Friday, 8 August 2008

Friday Feminist - Nina Morais

Cross post

I've found a fascinating book, Men's Ideas / Women's Realities: Popular Science, 1870 - 1915, edited by Louise Michele Newman. The book consists of extracts from various essays published in The Popular Science Monthly between 1870 and 1915, concerning "the woman question." Dr Newman has written extensive and interesting introductions to each set of extracts.

In the piece over the break, Nina Morais is replying to a previous essay by Miss Hardaker, in which Miss Hardaker argues that women's inferior size, in particular brain size, debars them from public office.

But suppose the whole of Miss Hardaker's argument to be founded on true premises, and all her conclusions to be just and accurate, it may yet be pertinently asked, Cui bono? Miss Hardaker would slam the educational doors in women's faces because, being smaller, they are unfit to enter the select retreats of Brobdingnag. But, if justice is to prevail in the rules of admission, the woman who possesses a brain of fifty-six ounces is entitled to precedence over the great majority of males whose brains weigh only forty-nine and a half. Should the environment be more favorable to the woman whose brain-weight is forty-four ounces, she can claim the advantage over the larger male brain whose environment is less favorable. Then, too, the applicants for entrance must be subjected to the test of an eating-match, and the dyspeptic must consent to suicide or rejection. All this must be done, for, although Justice carries her scales, she is blindfolded. She can only weigh brains, food, environment, but can not see the sex of suitors for admission into the new academy. Miss Hardaker must be aware that, were every element in her assumptions true, some women must be greatly superior to the average men, although the highest point reached by the male could not be obtained by the female. Miss Hardaker would, perhaps, object to having the doors of journalism closed against her, because she can never think as profoundly as Lord Bacon, or because in general woman's literary production has not made so fair a showing as man's. It is not long ago since this sort of reasoning militated strongly against the publication of any article that might be signed with a woman's name. But science not the false science which answered Miss Hardaker's invocation, not the science which would confine the negro to slavery because of his small brain and small mental achievement* - true science says that, if woman's power is to be judged by her work, she must be given a fair field for its display. To clear the race-course for the man, and to block woman's road at a certain point, because we feel intuitively that she can go no further, is by no means consistent with modern scientific methods. If the line of woman's power is marked, let her discover the fact, as Bacon thought all scientific truth should be discovered by experiment. The discovery will not long be delayed ; the law of the survival of the fittest will not be abrogated. But, if it should be found that the mental steamship of the female can, after all, store enough fuel to cross the ocean of reasoning, it would give woman the inestimable benefit of correcting the possible errors into which a professed enemy of her sex has fallen. It would demonstrate that, like Mr. Darwin's pea-hen, women have remained inferior to their mates, not because of natural defect, but by reason of external circumstances. A just trial is the whole demand of the reform philosophy.

Nina Morais, "A reply to Miss Hardaker on the Woman Question", Popular Science Monthly, 1882

* I had to read this sentence about four times before I thought I understood her rhetorical intent here. I think that she does at least tacitly buy into the wrongheaded, pernicious idea that somehow, black people have smaller brains than white people, but she's also running an "even if" argument i.e. even if it it true that on average, women and blacks have smaller brains than white men, that matters for nothing, because people should be judged on what they achieve, not pre-judged on a (spurious) physical basis. So this extract is at least somewhat suspect. Happy to discuss... including whether or not I should have quoted it at all.

1 comment:

Anna McM said...

Have you read any Sandra Harding in your travels, Deborah? I'd think you'd like the intro to her classic book about women and science that I can't remember the name of...