§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race


The maxim that anatomy is destiny pervaded Victorian anthropology as it did Victorian religious sects. Clerics understood that Eve was to Adam as Adam was to God, and anthropologists understood that women, Australian aborigines, and African people had smaller and simpler, less convoluted, brains than did white men. Huxley agreed with this paradigm, though his practical application of it differed a little from that advocated by more consistent sexists and racists. He did not find New Guinea women much different from English women, and enjoyed them (conversationally, not carnally)–August 26, 1849. "The girls were very merry and unconstrained though perfectly modest in their behaviour. They seemed half inclined to have a dance too but had not the courage. It amused me very much to see how perfectly women are women all the world over. There was the same incessant flow of small talk among themselves, the same caressing and putting their arms round one another, as would have been seen in any other group of women in any other place from London to Sydney. And to complete the resemblance they all persisted in kissing and hugging an impudent young varlet of a ship's boy who went down on the catamaran as they were going away. One of these damsels, who had disfigured her face by a copious coat of black pigment, was more affectionate than any of the others and seemed to take a most roguish delight in inspecting the traces of her kindness, left very visible upon the boy's white face."What happened to a European woman who was captured, saved, and treated cordially by these natives is recounted in October 16, 1849 and October 18, 1849.

Pencil sketch of Cape York woman
Cape York mother and baby
Community of native women, 1849

For years after his return to England, Huxley commented in his essays and letters very little on any gender subject. When a correspondent asked his opinion about the propriety of a certain biology textbook, Huxley replied: "Adolphe Grube grubs not much about the genitalia–& you need have no fear of any phallic phantoms as the annelida enantia & tubicula are improvided with any such improprieties" (HP 15.42). He explained his disinclination to teach at a woman's college by asking what he would do "among all the virgins, young and old, in Bedford Square? ... depend upon it I should be turned out in a week (though I don't drink) for some forgetful excursion into the theory of Parthenogenesis or worse" (to J. Furnivall, December 14, 1856, Huntington MS.). His comment that he had "an unutterable fear of scientific women"–April 9, 1855–may also have been a joke Jokes on sex are as rare in Huxley as they are in John Newman.

As Secretary of the Geological Society, Huxley opposed admitting women to that clan, because that clan was only for professionals, all of whom were men. Charles Lyell wondered if about the subject of women, Huxley was like "the Bp of O" (the Bishop of Oxford), Huxley defending his position by telling Lyell that women should receive equal opportunities as men–advancing such opportunities would be just to them, among whom were the Huxley daughters, and to society: no permanent advancement could be made "while one-half of the race is sunk, as nine-tenths of women are, in mere ignorant parsonese superstition"– March 17, 1860.

The most important essay of his on this issue is Emancipation–Black and White (1865). In a passage that would be of interest to today's feminists, he dismisses fanatical "philogynists" (this word his invention) as well as misogynists who define the female nature as virtuous, impressionable, emotive, patient, and some of whom find the male figure more beautiful than the female: "womanly beauty, so far as it is independent of grace or expression, is a question of drapery and accessories."

Even if such arguments, "comparable to those by which the inferiority of the negro to the white man may be demonstrated," may have a foundation, they are of no value when it comes to considering emancipating women. Women should have the same civil and political rights as men. "[T]hose who may laugh at the arguments of the extreme philogynists, may yet feel bound to work heart and soul towards the attainment of their practical ends." If women do have the "alleged defects," it is absurd to maintain a system of education which exaggerated those defects. "Sweet girl graduates ... will be none the less sweet for a little wisdom; and the 'golden hair' will not curl less gracefully outside the head by reason of there being brains within." The duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality.

Huxley was a supporter of, though not an ardent advocate of, women's rights. A journalist, Miss Eliza Lynn, so admired Huxley as scientist, that she wanted to become a member of the Ethnological Society; but Huxley denied her admission to it. He was opposed to allowing women to become members of what he saw as an association for experts in the field, not as a opportunity for adult education. He had never permitted women to be students in his own Comparative Anatomy courses because they would have to share gross anatomizing with men. Sophia Lousia Jex Blake, a designer of the London Medical School for Women, wrote to Huxley in 1872 requesting his help in having separate anatomy classes for women medical students at Edinburgh; in his reply, Huxley said that he supported programs which would advance the prospects of women who wanted to become physicians. He would not hesitate to teach anything to a class composed entirely of women: to Jex Blake–October 28, 1872, and did teach such a course; in 1869, he taught a course in physiography to a class of three hundred women, the observation of a reporter that it was like "a fairy tale" being praise rather than insult (Professor Huxley, F.R.S.)

In a letter two years later to The Times, Huxley confessed publicly that many women are better endowed than many men in intellectual and moral strength, "and I am at a loss to understand on what grounds of justice or public policy a career which is open to the weakest and most foolish of the male sex should be forcibly closed to women of vigour and capacity"–Letter on Miss Jex Blake The Times (July 8, 1874). Topping several reasons for his dislike of Comte was the man's maltreatment of the "noble" wife who had saved his life and his reason–April 12, 1869.

Among the events he actually performed to achieve equality in education for women were his vote on the London School Board against an amendment excluding girls from the Scheme of Education; supporting women's institutions such as Girton Gollege, South Hampstead High School for Girls, Princess Helena College for Girls (at Ealing); employing a woman, Miss McConnish, as a physiology demonstrator; signing a petition (in 1880) to Cambridge to open its doors to women; a few years later signing a petition to allow Mrs. Besant, who had been a student in his teacher's class ("a very well-conducted lady-like person"), and Miss Bradlaugh (whose father, the atheist Charles Bradlaugh, was not one of Huxley's favorite philosophers) to take courses at University College; as Dean of the Normal School of Science at South Kensington, promoting opening Associateships of the School to women; and becoming a governor of the London School of Medicine for Women (founded in 1875)–July 18, 1883.

In March 1889, he wrote that he agreed with his daughter about French women. "They are like French dishes, uncommonly well cooked and sent up, but what the dickens they are made of is a mystery. Not but what all womankind are mysteries, but there are mysteries of godliness and mysteries of iniquity." One mystery of iniquity was provided by George Eliot, whom Huxley met at the Westminster Review, Eliot disapproving of Huxley's attacks on G. H. Lewes and Comtism. Huxley was a frequent guest at Eliot soirees, which he would attend without the company of his wife. As Julian Huxley noted in Memoirs, "He often called on the famous writer, George Eliot, whom he gratly admired, yet never allowed his wife to accompany him, for George Eliot was 'living in sin' with a man who was not her legal husband." Upon George Eliot's death, Huxley declined to support a petition to have her buried at Westminster Abbey because as a secularist, she had no place there. Neither did he, though, reasonably enough, Darwin did.

An anonymous letter of 1882: Anonymous Extract from Journal, describes conversation at a party, its chief topics Truth, Education, and Women's Rights. To the hostess' demand that truth was no virtue in itself, Professor Huxley replied that he was "almost a fanatic for the sanctity of truth"; on the question of women's rights, the professor confessed that looking at women with the eye of the physiologist, twenty years earlier he had thought "the womanhood of England was going to the dogs," but things had improved, Victorian ladies now having not only lawn tennis, but also more pursuits. "The most accomplished of the Queen's daughters said of him," reports the journalist W. Smalley (in London Letters, 1890), "'I like to talk with Mr. Huxley because he talks to me exactly as he would to any other woman.'" On the other hand, to John Skelton he wrote on December 31, 1881, that Mary Stuart was like Eve, Helen, Cleopatra, Delilah in having "lured men to their destruction."

He asked his friend John Donnelly to give Lady Donnelly this note: "A number of estimable members of her sex have flown at me for writing what I thought was a highly complimentary letter. But she will be just, I know. The best of women are apt to be a little weak in the great practical arts of give-and-take, and putting up with a beating, and a little too strong in their belief in the efficacy of government. Men learn about these things in the ordinary course of their business; women have no chance in home life, and the boards and councils will be capital schools for them. Again, in the public interest it will be well; women are more naturally economical than men, and have none of our false shame about looking after pence. Moreover, they don't job for any but their lovers, husbands, and children, so that we know the worst"–November 11, 1894.

Huxley was not uxorious, but his love for, his respect and admiration of his fiance and then wife Henrietta Heathorn, lasted undiminished for half a century. From his office at Jermyn Street, he would often write her two letters daily–evidence of this attachment will be found in Jeanne Pingree, Thomas Henry Huxley: List of His Correspondence with Miss Henrietta Heathorn, 1847-1854, Julian Huxley, Voyage of H. M. S. Rattlesnake, and Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters.

Hal and Nettie on honeymoon boat, 1855
Henrietta Heathorn, 1857
Photograph by Mrs. Bailey at Lynton, 1882

Marian Huxley Collier died in 1889. John Collier then courted her sister Ethel. Huxley welcomed this, but the English law system did not, and so Huxley devoted energy to disbanding the act forbidding marriage with a deceased wife's sister–January 21, 1889 (which also discusses Shakespeare on the sex of plants) and April 20, 1889.

The Negro Question

Almost all nineteenth century anthropologists (an exception might be Professor Tiedemann) agreed on a hierarchy of races, African black and Australian aborigine at the bottom and Europe white (male) at the top–see for example Owen quoted in Guide 7. Huxley parodied the Wedgwood tribute to emancipation, "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" in a drawing, "Am I not a man & a brother?" displaying himself in a prison ship hulk (Punch would later also parody that in Monkeyana); and in Rio de Janiero, which the Rattlesnake arrived at in January, Lieutenant Huxley found, as his mentor Carlyle had found, that slaves were "mostly in capital condition, and on the whole look happier than the corresponding class in England, the manufacturing and agricultural poor, I mean."

Huxley's contribution to discourse on races shows him to be less a racist than most of his clerical or scientific peers. Like Darwin, he despised the slave-masters of Madeira and Rio de Janeiro, feeling sympathy for the slaves–letter to his mother, March 28, 1847; and he had a greater respect for these slaves than for their masters–January 24, 1847 and March 28, 1847. Depression assailing him during Rattlesnake sailing was often relieved by sketching and bartering with, dancing with, exchanging names with, and in general having fun with, natives, see for example–May 4, 1847, July 6, 1849, and August 26, 1849. He supported the theory that Louisians had cultivated their land (as opposed to the contrary idea that what seemed to be cultivation was really only a natural effect–June 13, 1849; and defended native gentility against British brutality– September 5, 1849.

Conviviality at upcountry Australia, sketch by Hal on ride to Darling Downs, December 5, 1847
Hal being painted
Rockingham Bay
"Interview with natives of Redscar Bay"

From 1854 to 1857, Huxley wrote a dozen papers on "Contemporary Literature: Science" for the Westminster Review. In an 1854 review of "On Types of Mankind," he declined to take a stand on whether blacks were of a species different from whites (a thesis argued by Agassiz), but emphatically scourged slavery as an atrocious institution, as degrading to those who practiced it as it was cruel to those who suffered from it–Brewster, et al. He found no trouble in entertaining the view that blacks are as authentic members of the human species as white Europeans. Huxley subscribed to the general anthropological (and theological and cultural) opinion of a hierarchy of races–see for example, The Structure and Classification of the Mammalia (1864) and the Reader's abstract, Mammalia.

The unanimity among racist anthropologists focused on physical features that showed people of "lower races" to be closer to apes than were Europeans. For example, Professor Richard Owen in The Gorilla and the Negro used doctored illustrations to show that kinship, and James Hunt, the President of the Anthropological Society focused on the Negro's pelvis and leg bones to show that kinship. Huxley dissected Owen's illustrations and Owen himself in letters to the Athenaeum: Man and the Apes (1861). By 1863, Huxley had made up his mind that the evidence demanded belief in all races comprising one species–On Our Knowledge of the Causes of the Phenomena of Organic Nature; in 1864 Huxley attacked Hunt severely in The Structure and Classification of the Mammalia and in The Negro's Place in Nature.

Though Huxley subscribed to the prevailing hierarchy of lower and higher races, his belief in monogenesis and his disgust at slavery were sufficiently attractive to the Ladies Emancipation Society to inspire this abolishionist group to print this up in a pamphlet, which Huxley kept in his papers for the rest of his life–Professor Huxley on the Negro Question (May 1864). In the early 1880s, he wrote a draft of "The Negroes," which never was sent off for publication.

"Emancipation: Black and White" spends far less time on the lower races than it does on the lower gender. In this essay, however, he says about the people of lower races what he says about the people of lower gender: that injustice ought not to be added to inequalilty, that blacks ought to be given all opportunities. Huxley's sympathy in the U. S. Civil War was with Southern culture; but his antipathy to slavery insured his being a supporter of the Northerners. He explained this in a letter to his expatriate sister, Lizzie–"it is clear to me that slavery means, for the white man, bad political economy; bad social morality; bad internal political organisation, and a bad influence upon free labour and freedom all over the world. For the sake of the white man, therefore, for your children and grandchildren, directly, and for mine, indirectly, I wish to see this system ended. Would that the south had had the wisdom to initiate that end without this miserable war!"– May 4, 1864.

At an 1867 Birmingham talk, Huxley advised his audience that there was no relation between cranial volume and facial features (certain features of white people were more ape-like than the features of non-whites, e.g., hair texture), that people who lacked cultural and technological achievements today need not lack them tomorrow, and that miscegenation did not result in the defects the American supporters of slavery insisted it did.

A coherence was discovered then (as it is today) among, in the words of the Standard, "Atheists, Socialists, advocates of 'free love', or universal licentiousness, of women's rights, and every other abomination or absurdity which found favour in infidel France, in philosophical Germany, and in democratic America, but which religious and loyal Engishmen abhor and loathe."

An event occurred in 1865 which showed, as one of its lesser features, Huxley's entire abandoment of his early Carlylean affection for slavery. Contemporaneous with the Civil War was a mission undertaken by the Governor of Jamaica in response to a riot which he thought was the beginning of a rebellion by the country's blacks against its white administrators. In three days, Governor Eyre's army killed four hundred natives, among them a mulatto member of Jamaica's parliament. When the word got back to England, several of the elite formed The Jamaica Committee, its intention to bring the Governor to Britain and try him for murder.

John Stuart Mill was chair of this committee, which had among its members Francis Newman, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxley. The Pall Mall Gazette (1866) was not surprised at this: "It would be curious also know how far Sir Charles Lyell's and Mr. Huxley's peculiar views on the development of species have influenced them in bestowing on the negro that sympathetic recognition which they are willing to extend even to the ape as 'a man and a brother'" Huxley's answer to this appeared on October 31, 1866, in the Pall Mall Gazette: Letter on Jamaica Committee and in private letters such as those to his pen-pal Charles Kingsley–November 8, 1866 and to his closest friend, John Tyndall–November 9, 1866. Kingsley and Tyndall, along with Dickens, Thackeray, and Tennyson, supported the Eyre Defense Committee, chaired by Thomas Carlyle.

1867 seems to be a year of transition from a conventional racist view about our "prognathous relatives" and "dusky cousins" to one more expressive of racial equality. In lectures on "The Character, Distribution and Origin of the Principal Modifications of Mankind" to the Birmingham and Midland Institute (of which he was President, his predecessor Charles Dickens) in that year, he claimed that there was no scientific evidence that any group of people was innately different from, or more biologically advanced than, any other; he also declined to use words such as "species," "varieties," and even "races" for human populations–Birmingham Post, October 7, 8, and 12, 1887. In an 1878 commentary on a paper discussing Celts and Teutons, Huxley pointed out that the characteristics of a "race" might be due to "pre-existing social and political relations"; he did not believe "that race has any appreciable influence upon their social and political conditions of the present day." He was referring to the Scotch, Irish, and English, and did not explicitly extend this generalization to African people–Practical Fallacies (1878).

See: § 3. A Sort of Firm and § 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden