From Eve to Evolution provides the first full-length study of American women’s responses to evolutionary theory and illuminates the role science played in the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement. Kimberly A. Hamlin reveals how a number of nineteenth-century women, raised on the idea that Eve’s sin forever fixed women’s subordinate status, embraced Darwinian evolution—especially sexual selection theory as explained in The Descent of Man—as an alternative to the creation story in Genesis.
Hamlin chronicles the lives and writings of the women who combined their enthusiasm for evolutionary science with their commitment to women’s rights, including Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Eliza Burt Gamble, Helen Hamilton Gardener, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. These Darwinian feminists believed evolutionary science proved that women were not inferior to men, that it was natural for mothers to work outside the home, and that women should control reproduction. The practical applications of this evolutionary feminism came to fruition, Hamlin shows, in the early thinking and writing of the American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger.
Much scholarship has been dedicated to analyzing what Darwin and other male evolutionists had to say about women, but very little has been written regarding what women themselves had to say about evolution. From Eve to Evolution adds much-needed female voices to the vast literature on Darwin in America.
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About the Author
Kimberly A. Hamlin is associate professor of American studies and history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She lives in Cincinnati.
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From Eve to Evolution
Darwin, Science, and Women's Rights in Gilded Age America
By Kimberly A. Hamlin
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. —Genesis 2:22
Prior to the introduction of Darwinian evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth century, the Genesis creation story not only revealed the origins of life on earth, it also explained what it meant to be human and, especially, what it meant to be male and female. By the early 1800s, geological discoveries had cast doubt on the literal six days of creation, but, literal or metaphorical, the Garden of Eden still provided the blueprint for the Christian understanding of the universe. While there are in fact two creation stories in the first and second chapters of Genesis, the latter is the one most commonly reiterated. This version explains that Eve was made from Adam's rib to be his "helpmeet." Soon thereafter Eve caused the couple's exile from the Garden of Eden by disobeying God's word, eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, and successfully encouraging Adam to follow suit. As punishment, God sentenced Adam to a life of toil in the land outside of Eden. To Eve, God thundered, "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." For generations, the legacy of Eve's secondary creation, sin, and subsequent curse shaped church doctrine, public life, and popular culture, informing individual's images of themselves and their ideas about what was possible for women and men. Thus, to fully understand women's responses to evolutionary theory, we must begin with Eve. Indeed, the most fundamental and perhaps most urgent reason why many women drew inspiration from evolutionary theory, at least initially, was that it provided an alternative creation story to the Garden of Eden, although, by 1890, the perception of evolution as an alternative to Christianity forced a split within the women's rights movement.
THE LONG LEGACY OF EVE
Nineteenth-century Americans could expect to hear about Adam and Eve in church, read about them in popular periodicals and literature, and see them depicted in art. In 1833, two paintings entitled "Adam and Eve" and "Paradise Lost" (billed together as "The Temptation and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve") by the French artist Claude-Marie Dubufe toured the United States and "probably drew together greater crowds of spectators than any pictures ever exhibited in the country" (figs. 1.1 and 1.2). In New York City alone, twenty-five thousand people were said to have paid admission to view the paintings. One reviewer concluded from the "vast number of visitors, old and young, of both sexes, that throng by day and night" to see the pictures on display in Philadelphia that "we may be warranted in supposing that the work of no one artist ever before afforded American taste such perfect gratification." This same reviewer observed that Adam and Eve "are interesting in the highest degree to all the human family" because they revealed "the facility of a Temptation to which all the sons of earth fell victims through their beautiful mother, and the agony of an Expulsion, in the endurance of which the intellectual energy of the world's Father sustained and comforted the winning woman for whom he sinned and suffered."
Decades later, William Dean Howells, the legendary nineteenth-century writer and influential editor of the Atlantic Monthly, attributed his lifelong interest in art to having seen these very paintings. At the turn of the twentieth century, Howells' friend and colleague Mark Twain published two volumes presenting, in a modern, humorous way, the diaries of Adam and Eve. In the intervening seventy years, it had become culturally acceptable for Twain to satirize the biblical pair, but the key to Twain's humor was that most people were still deeply invested in this ancestral relationship. Twain also proposed, tongue-in-cheek, that the town of Elmira, New York, erect a monument to Adam, since in "tracing the genesis of the human race back to its sources [in The Descent of Man], Mr. Darwin had left Adam out altogether." Even as artists like the irreverent Twain toyed with the Garden of Eden story, the original couple informed the stories and images people conjured when contemplating women's role in society.
In private life, too, Adam and Eve shaped Americans' ideas about what it meant to be man and woman. The historian Anthony Rotundo found numerous references to the biblical pair in his research on conceptions of manhood in the nineteenth century, especially in letters and memoirs (in addition to more public sources). The Bible was the most frequently read book in nineteenth-century America, yet we do not often think of it as a marriage guide. Rotundo's research demonstrates that, in fact, biblical passages on Eve influenced the parameters of many couples' relationships. Not surprisingly, Rotundo found letters written by men "invoking the Bible ... to support the husband's power" over the wife. He also located several references to Eve in letters and memoirs written by men. Shedding light on the role that the biblical creation story played in shaping male attitudes toward women, most of these references to Eve described women as "temptresses." To nineteenth-century readers, the most important message about marriage to be gleaned from the Bible was that God intended for the husband to be the head of the household and, by extension, the nation. As Rotundo observes, "[B]efore a woman defied her husband or dealt with him on equal terms, she had to struggle with the force of biblical injunction and with the centuries of marital tradition that were justified by those injunctions." A daunting proposition indeed.
The narrative and imagery of Adam and Eve was so deeply ingrained in American and European culture that Eve played the pivotal role in debates about women's rights from the seventeenth century, when women began to publicly demand more opportunities, to the twentieth, when they focused on and secured the right to vote. References to Eve reached a fever pitch in the nineteenth century during periods of heightened publicity or success of the women's rights movement: in the 1840s and 1850s, and then again in the 1880s and 1890s. Regardless of the particular question at hand, women were told they were not fit for public or professional life and that they must remain subordinate to men as a result of Eve's secondary creation, transgression, and curse. To be sure, women who agitated for increased educational, personal, and professional opportunities encountered many obstacles, but the one seemingly impenetrable barrier that generation after generation had to confront was the legacy of Eve. Even antifeminist arguments that did not explicitly mention Eve were grounded in the basic premise that women were created as an afterthought and destined for treachery. Opponents of women's rights often drew on the New Testament writings of Paul, for example, but these passages were informed by Eve's conduct in Eden and generally served to remind audiences to heed the lessons in Genesis. As many women's rights advocates noted, Eve provided the foundation from which all other ideas about women developed.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the women who dared test the boundaries of their limited sphere, the relatively few that there were, faced their most vocal opposition from members of the clergy, men who were well suited to argue the Bible against women's rights. When pioneering abolitionists and women's rights activists Sarah and Angelina Grimké first spoke in public in the late 1830s, clergymen banded together to bar them from churches and mobilize public opinion against them. In 1837 the Massachusetts Congregational clergy issued a public letter warning that when "a woman assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer ... her character becomes unnatural." Nearly twenty years later, at the Fifth National Convention for women's rights in 1854, the activists cited continued clerical opposition as a singular hindrance to the movement, resolving unanimously, "[W]e feel it a duty to declare in regard to the sacred cause which has brought us together, that the most determined opposition it encounters is from the clergy generally, whose teachings of the Bible are intensely inimical to the equality of woman with man." To men of the cloth, and indeed to the vast majority of Americans, women speaking in public or, worse, on behalf of their own rights violated the most essential facts of God's divine order, the very same order that provided the blueprint for democratic government and public affairs.
Since the Enlightenment, debates about the ideal political order have drawn inspiration and justification from what was seen to be the divine, natural order in the Garden of Eden. As the historian Nancy Isenberg establishes in Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (1998), "the creation story and the state of nature played a continuing, vital part in antebellum political discourse." At the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, to give just one example, delegate Abel Upshur argued against equal suffrage for men and for the timelessness of a "feeling of property," which, naturally, made some men the rulers of others, as proof: "Adam was the first of created beings; Eve was created next; and the very fiat which brought her into existence, subjected her to the dominion of her husband. Here then was no equality." In depictions of the ideal political state, Eve's secondary status and propensity to sin provided irrefutable evidence against women's rights, including but not limited to voting. In 1849 the abolitionist Richard Henry Dana lectured on "Woman" in Philadelphia. According to coverage of his speech in the women's press, Dana's main point was that women could only "stand in awe and reverence of man" because Adam was the "first man," forever sealing women's fate as secondary and ancillary creatures. Even though he defended women's right to petition, the antebellum statesman, abolitionist, and sixth president of the United States John Quincy Adams denied women rights as equal citizens; such a proposition simply went against God's creation. In his 1842 lecture, The Social Compact, Adams explained that in order to understand the ideal plan for democratic government, one needed to look no further than the Garden of Eden. According to Isenberg's analysis, Adams reasoned that "Adam and Eve introduced civil society into the state of nature, and that their union symbolized the universal model of bourgeois society." Eve brought conflict into the Garden of Eden, explaining why men and women should not both be involved in politics. Adam, on the other hand, served as a "cautionary tale about allowing women too much political influence."
Debating God's plan for the universe was a tall order. Nevertheless, pioneering feminists, from Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) to Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) to Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), all challenged the "rib" story. Antebellum feminists reinterpreted or dismissed Eve in their writings as a way to stake a claim for women's increased participation in public and private life, but, in an era when women could not hold leadership positions in church or state, this tactic met with limited success. According to Murray, one of the first American authors to write on behalf of women, men, rendered "blind" by "self love," were too "wholly absorbed in a partial admiration of [their] own abilities" to notice the real moral in the Garden of Eden tale: Eve ate of the apple to gain knowledge, whereas Adam did so simply because Eve invited him to. "Thus it should seem," Murray concluded, "that all the arts of the grand deceiver ... were requisite to mislead our general mother, while the father of mankind forfeited his own, and relinquished the happiness of posterity, merely in compliance with the blandishments of a female." Seen in this light, Eve was intellectually curious while Adam was a fool. Sarah Grimké, the antebellum abolitionist who insisted on women's right to speak in public, believed that Adam and Eve bore equal responsibility for their fall from grace and, thus, that they were intellectual equals as well. According to Grimké, "the welfare of the world will be materially advanced by every new discovery we make of the designs of Jehovah in the creation of woman." Twenty years after she wrote, evolutionary theory became one such "new discovery."
Before they could draw on Darwinian evolutionary theory, women countered antifeminist invocations of Eve by citing the first chapter of Genesis, which describes men and women as simultaneous creations. Lucretia Mott, for example, quoted these verses in replying to Richard Henry Dana's 1849 remarks on women as related to Eve. Women claimed that their simultaneous creation made them "co-equal" with men, a powerful intellectual and rhetorical move. Throughout the 1850s, women continued to cite simultaneous creation, coequality, and cosovereignty to justify their campaigns for political inclusion. According to Isenberg's comprehensive study of antebellum feminist thought, coequality must be understood as a "conceptual revolution." These early feminists rewrote the social contract and "carved a theoretical space for women within the imaginary script of the 'original contract' in the state of nature" because their notion of "simultaneous creation challenged the gender asymmetry that enlightened thinkers had firmly rooted in the state of nature." By the 1870s, feminist arguments for simultaneous creation and coequality, along with those questioning the relevance of Eve more generally, enjoyed the support of the new science of evolution, but arguments linking women's degraded status to Eve persisted.
The mainstream consensus that women's lot in life was forever fixed by Eve's transgression survived the vast cultural upheaval of the Civil War seemingly unscathed and offers perhaps one reason why demands for "universal suffrage" for African Americans and women met with little success during and after the war. In 1873, the Transcendentalist-turned-Catholic Orestes Brownson concluded that women were not fit to rule themselves, let alone others, because "Revelation asserts, and universal experience proves that the man is the head of the woman, and that the woman is for the man, not the man for the woman; and his greatest error, as well as the primal curse of society is that he abdicates his headship, and allows himself to be governed, we might almost say, deprived of his reason, by woman." As another opponent of women's rights succinctly explained in 1869, women were prima facie inferior to men because: "1. Her creation was subsequent to that of man. 2. The first woman was taken from the side of man. 3. Her creation was avowedly to supply man with a companion. 4. She was of the sex which implies maternity." Case closed.
In 1871, the feminist paper Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly lamented women's limited options when it came to confronting arguments based on Eve. "There is one argument urged in favor of man's right to rule in the political world, and against women's right to participate in the business of legislation, that has never been fully met ... by the advocates of woman's enfranchisement" observed the author. "The doctrine of the so-called 'Fall of Man,'" the article continued, "has always been the most effective weapon the believers in the divine authenticity of the Scriptures have wielded against the recognition of her equality. Indeed, it is the only basis of nearly all they have to say on the subject." Almost in direct response, the editors of Godey's Lady's Book, the most popular women's magazine of the century, criticized "[t]he efforts of that small band of women who assume to represent their sex in claiming the right of suffrage." These women "have so persistently ignored the great and radical differences between the sexes that it is especially necessary to recall them." To understand these differences, women needed only consult "the doctrine of the Bible," which explained "that when banished from Eden, man was ordained to be the worker, inventor, and maker of things from earth; the provider and protector for the household; the lawgiver and defender of social, moral, and political rights, the sustainer of moral and religious duties." Women, on the other hand, "reign[ed] supreme" in "the Kingdom of Home" as "the preserver of life, the first teacher of manhood, the guardian of home, honor, and happiness." What could better support arguments against women's increased participation in public life than the sense that God Almighty had created woman from man's rib to be his helper only for her to defy His instructions and cause the downfall of humankind?
Excerpted from From Eve to Evolution by Kimberly A. Hamlin. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Evolution and the Natural Order
Chapter 1 Eve’s Curse
Chapter 2 “The Science of Feminine Humanity”
Chapter 3 Working Women and Animal Mothers
Chapter 4 “Female Choice” and the Reproductive Autonomy of Women