Evolution, Woman's Rights, and Civilizing Missions
It matters not whether we regard the history of the remotest past or the diverse civilizations of the present, the emancipation and exaltation of women are the synonym of progress.
Otis T. Mason, Woman's Share in Primitive Culture, 1894
AS THEY LOOKED BACK over recent decades, contemporary observers of the 1890s recognized this period in U.S. history as "the Era of Woman"--a time when women's organizations proliferated and the country seemed especially focused on women's issues and women's rights. Richard T. Ely, director of the School of Economics, Political Science, and History at the University of Wisconsin, declared, "Our age may properly be called the Era of Woman, because everything which affects her receives consideration quite unknown in past centuries."1 Commentators at the time were impressed with the recent "progress" of woman, her increased visibility in public and political affairs, her entry into colleges and universities, and her commitment to social reform. Those in sympathy with the woman's movement viewed these changes in woman's status as the manifestation of evolutionary progress, a sign that the civilization of the United States was equal to the higher civilizations of Europe and far superior to the primitive cultures of Asia and Africa. In the words of Joseph Rodes Buchanan, a professor of physiology, medicine, and anthropology, "sustained womanhood is a Western condition, as degraded womanhood is the Oriental condition. . . . The darkness that rests upon Asia and the midnight that enshrouds Africa, where woman has no rights . . . have their appointed time to pass away in the illumination of which the American Republic is the destined centre."2
For Buchanan, as for many others, social evolution theory provided the framework and language through which changes in woman's sphere were interpreted. Demands for woman's rights arose simultaneously with the spread of evolutionist ideas about racial development, sexual difference, and social progress. For prescient observers, it was not merely coincidental that the woman's movement had grown to unprecedented heights in the 1880s, at precisely the same moment that politicians, busi-