In August 1868 the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Norwich. One of the members invited to present a paper was Lydia Becker, an amateur astronomer and botanist; among her accomplishments she could count a gold medal from the Royal Horticultural Society and the respect of Charles Darwin, with whom she corresponded.
By 1868 she was also one of the leading voices in the embryonic movement for women’s suffrage. The previous year she had convened the first meeting of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee, and in 1870 she founded the Women’s Suffrage Journal, remaining its editor until her death twenty years later.
In Norwich she chose to address the audience on one of her favourite topics: the need for an educational system which did not treat women as second-class citizens:
The conditions which men find most profitable for the development of their faculties, and the promotion of the highest enjoyment of which a moral and intellectual being is capable, they appear to regard as unsuitable or unnecessary for women. Among these conditions are — 1, a liberal education ; 2, political representation. When measures are under discussion for securing these advantages to the people at large, it invariably appears that the absence of provision for women proceeds, not on the ground that they are included as a matter of course, but from the absolute exclusion of one-half of humanity, as persons who have no part nor lot in the need for a liberal education, nor for political representation. This systematic and wilful neglect, and the legislative sanction given to it, has produced its natural fruit in the prevalence of the belief that women are endowed with an inferior order of intellect, that they are incapable of being taught to the same extent as men, and that they are naturally unable to appreciate the enjoyment derived from the exercise of the higher intellectual powers.
Miss Becker suggested, reasonably enough, that this situation was not acceptable. She put forward three propositions:
1. That the attribute of sex did not extend to mind; that there is no distinction between the intellects of men and women corresponding to, and dependent on, the special organization of their bodies. 2. That any broad marks of distinction which may at the present time be observed to exist between the minds of men and women collectively are fairly traceable to the influence of the different circumstances under which they pass their lives, and cannot be proved to inhere in each class in virtue of sex. 3. That in spite of the external circumstances which tend to cause divergence in the tone of mind, habits of thought, and opinions of men and women, it is a matter of fact that these do not differ more among persons of opposite sexes than they do among persons of the same; that on comparing individuals, or classes, of men with women, the difference between their mental characteristics will not be greater than may be found between two individuals or classes compared with others of the same sex.
Her speech was duly reported by The Medical News, nestled among reports of a heatwave in London and a mule which had – somehow – succeeded in giving birth. And how did this august organ choose to respond? By quoting her, or perhaps with a few well-chosen words of encouragement? No; with sarcasm, a sneer and a hatful of factual errors:
An American female
She was born in Lancashire.
—a Miss Becker—it appears, intruded herself on the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and inflicted upon the assemblage an address.
‘intruded herself’? She was a member of the Association, and appeared as a speaker at the invitation of its committee.
The editor of the Med. Times and Gaz. remarks: “It must have been very amusing to the members of the British Association to hear Miss Becker discourse on the mental superiority of the female sex.
She did not; she spoke about its equality.
This lady’s propositions were so well-rounded and so categorically arranged that they must have overpowered many of our weaker brethren. Her utter disregard, however, of the necessity for urging something in support of these propositions was not a little characteristic of the lady debater, and the illustrations afford a happy example of the kind of science which is popular in the ranks of the ci-devant weaker branch of the human family.
[Editor’s note: couldn’t you be a bit more contemptuous here? I’m not sure you’ve quite succeeded in being sufficiently unpleasant about her.]
‘The superiority of sex was not always on the side of the male: witness bees,’ said Miss Becker. This was most infelicitous. What is the domestic economy of the beehive? True, the males are not considerately treated, but then the really mentally superior and active members of the commonwealth are creatures we should be sorry to see Miss Becker selecting for her analogy—endowed with intelligence, but devoid of sex. The only female in the establishment leads a scandalous life of polyandry, is made a matron of as soon as she reaches maturity, is allowed to take no share in the affairs of the republic; and, finally, is kept hard at work perpetuating the species during the term of her natural life. Is this Miss Becker’s notion of the female of the future?”
Devastating point. The only problem: a quick perusal of her speech reveals that Lydia Becker did not once mention bees.