The gynæcocentric theory, by Lester Ward (1903)

It may not come as much of a surprise to learn some men were champions of gynocentrism over the centuries, men we might refer to as white knights on account of their exaggerated chivalry. Lester F. Ward (1841 – 1913) was one such champion, promoting the idea that women were naturally superior to men in his ‘Gynocentrism theory’ reprinted below. In this regard, Ward presaged the promotion of difference feminism by Evolutionary Psychologists and feminist writers like Harvard’s Carol Gilligan who uphold the thesis of female superiority. As an early promoter of gynocentrism theory, Ward is now considered by feminist historians such as Ann Taylor Allen to be an early feminist.1 The following is an excerpt from his longer work entitled Pure Sociology, published in 1903. – PW


The gynæcocentric theory

The gynæcocentric theory is the view that the female sex is primary and the male secondary in the organic scheme, that originally and normally all things center, as it were, about the female, and that the male, though not necessary in carrying out the scheme, was developed under the operation of the principle of advantage to secure organic progress through the crossing of strains. The theory further claims that the apparent male superiority in the human race and in certain of the higher animals and birds is the result of specialization in extra-normal directions due to adventitious causes which have nothing to do with the general scheme, but which can be explained on biological and psychological principles; that it only applies to certain characters, and to a relatively small number of genera and families. It accounts for the prevalence of the androcentric theory by the superficial character of human knowledge of such subjects, chiefly influenced by the illusion of the near, but largely, in the case of man at least, by tradition, convention, and prejudice.

History of the Theory

As this theory is not only new but novel, and perhaps somewhat startling, it seems proper to give a brief account of its inception and history, if it can be said to have such. As the theory, so far as I have ever heard, is wholly my own, no one else having proposed or even defended it, scarcely any one accepting it, and no one certainly coveting it, it would be folly for me to pretend indifference to it. At the same time it must rest on facts that cannot be disputed, and the question of its acceptance or rejection must become one of interpreting the facts.

In the year 1888 there existed in Washington what was called the Six o’clock Club, which consisted of a dinner at a hotel followed by speeches by the members of the Club according to a programme. The Fourteenth Dinner of the Club took place on April 26, 1888, at Willard’s Hotel. It was known to the managers that certain distinguished women would be in Washington on that day, and they were invited to the Club. Among these were Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Miss Phoebe Couzins, Mrs. Croly (Jennie June), Mrs. N. P. Willis, and a number of others equally well known. On their account the subject of Sex Equality was selected for discussion, and I was appointed to open the debate. Although in a humorous vein, I set forth the greater part of the principles and many of the facts of what I now call the gynæcocentric theory.

Professor C. V. Riley was present and, I think, took part in the discussion. Many of my facts were drawn from insect life, and especially interested him. I mention this because a long time afterward he brought me a newspaper clipping from the Household Companion for June, 1888, containing a brief report of my remarks copied from the St. Louis Globe, but crediting them to him; and he apologized for its appearance saying that he could not explain the mistake. The reporter had fairly seized the salient points of the theory and presented them in a manner to which I could not object. This, therefore, was the first time the theory can be said to have been stated in print. The exact date at which it appeared in the Globe I have not yet learned, but presume it was shortly after the meeting of the Club. Professor Riley did not hesitate to announce himself a convert to the theory, and we often discussed it together.

I had long been reflecting along this line, and these events only heightened my interest in the subject. The editor of the Forum had solicited an article from me, and I decided to devote it to a popular but serious presentation of the idea. The result was my article entitled, “Our Better Halves.” 3 That article, therefore, constitutes the first authorized statement of the gynæcocentric theory that was published, and as a matter of fact it is almost the only one. Mr. Grant Allen answered my argument on certain points in the same magazine,4 and I was asked to put in a rejoinder, which I did,5 but these discussions related chiefly to certain differences between the mind of man and woman and did not deal with the question of origin. I alluded to it in my first presidential address before the Biological Society of Washington,6 and it came up several times in writing the “Psychic Factors” (Chapters XIV, XXVI).

Such is the exceedingly brief history of the gynæcocentric theory, and if it is entirely personal to myself, this is no fault of mine. Nothing pleases me more than to see in the writings of others any intimation, however vague and obscure, that the principle has been perceived, and I have faithfully searched for such indications and noted all I have seen. The idea has not wholly escaped the human mind, but it is never presented in any systematic way. It is only occasionally shadowed forth in connection with certain specific facts that call forth some passing reflection looking in this general direction. In introducing a few of these adumbrations I omit the facts, which will be considered under the several heads into which the subject will naturally fall, and confine myself for the most part to the reflections to which they have given rise. Many of these latter, however, are of a very general character, and not based on specific facts. In fact thus far the theory has had rather the form of a prophetic idea than of a scientific hypothesis.

We may begin as far back as Condorcet, who brushed aside the conventional error that intellect and the power of abstract reasoning are the only marks of superiority and caught a glimpse of the truth that lies below them when he said: –

If we try to compare the moral energy of women with that of men, taking into consideration the necessary effect of the inequality with which the two sexes have been treated by laws, institutions, customs, and prejudices, and fix our attention on the numerous examples that they have furnished of contempt for death and suffering, of constancy in their resolutions and their convictions, of courage and intrepidity, and of greatness of mind, we shall see that we are far from having the proof of their alleged inferiority. Only through new observations can a trite light be shed upon the question of the natural inequality of the two sexes.7

Comte, as all know, changed his attitude toward women after his experiences with Clotilde de Vaux, but even in his “Positive Philosophy,” in which he declared them to be in a state of “perpetual infancy,” and of “fundamental inferiority,” be admitted that they had a “secondary superiority considered from the social point of view.”8 In his “Positive Polity” he expressed himself much more strongly, saying that the female sex “is certainly superior to ours in the most fundamental attribute of the human species, the tendency to make sociability prevail over personality.”9 He also says that “feminine supremacy becomes evident when we consider the spontaneous disposition of the affectionate sex (sexe aimant) always to further morality, the sole end of all our conceptions.”10

Of all modern writers the one most free from the androcentric bias, so far as I am aware, is Mr. Havelock Ellis. In his excellent book “Man and Woman,” be has pointed out many of the fallacies of that Weltanschauung, and without apparent leaning toward anything but the truth has placed woman in a far more favorable light than it is customary to view her. While usually confining himself to the facts, he occasionally indicates that their deeper meaning has not escaped him. Thus he says: “The female is the mother of the new generation, and has a closer and more permanent connection with the care of the young; she is thus of greater importance than the male from Nature’s point of view” (pp. 383-384). To him is also due, the complete refutation of the “arrested development” theory, above mentioned, by showing that the child, and the young generally, represent the most advanced type of development, while the adult male represents a reversion to an inferior early type, and this in man is a more bestial type.

In the sayings quoted thus far we have little more than opinions, or general philosophical tenets, of which it would be much easier to find passages with the opposite import. In fact statements of the androcentric theory are to be met with everywhere. Not only do philosophers and popular writers never tire of repeating its main propositions, but anthropologists and biologists will go out of their way to defend it while at the same time heaping up facts that really contradict it and strongly support the gynæcocentric theory. This is due entirely to the power of a predominant world view (Weltanschauung). The androcentric theory is such a world view that is deeply stamped upon the popular mind, and the history of human thought has demonstrated many times that scarcely any number of facts opposed to such a world view can shake it. It amounts to a social structure and has the attribute of stability in common with other social structures. Only occasionally will a thinking investigator pause to consider the true import of the facts he is himself bringing to light.

Bachofen, McLennan, Morgan, and the other ethnologists who have contributed to our knowledge of the remarkable institution or historic phase called the matriarchate, all stop short of stating the full significance of these phenomena, and the facts of amazonism that are so often referred to as so many singular anomalies and reversals of the natural order of things, are never looked at philosophically as residual facts that must be explained even if they overthrow many current beliefs. Occasionally some one will take such facts seriously and dare to intimate a doubt as to the prevailing theory. Thus I find in Ratzenhofer’s work the following remark: –

It is probable that in the horde there existed a certain individual equality between man and woman; the results of our investigation leave it doubtful whether the man always had a superior position. There is much to indicate that the woman was the uniting element in the community; the mode of development of reproduction in the animal world and the latest investigations into the natural differences between man and woman give rise to the assumption that the woman of to-day is the atavistic product of the race, while the man varies more frequently and more widely. This view agrees perfectly with the nature of the social process, for in the horde, as the social form out of which the human race has developed, there existed an individual equality which has only been removed by social disturbances which chiefly concern the man.

All the secondary sexual differences in men are undoubtedly explained by the struggle for existence and the position of man in the community as conditioned thereby. Even the security of the horde from predatory animals, and still more the necessity of fighting with other men for the preservation of the group, developed individual superiority in general, both mental and physical, and especially in man. But any individual superiority disturbed the equality existing in the elements of the horde; woman from her sexual nature took only a passive part in these disturbances. The sexual life as well as the mode of subsistence no longer has its former peaceful character. Disturbances due to the demands of superior individuals thrive up to a certain point, beyond which the differentiation of the group into several takes place.11

Among biologists the philosophical significance of residual facts opposed to current beliefs is still less frequently reflected upon. I have stated that Professor Riley fully accepted the view that I set forth and admitted that the facts of entomology sustained it, yet, although somewhat of a philosopher himself, and living in the midst of the facts, the idea had not previously occurred to him. Among botanists, Professor Mechan was the only one in whose writings I have found an adumbration of the gynæcocentric theory. He several times called attention to a certain form of female superiority in plants. In describing certain peculiarities in the Early Meadow Rue and comparing the development of the male and female flowers he observed differences due to sex. After describing the female flowers he says: –

By turning to the male flowers (Fig. 2) we see a much greater number of bracts or small leaves scattered through the panicle, and find the pedicels longer than in the female; and this shows a much slighter effort – a less expenditure of force – to be required in forming male than female flowers. A male flower, as we see clearly here, is an intermediate stage between a perfect leaf and a perfect, or we may say, a female flower. It seems as if there might be as much truth as poetry in the expression of Burns, –

Her ‘prentice han’ she tried on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O,

— at least in so far as the flowers are concerned, and in the sense of a higher effort of vital power.12

It is singular, but suggestive that he should have quoted the lines from Burns in this connection, as they are an undoubted echo of the androcentric world view, a mere variation upon the Biblical myth of the rib. Of course he could find nothing on his side in the classic literature of the world, but wishing to embellish the idea in a popular work, he tried to make these somewhat ambiguous lines do duty in this capacity. The fact cited is only one of thousands that stand out clearly before the botanist, but not according with the accepted view of the relations of the sexes they are brushed aside as worthless anomalies and “exceptions that prove the rule.” In fact in all branches of biology the progress of truth has been greatly impeded by this spirit.

All modern anatomists know how the facts that are now regarded as demonstrating the horizontal position of the ancestors of man, and in general those that establish the doctrine of evolution, were treated by the older students of the human body – rejected, ignored, and disliked, as intruders that interfered with their investigations. It is exactly so now with gynæcocentric facts, and we are probably in about the same position and stage with reference to the questions of sex as were the men of the eighteenth century with reference to the question of evolution. Indeed, the androcentric theory may be profitably compared with the geocentric theory, and the gynæcocentric with the heliocentric. The advancement of truth has always been in the direction of supplanting the superficial and apparent by the fundamental and real, and the gynæcocentric truth may be classed among the “paradoxes of nature.“13


[1] Lester Frank Ward on Wikipedia
[2] Pure sociology; a treatise on the origin and spontaneous development of society (1903)
[3] ‘Our better Halves,’ The Forum, New York, Vol. VI, November, 1888, pp. 266-275.
[4] “Woman’s Place in Nature,” by Grant Allen, the Forum, Vol. VII, May, 1889, pp. 258-263.
[5] “Genius and Woman’s Intuition,” the Forum, Vol. IX, June, 1890, pp. 401-408.
[6] “The Course of Biologic Evolution,” Proc. Biol. Soc., Washington, Vol. V, pp. 23-55. See pp. 49-52.
[7] “Tableau Historique des Progrès de I’Esprit Humain,” Paris, 1900, pp. 444-445.
[8] “Philosophie Positive,” Vol. IV, Paris, 1839, pp. 405, 406.
[9] “Système de Politique Positive,” Vol. I, 1851, p. 210.
[10] Op. cit., Vol. IV, 1854, p. 63.
[11] “Die Sociologische Erkenntnis,” von Gustav Ratzenhofer, Leipzig, 1898, p. 127.
[12] “The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States,” by Thomas Meehan, Vol. I, Boston, 1878, p. 47.
[13] “Dynamic Sociology,” Vol. I, pp. 47-53.

Author’s note: Part 2 of this article to follow

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