Thursday, July 06, 2017

On Herbert Spencer and Sexism, Sarah Hrdy Cites a Book That Refutes Her Own Accusation

Stuart K. Hayashi

This is an excerpt from a much longer blog post over here.  That longer blog post explains not only why Herbert Spencer does not deserve to be called a "social Darwinist" but also why, as the term has been understood since 1944, there actually was no "social Darwinism" movement in the 1800s at all.  Despite this mostly being an excerpt, its version of the quotation from Herbert Spencer's Social Statics about the equal rights between women and men is longer than is the version I included in the other blog post.
--Stuart K. Hayashi, July 7, 2017

The faces that inspired Prof. Richard Hofstadter and his loyal readers to launch a thousand falsehoods.

In her Harvard-published book The Woman That Never Evolved, evolutionary psychologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy accuses Herbert Spencer of rationalizing men's subjugation of women and, as she does so, she cites historian Richard Hofstadter's book Social Darwinism in American Thought.

Dr. Hrdy says, "Spencer thought females never had been inherently equal to males and could never be; subordination of women was not only natural but, in his view, desirable" (page 12). That goes to Chapter 1, Endnote 31. When you look at that endnote on page 204, it says, "For a review of the relevant literature, see especially Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Social Darwinism continues to be an important force in popular thinking."

That would leave you with the impression that Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought corroborates Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's accusation that Spencer rationalized male mistreatment of women, would it not? But when you read Hofstadter's book on your own, you come upon a passage where Hofstadter briefly acknowledges -- it is an afterthought on Hofstadter's part, convenient to the negative portrait he is trying to paint of Spencer -- that in the 1858 work Social Statics, Spencer argued in favor of the equal rights of men and women.

Here is what Hofstadter says: "Despite its radicalism on incidental themes -- the injustice of private land ownership [Spencer later changed his mind on that foolishness, thankfully --Stuart], the rights of women and children, and a peculiar Spencerian 'right to ignore the state' which was dropped from his later writings, the main trend of Spencer's book [Social Statics] was ultra-conservative" (pages 40-41, emphasis Stuart's).

Hofstadter mentions the Social Statics passage about women's rights very quickly so that he can get to the point: his usual denigration of Spencer as a "ultra-conservative," which is Hofstadter's synonym for morally repugnant. That Hofstadter made this admission as no more than an afterthought might perhaps be a reason why Dr. Hrdy overlooked the admission altogether. In any case, it might interest you that Social Statics's defense of women's rights takes up a whole chapter, Chapter 16. Let's take a look at it and see how far it goes in rationalizing men's oppression of women (hint: Spencer even supports women's suffrage decades prior to it becoming nationally recognized in Great Britain and the United States):

Equity knows no difference of sex. ... The law of equal freedom manifestly applies to the whole race -- female as well as male. The same à priori reasoning which establishes that law for men (Chaps. III. and IV.), may be used with equal cogency on behalf of women. ...the several rights deducible from that law must appertain equally to both sexes. 
This might have been thought a self-evident truth, needing only to be stated to meet with universal acceptation. There are many, however, who either tacitly, or in so many words, express their dissent from it. [Spencer arguing against all that. --Stuart] ...there remains no alternative but to take up the...position...that the rights of women are equal with those of men. . . .

A future belief that subordination of sex is inequitable, is clearly prophesied by the change civilization is working in men’s sentiments. The arbitrary rule of one human being over another, no matter in what form it may appear, is fast getting recognised as essentially rude and brutal. . . .

A further increase of this same refinement will show men that there is a fatal incongruity between the matrimonial servitude which our law recognises, and the relationship that ought to exist between husband and wife. . . . 
Of all the causes which conspire to produce the disappointment of those glowing hopes with which married life is usually entered upon, none is so potent as this supremacy of sex [that is, a husband being able to treat his wife as his slave] -- this degradation of what should be a free and equal relationship into one of ruler and subject -- this supplanting of the sway of affection by the sway of authority. ... Where-ever anything worth calling connubial happiness at present exists, we shall find that the subjugation of wife to husband is not enforced; though perhaps still held in theory, it is practically repudiated.

...whenever society shall have become civilized enough to recognise the equality of rights between the sexes -- when women shall have attained to a clear perception of what is due to them, and men to a nobility of feeling which shall make them concede to women the freedom which they themselves claim -- humanity will have undergone such a modification as to render an equality of rights practicable.  . . . Instead of a desire on the part of the husband to assert his claims to the uttermost, regardless of those of his wife, or on the part of the wife to do the like, there will be a watchful desire on both sides not to transgress. Neither will have to stand on the defensive, because each will be solicitous for the rights of the other. ...
There is nothing Utopian in this. We may already trace the beginnings of it. An attitude like that described is not uncommonly maintained in the dealings of honourable men with each other; and if so, why should it not exist between the sexes? . . . 
The extension of the law of equal freedom to both sexes will doubtless be objected to, on the ground that the political privileges exercised by men must thereby be ceded to women also. Of course they must; and why not? . . . 
We are told...that woman’s mission is a domestic one -- that her character and position do not admit of her taking a part in the decision of public questions -- that politics are beyond her sphere. But this raises the question -- Who shall say what her sphere is? . . .

It is indeed said, that the exercise of political power by women is repugnant to our sense of propriety -- conflicts with our ideas of the feminine character -- is altogether condemned by our feelings. . . . The same plea has been urged in defence of a thousand absurdities, and if valid in one case is equally so in all others. .... It was once held unfeminine for a lady to write a book; and no doubt those who thought it so, would have quoted feelings in support of their opinion. Yet, with facts like these on every hand, people assume that the enfranchisement of women cannot be right, because it is repugnant to their feelings! . . .

Thus it has been shown that the rights of women must stand or fall with those of men; derived as they are from the same authority; involved in the same axiom; demonstrated by the same argument. That the law of equal freedom applies alike to both sexes, has been further proved by the fact that any other hypothesis involves us in inextricable difficulties. ... ...the objections commonly raised against giving political power to women, are founded on notions and prejudices that will not bear examination.

Spencer had all that published in 1858 -- a political position that was radical even by the standards of 1958.

In his two-volume 1892 work The Principles of Ethics, Spencer's enthusiasm for women's suffrage was greatly dampened.  He feared that women, being more controlled by emotion than men, might be more willing to vote to enlarge the welfare state.  Even at this point, though, Spencer expressed the hope that one day the law would recognize equal rights between men and women. As The Principles of Ethics goes,

...justice demands the women, if they are not artificially advantaged must not, at any rate, be artificially disadvantaged. 
Hence, if men and women are severally regarded as independent members of a society, each one of whom has to do the best for himself or herself, it results that no restraints can equitably be placed upon women in respect of the occupations, professions, or other careers which they may wish to adopt. They must have like freedom to prepare themselves, and like freedom to profit by such information and skill as they acquire.

Dr. Hrdy's accusation of sexism on Spencer's part might have made more sense if she cited The Principles of Ethics directly and was unaware of how Social Statics staunchly defended women's rights.  However, the seeming discrepancy between Social Statics in 1858 and The Principles of Ethics in 1892 is not addressed by the Hofstadter book that Dr. Hrdy cites.  Therefore, the likeliest explanation for the accusation of sexism is not that Dr. Hrdy was aware of Spencer's backpedaling in his later works; the likeliest explanation is that Dr. Hrdy was just being sloppy on this point.

In short, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy cites Hofstadter's book in her false accusation against Spencer when that very same Hofstadter book inadvertently undermines her accusation.