It’s striking, when one reads female philosophers from the early modern period, how little the arguments that a given trait belongs solely to women or to men have changed over the years. In the 17th and 18th centuries, no one used the term “genetic” or “evolutionary” or “long end of the tail” or “back on Ye Olde Veldte”, but instead argued in terms of “natural” or “innate” differences. What particular traits belong in the set “innate to women” or “innate to men” have changed according to social fashion, but what’s curious is that the form of the argument hasn’t:
Girls are from their earliest infancy fond of dress. Not content with being pretty, they are desirous of being thought so; we see, by all their little airs, that this thought engages their attention; and they are hardly capable of understanding what is said to them, before they are to be governed by talking to them of what people will think of their behavior.
That’s Mary Wollstonecraft quoting Rousseau in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. If you insert “princess dresses” and update the language, it would not be out of place in the mouth of someone blathering on today about how natural it is that little girls play with dolls rather than trucks.
Of course, she has a response to Rousseau and all the other writers who gave advice to young ladies! Here’s a hint from the chapter title. The Effect Which An Early Association of Ideas Has Upon the Character:
Every thing that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind.
And of course, as girls are cherished for being fearful, and delicate, and forbidden to run around and play, later:
..when all their ingenuity is called forth to adjust their dress, ‘a passion for a scarlet coat’, is so natural, that it never surprised me…
I am proposing a new maxim: those who wish to argue from personal anecdote that a certain character trait is dictated by evolution should endeavor to advance the argument beyond 1792.