Women in Science Banner

Biography - The Evolution of Eliza Burt Gamble: Her Life, Works and Influence

In 1894, Eliza Burt Gamble published The Evolution of Woman, a feminist critique of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Thirty-five years after the release of The Origin of Species, the influence of Darwin’s work upon both academia and the public was significant. Though the distinction between Darwinian thought and other developmental hypotheses was rarely made [1], evolutionary theories provided late nineteenth century Victorians with a narrative that explained the order of the biological world. The theories were also utilized to create a narrative of the sociological world – to justify the order of gender relations that held men as superior to women.

Although Gamble respected Darwin’s “great breadth of mental vision, and the important work which he accomplished in the direction of original inquiry” she was acutely aware that his scientific reasoning was not a product of a purely objective scientific method. Darwin’s scientific conclusions, according to Gamble, were inextricably connected to the societal norms of the Victorian era in which he lived. Gamble argued that Darwin, in an attempt to prove the ‘natural’ superiority of men, “ignored certain facts which he himself adduced” [2] that pointed to the true superiority of women. The Evolution of Woman, both a critique on Darwinian evolution and a scientific justification for the promotion of women within society, was Eliza Burt Gamble’s essential work. It was the culminating expression of her strong feminist stance that she had held up until its publication date in 1894 and continued to influence both her writing and work in social reform throughout her life.

Eliza was born on June 4, 1841 to Luther and Florinda Burt. Eliza grew up in Concord, Michigan and had at least one sibling, Melissa, who was twenty-two years her senior. At age two, Eliza lost her father. Being brought up by a widowed mother may very well have instilled some of her feminist beliefs that remained an essential part of her identity throughout her life. Her mother died when she was in her later teenage years, and Eliza was left to provide for herself. She turned to a career in education, teaching public school in Concord and serving as the superintendant of the East Saginaw school district. Eliza’s independence and self-reliance after being left an orphan bolstered the feminist ideologies that had been developing since her childhood.

Gamble’s own education is somewhat of a mystery. H.L. Mencken refers to her as “Dr. Eliza Burt Gamble” in his book In Defense of Women [3], while Mary Cohart suggests that she did not go through any formal university training in Unsung Champions of Women.[4] Some compelling evidence as to her lack of a college or university degree exists in a letter from socialist and Wellesley graduate Maud Thompson to Ethel Waxman in 1908. Describing Gamble as “The ‘Ideal Man’s’ mother,” Thompson writes that Gamble was “self-educated, not a college woman.” [5] This would not be surprising, since most women in the nineteenth century did not obtain higher education; even her teaching position would not have required a college or university degree. However, reading her major works gives one a sense that she had a least some background in research and academia; her writing was eloquent and she utilized knowledge and resources from many disciplines. Regardless of whether she had a degree, she certainly produced work of comparable quality to her academic contemporaries.

In January 1865, Eliza Burt married James Gamble, who graduated with a law degree from the University of Michigan in the same year. In the early 1870s, the couple had three children, two who survived to adulthood – William and Hellen. [6] James Gamble worked as a lawyer in East Saginaw for a short time after his graduation. In 1882, James decided to start the “Duncan and Gamble” lumber business and moved his family to St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1888, he moved back to Detroit and started a carpeting company, “Gamble and Partridge”. By the time he started his second business, he had accumulated a large fortune and considerable local clout. He was featured in short biographies in both Detroit of To-Day: The City of the Strait and Detroit Illustrated: the Commercial Metropolis of Michigan (1891).[7] Although James’ entrepreneurial tendencies would have fit the role of a late-nineteenth century capitalist, it is important to note that he and Eliza were both socialists. [8]Though there seems to be no formal evidence of the details of their relationship, they appear to have been very supportive of one another. There are no recorded objections from James to Eliza’s feminism, which indicates at the very least that he had sympathy for his wife’s cause.[9] James most likely helped to fund Eliza’s research in some capacity, as her income at that time seemed to stem only from authoring a few newspaper articles. Maud Thompson’s aforementioned letter also indicates that James showed a great deal of devotion and care even in Eliza’s later years, when she was physically restricted by rheumatism. It is interesting that, despite her rather ‘radical’ tendencies, Gamble chose to lead such a ‘traditional’ home life. Yet, Gamble’s relationship with her husband proved that she could operate outside of traditional Victorian gender roles even within the institution of marriage.

As a feminist and socialist, Gamble firmly believed in human rights and individual liberties; naturally, she strongly supported women’s suffrage. She became involved in the movement in the late 1860s and helped to organize the first women’s suffrage conference in Michigan in 1876. While living in Minnesota in the 1880’s, she both wrote in advocacy of the suffrage movement and spoke at events. At the annual suffrage meeting in Minneapolis in 1884, for example, she delivered a “very able paper on ‘Woman and the Church’.” [10] Gamble was convinced that women’s enfranchisement by means of the vote was of the utmost importance, but ultimately believed that suffrage “addressed only the surface issues of sexual equality.” [11]

By the year 1882, Gamble was convinced that “the female organization (was) in no wise inferior to that of the male.”[12] She sought to find evidence that would prove her conviction. Such evidence would not only pave the way for social justice through suffrage, but would also address the underlying issues of sexual equality in society. For some time, Gamble was not able to find any academic proof to substantiate the veracity of her hypothesis. In 1885, however, Gamble decided to embark on the research that would prove her hypothesis and justify her work on women’s equality and suffrage. To find evidence for her argument, Gamble spent a year in Washington, D.C., studying the collections at the Library of Congress.[13] After laboring arduously in her research and writing, Gamble published The Evolution of Woman.

Gamble’s argument, to a large extent, revolved around Darwin’s ideologies set forth in his 1871 publication on human evolution and sexual selection, The Descent of Man. In the work, Darwin asserted that the superiority of the male sex became apparent at the age of reproduction when secondary sexual characteristics (i.e. extravagant plumage, tusks, horns) became visible. Though the preponderance of secondary sexual characteristics could sometimes be injurious to the life of the male (for example, over-size horns making escape from a predator impossible), they enabled his vigorous and eager pursuit of the female and allowed him to leave a more numerous progeny. Gamble countered that it was not the male’s secondary sexual characteristics, but rather the female’s exercise of discerning taste and choice in sexual selection that was superior. To Gamble, this was evidence of higher intelligence and mental capacity in females. Though Darwin acknowledged the female’s capacity for choice, he believed this trait in a woman to be consistent with passivity and coyness. ‘Choice’ presented a need to be courted before accepting a mate – this clearly echoed the pattern of Victorian social ritual.[14]

According to Gamble, the constancy of sexual characteristics of the female marked complexity and high specialization, whereas the variability of the male’s sexual characteristics denoted low organization and an inability to perform legitimate functions.[15] Gamble argued that there was ample proof of this organizational superiority within nature. Quoting Geddes and Thompson, Gamble explained that in environments lacking food, light, moisture, and other resources, more males of any given species tended to be produced. Where conditions were more favorable, more females tended to be produced. Geddes and Thompson asserted that this suggested the male was the more active, albeit smaller form, whereas the female was the “larger, more passive, vegetative, and conservative” form.[16] According to Gamble, however, this was proof of structural superiority of the female. Though perhaps more “active”, males had shorter lives, lower physical endurance, and were more prone to disease and physical degeneration such as colorblindness. In addition to asserting the natural physical superiority of females generally, Gamble argued that the distinguishing feature of human beings, conscience, was a direct result of women’s maternal and altruistic capacities.

On top of her critique on Darwinian evolution, Gamble included an extensive anthropological history of gender roles in her work. Throughout the second two portions of her book, “Prehistoric Society” and “Early Historic Society”, she detailed the transition of human culture from a matriarchal to patriarchal society. In the earliest conditions of human life, Gamble argued, women exerted choice and control over sexuality, and therefore also controlled the means of kinship within society. Gamble maintained that humans shifted to a system of patriarchy when women were forced into marriage as a result of wife-capture. Women essentially became a commodity to be exchanged between men, and thus women gradually lost both economic and social power within society. In the early historic societies of Greece and Rome, women’s position declined further as generations of female subjugation compounded. Women’s accomplishments in ancient times were marginalized by the “efforts put forth by scholastics for two thousand years to belittle or annul (their) importance.”[17]

As illustrated by her multifaceted argument, Gamble’s The Evolution of Women was obviously complex and constructed in a decisively interdisciplinary manner. At the heart of the work, the feminist ideology that inspired Gamble was evident. Ultimately, Darwin’s work suggested that woman’s inferiority within society was ‘natural’; Gamble argued that woman’s inferiority was in fact ‘unnatural’ -the result of a societal focus on ownership of property and commoditization of women, reinforced by the scientific conclusions of the privileged (males) within that society.

Of course, Gamble’s work was not without flaw. It is important to consider that her work was created within the Darwinian concept of evolution, the very thought that she was critiquing. Gamble accepted the precepts of what she suggested was an inherently biased theory in order to create an argument that worked in opposition to it. To describe this phenomenon through the words of Antoinette Brown Blackwell (The Sexes Throughout Nature, 1875), Darwin’s theory of evolution was the “oak” upon which the “ivy” of Gamble’s argument grew. Yet, as Penelope Deutscher eloquently questions in “The Descent of Man and the Evolution of Woman”, was the ivy merely supported by the oak, or did the ivy truly weaken the oak? There was surely tension in Gamble’s work between “the enabling debt to evolutionism and the project of questioning it.” [18] Furthermore, it is significant that Gamble, who lacked both funds and academic training in the field of scientific observation, did not produce her own scientific evidence to counter Darwin’s findings. In constructing her argument, Gamble was drawing from the very material that she was working against. Gamble’s work, though progressive in nature, also advocated maternalist feminism. That is, her idea of what made woman superior to man was ultimately grounded in the creative forces of reproduction and the altruistic tendencies that stemmed from motherhood. Though this approach to feminism may have been empowering, it also essentialised the concept of ‘woman’. Gamble’s ‘superior woman’ was, in some ways, confined to the concept of the ideal Victorian woman – altruistic, sexually restrained, morally directed, and revered for her power of creation. Though Gamble’s ‘superior woman’ was not confined to the domestic sphere, as was the ideal Victorian woman, she was still determined biologically. Thus, Gamble’s ‘superior woman’ was radical, but was still constructed within the same biological framework, and to an extent, the same social framework as Darwin’s ‘superior man’.

The Evolution of Woman was received relatively well within the critical arena. In “Revising the Descent of Woman”, Rosemary Jann takes note of criticism in Popular Science Monthly, the Critic, and the Nation. Popular Science refuted Gamble’s belief that higher faculties were transmitted solely through women and argued for the importance of the paternal instinct, white the Critic lauded Gamble’s scientific attempt to deconstruct the “dogma” of woman’s inferiority to man. The Nation described the book as an admirable and convincing argument, and endorsed Gamble’s claims of the evolutionary benefit of female altruism. The Nation also recommended the book for general readers in addition to those interested in the questions of social development.[19]

Several major newspapers also wrote reviews of Gamble’s work after its publication. The Chicago Tribune called Gamble’s book “an ingenious plea for the superiority and the supremacy of the female sex,” although concluded that the ideas of Darwin and Lubbock seem preferable since, admit some impediments, they elevated both the position of males and females within the framework of evolutionary theory.[20] The New York Times reported that the book was quite original in the argument that females are essentially superior to males. The review acknowledged that the text’s voice tended towards harshness, crudity, and perhaps a “disagreeable line of thought”, but contained many truths that were cleverly compiled. Gamble’s “spirit of indignation” [21] was not unwarranted, considering the lowered place of women throughout history. The Detroit Free Press asserted that it was a thoughtful book “upon a problem in which all thoughtful persons are interested.” The review further praised Gamble for her scholarly approach and “perfect fairness” to her subject, herself, and her readers.[22] Though criticism of The Evolution of Woman was certainly not unreservedly glowing, Gamble’s work was certainly recognized by both academic and popular critics. Furthermore, it seems evident from the reviews in major American periodicals and newspapers that the book was read by a significant audience immediately following its publication.

Though there seems to be no direct evidence that illustrates how Gamble received the criticism, after the publication of The Evolution of Woman, she became more active in writing for newspapers in the Midwest, especially the Detroit Free Press. She had obviously gained some degree of fame with her book, and most likely also became regarded as a reliable source of knowledge and opinion. One topic that she addressed frequently was education, an area that interested her for a myriad of reasons. Her career as a teacher was obviously influential, but education also provided a realm in which women could voice their opinion, and in many cases exercise the right of suffrage. In addition, the traits that she attributed to female superiority in The Evolution of Woman, namely altruism and morality, were, in her opinion, directly applicable to the realm of education. In 1896, she was elected as president of the Detroit Educational Union, which aimed to improve the quality of education for students in the city. Her main aim in this endeavor was to encourage women throughout the city to be more directly involved with their children’s schools and education; in this way, students’ education that was started in school could continue in the home. She hoped that “every woman in Detroit (would) find interest in the movement” and give it both cooperation and support.[23] Thus, it seems evident that Gamble was attempting to empower women by spreading publicity about a group in which they could have a voice.

In 1897, Gamble wrote an article to the Free Press entitled, “Woman and the Church”. The article provided insight into the subjugation of women within Christianity. Gamble argued that for three thousand years before the advent of Christ, society had been overpowered by the masculine force of egotism over altruism. Christ’s teachings, though not inherently masculine, were misinterpreted by those in power and shaped to perpetuate the pattern of masculine power that that been repeated for three thousand years. Gamble went on to say that “although women are slowly emerging from the degradation of the past, no fact is plainer than that their most formidable foe has been and still is the Christian church.”[24] Echoes of the second two parts of The Evolution of Woman are apparent in Gamble’s article, particularly the idea that since early times, society had been unnaturally overpowered by masculinity. In 1897, Gamble published The God-Idea of the Ancients: or, Sex in Religion, a book that further expanded the ideas set forth in The Evolution of Woman by the study of the representation of the sexes in religion throughout the course of history. Mirroring the idea that a patriarchal structural replaced the existing matriarchal structure with the advent of wife-capture, Gamble argued in The God Idea that a male deity also replaced a female deity at the same time. The replacement both signified and solidified the shift in the sociological system. Gamble’s newspaper article and book illustrate that the ideologies of The Evolution of Woman influenced her subsequent writing. Her evolutionary justification for female superiority was at the root of her extensive study of the origins of female subordination.

In a 1910 article to the Free Press, “Child-Life Study is Woman’s Duty”, Gamble again practically applied the ideologies of her foundational work. In the article, Gamble addressed “alarming” child mortality rates, but conceded that what was more alarming was the cause. Gamble, citing a physician from New York, put the blame on pediatricians, or rather “the institutions which produce them.” She explained that most medical schools required only about 75 hours worth of pediatrics training, while at some institutions, a course on infant treatment was not even required. Thus, pediatricians would face their youngest patients without experience, and would face issues with experiment and deception. Gamble then called for women to be trained in the field of pediatrics, stating that “as woman is the natural guardian and protector of infant life, the fact is obvious that on her should rest the responsibility for the health and general well-being of children.” [25] Gamble’s rhetoric – that a woman’s natural role was that of mother, and that a woman would naturally be more able to treat a sick child – was again reminiscent of her conclusions regarding female superiority in The Evolution of Woman. Later in the article, Gamble even suggested that male pediatricians had usurped women’s rights and prerogatives as caregivers, which paralleled her conviction that men had long ago usurped women in their natural place of power. In this article, Gamble was able to focus her general ideologies into a specific and practical task for women. It is evident through her newspaper articles that she was able to transfer her rather lofty and academic principles into feminist calls for action.

In the 1910s, though she was severely handicapped by rheumatism, Gamble continued to write for newspapers. Her articles continued to illustrate her ideologies, but began to take a considerably more radical approach. A number of her articles, for example, addressed the topic of eugenics. In a 1912 article in the Free Press entitled “Prime Truth of Eugenics Voiced by this Writer: Eliza Burt Gamble Points Out Advantageous Character of Sex Selection”, Gamble explained that women had the power to effect change in the population of mankind by using her power of sexual selection to make choices that would positively affect future generations. [26] In The Evolution of Woman, Gamble made clear that the female members of the species had the ability to choose their mates in order to create successful progeny – an indication of taste and discerning intelligence that placed females in the superior position. In her article, Gamble again took a general principle from her major work and applied it as a more practical concept. Gamble’s more radical persuasions are further illustrated by her authorship in the Emancipator, a socialist journal published in Detroit, in 1911, and the International Socialist Review in 1909 (“Race Suicide in France”). In 1911 and 1912 she was also in correspondence with Michigan native and anarchist Jo Labadie, known as Detroit’s “Gentle Anarchist” for his non-violent doctrine. [27] Gamble had always identified as a socialist, but her political ideologies became more apparent as she published more work that deviated from mainstream thought later in her life.

Gamble continued to examine the work she had done for The Evolution of Woman and re-published the book as The Sexes in Science and History in 1916. In the preface to the work, she asserted that “each and every fact connected with the biological and sociological development of the last twenty years is in strict accord not only with the facts set forth in The Evolution of Woman but with the conclusions therein arrived at.” [28] Gamble died in Detroit in 1920, but continued writing and researching for as long as her health condition would allow. Clearly, the feminist ideologies set forth in her major work continued to resonate in both her research and work for social reform throughout her life. Today, her work continues to be read and studied as early feminist criticism of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Though there is still much to be discovered about her life, her influence in the field of science remains resonant.

1. Rosemary Jann, “Revising the Descent of Woman,” in Natural Eloquence, ed. Barbara T. Gates and Ann B. Shteir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 147.
2. Eliza Burt Gamble, Evolution of Woman (New York:G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1894), viii.
3. Henry L. Mencken, In Defense of Women (New York: Alfred Knopff, 1922), 75.
4. Mary Cohart, Unsung Champions of Women (Albuquerque :University of New Mexico Press, 1975), 10.
5. Barbara Love and Fraces Love Froidevaux Lady’s Choice: Ethel Waxham’s Journals and Letters, 1905-1910 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993), 234.
6. U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census. 1880. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
7. Detroit Illustrated: The Commercial Metropolis of Michigan (Detroit: Harry H. Hook, 1891) and Detroit of To-Day: The City of the Strait (Detroit : Phoenix Publishing Co).
8. Lady’s Choice, 233…Labadie papers 1912 “always described herself as a socialist”
9. Wilma Wood Henrickson, Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 232.
10. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Ida Husted Harper, History of Woman Suffrage: 1883-1900 (Rochester, NY: Susan B. Anthony, 1902), 659.
11. J. David Hoeveler, The Evolutionists (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007), 169.
12. Gamble, v.
13. Cohart, 10.
14. Jann, 151.
15. Gamble, 29.
16. Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thompson, The Evolution of Sex, Revised Edition (New York: Walter Scott Publishing, 1908), 32.
17. Gamble, 327.
18. Penelope Deutscher, “The Descent of Man and the Evolution of Woman,” Hypatia 19 (2004): 41.
19. Jann, 159.
20. “The Evolution of Woman,” Chicago Tribune, 31 March 1894.
21. “A Fearless Assault on Men,” New York Times, 11 March 1894.
22. “The Evolution of Woman,” Detroit Free Press, 19 February 1894.
23. “Detroit Educational Union.” Detroit Free Press, 13 December 1896.
24. “Woman and the Church,” Detroit Free Press, 25 May 1897.
25. “Child-Life Study is Woman’s Duty,” Detroit Free Press, 18 December 1910.
26. “Prime Truth of Eugenics Voiced by this Writer: Eliza Burt Gamble Points Out Advantageous Character of Sex Selection,” Detroit Free Press, 31 July 1912.
27. Correspondence between Jo Labadie and Eliza Burt Gamble, Labadie Papers, Special Collections at the Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
28. Eliza Burt Gamble, Sexes in Science and History (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), iii.
Danielle Peck

Related Objects