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Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction…
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Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood

by Cynthia Russett

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In Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Cynthia Eagle Russett argues, “Charmed by the conception of a hierarchical order in human knowledge, charmed too by the evident successes of the scientific method, social scientists modeled their fledgling disciplines upon the natural sciences and set out to discover the regular laws that surely underlay the flux of social facts” (pg. 5). She continues, “The feminist challenge was sweeping: it embraced education and occupation, together with legal, political, and social status…Such assertiveness was more unsettling than the racial threat because it was more intimate and immediate: few white men lived with blacks, but most lived with women. Scientists responded to this unrest with a detailed and sustained examination of the differences between men and women that justified their differing social roles” (pg. 10). She further writes, “In denying to women a coequal role in society, scientists sought to stabilize at least one set of relationships and by inserting lesser orders (women, savages) between themselves and the apes, to distance themselves from the animality and erosion of status that Darwinism seemed to imply” (pg. 14). Russett builds upon the work of Elizabeth Fee, Stephen Jay Gould, and Rosalind Rosenberg.
Russett writes, “Whether on the continent, in England, or in the United States, physical anthropologists focused not, like the ethnologists, on language and culture but on physical characteristics. The important things to know about people were their skeletal structure, the texture of their hair, the slope of their faces, the color of their skin and eyes, the size of their skulls, and the convolutions of their brains” (pg. 26). Further, “Paul Broca, dean of craniologists, actually collected more information about the contrasts between men’s and women’s brains than about any other kind of group difference. Scientists all over Europe and America joined Broca in a unanimous conclusion about the nature of the contrast: women’s brains were smaller and lighter than those of men” (pg. 35). According to Russett, “Broadly speaking, scientists had recourse to four of the great organizing principles of nineteenth-century science: the biogenetic law; sexual selection with its corollary, the greater variability of the male; the conservation of energy and the correlation of force; and, in social thought, the physiological division of labor” (pg. 49). Discussing ontogeny and phylogeny, Russett writes, “Woman…played a role in both: in ontogeny she represented eternal adolescence, in phylogeny she recalled the ancestry of the race” (pg. 54). In this way, “Women and savages, together with idiots, criminals, and pathological monstrosities, were a constant source of anxiety to male intellectuals in the late nineteenth century” (pg. 63).
According to Russett, “Women were enjoined against strenuous labor during their fertile years not alone for their own sake, but for the sake of the race. Energy spent in cerebration was of course lost to reproduction, and the intellectual maiden became a sterile matron” (pg. 118). In this way, “The obsessive concern among scientists and medical men that woman be mindful of her biological function gains perspective in the context of contemporary demography: marriage- and birth-rates were declining in the late nineteenth century, particularly among the middle classes” (pg. 122). Spencer, examining the division of labor among the Clatsop and Chinook Indians, “inferred from this information that social status and political influence were more evenly divided between the sexes when men and women shared pursuits in common, rather than when they specialized according to sex. Shared pursuits were a historic aberration, however. Normally sex specialization held sway” (pg. 141). According to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “It was not biology that drew exaggerated and unwholesome distinctions between boys and girls, men and women; it was society. And what society had done, society could undo” (pg. 153). Though some feminists agreed with scientists that there was more intellectual variability among men than women, this stance allowed for both geniuses and idiots in man and no possibility of genius in women. Russett writes, “It is hardly surprising that the first major American challenge to the theory of greater male variability, like the first challenge to the theory of sex differences in mental traits, was posed by a woman” – Leta Stetter Hollingworth (pg. 170).
Russett concludes, “Science is not disembodied inquiry; it is the product of particular human beings living in specific times and places, and these individuals, like all other human beings, are affected by the circumstances of their lives” (pg. 188). In the twentieth century, “Scientists became the prophets of an updated Calvinism, ordaining some – the white, the civilized, the European, the male – to evolutionary maturity, and others – the dark-skinned, the primitive, the female – to perpetual infancy. The cosmos itself disdained equality” (pg. 203). Finally, “The construction of womanhood by Victorian scientists grew out of and was responsive to the very human needs of a particular historical moment. It needs to be seen for the masculine power play that it was, but it needs to be seen also as an intellectual monument, etched in fear, of the painful transition to the modern world view” (pg. 206). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Dec 5, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674802918, Paperback)

One scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry. The spectacle presented, in Cynthia Russett's splendid book, of nineteenth-century white male scientists and thinkers earnestly trying to prove women inferior to men--thereby providing, along with "savages" and "idiots," an evolutionary buffer between men and animals--is by turns appalling, amusing, and saddening. Surveying the work of real scientists as well as the products of more dubious minds, Russett has produced a learned yet immensely enjoyable chapter in the annals of human folly.

At the turn of the century science was successfully challenging the social authority of religion; scientists wielded a power no other group commanded. Unfortunately, as Russett demonstrates, in Victorian sexual science, empiricism tangled with prior belief, and scientists' delineation of the mental and physical differences between men and women was directed to show how and why women were inferior to men. These men were not necessarily misogynists. This was an unsettling time, when the social order was threatened by wars, fierce economic competition, racial and industrial conflict, and the failure of society to ameliorate poverty, vice, crime, illnesses. Just when men needed the psychic lift an adoring dependent woman could give, she was demanding the vote, higher education, and the opportunity to become a wage earner!

No other work has treated this provocative topic so completely, nor have the various scientific theories used to marshal evidence of women's inferiority been so thoroughly delineated and debunked. Erudite enough for scholars in the history of science, intellectual history, and the history of women, this book with its stylish presentation will also attract a large nonspecialist audience.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:19 -0400)

One scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry. The spectacle presented, in Cynthia Russett's splendid book, of nineteenth-century white male scientists and thinkers earnestly trying to prove women inferior to men--thereby providing, along with "savages" and "idiots," an evolutionary buffer between men and animals--is by turns appalling, amusing, and saddening. Surveying the work of real scientists as well as the products of more dubious minds, Russett has produced a learned yet immensely enjoyable chapter in the annals of human folly. At the turn of the century science was successfully challenging the social authority of religion; scientists wielded a power no other group commanded. Unfortunately, as Russett demonstrates, in Victorian sexual science, empiricism tangled with prior belief, and scientists' delineation of the mental and physical differences between men and women was directed to show how and why women were inferior to men. These men were not necessarily misogynists. This was an unsettling time, when the social order was threatened by wars, fierce economic competition, racial and industrial conflict, and the failure of society to ameliorate poverty, vice, crime, illnesses. Just when men needed the psychic lift an adoring dependent woman could give, she was demanding the vote, higher education, and the opportunity to become a wage earner! No other work has treated this provocative topic so completely, nor have the various scientific theories used to marshal evidence of women's inferiority been so thoroughly delineated and debunked. Erudite enough for scholars in the history of science, intellectual history, and the history of women, this book with its stylish presentation will also attract a large nonspecialist audience.… (more)

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