Today, many secularists blame Christianity for misogyny and mistreatment of women. However, many would be shocked to learn that the “father of evolutionary theory,” Charles Darwin, believed and taught that women were inferior to men. His views greatly influenced society and scientific research both in his days and for later generations.

Darwinian Pseudoscience for Male Superiority

Darwin’s book The Descent of Man is a deeply racist book that clearly spells out the troubling implications of evolution when applied to human beings. But his statements about women are no better. The book contains a section titled “Mental Powers of Men and Women” where he stated that men attain “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”1 He further claimed that “Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius. His brain is absolutely larger . . . .”2

Darwin had an evolutionary reason for this hypothesis. He believed that the struggle to reproduce was central to evolution. He believed that men were engaged in continual “struggle with other males for the possession of the females.”3 This struggle meant that only the smartest, strongest, and most capable men succeeded in procuring wives, creating continual pressure for “fitter” men. Darwin saw women as more passive in this regard. He believed that selection created stronger men over time, but it didn’t act on women at all.4

Darwin seems to have believed “the traditional stereotype of the breadwinning father and the stay-at-home mother [was] really part of our biological makeup.”

Darwin seems to have believed “the traditional stereotype of the breadwinning father and the stay-at-home mother [was] really part of our biological makeup.”5 As a young man, he wrote that the primary advantage of marriage included children and having a wife as a constant companion, a friend in old age “who will feel interested in one, [an] object to be beloved and played with—better than a dog anyhow—Home, and someone to take care of the house—Charms of music and female chit-chat. These things are good for one’s health.”6

Early on, some recognized a problem with this belief, namely that children inherit characteristics of both parents, so even if women were passive and thus not subject to selective pressure, female offspring would be affected by the intelligence, strength, and so on of their fathers. Less intelligent and weaker women would likewise negatively affect their male offspring.

Darwin had a rationalization for this. He reasoned that, just as secondary sexual traits such as beards are passed on from fathers only to their sons, intelligence could be passed on to only sons and not daughters. The fact that there was never any evidence for intelligence being a male secondary sexual trait was never explained by Darwin.

Darwin observed the animal kingdom’s focus on reproduction during mating seasons and drew his theory. However, this ignores the differences in human marriage, such as the element of love, romance, and the need for companionship and mutual attraction. Since Darwin believed humans evolved the same way as all other mammals had, he concluded that human reproductive drives must be similar to theirs.

Darwin’s Views Had a Major Influence on Academia

Some nineteenth-century evolutionary biologists argued for women’s inferiority to attack the contemporary women’s movement. They believed that “unchecked female militancy threatened to produce a perturbance of the” roles of the sexes and “divert the orderly process of evolution.”7 One sees a similarity with the attitude expressed by the men in Esther 1:16–21. In other words, evolutionary ideas about the inferiority of women gave a scientific veneer to the worst stereotypes about female inferiority. A modern professor even said that evolutionary psychology was “a scholarly field whose main aim seemed to be to convince non-specialist readers of the scientific validity of the worst gender platitudes of our culture.”8 Some examples she gives include that “men are hardwired to cheat on their partners; women are the faithful sex.”

Darwin’s Female Opponents

Among those who objected to Darwin’s views on women was Mrs. Caroline Kennard (1827–1907), who sent a letter to Darwin inquiring about his views. As someone whose scientific achievements allowed her to be listed as a specialist on the botany of ferns and mosses in the 1886 Scientist’s International Directory, she was an example of a woman who disproved Darwin’s opinions regarding female inferiority.

She expressed surprise that a scientist as eminent as Darwin believed that women were biologically inferior to men. She assumed that Darwin’s views must have been misrepresented by misogynists who were coopting Darwin’s work for their own purposes, so she wrote to ask him to clarify.

Darwin wrote back, assuring her that his views were not being misunderstood. “Women . . . are inferior intellectually,” he wrote.

Darwin wrote back, assuring her that his views were not being misunderstood. “Women . . . are inferior intellectually,” he wrote. But he conceded that he believed women were superior to men in moral qualities.9 Darwin concluded the letter by stating, “I have written this letter . . . only for your private use,” implying that it should not be shared with others.

Unsatisfied with Darwin’s letter, Mrs. Kennard wrote a long response noting evidence against his views. She, for instance, argued that most educators (she gave the figure as 83%) are women.10 If Darwin replied, it has not been located by the Darwin Correspondence Project, nor is it in the massive correspondence in the Cambridge Public Library’s Archives and Special Collections.11

Eliza Burt Gamble

Eliza Burt Gamble (1841–1920) was an articulate schoolteacher, school superintendent, and author of three books. She realized that scientists who accepted Darwin’s thinking regarding female inferiority were ignoring important facts that contradicted his views.

To prove Darwin wrong, Gamble spent a year at the Library of Congress researching Darwin’s view of sexual inequality. Her research culminated in her book, The Sexes in Science and History: An Inquiry into the Dogma of Women’s Inferiority to Man (Gamble 1916). It was very popular and a century later is in over 3,000 libraries. While her book received positive reviews, “the scientific and mainstream press balked at her conclusions and at her pretensions to write about ‘science’” because she was not a scientist.12

And because she was not a scientist, most scientists, particularly evolutionists, rejected her book as unworthy of consideration. In fact, evolutionists “became only more obsessed by . . . enforcing the dogma that men are somehow better than women.”13

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Another woman who opposed Darwin’s views was Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), who wrote Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898). Her book was very popular and translated into seven languages, and it is still in print today.

Gilman’s interest in evolution was developed by her father, Frederick Gilman. He introduced her to Darwinism, especially how it could be applied to anthropology. Charlotte became concerned with the portrayal of women as inferior in Darwinism and became a leader in debunking these ideas.

Darwin’s Lasting Influence

Darwin was not the only scientist to advance these claims; his cousin Francis Galton echoed them as well, but Darwin was far more influential.14 People generally believed that “Darwin grounded his theories in rigorous scientific observation and experimentation and they have, by and large, turned out to be accurate.”15

Thus, Darwin’s views of women’s inferiority were widely accepted for well over a century and are still accepted by some today.

Sadly, Darwin’s views of women’s inferiority were widely accepted for well over a century and are even accepted by some today. This resulted in widespread discrimination against women in science. One leading feminist, Gloria Steinem, concluded that Darwin’s influence in the latter part of the twentieth century was still sufficient to cover Darwin’s contribution to the problem of discrimination in several of her written works.

Darwin’s view of women’s inferiority perpetuated by evolutionists throughout the twentieth century had a major adverse effect on how women were perceived and their opportunities for advancement in scientific fields. Ironically, many people who rejected these ideas accepted evolution and attempted to harmonize their view of male/female equality with the evolutionary forces they believed created humans.16

In contrast, the Bible teaches that God created both male and female in his image (Genesis 1:27), so both have equal worth and importance. God created Eve to be a “helper” for Adam, and the Hebrew word used is ‘ezer. ‘Ezer is used in the Old Testament twice to refer to Eve (Genesis 2), three times to refer to other nations that help Israel, and sixteen times to refer to God helping people.17 If ‘ezer is used to refer to God, it clearly cannot imply inferiority. Rather, women are created in the image of God equally alongside men and are given the “helper” designation God has used to describe himself. If anything, the biblical view elevates women compared to the naturalistic Darwinian view.

Further Reading