Contested Femininities: Social Evolution and the Victorian Construction of the Idealised Woman

Jennafer Roberts

Abstract


In this essay, I focus on the ways in which social evolutionary theories reified and legitimated socially constructed gendered inequalities between middle-class Victorian men and women. First, I begin by summarising the tenets of social evolutionary theory as they were expounded by Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. In the second section, I highlight the manner in which Victorian feminists mobilised against dominant masculinist evolutionary perspectives to form a counterargument promoting the authority of women. Finally, I utilise dominant masculinist and feminist discourses of social evolution to discuss the social production and political implication of scientific knowledge. Through my analysis of dominant masculinist evolutionist and feminist discourses, I argue that social evolutionary theory was situated, contingent, and contested.



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