SEXUAL SCIENCE: Victorian Constructions of Womanhood by Cynthia Russett

SEXUAL SCIENCE: Victorian Constructions of Womanhood

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A thorough survey and feminist critique of 19th-century theories of sexual differentiation. Covering some of the same ground as Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, Russett (Hist./Yale: The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought: Darwin in America: The Intelllectual Response, 1865-1912) documents a period of science in the service of ideology, when preconception dictated theory, ""conclusively"" proving the inferiority of women and nonwhites. Spurred on by advances in the physical sciences and the theory of evolution, believing that they themselves were the height of creation and that their science would answer all (and later fighting the realization that it would not), Victorian thinkers attempted to cast human societies in analogously ""objective"" terms. Starting with phrenology, Russett presents a parade of bad science, including recapitulation as applied to the sexes and societies; the long popular ""great brain"" theory, wherein bigger was better; the idea that women's limited ""nerve-force"" could be turned to education only at the expense of reproduction; Darwin's Lamarckian ""pangenisis,"" which allowed for inheritance of acquired characteristics; the ""physiological division of labor"" inspired by political economists; and the ongoing battle between nature and nurture. The survey ends as the mechanics of inheritance become understood, better research show conclusions false, and the ""Victorian paradigm erodes."" Though breaking no new ground, and possessing a distinct shooting-fish-in-a-barrel quality, this is a solid and necessary contribution to the history of science, intellectual history, and women's history: scientifically' literate lay readers will be amused and aghast.

Pub Date: March 13th, 1989
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press