ARTICLE: Botanical Smuts and Hermaphrodites: Lydia Becker, Darwin’s Botany, and Education Reform

In the latest issue of Isis (June 2013):

Botanical Smuts and Hermaphrodites: Lydia Becker, Darwin’s Botany, and Education Reform

Tina Gianquitto

Abstract In 1868, Lydia Becker (1827–1890), the renowned Manchester suffragist, announced in a talk before the British Association for the Advancement of Science that the mind had no sex. A year later, she presented original botanical research at the BAAS, contending that a parasitic fungus forced normally single-sex female flowers of Lychnis diurna to develop stamens and become hermaphroditic. This essay uncovers the complex relationship between Lydia Becker’s botanical research and her stance on women’s rights by investigating how her interest in evolutionary theory, as well as her correspondence with Charles Darwin, critically informed her reform agendas by providing her with a new vocabulary for advocating for equality. One of the facts that Becker took away from her work on Lychnis was that even supposedly fixed, dichotomous categories such as biological sex became unfocused under the evolutionary lens. The details of evolutionary theory, from specific arguments on structural adaptations to more encompassing theories on heredity (i.e., pangenesis), informed Becker’s understanding of human physiology. At the same time, Becker’s belief in the fundamental equality of the sexes enabled her to perceive the distinction between inherent, biological differences and culturally contingent ones. She applied biological principles to social constructs as she asked: Do analogous evolutionary forces act on humans?

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