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Darwinian/Evolutionary Feminism

The following discussion seeking to clarify the meaning of "Darwinian" or
"evolutionary" feminism took place on WMST-L in May 2005.  For additional 
WMST-L files available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Sat, 7 May 2005 12:29:08 -0400
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: "Darwinian Feminism"
Does anyone on this list teach about Darwinian feminism (or "evolutionary
feminism") in their feminist theory or other women's studies courses?  I
would appreciate hearing what texts worked best in the classroom and how
students responded to this perspective.

 Since I'm not sure this is a subject of general interest to this list,
please feel free to write to me personally, at the e-mail address provided

Thank you,
Daphne Patai
daphne.patai  AT  spanport.umass.edu
Date: Sun, 8 May 2005 11:33:24 -0600
From: Suzanne Franks <suzanne.franks AT LYCOS.COM>
Subject: addressing "Darwinian Feminism"
I think this might be a subject of interest to a wider audience on the
listserve.  However, I think it might be helpful, in stimulating discussion
of this subject, if Dr. Patai would provide the listserv with a definition
of what she means by "Darwinian Feminism" or "Evolutionary Feminism."
There are many different ways of understanding the term feminism itself, of
course, and appending the terms "Darwinian" or "Evolutionary" - which are
not themselves equivalent terms - to the term feminism can make the situation
murkier for those who are not specialists in scientific therories.  I believe
a discussion on topics at the intersection of science and feminism is timely,
interesting, and long overdue on this listserv.  But I also think, if such a
discussion is to proceed in any sort of useful manner, we must begin by
clearly stating what we mean, and clearly indicating what it is we are after
when we ask for information on a topic that may seem less familiar to most
list members, yet is a topic to which, I believe, many list members could
contribute fruitfully.

Suzanne E. Franks
suzanne.franks  AT  lycos.com
Date: Sun, 8 May 2005 15:34:02 -0400
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: addressing "Darwinian Feminism"
I personally don't mean anything by the terms "evolutionary feminism" and
"Darwinian feminism."   I am referring to terms used in a variety of
publications, not terms I have  coined. (BTW, there is an article on this
subject in the latest Ms. magazine.)

 If people on this list have never heard of this, that is of interest in
itself, but I'm hoping some of you have come across this subject and will
have something more to say.  Thanks!

D. Patai
Date: Mon, 9 May 2005 08:41:54 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow AT BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: addressing "Darwinian Feminism"
Hi Daphne and all,
I haven't read the Ms. article yet, so I'm not sure if this is what
it's talking about, but I live with a biologist, so this reply is
based on how I understand evolutionary feminism.

I've taught the work of Margie Profett in a graduate fem theory
course--she's a feminist evolutionary biologist who has written some
interesting theories about morning sickness and menstruation and how
these phenomena might have evolved in humans (many mammals bleed
during their fertile periods, not opposite them).

I've also recently read Joan Roughgarden's *Evolution's Rainbow:
Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People* (U Cal P,
2004), which is a fascinating examination of the bipolar gender
system in both non-human animal and human social systems. Roughgarden
is an evolutionary biologist. I've taught two short chapters of
Roughgarden's book in an upper-div. undergrad course on gender
theory, but have not taught the entire book at this point.

Since our WS program is almost completely focused in the humanities
and social sciences, my students find this work challenging to read
(esp. the Profett, which is published in biology journals; the
Roughgarden book assumes a certain amount of biological knowledge,
but is also written for non-scientists) but fascinating to discuss. I
like to use this kind of work to complicate the discussions about
essentialism and constructivism--it's often pretty easy to fall hard
on one side or the other of that dichotomy, and I think it's good to
encourage the students--and myself!--to remember that there is still
a lot to learn about biology *and* culture.

I hope this is helpful--and I'll go home and look at my Ms. and see
what they're talking about (smile).
Date: Mon, 9 May 2005 09:06:55 -0700
From: Carol Flinders <clf AT TWOROCK.ORG>
Subject: Re: Evolutionary Feminism
I found Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's 1999 book, Mother Nature: Maternal
Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, to be an absolutely
enthralling introduction to the subject. After a dispiriting start, when
it seemed as if the Mars and Venus contingent were holding all the
cards, evolutionary biologists and social scientists are putting
together a picture of gender  that is intensely interesting, complex,
nuanced and, yes, *evolving* from week to week.

Carol Lee Flinders, Ph.D
Two Rock Institute
clf  AT  tworock.org
Date: Tue, 10 May 2005 10:46:41 -0700
From: "Renfro, Elizabeth" <ERenfro AT CSUCHICO.EDU>
Subject: Re: Evolutionary Feminism
I like Patricia Adair Gowaty's work. As a feminist evolutionary
biologist engaged in field research, she provides a useful complement
to the wealth of feminist science philosophers and historians.  You
might check out Feminism and Evolutionary Biology: Boundaries,
Intersections, and Frontiers (NY: Chapman and Hall, 1997), which she
edited. It's not an easy read for non-science majors/minors, but I
esp. like using the book's intro (by Gowaty) and her essay "Sexual
Dialectics, Sexual Selection, and Variation in Reproductive Behavior,"
a feminist reading of sexual selection.
Date: Mon, 9 May 2005 13:56:35 -0700
From: Petra Bueskens <petra.b1 AT BIGPOND.COM>
Subject: Re: addressing "Darwinian Feminism"
Hi Daphne,

I found this interesting website with lots of links, articles and



Petra Bueskens
Lecturer in the Sociology Program
University of Melbourne
Email: pbuskens  AT  unimelb.edu.au
Date: Fri, 13 May 2005 14:17:37 -0600
From: Suzanne Franks <suzanne.franks AT LYCOS.COM>
Subject: addressing evolutionary feminism: observations
Daphne Patai writes:

"I personally don't mean anything by the terms "evolutionary feminism" and
"Darwinian feminism."   I am referring to terms used in a variety of
publications, not terms I have coined."

This follows her initial inquiry wanting to know who on this list teaches
on these subjects, what texts they feel work best, and how students respond
to them.  I have two observations to make about Dr. Patai's
original inquiry and her response, above, to my earlier posting:

Observation #1: Generally, when people on this listserv write with
inquiries, they usually give some idea of why they are asking list
members to share information and resources with them.  For example,
"A student of mine is interested in" or "I have been working on
(fill in the blank) and am wondering if anyone can help me find more
information" or "I have been teaching on such and so and have
encountered the following situation, can anyone help out." In short,
most people who write to this list asking for help or resources,
usually tell list members why they want help or in what context they
are seeking that information.  I have noticed over a time period of
many years that when Dr. Patai writes to ask for information or
resources, she almost never gives such contextual information.  I have
also noticed, over time, that Dr. Patai also uses information garnered
from this listserv to criticize in print the members of this listserv
and the theories and teaching methods espoused by members of this

Observation #2: Dr. Patai has written, in other fora, on the topic of
feminists and evolutionary theory, and has taken a rather critical
tone.  She has on at least one occasion suggested that feminists
suffer from biophobia and from being anti-evolutionary.  On this
listserv, now, she claims to "personally [not] mean anything" by the
terms evolutionary feminism or Darwinian feminism.

These observations, together, suggest to me that Dr. Patai is
disingenuous, at the least, in saying she means nothing, personally,
by the terms evolutionary or Darwinian feminism.  I suspect she does
mean something, after all, or will at some point in the future, after
reaping the harvest of thoughtful replies provided by list members.  I
do hope she will be so kind as to share in like fashion with us all,
relatively soon, the details of her own project regarding her interest
in evolutionary/Darwinian feminism.  In that way, list members could
more effectively provide responses that she would find most useful.

Suzanne E. Franks
suzanne.franks  AT  lycos.com
Date: Sun, 15 May 2005 11:55:40 -0600
Subject: Evolutionary Feminism--A Resource
Members of the list who have an interest in the recent thread
on evolutionary feminism might find this resource helpful:
Suzanne E. Franks, "They Blinded Me With Science: Misuse and
Misunderstanding of Biological Theory," Cynthia Burack and
Jyl J. Josephson, editors, Fundamental Differences: Feminists
Talk Back to Social Conservatives, Rowman and Littlefield,

In this chapter Franks critiques both the science behind Randy
Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer's 2000 book, A Natural History
of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, and the politics
of Daphne Patai's endorsement of the book.  For those who
are not familiar with the Thornhill and Palmer book and the
controversy that surrounded its publication, it is a work that
uses evolutionary psychology to make a case for the
evolutionary foundations of rape.  The authors themselves,
assisted by non-scientists such as Patai, argued that critics of
the book and its conclusions (including feminists) are
motivated by politics (ie, bias) rather than science.  Franks
exposes this argument, offers evidence of extensive scientific
critique of the book, and considers what critics of feminism
have to gain ideologically by insisting upon tendentious
readings of feminism and the relation between feminism and

I tried to post this message to the list last week but did not
receive it back in the digest.  Apologies if anyone has received
a duplicate post.

Cindy Burack
Department of Women's Studies
The Ohio State University
burack.1  AT  osu.edu
Date: Mon, 16 May 2005 12:46:51 -0400
From: Daphne Patai <daphne.patai AT SPANPORT.UMASS.EDU>
Subject: Re: Evolutionary Feminism--A Resource
For those who do not automatically assent to the personal attacks on me and
misrepresentations of my work launched by S. Franks and her allies, here is
some accurate information about my essay on Thornhill and Palmer's book "A
Natural History of Rape."

First of all, I did not"endorse" the book, as claimed.  But what if I had?
That would still be no excuse for personal attacks as opposed to discussion
of their argument.  In fact, however, my essay on the book was titled "Do
They Have To Be Wrong?" and the reason I gave it that title was because my
main argument in the essay was NOT about whether their book was right or
wrong,  but about the feminist hostility to arguments from biology, and the
feminist view of rape (as violence, not as sex).  I also quoted and gave
full reference in my essay to very critical reviews of Thornhill and
Palmer's book.  Hardly the blind defense of it the recent (duplicated)
posting about Franks' essay and my views would suggest.

And one final detail: because I take very seriously the issue of
professional expertise (and one of my criticisms of women's studies is the
lack of such expertise in much that passes for feminist pedagogy), I agreed
to write on the book (for the journal Gender Issues 18:4, Fall 2000) ONLY if
they also sought a biologist's view of the same book. The result is that
right after my 8-page essay on the book, there appears a 20-page review
(very negative, as it happens) of the same book.

I continue to believe that education and intellectual endeavors are very
much damaged by the tendency within feminism to vilify people who do not
share some particular party line or other -- on social construction, on
rape, on science, etc. Long ago I wrote that there isn't much tolerance in
women's studies.  The truth of that observation is again demonstrated by
Suzanne Franks' recent posting (see 5/13/05) and by the two lauding her

Date: Wed, 18 May 2005 12:20:21 -0600
From: Suzanne Franks <suzanne.franks AT LYCOS.COM>
Subject: evolutionary feminism and expertise
Daphne Patai writes:
>"For those who do not automatically assent to the personal attacks on me and
>misrepresentations of my work launched by S. Franks and her allies...
>my main argument in the essay was NOT about whether [Thornhill & Palmer's]
>book was right or wrong,  but about the feminist hostility to arguments
>from biology, and the feminist view of rape (as violence, not as sex)...
>And one final detail: because I take very seriously the issue of
>professional expertise (and one of my criticisms of women's studies is the
>lack of such expertise in much that passes for feminist pedagogy), I agreed
>to write on the book (for the journal Gender Issues 18:4, Fall 2000) ONLY if
>they also sought a biologist's view of the same book."

Since I asked Dr. Patai to share with list members the nature of her interest
or project relating to evolutionary feminism, I do thank her for being more
explicit with list members about her perspective.  This should help list
members decide how best to provide her with the information she requests,
if they are motivated to do so.

Dr. Patai has expressed a serious concern about the issue of
professional expertise as it relates to the issues of feminist pedagogy and
the discussion of topics such as evolutionary feminism.  Though she heroically
agreed to review Thornhill and Palmer's book while possessing no
scientific credentials herself, she insisted the journal also find a
biologist to review the book.  Reading between the lines, one might suspect
Dr. Patai of impugning my own credentials to speak on scientific issues.
But that, of course, would be a ludicrous thing to suppose, given that
I am an engineer (trained at Penn State, MIT, and Duke), a research
scientist (cancer research centers in Germany and the U.S.), and a former
pharmaceutical industry manager (four different U.S. pharmaceutical companies).
(Given that I also hold an M.Ed. degree (mathematics), I have some
qualifications to speak on issues of pedagogy as well.)

I do, however, commend Dr. Patai for seeking out scientists when she realized
she was outside her own area of expertise and encourage other WMST-L members
to do likewise.  Forging relationships with scientists who are feminists
is something that should happen more often among feminists who are not themselves
scientists but who would like to address scientific issues.  A wonderful
example of this is Helen Longino's work with Ruth Doell
"Body, Bias and Behavior: A Comparative Analysis of Reasoning
in Two Areas of Biological Science," (co-authored with Ruth Doell).
Signs 9 (Wint 1983).
There are many more recent examples I could cite but this is my favorite
because it is the first one I encountered while still a graduate engineering
student, and Helen Longino was the first feminist who really made me feel that
it was possible to combine my feminism with my engineering work.

Finally, I must confess I was pleasantly surprised to discover the existence
of a group known collectively as my "allies".  I suppose it's better to have
allies than to be part of the axis.  :)  Allies, please send SASE and a small
donation to receive an autographed photo of S. Franks, suitable for framing.  :)

Suzanne E. Franks
suzanne.franks  AT  lycos.com

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