‘Gynocentric theory’ in colleges and popular culture (pre-1920)

The following excerpt is from the 1920 volume Taboo and genetics; a study of the biological, sociological and psychological foundation of the family. It details the popularity of what it calls “gynocentric theory” entailing a belief in the superiority of women over men, and describes how the idea had caught on widely not only in popular culture and in feminist thought, but in college reference libraries too.


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Scientific discovery, especially in biology, during the past two decades has made necessary an entire restatement of the sociological problem of sex. Ward’s so-called “gynæcocentric” theory, as sketched in Chapter 14 of his Pure Sociology, has been almost a bible on the sex problem to sociologists, in spite of the fact that modern laboratory experimentation has disproved it in almost every detail.

While a comparatively small number of people read this theory from the original source, it is still being scattered far and wide in the form of quotations, paraphrases, and interpretations by more popular writers. It is therefore necessary to gather together the biological data which are available from technical experimentation and medical research, in order that its social implications may be utilized to show the obsoleteness of this older and unscientific statement of the sex problem in society.

Lester F. Ward crystallized the arguments for [female superiority] in an article entitled “Our Better Halves” in The Forum, in 1888. This philosophy of sex, which he christened the “Gynæcocentric Theory,” is best known as expanded into the fourteenth chapter of his Pure Sociology, published fifteen years later. Its publication at this late date gave it an unfortunate vitality long after its main tenets had been disproved in the biological laboratory.

Besides its faulty foundation as to facts, the old gynæcocentric theory involved a method of treatment by historical analogy which biologists have almost entirely discarded. Anyone interested in the relative value of different kinds of biological data for social problems would do well to read the opening chapter of Prof. Morgan’s “Critique of the Theory of Evolution,” for even a summary of which space is lacking here.

College reference shelves are still stocked with books on sex sociology which are totally oblivious of present-day biology. For example, Mrs. Gilman (Man-Made World), Mrs. Hartley (Truth About Woman) and the Nearings (Woman and Social Progress) adhere to Ward’s theory in substantially its primitive form, and not even sociologists like Professor Thomas (Sex and Society) have been able to entirely break away from it.

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