, the less is the difference between the sexes, until we reach primitive forms of life in which sex is indistinguishable. 6

_____Like many scientist, the medical community viewed the human body with the mind of a physicist. Doctors accepted the idea that a woman's energy is centered around her reproductive organs. When a woman suffered a medical problem, doctors usually diagnosed the problem as a misdirection of energy. Energy channeled from the womb:
would cause an imbalance in her [the woman's] body resulting in exhaustion, infection or disorders of the reproductive organs, which in turn might cause pathological reactions in other parts of the body. 7
The reproductive system was virtually the root of every physical and mental problem a woman may incur. In 1869, Dr. M. E. Dirix endeavored to describe the pitiful situation of women:
Thus, women are treated for diseases of the stomach, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, etc.; yet, in most instances, these diseases will be found on due investigation, to be, in reality, no diseases at all, but merely the sympathetic reactions or the symptoms of one disease, namely, a disease of the womb. (Ehrenreich, 122)
It was unusual or extreme for a middle or upper class woman of this period to have her ovaries, clitoris or womb surgically removed. Other treatments included applying a leech or hot steel to a woman's cervix (Ehrenreich, 102).
_____If a doctor did not think that a woman's situation was severe enough to warrant surgery, he usually prescribed an equally cruel treatment. To cure the ailing female, physicians encouraged women to cease all intellectual and physical pursuits. If the brain and the body functioned at the bare minimum, energy diverted to vigorous activity will return to the womb and restore order. For women not content with mimicking a vegetable, this sanction only made her situation worse. A doctor offered this advice to a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown:
Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you at all times . . . Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live. (Ehrenreich, 102)
His patient, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of "The Yellow Wallpaper", did not respond favorably to treatment:
. . . [I] came perilously close to losing my mind. The mental agony grew so unbearable that I would sit blankly moving my head from side to side . . . I would crawl into remote closets and under beds- to hide from the grinding pressure of that distress. (Ehrenreich, 102)

_____Sparked by Darwin's theory of evolution, nineteenth century scientists worked feverously to convince society that white women were inferior to white men. 8 Crainologist used questionable measuring techniques to obtain the results they desired. When neuroanatomist discovered the parietal lobes, not frontal lobes, were the key to human intelligence, the parietal lobes of females suddenly shrunk. Evolutionists stretched the laws of physics to justify their position. Scientists promoted their theories even though they contradicted the facts of their own period. Lower class women expended a great deal of their energy in physical labor; however, this did not seem to harm their capability to reproduce. Wives who joined the work force usurped "natural selection" by sharing the responsibility for the physical well being of the family with their husbands. Female factory workers stepped out of the evolutionary boundaries of breeder and nurturer.
_____Despite advances in biology and medicine, many modern day scientists also believe women are controlled by their reproductive organs. In the 1950's, Dr. Katharina Dalton introduced the scientific community to a phenomena she called Premenstrual Syndrome. PMS is the general name given to a wide and often conflicting range of symptoms which a woman may experience the week before her period. Dalton performed a study in which she attempted to link negative mental and physical changes in women to the menstrual cycle. She found that approximately one week before their periods, some women experienced headaches, water retention, tender breasts, clumsiness, acne, asthma, bruising,9 fainting, dizziness, depression, anxiety, and irritable feeling. Though these may appear common maladies experienced by both men and women, Dr. Dalton insisted that these symptoms were extremely severe in women during PMS.
_____Despite its inconsistencies, Dr. Dalton's theory has been accepted by the medical community. The accurate detection of this female problem poses a problem in itself. a woman suffering from periodic headaches can be diagnosed was having PMS; however, if a man who suffers from asthma and lashes out at others periodically doctors do not look to his testes as the source of his problem. Though pharmaceutical companies have created products to help women control this weakness in their nature, no one really knows what causes it:
Yet in spite of more than a decade of biomedical research, no biological marker has been found that distinguishes women who have severe premenstrual symptoms from those who do not. There is no support for theories suggesting that premenstrual symptoms are caused by abnormally high (or low) hormones, low magnesium, high sodium, abnormal thyroids, a deficiency of hormonelike substances called prostaglandic, steroid fluctuations or the like. 10
With no apparent cause or cure, PMS becomes a twentieth century version of the imbalance of energy theory.
_____Though women may find it convenient to blame negative feelings or behaviors on a "biological" factor, they should be wary of phantom illnesses. Women must demand that scientist treat the female body as more than a pair of ovaries or a receptacle for semen.


Bagehot, W. "Biology and 'Woman's Rights.'" The Popular Science Monthly. 14(1879)

Bleier, Ruth. "Myths of biological Inferiority of women: An Exploration of the sociology of
_____Biological Research. University of Michigan Papers in women's
_____Studies. 2(1976), p39-63.

Bleier, Ruth. Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women. New
_____York: Pergamon Press, 1984.

Easlea, Brian. Science and Sexual Oppression: Patriarchy's Confrontation with Women and
_____Nature. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.

Ehrenreich, Barbara and Diedre English. For Her Own good: 150 Years of the Experts Advice to
_____Women. Garden city: Anchor Press, 1978.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. New
_____York: Basic Books, Inc. 1985.

Hardaker, M. "Science and the woman Question." The Popular Science Monthly. 20(1882),

Kirkup, Gill and Laurie Smith Keller (eds). Inventing Women: Science, Technology, and
_____Gender. Cambridge (UK): the Open University, 1992.

Sedgwick, Mary L. "Some scientific Aspects of The woman suffrage Question." Gunton's
_____Magazine. April 1901. Vol 20, p. 333-44.

Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.


1) Charles Darwin. Descent of Man vol. 2, p. 313 as found in: M. Hardaker. "Science and the Woman Question". The Popular Science Monthly, 1882, 20, pp577-84. Return

2) In 1887, George J. Romanes, biologist, concluded that the average brain weight of women is about 5 ounces less than the average brain weight of men. He also believed that women would never evolve to the level of man because men's brains will have grown larger. Return

3) Anne Fausto-Sterling. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women and Men. (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1985) p18. Return

4) Barbara Ehrenreich and Diedre English. For Her Own good: 150 Years of the Experts Advice to Women. (Garden city: Anchor Press, 1978) p100. Return

5) W. Bagehot. "Biology and women's rights". The Popular Science Monthly. 1879, vol 14, pgs 201-13. Return

6) Mary K Sedgewick. "Some scientific aspects of the woman suffrage question". Gunton's Magazine, April 1901, p337. Return

7) Gill Kirkup and Laurie Smith Keller (eds). Inventing women: Science, Technology, and Gender. (Cambirdge:Open University, 1992) p75. Return

8) The theories discussed in this paper only applied to Caucasian women. Though inferior to her own white counterpart, white women were thought to have the intellegence of black men or children. Black women were inferior to all. Return

9) It was thought that women bruised themselves during a PMS induced tempter tantrum and then, unaware of her attack, she blamed her husband for her injuries. Return

10) Carol Tavris. The Mismeasure of Woman. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) p144. Return


Women's History Section of Yahoo

Women In Antiquity

African-American Women in the 19th Century: On-line Archival Exhibits at Duke University