The Feminist Heroes Who Gave Women Parentage
By Julia Stonehouse
Put your hands on your tummy, over the ovaries, close your eyes, and imagine your ova being erased out of existence. Imagine that inside your ovaries there’s a liquid that lubricates the vagina during intercourse; or provides food for a baby growing inside your womb. Imagine having no ova, not a single ovum, no seed of life, no genetic material, no DNA to pass to the next generation. Your body is an empty shell, just an incubator designed to receive the seed of life – which comes entirely from the semen of men.
Now you can begin to understand how women felt before they were liberated from the notion that the only seed of life comes from the father, the sole parent – the patriarch. That profound misconception prevailed for thousands of years until it was overturned by my two feminist heroes, Karl and Gregor, around the turn of the 20th century.
We’re so accustomed to the idea that life begins from the fusion of ovum and sperm it’s hard to imagine an alternative reality. Yet, before that discovery, scientists believed that all life originated in the male: male persons, male animals, and male plants. Men loved the idea they were the life-givers and were reluctant to give up their monopoly, upon which their superiority and authority was based.
So both Karl and Gregor faced a wall of silence, with their peers giving them the cold shoulder and pretending nothing had changed. Karl was very upset by their reaction and had a nervous breakdown, and Gregor had been dead 16 years before his work was appreciated. In science, it’s one thing to make a discovery, and quite another thing for people to accept it. Especially when it challenges the entrenched patriarchal orthodoxy.
The discovery of the facts of life began in 1827 when our first hero, Karl Ernst von Baer, found the mammalian ovum in a dog. This meant that human mammals - women - could also have eggs. Karl knew this was revolutionary, and he was scared. He wrote in his autobiography about the moment he first saw an ovum in his microscope, saying he “recoiled as if struck by lightning,” and asked “Is it not strange that a sight which is expected, and indeed hoped for, should be frightening when it eventually materializes?” (1)
Karl needn’t have worried because his peers just ignored him. The men of science met his discovery with “a heavy silence.” (2) His research paper sold badly, and Karl’s publisher refused to print his next work. He became depressed, writing that “a despondency had taken hold of me, which was in part based on moral grounds,” adding “I had turned into a hermit crab who … never left the abode.” (3)
Even in old age Karl wouldn’t be bold enough to suggest joint parentage. He said “it is still so dark and so little pursued that we do not dare risk proposing it.” (4) That’s right Karl, keep your mouth shut before you get into any more trouble!
Because the ovary had for centuries been thought to contain food for the baby growing within, the newly discovered ovum could be dismissed as an item of food in the baby’s grocery basket. But the truth was slowly emerging: the egg is fertilized by sperm; then there is cell division; it’s the nuclei of sperm and egg that fuses; a single sperm causes fertilization. In 1888, working on Ascaris megalocephala worms, Theodor Boveri showed the shape and arrangement of chromosomes is the same in cells before and after cell division. Two years later, working on sea urchins, he showed that egg and sperm contribute an equal number of sets of chromosomes. Not that anyone understood what chromosomes did, but reproduction was looking like an equal process between male and female. However, all the experiments were carried out on lowly creatures including frogs, newts, fish, starfish, bats, sea urchins, and parasitic worms, and men asked what any of this had to do with them.
Enter our second hero, Gregor Mendel. When he was a student at the Vienna Botanical Gardens, Gregor had a run-in with one of the professors, Eduard Fenzl, who was what’s known as a ‘spermist’. Fenzl thought the plant embryo was pre-formed, perfect in every detail except miniature, needing only the nurturing aspect of a plant ovary to grow. Gregor, on the other hand, believed that each plant was a new creation from both the male and female parts.
So Gregor spent 7 years in the walled garden of a monastery meticulously recording the hereditary traits of peas, and published his research in 1865. It showed that male and female plants contribute equally, but his findings were dismissed by the highly distinguished biologist, Carl von Nägeli. It’s often said that Gregor’s research was ‘rediscovered’ in 1900, 35 years after it was published, which gives the impression his papers were lying in a box somewhere, ‘undiscovered.’ It wasn’t like that. From 1865 to 1900 Gregor’s work was cited in 22 scientific papers. His peers were aware of the work, and used it as a reference to show they’d done their homework, but they didn’t accept it as accurate. When they finally overcame their collective prejudice it was 1900. Gregor had died in 1884, and never knew he would become famous as ‘the founder of genetics.’
Of course, garden peas have nothing to do with human reproduction, but Gregor proved a point – inheritance does not come from the male alone. Changing this fundamental idea was a game changer, a philosophical turn-around.
Working with fruit flies, in 1915 Thomas Hunt Morgan showed that identifiable hereditary information is located in the chromosomes. By 1956 research had progressed to human material and Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan proved the number of human chromosomes is 46. Reproductive equality now had a sum: 23 chromosomes from the father + 23 from the mother = the 46 most of us are born with.
So when can we say we ‘discovered the facts of life’? The long journey began in 1827 when Karl saw the mammalian ovum, and ended in 1960 when IVF experimenter Landrum Shettles published the first photo showing human sperm entering the ovum. The whole process took 133 years, from start to finish. There was no one moment when the facts of human life were discovered, no one experiment. It took hundreds of small steps to get to the truth. But by 1900 the embryological work was coming to a solid consensus, and Gregor’s work on peas underpinned the paradigm shift. So that’s the date I would give as when we discovered the facts of life. However, in 1900, there were still people who disagreed with the idea of joint parentage and they did have a point – at that time, the evidence only came from slimy pond life and garden peas!
(1) Karl Ernst von Baer, Autobiography of Dr. Karl Ernst von Baer (ed. Jane M. Oppenheimer), Canton, MA: Watson Publishing International, 1986, page 218.
(2) Ibid p. 225
(3) Ibid p. 269
(4) Meyer, Arthur William, Human Generation, Conclusions of Burdach, Dollinger and von Baer, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1956, quoting von Baer page 117.