It’s hard to imagine people once saw women as second class citizens without the right to enjoy the same privileges of public and private life as men.
It’s even harder to imagine the progressive practice of scientific endeavour may have actually hindered the fight to change those backwards beliefs.
Today marks the anniversary of the day when, after years of tireless campaigning for social change, women won the vote in Britain with the introduction of the Representation of the People Act, 1918.
But the suffragist movement challenged more than gender stereotypes:
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They were battling the very DNA of scientific thought, too.
The undeniably sexist views which refuted women’s rights were underpinned by the sometimes sinister teachings of science itself, argues Dr Patricia Fara, in A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War.
From the dawn of eugenics to the theory of evolution, Dr Fara, an historian of science at the University of Cambridge, laments the old laws of biology which ‘meant there was simply no point in giving women the vote’.
Dr Fara told UNILAD how science in the 1900s reinforced the idea that ‘women were physiologically inferior, as the result of evolution’, adding these teachings led the public to believe females ‘were not intellectually equipped to make decisions which affect the future of the country’.
Let’s take a school of thought which is widely credited for the basis of our understanding of humankind: Darwin and his theories On The Origin of Species.
Darwinism we now know, as Dr Fara outlined, is very different to the original theories, which led the eminent naturalist to get himself into ‘an awful mess’ over the evolution of gender.
By comparing the feathers of a peacock to the dresses of women, Darwin argued ‘equality was scientifically impossible’ and ‘maintained female inferiority was an inescapable consequence of nature’.
Darwinsim fed into a biological justification of women’s second-class status, according to Dr Fara’s research, and ‘drove a wedge between the two halves of the human race’.
But Darwin was not alone. Other famed scientists, including the Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes, claimed ‘legislating for sexual equality would entail starting evolution over again on a new basis’, under the guise of science.
Dr Fara’s research questions the semantics of science we widely accept.
But it also shows how more sinister practices of eugenics played a part in scientific thought during the early 1900s, before the ‘incredibly complicated’ practice gained notoriety in retrospect through Nazism.
At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, eugenics was seen by both men and women as a good idea, at a time when there was ‘huge ignorance about birth control’.
Outlining the two strands of eugenics, referred to as positive and negative, she said:
The so-called positive version is to encourage middle class, well-educated, white women to have more and more children – ideally boys – to strengthen the population.
The other, which now seems more sinister even though it didn’t at the time, discouraged those considered to be lower class people [from reproducing] to strengthen society.
Dr Fara explained how the school of eugenics inherently argued against further education for women – a pivotal concern of the suffragette movement – even citing a case in her research whereby a woman’s tuberculosis was diagnosed as a consequence of ‘over-education’.
Although many signpost the First World War as a turning point for women, who held down the home front while men were at war, eugenicists such as Charles Darwin’s cousin, Frances Galton, argued women should devote their time to repopulating Britain after Armistice, not to academia.
‘That idea became even stronger after the First World War’, Fara explained, ‘because there were roughly nine women to every eight men’, even though, as she states, the scientifically-endorsed idea that women couldn’t help run the country ‘had been proved completely salacious’.
But by this point, Dr Fara asserts, the founding ideals of science – albeit subconsciously – had already begun to alienate the female sex.
Take, for example, the classification method for plants introduced by Carl Linnaeus in the eighteenth century, which created a hierarchy in which the female anatomical aspects took a supporting role, for no better reason than to reflect his human world.
Linnaean taxonomy is used to this day and, as Dr Fara writes, this ‘anthropomorphic interpretation of the world had been transformed into an inescapable fact of innate male superiority’.
Agreeing is was absolutely a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, Dr Fara supposed:
[Linnaeus] looked at his own society and subconsciously made the male characteristic the dominant means of classification.
That caught on and then people looked at this classification system and said, ‘Oh look, in nature the male characteristic is more important, therefore, in human society, men are more important that women’.
It’s a circular argument.
This was endorsed by many scientists and doctors, and Dr Fara found the majority view remained, by today’s standards, terribly sexist.
Walter Heape, the biologist who in 1890 had achieved the first successful embryo transfers in rabbits, regarded unmarried women as ‘waste products of our Female population’, she writes.
Distinguished bacteriologist Sir Almroth Wright called suffragists ‘sexually embittered women in whom everything has turned into gall and bitterness of heart, and hatred of men’ and advised shipping militant suffragettes off to the colonies, where there were plenty of spare men available for marriage.
But, she is keen to note the attitudes weren’t necessarily born from malice, saying:
I think the vast majority of scientists were sincere in believing the theories they put forward were correct, but I also believe they were incredibly influenced by the prejudice and the attitudes of the time.
I think they genuinely believed women were inferior and so they looked for scientific evidence to back up that idea.
The suffragist movement – and its opposition from within the gender it professed to champion as well as the men who wanted women in the home – has been well documented. This applies to female scientists too.
London physician Arabella Kenealy, along with many female supporters of eugenics, insisted women conserve energy for childbirth.
Throughout the process of research, Dr Fara said, it was ‘alarming to see women colluding in their own inferiority’ due to a systematic indoctrination.
It’s terribly easy to look back and say all women wanted the vote and all men were opposed to it. But it’s not like that. Men and women all had different opinions and different approaches, just like feminists now.
Dr Fara goes on to recall how these attitudes get ‘handed down the generations’. Today the notions which underpin those archaic details are writ large in the very DNA of global scientific thought.
Looking forward to the future, Dr Fara adds:
It’s not so much that science has dictated there should be inequality.
It’s more that there’s always been inequality and science was a product of a pre-existing culture and prejudice which it absorbed, reinforced and passed on to future generations.
It’s up to us to continue to challenge the so-called wisdom of the structures which continue to keep minorities oppressed, and refuse to let suffragists’ hard work to pave the way for equality be lost to the semantics of power.
To read more about Science and Suffrage in WW1, you can buy A Lab of One’s Own here.