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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, author George Eliot sought to discount the widespread belief that women were innately inferior to men in regards to intelligence. This prevailing outlook was largely supported by the scientific work of one of her contemporaries, Paul Broca, professor of clinical surgery at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. Relying on comparisons of skull measurement, Broca averred that because women's brains were smaller than men's, they clearly were incapable of reaching the intellectual heights of their male counterparts. Although a few of his fellow scientists rejected his claims about the inferiority of women, Broca's conclusions were widely accepted. Backing up these claims of brain size as the main indicator of intellectual potential with an interpretation of accepted gender social roles and resulting evolutionary pressures, Topinard, "Broca's chief disciple," went so far as to assert:

The man who fights for two or more in the struggle for existence, who has all the responsibility and the cares of tomorrow...needs more brain than the woman whom he must protect and nourish, the sedentary woman...whose role is to raise children, love, and be passive.

During those same years, Gustave Le Bon, a close adherent of Broca's school of thought, published a virulent attack upon women, saying:

All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize...that [women] represent the most inferior forms of human evolution...they excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason.

Le Bon was "horrified" at suggested social reforms which would grant women access to higher education on the same basis as men. He warned that if women,

misunderstanding the inferior occupations which nature has given her...leave the home and take part in our battles...a social revolution will begin, and everything that maintains the sacred ties of the family will disappear.

A little over a century later, Stephen Jay Gould, an American paleontologist, scientist, historian, and the writer of this article, reexamined Broca's data and found that his numbers were sound but that his interpretation of his findings were "ill-founded, to say the least." Using techniques to account for the effects of height and age in determining brain size, factors which Broca simply disregarded or explained away using faulty premises, Gould studied his predecessor's work, taking into account other variables as well, including body build and the impact of degenerative diseases. His new findings raised more questions than answers, but the one conclusion that was irrefutable was that Broca's data "[did not] permit any confident claim that men have bigger brains than women."

Gould then points out the wider implications of the earlier scientist's assertions, stressing that Broca's conclusions about the brains of women must be considered in the context of "a general theory that supported contemporary social distinctions as biologically ordained." Gould argues that women "stood as surrogates for other disenfranchised groups," including "blacks and poor people," in that all were victimized by the belief that there were inherent, biologically-based differences that make members of some groups inferior to others. With this in mind, Gould suggests that "women's battles are for all of us."

Interestingly, the famous Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, best known for her activities in educational reform for young children, supported much of Broca's work, along with that of French anthropologist Leonce Pierre Manouvrier, who pioneered the theory of innate criminality. She herself measured children's heads and inferred that "the best prospects had bigger brains." Montessori did not come to the same conclusions as Broca, however, in regards to women. In contrast, she argued that women were, in fact, intellectually superior, but had been held back by men because males were capable of greater physical force; advancements in technology, she reasoned, would soon render the element of force as an instrument of power inconsequential. Montessori envisioned a brighter future in which the "anthropological superiority" of women in the areas of "human sentiment, morality and honor" would assert itself, creating "superior human beings" who would be better and stronger because of women's influence in these respects. 

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