CLIO TALKS BACK: What Did Darwin Say about Women’s Emancipation? And Why Don’t We Hear More about Clémence Royer?

Bibliotheque Marguerite Durand, Paris
Clemence Royer as a young woman
All around the western world, scientists, museums, and others are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English scientist whose Origin of Species (1859) forever changed the way we think about evolution and set off a huge protest by fervent Christians threatened by the notion that creation was not entirely the work of God, accomplished in six days some 6000 years earlier, and authoritatively documented in the Bible. Conflicts between defenders of Biblical creation and advocates of evolution filled the press for years thereafter. Not only that, but the very thought that man might have descended from the apes made traditionalists extremely nervous.

But Origin had not directly broached another subject that was already on many people’s minds from the 1830s – the evolution of humankind and the emancipation of women. What did Darwin say about women’s emancipation?

Darwin clarified his views on human evolution in a new landmark work, The Descent of Man (1871). There he proposed the evolutionary importance of sexual selection, or choice of mate, for increasing the differentiation between men and women – not only physiologically but also mentally and emotionally. Darwin was no misogynist but found it difficult to accept the arguments for women’s emancipation of such liberal thinkers as John Stuart Mill, author of The Subjection of Women (1869) and proponent of woman suffrage in the British Parliament a few years earlier. In Darwin’s eyes, historically speaking, women, however much preyed upon by men, had become increasingly protected by them as societies grew more complex. This suggested to him that women had lost the necessity of having to sharpen their faculties in the unremitting struggle for survival, thereby assuring their relatively inferior development; he was convinced that the results of evolutionary sexual differentiation could never be undone, whatever 19th century women’s rights advocates might desire.

This set off a stream of scientific investigations by physicians and others to measure skulls found in anthropological digs and to hypothesize about the relative size of women’s and men’s brains; these were the early years of physical anthropology. Some years later other scientists, such as Dr. Léonce Manouvrier, took women’s side, pointing out that relative to women’s body size, their brains might actually be larger than men’s. Partisans in controversies over providing secondary and higher education for women invested heavily in these arguments, on both sides of the question.

Darwin’s Origins was translated into French by a remarkable self-taught woman scientist, Clémence Royer (1830-1902), who was still a baby when the young Darwin set off on his voyages of exploration that led to his evolutionary theses. She undertook this labor because she said Darwin’s earlier work confirmed her own theories. Royer was already known for proposing (in the 1850s, in Lausanne) a “woman’s philosophy,” She sought “a form, a feminine expression of science. . . . a new art that I have to create.” “As long as science remains exclusively in the hands of men,” she explained, “it will never go down into the depths of the family and society. . . . Why. . . should [women] be excluded from the hunt for truth?” In 1869 Royer published a book, Origine de l’homme et des sociétés (The origins of man and of societies), nearly 600 pages long.

from Les Hommes d'Aujourd'hui 1881
Clemence Royer - Caricature 1881
In the 1870s Clémence Royer joined the Anthropological Society in Paris and waded in on these debates, insisting that male scientists “have a disposition to find sexes everywhere,” and critiqued their ideas about sexual polarization. “Woman . . . is the one animal in all creation about which man knows least,” she exclaimed. Her long exposition, “On the Birthrate,” which addressed the subject of women, their needs, desires, and reforms required, was suppressed. Even after it was typeset, it was considered too explosive to publish, and the manuscript, along with the galleys and page proofs lay quietly in the archives of the Anthropological Society until their rediscovery in the late 20th century. Joy Harvey has translated the document into English, publishing it in her 1997 biography of Clémence Royer. Clio thinks Royer's contributions ought to be far more widely known.

Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, vol. 1, 1750-1880, ed. Susan Groag Bell & Karen Offen (Stanford University Press, 1981), which reprints the critical passages from Darwin’s Descent of Man, along with published remarks from Paul Broca and Herbert Spencer. Two recent biographical studies are: Genevieve Fraisse, Clémence Royer: Philosophe et femme de sciences (Paris, 1985) and Joy Harvey, “Almost a Man of Genius”: Clémence Royer, Feminism, and Nineteenth-Century Science (Rutgers University Press, 1997). See also Sara Jane Miles, “Evolution and Natural Law in the Synthetic Science of Clémence Royer, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicato, 1988, which includes translations of a number of Royer texts; and Linda L. Clark, Social Darwinism in France (University of Alabama Press, 1984).