Beyond Adam's rib: how Darwinian evolutionary theory redefined gender and influenced American feminist thought, 1870-1920

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Hamlin, Kimberly Ann, 1974-

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This dissertation reveals that the American reception of evolution often hinged on the theory's implications for gender and that Darwinian ideas significantly shaped feminist thought in the U.S. While the impact of evolution on American culture has been widely studied, few scholars have done so using gender as a category of analysis. Similarly, evolutionary theory is largely absent from histories of American feminist thought. Yet, Darwin's ideas, specifically those in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), had profound ramifications for gender and sex. Nineteenth century scientists and laypeople alike eagerly applied Darwin's theories to the "woman question," generally to the detriment of women. At the same time, key female activists embraced evolution as an appealing alternative to biblical gender strictures (namely the story of Adam and Eve) and enthusiastically incorporated it into their speeches and writings. My work describes how women including Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman utilized Darwinian principles to challenge traditional justifications for female subordination and bolster their arguments for women's rights. Furthermore, my research demonstrates that gender roles, particularly those pertaining to courtship, marriage, and reproduction, were reformulated in accordance with Darwin's theory of sexual selection, altering popular ideas about motherhood and paving the way for eugenics and birth control. My interdisciplinary project draws on scientific and mainstream publications, the feminist press, prescriptive literature, fiction, popular culture, and archival materials, and it explores both intellectual developments and their impact on people's daily lives. I argue that evolution shifted the terms of debate from women's souls to women's bodies, encouraged feminists to claim "equivalence" rather than "equality," inspired opponents and proponents of women's rights to ground their arguments in science (most frequently biology and zoology), destigmatized sex as a topic of scientific inquiry, and galvanized support for greater female autonomy in reproductive decisions. Looking at gender, religion, and evolutionary theory in concert not only helps us more fully comprehend the construction of gender and the development of American feminism, especially its troubled relationships with religion and science, it also enriches our understanding of the American reception of Darwin.