Forgotten female correspondents of Charles Darwin; women who all made substantive contributions to nineteenth century society, are to be brought from the shadows to global attention in celebration of International Women’s Day today (March 8).

In Darwin's correspondence we find not only ground-breaking Victorian 'heroines' of science such as Mary Somerville and Lydia Becker but also a large number of women who, often routinely, made little-known contributions to Darwin's work

Philippa Hardman

The Darwin and Gender Project (part of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University Library) will be adding to Wikipedia for the first time the profiles of ten women who made intellectual contributions to Darwin’s work, and enhancing existing Wikipedia profiles for seven others, including his beloved wife Emma.

As well as the ‘Women in Science’ Wikipedia editing event on March 8, the day also marks the completion of the three-year Darwin and Gender Project undertaken at the University of Cambridge.
The ground-breaking project, supported by The Bonita Trust*, has looked at Charles Darwin's impact on attitudes to gender and sexuality. The project makes available for the first time in a single resource Darwin's private and largely unpublished writings relevant to all aspects of gender; in particular, a large body of the great naturalist's own letters.

Dr Philippa Hardman, Research Associate on the Darwin and Gender Project  said: “In Darwin's correspondence we find not only ground-breaking Victorian 'heroines' of science such as Mary Somerville and Lydia Becker but also a large number of women who, often routinely, made little-known contributions to Darwin's work.

“Who were these women? And what motivated them to consume and engage with Darwin's works? What sorts of contributions did they make to his work and did Darwin value their contributions? These are the questions we have sought answers to during the lifespan of the project – and International Women’s Day is the perfect time to bring some of these answers to the worldwide Wikipedia audience.”

Among the female correspondents of Darwin being added to the Wikipedia database for the first time are Emily Jane Pfeiffer, who wrote to Darwin questioning his description of sexual selection in Descent of Man, and Anne Jane Cupples, who provided Darwin with accounts of the expression of dogs that howled to music. Darwin praised Cupples’ writing, energy and role as a populariser of science and champion of good feeling towards animals. He even wrote to the Literary Fund on her behalf twice (1870 and 1877) to seek financial support for Anne and her husband George, a Scottish writer and dog breeder.

Added Hardman: “Our research shows Darwin's private attitudes to gender were more complex than his published statements on the subject might suggest. Put simply, while Darwin's publications generally abided by Victorian gender norms, his correspondence shows how private actions often defied public Victorian ideologies.

“By examining Darwin's published works alongside his private correspondence, the Darwin and Gender project – and the new resources we’ve made available on the website, provide insight into the complexities of Darwin's views on gender in public.
More generally, the resources raise questions about the construction, content and impact of gender ideology in Victorian Britain and women's involvement in the world of Victorian science.”

As well as the ten new entries, the existing records of Emma Darwin and six others will also be updated on Wikipedia to reflect the extent of their participation in scientific activities, which the correspondence of Charles Darwin has helped to illuminate.

Emma often took over husband Charles’ correspondence when he was feeling unwell. Darwin recognised the critical role Emma played in helping to manage his correspondence; in 1839 he wrote his elder sister Caroline that Emma had kindly taken charge of his office. In addition to helping her husband handle his extensive correspondence, Emma also served as a facilitator of his scientific work - she passed scientific requests from Darwin along to her correspondents.

Aside from celebrating International Women’s Day on Wikipedia, the Darwin and Gender team are marking the day with the launch of a suite of extensive university resources on the Darwin Correspondence Project website.

One of its themes tackles the issue of 'Sex and Scientific Participation', considering scientific participation in a comparative way; did Darwin's men and women correspondents do the same sorts of scientific work? Did Darwin respond to men and women in the same way? How did one's sex influence where, when and how one encountered Darwin's works?  This theme also contains an exercise on the referencing of Darwin's correspondents' contributions; was the work of men and women referenced equally and consistently?

Finally, the 'Gendered Status of Science' theme considers the unstable gendered status of natural science in the nineteenth century. Drawing on the correspondence, the Project team have highlighted how nineteenth-century gender ideology made scientific participation problematic for men and women alike.

Hardman said: “Was science a man's world?  How and why did men of science man-up their work? And what can we learn from Victorian caricatures about the relationship between science, intellect and gender in nineteenth-century Britain? These are all questions the Darwin and Gender Project’s work will help academics, students and the global public to find their own answers to.”

The women having their Wikipedia entries updated are: Arabella Burton Buckley, Emma Darwin, Henrietta Darwin, Florence Dixie, Dorothy Nevill, Frances Julia Wedgwoood and Mary Somerville.

New entries will be created for: Mary Barber, Anne Jane Cupples, Caroline Kennard, Ellen Frances Lubbock, Mary Stanley, Emily Pfeiffer, Thereza Story-Maskelyn, Emily Talbot, Lucy Wedgwood and Mary Ann Whitby.

*The Bonita Trust was renamed the Parasol Foundation in 2015

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.