Forgive me for presuming to thrust upon you some thoughts on an ongoing academic project of mine. I have mounted the task of revisiting the Victorian debate on the inherent sexual nature of the brain. I am not seeking to proselytise – far be it from me to assume the Missionary position – but simply to enlighten. Historiographical orthodoxies present themselves to be undressed, and it would be unmanly of me not to oblige them.
The Victorians were under the impression that women ought not to be educated for three simple reasons. First, female brains were thought to be universally smaller then male ones, based on some rather skewed statistical evidence. The brains of leading male intellects who died with healthy heads were compared to a motley collection of female brains pulled from the bodies of the insane, the infirm, and the indecent. Second, nature had fitted women to be the bearers of the stock of human instincts that were manifested in civilization, and it was a female duty, if not a privilege, to pass these on to the future of the race. In short, women were to be mothers. Third, this repository of human evolution was necessarily limited: women were presumed incapable of abstract or original thought; they were incapable, physiologically, of leading politically, artistically, technologically or philosophically. Those cognitive abilities were the preserve of men, who would in turn pass on their bold developments, stored up as newly acquired characteristics of the stock of human evolution in the next generation of mothers. The female mind was conservative; the manly mind was dynamic. The over-education of women was therefore useless, but moreover it risked damaging or distracting from their primary maternal purpose. All this was enshrined in Darwinian or neo-Lamarckian science, and as such has been justly called to book by feminist historians.
So far so good, but the story begs a question. If genuine worldly accomplishments were the sole remit of the manly mind, what did that say for the majority of men who in every respect failed to contribute any philosophical, artistic or technological advances, and who in most respects blindly followed, or ignored, their political leaders? On this, Victorian science had a lot less to say. With a total disregard for critical reasoning, scientists talked of the male and female mind as if all men were of the type of Socrates, Michelangelo, Brunel, or Pericles; as if all women were mere damsels in distress. If anyone had bothered to point this out, it would have been clear that the scientists’ portrayal of the gendered brain was practically worthless, for they surely would not have agreed that manliness was available only to the remarkable, only to the exceptional, only to genius. It cut against the grain of the majority of vernacular thinking on the meaning and definition of manliness, and yet it was held up by the new priesthood as the new law; or rather, the oldest law: that of nature.
We can rest assured, however, that if the Victorians were wrong about sex in the brain, they nevertheless had sex on the brain. Darwin himself was pushing fifty when he and Emma had their last child. The fact that nobody talked about it only added to its excitement. As I’ve said before, being buttoned-up only adds vigour to the unbuttoning.
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