STEM Women Hall of Fame: Evolutionary Revolutionary

Cristen Conger

Eliza Burt Gamble
Eliza Burt Gamble
Courtesy: Women in Science

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Eliza Burt Gamble

  • Born: June 04, 1841
  • STEM Legacy: Author of the "The Evolution of Women," an 1894 feminist critique of Charles Darwin's "The Descent of Man."
  • Historical context: In the midst of the suffrage movement when women's right to vote (not to mention their legal inability to own property, etc.) was challenged due to their secondary social roles and "proper place" in the home, Gamble dedicated herself to finding a scientific rationale for female enfranchisement.

Eliza Burt Gamble didn't storm any all-male halls of academia or even make any major scientific discoveries, but her enterprising scholarship on Darwinian evolution certainly deserves recognition. A teacher, suffragist and married mother of three, Gamble was also an early feminist, and something about Charles Darwin's landmark 1871 "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex" rubbed her the wrong way. In it, Darwin outlines how males are chief within species thanks to the evolutionary genius of secondary sex traits and survival of the fittest that "leave a greater number of offspring to inherit their superiority than the beaten and less attractive males." Meanwhile, the females' role in the mating process is one of mostly sitting pretty, possibly playing coy and waiting for a mate to come her way, which not-so-coincidentally aligned nicely with the Victorian gender roles of the day.

Charles and Emma Darwin.
Courtesy: Chicago On the Aisle

Gamble didn't buy it though. And to make her point, she holed herself up for a year in the Library of Congress and wrote "The Evolution of Woman" (a clever switcheroo on "The Descent of Man," yes?) that offered some new wrinkles in the evolutionary framework. First, she made the groundbreaking pronouncement that, in fact, females play a decisive role in sexual selection by actively choosing that fittest male mate, thus making them the cleverer and superior sex. She wrote:

Sexual selection, we are told, resembles artificial selection, save that the female takes place of the human breeder. In other words, she represents the intelligent factor or cause in the operations involved. If this be true, if it is through her will, or through some agency or tendency latent in her constitution that Sexual Selection comes into play, then she is the primary cause of the very characters through which man's superiority over woman has been gained. As a stream may not rise higher than its source, or as the create may not surpass its creator in excellence, it is difficult to understand the process by which man, through Sexual Selection, has become superior to woman.

The second half of the book also offers an anthropological timeline of society's shift away from the earliest matrilineal societies toward the entrenchment of patriarchy via the wife-capture, the rise of private property and the establishment of marriage.

In other words, while Darwin's theory of evolution was used to offer a scientific explanation for the "natural" order of contemporary gender roles and separate spheres, Gamble tipped sexual selection on its head to offer a social explanation for the unnatural disorder of women's secondary social position.

Although Gamble seems largely lost to scientific history (at least judging by the paucity of related Google search results), the 1894 publication of "The Evolution of Woman" attracted national media attention, not all of which was unfavorable, despite, in the words of The New York Times, its "disagreeable line of thought." While Gamble's argument certainly has its flaws, brushing aside, for instance, the import of natural selection in addition to sexual selection, and I'm far more in favor of arguing for gender equality rather than sexual superiority, her feminist intellectualism and ingenuity yielded an important, if radical, text nonetheless, which was updated and republished in 1916 as "The Sexes in Science and History: An Inquiry into the Dogma of Woman's Inferiority to Man."