78: Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science

In Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Cynthia Eagle Russett explores scientific constructions of gender difference from 1880-1920 as part of a larger scientific shift from a belief in the malleability of nature to a belief in biological determinism; she argues that this shift tracked the transition to a new, modern worldview.

Russett pulls from a variety of Victorian sciences to examine the social construction of sexual difference: phrenology, anatomy, physiology, craniology, evolutionary biology, psychology, etc.  Generally, these sciences were used to disprove the equality of mankind, so that women were inferior to men, non-European races were inferior to European ones, and, because the categories were immutable, environmental intervention was no longer a viable reform policy.  Different theories had different impacts on the construction of “woman” as a social category.  Many of these complicated Victorian notions of Progress.  Darwin argued that the transmission of culture from mother to child was a physical process, so education of the mother had a direct impact on the intelligence of the child; Patrick Geddes and L Arthur Thompson argued for a static and essentialist view of sexual difference based on metabolism that could not be affected by environmental factors, so education of women was futile; recapitulation theory created a ladder of human development and placed women, children, and people of color as a buffer between humans and apes; Spencer argued that the most fundamental (biological and social) division of labor was that between the sexes, and that societies with higher differentiation (like the Victorians) were the most advanced, and so on.  In each, Russett locates the moment where women are constructed as inferior to men because of some immutable biological difference.

Throughout, Russett argues that these theories gained currency because they assuaged white, middle-class anxieties about cultural change and fears about no longer being dominant.  Her book thus contributes both to an understanding of cultural reactions to modernism AND to the larger feminist enterprise of exposing false constructions of gender by mapping out ideological constructs within science.

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