Evolutionary Feminism, Popular Romance, and Frank Norris's 'Man's Woman.'
Civello, Paul, Studies in American Fiction
The late nineteenth century was a period of intense ideological struggle-in fact, a period of several struggles that often overlapped and intersected. The well-known clash between evolution and Christianity, for example, has tended to obscure a less conspicuous battle within the evolutionary camp itself that pitted Darwin and his supporters against evolutionary-minded advocates for woman's emancipation. These late nineteenth-century feminists took issue with the conclusions Darwin had reached in The Descent of Man, using the same evidence he had adduced to support his contention that woman was the inferior sex to advance their own arguments that she was in fact equal with or even superior to man. But like most ideological struggles, this "scientific" one over gender took place largely on a discursive battlefield, and therefore incorporated and was incorporated by still other discourses that, on the surface, appeared to have little to do with it -- most notably, those of popular romance and the emerging narrative mode that has come to be called literary naturalism. Although locked in their own ideological struggle over literary purpose and value, most writers in these two literary forms embraced the same culturally dominant gender ideology that Darwin had. And so a writer like Frank Norris, a naturalistic writer with a strong sense of literary purpose that expressed itself in rebellion against the genteel tradition and the popular, sentimental romance, found himself in an ideological quandary, a struggle between a rebellious literary and a culturally-sanctioned gender ideology that were at odds with one another. His work, and in particular the recurrent character-type he called the "man's woman," highlights the complex interactions between competing ideologies and their discursive expressions, becoming a site in which Darwinian, feminist, and popular representations struggle.
In The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin elaborated his theory of sexual selection which he had only sketched in The Origin of Species (1859) and, more important, extrapolated it to human behavior and human biological history. Sexual selection, unlike natural selection, did not involve the struggle for existence, but the "struggle between the males for the possession of the females."(1) The female, as the passive agent in this process, acted in the same capacity as did the environment in natural selection; she chose or "selected" those males that were most appealing and whose attributes would therefore be passed on to their progeny. Darwin argued that sexual selection, although significantly altered in modern society since the male now acted as the "selector," played a major role in the differentiation of the sexes. As a result, man, as the sex actively involved in the struggle, had become superior to woman both physically and intellectually. Competition had produced greater variation among men than women -- a sign to Darwin of biological superiority -- as well as made man stronger, more tenacious, and more cunning. Physical superiority, in other words, was not enough; in the competition for females, Darwin reasoned, "mere bodily strength and size would do little for victory, unless associated with courage, perseverance, and determined energy," as well as with "the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination."(2) Man, he concluded, is therefore "more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius" (p. 557). To bolster his argument, Darwin appealed to the "evidence" exhibited in modern civilization: "The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman -- whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands" (p. 564).
Darwin did, however, grant a few concessions to woman's worth. He noted that man's competitiveness passed "too easily into selfishness," and that woman, due to her maternal instincts, possessed "greater tenderness and less selfishness" (p. 563). The nurturing qualities which she extended to her offspring she also extended to her "fellow creatures." Darwin also admitted that "with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man" (p. 563). Needless to say, Darwin's conclusions in The Descent did not sit well with late nineteenth-century feminists. Indeed, the opportunity for woman's emancipation that Darwin had opened with The Origin, an opportunity provided by evolution's implicit challenge to Christian dogma and the patriarchal ideology and Church-sanctioned gender roles encoded within it, appeared to close in his subsequent work. Darwin raised what the modern-day feminist Chris Weedon has called the "spectre of biology"(3) threatening to reinscribe the dominant gender ideology in the far more insidious form of irrefutable, scientific "fact."
In the late nineteenth century, a group of what we may call "evolutionary feminists" met this threat by seeking to wrest the ideological ground from Darwin through reinterpreting his own theory. Eliza Burt Gamble, in her book The Evolution of Woman: An Inquiry into the Dogma of Her Inferiority to Man (1894), used Darwin's own evidence and argument to draw a far different conclusion about the biological status of women. "The theory of evolution," she asserted, "as enunciated by scientists, furnishes much evidence going to show that the female among all the orders of life, man included, represents a higher stage of development than the male."(4) Gamble based her argument on Darwin's evidence that, in the lower organisms -- and thus during the early stages of humanity's evolution -- the female acted as the selector in the process of sexual selection. To Gamble, this meant that during the evolutionary process the female had developed her intellect and aesthetic taste -- "the power to exercise taste and discrimination" (p. 24) in choosing a mate. The male, on the other hand, dissipated his "vital force" (p. 25) through developing qualities which served only as ornaments to attract females, or as weapons to ward off rivals. Unfortunately for the modern woman, her biological ancestors had chosen physical strength as a desirable quality in the male, and man had since then used this superior strength to subjugate woman and to arrogate for himself the title of the "superior sex." In sexual selection, Gamble argued,
[the female] 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 creature may not
surpass its creator in excellence, it is difficult to
understand the processes by which man, through sexual
selection, has become superior to woman. (p. 29)
Gamble agreed, however, with Darwin's admission of man's selfishness and woman's altruism, and went on to argue that the altruistic maternal instinct further demonstrated woman's superiority. She cited motherhood as "the primary bond by which society was bound together" (p. 60), contending that without it mankind would never have developed those selfless qualities which make society and civilization possible. The social instincts -- that is, the conscience and the concern for others -- separated humans from the animals, and it was the woman as mother who first acquired and promoted these; the woman, then, was precedent to man in moving humanity up the evolutionary ladder, away from animal selfishness and toward human cooperation. "Since, then, it is observed," Gamble concluded,
that without an association of interests and the coherence
of the tribe the social instincts must have remained weak,
and without concert of action the higher faculties,
including the moral sense, could not have been developed; and
since furthermore, ... the influences which have led to
this development are those growing out of the maternal
instincts, may we not conclude that all of those qualities
which make man pre-eminently a social animal -- his love
of society, his desire for the good-will of his kind, his
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Publication information: Article title: Evolutionary Feminism, Popular Romance, and Frank Norris's 'Man's Woman.'. Contributors: Civello, Paul - Author. Journal title: Studies in American Fiction. Volume: 24. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1996. Page number: 23+. © 1998 Northeastern University. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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