June 24, 2010

For most of the last 25 years, Howard M. Parshley, translator of the first English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953), has been cast as a saboteur of second-wave feminism. In a 1983 article, Margaret A. Simons characterized Parshley as a barely bilingual hack, ungrounded in philosophy, and bored by women’s history as evidenced by his many mistranslations of existentialist terminology and the fact that he cut the many stories of strong women present in the original. According to Simons, Parshley, a Smith College zoologist, got the gig only because Beauvoir’s American publisher, Knopf, mistakenly thought her book was about the act of sex, and Parshley had written a book on human reproduction in the early 1930s.

From The Science of Human Reproduction (1933) by Howard W. Parshley. Eugenics Publishing Company.

Parshley had his defenders, including Richard Gillman, a one-time neighbor, who in a 1988 article in the New York Times noted that Parshley, rather than hostile to Beauvoir, had encouraged Knopf to publish The Second Sex in English after reading it, in the original French, in 1949. In a note to Knopf, Parshley described the book as, “a profound and unique analysis of woman’s nature and position, eminently reasonable and witty.”

In an ironic turn, Parshley’s reputation has recently been restored, at least partially, through the publication of a new English translation of The Second Sex that was prodded into existence by Simons and other critics. The latest edition is complete and supposedly more sensitive to the original’s existentialist armature. However, at least one reviewer has admitted that the language of the new edition is literal to the detriment of felicity and coherence.

Whether Howard Parshley was the right man for the job (or whether any man was the right man for the job) will probably forever remain the subject of debate. But to the question of whether Parshley was a saboteur, the answer is clear. He was. Just not of feminism. The ideology Parshley undermined and sent careening into the gorge by translating The Second Sex was not Beauvoir’s, but his own.

Howard W. Parshley (1884-1953) came of age as a scientist and educator in the decade following the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics. It was a heady time for biologists, and many embraced and promoted the notion that human behavior was, on balance, biologically based. Parshley was far from alone in his belief that societies could be beneficially managed through the broad dissemination of biological information leading to (mostly) voluntary reproductive control.

Parshley expressed a strong, if naïve, faith in science as the new foundation for ethics. From his first book, Science and Good Behavior (1928), through his college survey textbook, Biology (1940), Parshley unselfconsciously promoted the Progressive Era conceit that science could supply better answers to questions of morality than religion, philosophy … or even anarchic democracy. In 1928 he wrote, “There is no good reason to suppose that a new and still undreamed-of principle of regulation will appear to continue the series in which religion, taboo, morality, philosophy, ethics, et cetera, have so far appeared – and not altogether to advantage. Science, at least as far as we are concerned, completes and terminates the list” (1928, 215).

Along with many of his contemporaries, Parshley thought it was logical and perhaps necessary for societies to cede to the scientifically enlightened the task of determining public policy and managing human potential based on their capacity for rational and unemotional analysis.

Parshley represents the early stirrings of a movement Daniel Kevles has labeled “reform eugenics.” In contrast to “mainline eugenics,” which by the 20s had become a vent for noxious nativist and racist beliefs, reform eugenics embraced liberal cultural ideas, allowing life scientists to promote progressive political and social beliefs while retaining the authority to categorize, rank and judge individuals and their behaviors.

Parshley and his peers, including sociologist Frank Hankins, popular science authors Frederick Osborn and Amram Scheinfeld, and geneticists Hermann J. Muller and Bentley Glass, understood early the dangers of association with conservative cultural forces, and were careful to distance themselves from the xenophobes who had came to dominate eugenics. But this group never lost faith in the idea that cultural relationships and the social hierarchy was more or less a natural development, and that social rank was a fair approximation of genetic health.

If only everyone understood their place, and were educated relative to their genetically determined abilities, civilization could get about the businesses of continuing its advance. Parshley wrote, “Education, whether within or without the home, must impart knowledge specifically useful to the individual according to his peculiar nature, if it is to accomplish results ethically valuable” (1928, 263). In part, Parshley was pitching more “class-appropriate” education and a science-based ethics. He suggested “juvenile delinquency” was the result of being bored by lessons in “geometry and Caesar,” and that the solution was not old fashioned moralizing, but vocational education. “Given at fifteen a knowledge of automobile repairing and venereal disease, our case would have become a harmless and happy human being, likely enough, whether he ever went to church or not” (1928, 264).

But as this last line hints, at the end of the day, it all came back to reproduction and its management. The overriding fear among eugenicists, both mainline and reform, was “differential reproduction,” or the idea that the “less fit” were outbreeding the “most civilized.” Though Parshley was certainly not opposed to state-sponsored eugenic sterilization – praising the California law that led to the 19,000 coerced vasectomies and tubal ligations, and noting that such policies were more effective than “Christianity and Prohibition” in controlling births (1933, 274-275) – he remained optimistic that, properly educated, less fit people would control their own reproduction, knowing the health of “the race” was at stake. He wrote, “With all classes controlling the exuberant fecundity of nature we should see the end of that differential and dysgenic (racially injurious) population growth – that rapid increase in the relative numbers of the defective and subnormal – which so alarms all who recognize the inheritability of human traits … Certainly with better education in these respects, individual habit and interest will come gradually to eliminate the need for enforcement, except in pathological cases (1928, 109).”

It is fair to say that among life scientists, at least male life scientists, of the 1920s and 30s, Parshley’s ideas were fairly typical and relatively non-controversial. Critically, it was during this time that the establishment set itself to the task of “scientizing” ideas that had their birth in first-wave feminism and the social movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the 1930s, biologists had purged their ranks of birth control “amateurs” like Margaret Sanger and built protections against “emotional” movements like anti-vivisection. As Molly Ladd-Taylor writes, eugenicists like Paul Popenoe “particularly detested birth control’s feminist aspect” (Ladd-Taylor, 305).

In playing along, Parshley set the trap he would later spring on himself.

Parshley’s 1933 book, The Science of Human Reproduction,” was the author’s attempt to apply a scientific ethics to human sexual relations. Among his curious conclusions was the suggestion that the “natural” age for people to marry was 16 or 17 for girls, and 17 or 18 for boys. Somehow, with laws sufficiently “liberalized” to allow for and encourage such marriages, “our biological ideal would soon become an accomplished fact” (1933, 247).

The trap, however, lay in the necessity of those proposing eugenic utility to establish categories of humans, each possessing their own “peculiar natures.” Such categorizations, when pitched to the educated, were non-controversial, at least when they related to class, as all educated people could credit themselves with possessing those “progressed” eugenic characteristics that made them educable. Reform eugenicists were also able to extend charity to the lower classes and darker races by suggesting that the “extreme heterogeneity” of the human species meant that, though it was possible to judge a class or race generally, it was impossible to judge an individual specifically. According to reformers, gross phenotypic characteristics, like skin color, did not necessarily dictate genetic worth. This idea was forcefully outlined in Frank H. Hankins’ 1926 book, The Racial Basis of Civilization, a book Parshley read and critiqued prior to its publication.

As stated before, the idea of a sliding scale of eugenic fitness was relatively non-controversial, and a common “liberal” point of view. But as I wrote in an earlier essay, within this neat little ideology sat a ticking bomb. It was triggered by a simple question: “what about women?”

Unlike individual males within races or classes, whose differences in genetic natures and genetic worth were visible only to the scientist, preventing all but the scientist from passing judgment, differences between the sexes were “obvious,” which required reform eugenicists to lay their cards on the table.

What, according to Parshley, was a woman’s “peculiar nature?”

Well, first, women were naturally “more emotional” than men due to their “sensitive and continuously varying internal organization” (31-32). They were also less “variable” than men, neither reaching his lows or highs. According to Parshley, “From vagrancy to asceticism, all sorts of deviations are found more commonly among men” (1933, 33-34). Noting that a woman’s “creativeness may be normally found in the creation of new life” (33-34), Parshley did recognize that the demands of reproduction placed limits on a woman’s claim to power and authority, admitting the existence of “a certain disadvantage, especially marked in civilized humanity.” But he made sure to add that, “the function [of gestation, birth and primary child care] is an integral part of [female] mammalian biology, and its performance under favorable conditions is attended with the deep satisfaction that attends obedience to profound natural impulses. Difficulties, discomforts, and dangers which are very real do not alter the truth of this assertion, a truth to which a great many women will be found to testify” (149-150).

Yet, it was this same Parshley who would come to translate “The Feminist Bible,” rendering elegantly Beauvoir’s prose, including the statement, “the body of woman is one of the essential elements in her situation in the world. But that body is not enough to define her as a woman.”

In her book, When Sex Became Gender, Shira Tarrant writes, “After World War II, feminist thought and expression were constrained by McCarthyism in America, by postwar reconstruction in France and Britain, by French pronatalist impulses, and by a domestic ideology that attempted to revive earlier arguments for separate spheres in all three countries” (2).

Scholars are beginning to recognize that the “domestic ideology” Tarrant speaks of had a name, eugenics, which in its “reform” variant, more strongly than once imagined, influenced expectations and “naturalized” relations in post-war America. Popenoe, according to Ladd-Taylor, thought, “the main causes of marital troubles – sex, mothers-in-law, children, and money – could all be traced to ignorance about sexual difference and other misunderstandings of biology” (Ladd-Taylor, 316). Later in the same article Ladd-Taylor states, “It is ironic indeed that Popenoe’s eugenics-inspired efforts to enhance personal happiness in marriage contributed to an individualist politics and therapeutic culture that led to the undermining of the gender and family norms he saw as the basis of a eugenically sound society” (322).

The same irony holds for Howard W. Parshley. However, while Popenoe responded to the rise of second-wave feminism with “apocalyptic rants about the decline of civilization” (Ladd-Taylor, 320), Parshley responded by devoting the last 4 years of his life to sensitively translating a text that challenged and ultimately undermined his own life’s work.

The task literally killed him. Of Parshley’s final act, flawed though it may be, it seems uncharitable in the extreme to say anything but, “tres bien.”


Beauvoir, Simone de. 1953. The Second Sex . Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Hankins, Frank H. 1926. The Racial Basis of Civilization: A Critique of the Nordic Doctrine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. 2001. “Eugenics, Sterilisation and Modern Marriage in the USA: The Strange Career of Paul Popenoe.” Gender & History 13:22.

Parshley, Howard W. 1940. Biology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

–. 1933. The Science of Human Reproduction. New York: Eugenics Publishing Company.

–. 1928. Science and Good Behavior. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Tarrant, Shira. 2006. When Sex Became Gender. New York: Routledge.