The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926

By Bert Bender | Go to book overview

6. Darwin and "The Natural History
of Doctresses": The Sex War Between
Howells, Phelps, Jewett, and James

Thousands of women will not believe [Dr. E. H. Clarke's] "Sex in
Education" . . . because they know better. . . . They will give him theory for theory.

-- Elizabeth Stuart Phelps1

Two years after The Descent of Man ignited a great debate about race, culture, and sexual difference, Dr. Edward H. Clarke drew the lines in what soon became a literary war in America over the supposed differences between the sexes.2 In its highly appreciative review of Clarke's Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, the Atlantic Monthly wrote that "the subject is a very delicate one to handle," not only because it involves certain embarrassing physiological details, such as "periodicity," but because

Woman is the weaker vessel in many ways, and does not always care to be reminded of it. Yet the facts of anatomy and physiology are at the bottom of many differences in the capabilities and adaptations of the two sexes for the various offices of life. The female's muscles are weaker than the male's, and she must not be expected to do so much bodily work. The female's brain is five or six ounces lighter, on the average, than the male's, and she must not be expected to do so much "cerebration" as he can do. The special relation of the female to humanity that is to be, involves many disturbances, habitual and occasional, which handicap her, often very heavily, in the race of life. (737)3

In this and similar remarks throughout the review, the Atlantic's way of imagining "the race of life" and the "adaptations" that will produce "the humanity that is to be" reveals its complacent assurance that Dr. Clarke's scientific views rest on the unshakable foundations of the new evolutionary biology. Indeed, Sex in Education was one of the first works of Victorian "sexual science" to exploit the view of womanhood that had been

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