Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Woman Question: A Multi-Faceted Debate

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

The Woman Question: A Multi-Faceted Debate

Article excerpt

The Woman Question, which is ultimately a gender and a gendered question, examines the complexity, malleability, and impermanence of gender. Although the question itself is ahistorical--it was not asked and answered at any one specific time in history--it received unprecedented attention during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, not uncoincidentally, when theories of the construction of gender identity were first posited. At the time, questions about gender were questions about sex. The terms were synonymous. Distinctions between them would be made in the next century. In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault historicizes this point and identifies the dawn of theorizing gender/sex: "The society that emerged in the 19th century ... did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal or recognition[;] it put into question an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it" (69). Of specific interest to this nineteenth-century society was the role of woman. In the United States from 1873 to 1915, the Woman Question served as a catalyst for understanding woman and her biological, sexological, and sociological differences from man.

Evolution, psychology, eugenics, and domestic science marked the age of science. Biology, at this time, overlapped all these sciences in one way or another just as biology, sexology, and sociology overlapped within and throughout the ongoing debate about woman, her nature, and her sphere. For the purposes of this historical overview, biology will be understood as an overarching term. During the nineteenth century, "science" became the ultimate authority, the vestige of truth, facts, and proof about men and women. This privileging of science was problematic, however, because theories about gender were not based on pure science but on interpretations of nature and society. Science became the focus of the debate even though scientific arguments about women were biased and "Victorian 'scientific reasoning' was obviously circular" (Helsinger, Sheets, and Veeder, 2: 57). For example, Herbert Spencer's bias, promulgated as fact, is evident immediately in his lengthy opening footnote to his pivotal article "Psychology of the Sexes" where he clarifies his "scientific" method. His argument, he explains, is founded on complementary comparisons. To prove his point, he acknowledges that gendered deviance can occur within the sexes: "Either sex under special stimulations is capable of manifesting powers ordinarily shown only by the other" (31). Problematic in the grounding of his argument is the example he uses for each gender's deviance. For men he cites lactation; for women he cites contemplation: "under special discipline, the feminine intellect will yield products higher than the intellects of most men can yield. But we are not to count this as truly feminine if it entails decreased fulfillment of the maternal functions. Only that mental energy is normally feminine which can coexist with the production and nursing of the due number of healthy children" (31). Despite the obvious bias, Spencer's theories--and the theories of his contemporaries--were considered scientific, and to understand the biology argument is to understand the "scientific" argument.

While Charles Darwin's two texts, Origin of the Species (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), ushered in theories of evolution and biology, they did not usher in "the debate over woman's developmental potential[. T]wo assumptions important to the Woman Question predate Darwin by many years--that ethnic groups, like everything else in creation, exist on a hieratic scale of increasing perfection, with the white male supreme; and that woman is essentially a reproductive, domestic being" (Helsinger, Sheets, and Veeder, 2: 89). Women and men embraced this theory of biological determinism, finding in this theory proof that women held a critical position within human evolution through reproduction. …

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