“Women, it seemed, had no right to self-fulfillment that could stand for a moment against the claims of society on their wombs” (Russett 1989, 123).
Living in a society is equal to facing a variety of expectations, roles, and behaviors deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Women’s roles, in particular, have changed quite a lot in the past few centuries. Nowadays, people with uteruses have more reproductive freedom and opportunities to be economically equal to men than in the nineteenth century. The book Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Eagle Russett describes how women were perceived in the Victorian times. It focuses mainly on the source of the viewpoints, on people who had the power to convince the society of those perceptions – scientists. The book describes their findings and conclusions about womanhood, one by one, and dismantles them in a very powerful way.
In the nineteenth century, women had little to no say over their bodies, minds, and rights. White male scientists focused greatly on explaining differences between sexes; in other words, why they had little to nothing in common and why women were inferior to men. They took control over proving that women are physically and mentally unable to be equal to men due to Nature’s challenges that people with uteruses had to face, such as menstruating or being able to carry a child. Scientists at that time accepted only facts that would agree with that claim and rejected all information against their beliefs.
The author, Cynthia Eagle Russett, was born in Pennsylvania in 1937. She was a historian, earned her Bachelor’s Degree from Trinity Colege and her Master’s and Ph.D from Yale University, where later she worked as a faculty member. She wrote several books, though she is best known for her exploration of Victorian “findings” about womanhood in Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cynthia passed away in 2013, aged 76 years old, leaving behind a great legacy of fighting for women’s rights through exploring history.
A lot of what Cynthia Russett does is present statements and reasoning of white male scientists and let their words speak for themselves throughout the majority of the book; those alleged findings are challenged later on, at the very end. She mentions “experts” from a variety of fields of science, including phrenology, anthropology, craniology, biology, sociology, and many concepts within those fields of study. Victorian scientist greatly contributed to how women were perceived by the society at that time and what roles they were allowed to hold due to “the near-total absence of information in the field of sex differences, which made it inevitable that ideas now seen as preposterous were not preposterous at the time” (Russett 1989, 183). People listened to them; they had no other choice as no other credible source of information was available to them. Scientists were responsible for shaping society’s beliefs, despite the fact that later on they were proved wrong.
In the Victorian times, it was well-established that women were inferior to men. Many white male scientist were highly motivated to prove that statement to be correct. Any differences between men’s and women’s bodies, they emphasized, and automatically made men the one to hold the superior traits, no matter what they were. They held a firm belief that bigger equals better, which applied mainly to people’s bodies and brains. It was known that men were bigger than women, both in terms of physical appearance and brain volume/skull size. They claimed that “women’s brains were smaller and lighter than those of men” (35) and women’s skulls resembled more those of gorillas than men (36). Scientists refused to admit that heavy brains existed among “idiots, imbeciles, criminals, insane, and other defectives” (37). Women were also compared to children, said that “the brain of woman as a whole was always in a more or less infantile condition” (54). The full maturity of women was seen to be reached earlier than in men, which meant that a crucial part of development, women never attained. Men would always be better developed; they pass the “woman stage” and develop abstract thinking and reasoning. Half the population was automatically put in a disadvantaged position to be considered a significant contribution to society’s success. Simply put, a woman was an underdeveloped man (74).
A very important stigma that was emphasized during the Victorian times and still exists in many spaces today is menstruation. GIVE DATE Scientists claimed that “the phenomenon of menstruation was alone fully sufficient to explain why women could never hope to stand on a level of social and professional equality with men” (30). They connected it to the claim that the more someone eats, the more they think, and the more energy they have. Menstruation took away that energy. They used method of manipulation to make sure women understand the responsibility they bear – that of preserving the human race. They claimed that “the necessary outcome of an absolute intellectual equality of the sexes would be the extinction of the human race” (105). They also stated that the energy that men can put into thought and education, girls have to use during the development of their reproductive systems. Because of what Nature “gifted” them with, they were set for failure, both in educational and professional settings.
Scientists also decided that motherhood is a woman’s only role and goal in life. “She is the sex sacrificed for reproductive necessities,” they said (43). Alongside came the claim that the suffering connected to childbirth is exaggerated because women, just like Black people, do not feel pain; “[…] even the pains of childbirth caused little suffering to women” (56). Feeling pain was associated with courage, which was a characteristic of men and men only, therefore “[women’s] courage must be indifference; their endurance, insensibility” (57). That particular example shows a point previously mentioned about scientists deeming acceptable only information that fits their beliefs. Since there was a possibility that women were brave because of the way they could cope with pain, it needed to be dismantled, therefore they were claimed to be numb, unable to feel physical pain.
The book provides an opportunity for the reader to put the present and the past into perspective. Many people do not realize that the oppression that women face today started in the place of no evidence for many aspects of womanhood. Some individuals nowadays might say that societal roles are there for a reason and are based on science. As Cynthia Russett proves in her book, the science of the past is not what we would define as science in modern times. In Victorian times it was far from objective, not based on real evidence, and many findings at the time were assumed based on pre-existing beliefs. In other words, a group of white men decided that women are inferior and have no benefit from education or equal opportunities – and people listened, accepted it as the universal truth, and passed it over generations.
One of the things that readers might struggle with while reading the book is being overwhelmed by the amount of names and scientific facts presented. The author includes a great number of names; however, there is rarely any relevant information about their backgrounds. It would be a great addition to know the context of how popular a scientist was at the time, how influential, and to put more focus on explaining that to the reader. Additionally, a lot of theory was presented, though only addressed to be wrong or incorrect at the very end, if ever. The author might have tried to remain objective, which she succeeded in, though information shared in the book is disproportionate to the challenging of that information present. Moreover, women’s voices were not amplified enough, they played a passive role in the book. For example, there is no mention of general population’s response to most of the harmful claims made by the scientists (such as women compared to gorillas or children). It is an aspect that can be seen as missing, and might have made the book significantly stronger.
Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood by Cynthia Eagle Russett is a very important resource as it provides an accurate and well-researched historical context of women’s oppression. Even though what Victorian scientists claimed was seen as true a long time ago, a lot from what they said still applies to a certain extent to modern times. The book is a powerful tool for everyone, especially those involved in the fight for women’s rights. It can create a research-supported argument against the fact that, for example, women’s role is to bear children and their wombs can and should be controlled by the society and the government.
Fox, Margalit. 2013. “Cynthia Eagle Russett, Chronicler of Women’s History, Dies at 76.” New York Times, December 18, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/19/books/cynthia-russett-historian-of-women-dies-at-76.html
Russett, Cynthia Eagle. 1989. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.