What a Piece of Work Is Woman

Art by Paige Imatani

Since the early 1970s, when Roe vs. Wade guaranteed women reproductive freedom and women were urged to spread their legs before the mirror and examine their genitals in all their flowery glory, the discussion of what it means to be female has yielded some remarkable results. Title IX has populated basketball courts with girls and ignited a debate about the limits of female athleticism. Artists have adorned everything from canvas to dinner plates with labia. Menopause has lost its taint of finality; PMS briefly gained status as valid criminal defense when a British doctor introduced it into two early-’80s trials ("The outlook for women desirous of piloting Concorde," wrote Germaine Greer at the time, "has never looked bleaker"). Few of the women whose mothers, in hurried whispers, passed the cumbersome pre-tampon technology of menstruation down to their daughters would argue that all the talk isn’t a good thing; some even had a hand in initiating this gynecological perestroika.

If you listen carefully, though, you can hear that same generation, which has watched the rise of biotechnology from the Pill to hormone-replacement therapy to fertility miracles and mammograms, muttering, "Enough." Yes, our bodies are a means to understanding ourselves, and certainly we should celebrate our passages, but at some point women must cease to be biosocial lab mice and be allowed to live — messily, inconclusively and fully in the world, such as we are and it is. Sadly, decades of discussion have not yielded the freedom to express our natural selves — maternal or careerist, butch or dainty, competitive or retiring. From menarche to climacteric we are still bombarded by authorities, medical and otherwise, with recommendations on how to be a better woman.

All the more reason to be grateful, then, that in all 398 pages of Woman: An Intimate Geography, Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times writer/stylist Natalie Angier offers only one shred of medical advice: Do not douche. ("Douching kills off the beneficial lactobacilli and paves the way for infestation by anaerobes and their trails of cadaverine," she argues in her lush and graphic way.) Beginning with an ode to the egg and ending in a thorough debunking of strict evolutionary psychology, Woman prescribes neither strategies nor remedies for the female condition; implicit in every line is the understanding that we need more edicts like we need cramps. You can have that hysterectomy for your sanguinary fibroid, or not; regard menstruation as an adaptive mechanism ã to cleanse your body of toxins, or not. You can choose to embrace the "grandmother hypothesis," which holds that menopause happens so that elder-women can serve as better providers to subsequent generations, or you can embrace the notion that today women really do live longer than they were built to — down your synthetic estrogen and enjoy your HRT high. Whatever you decide, Angier suggests that you are at least doing right by yourself.

Like a science-minded 10-year-old dissecting her first frog, Angier investigates the female body and the theories about it with frank wonder and liberating open-mindedness. Bickering biologists are left to face off without interference; Angier is a gentle referee who steps into the fray only when necessary — when she needs to deck Camille Paglia for self-hatred, or nudge a particularly reductionist neo-Darwinist thinker (the kind who might argue that men are biologically compelled to pursue younger mates) off his self-satisfied perch. "In the Darwin-o-gram reckoning of human nature, a stereotype is not an intellectual pitfall to guard against," Angier jeers, "it’s an opportunity!" Mostly, though, she looks at women’s insides without aversion. Witnessing a hysterectomy in action, Angier delights in the sights and sounds she takes in: "The [fallopian] tubes are exquisite, soft and rosy and slim as pens, tipped like a feather duster with a bell of fronds . . . To me they look like sea anemones, flowers of flesh, the petals throbbing to the cadence of blood." Her prose, at once tactile and specific, begs to be read out loud.

Angier’s publisher correctly places Woman in the same lineage as Our Bodies, Ourselves and Gail Sheehy’s Passages: Angier stands to make a fundamental difference in the way men and women, in the United States at least, discuss female parts. But where the authors of Our Bodies sought to promote a sensibility of self-acceptance, and Sheehy advocated a more clear-eyed view of menopause, Angier isn’t after anything, except perhaps scientific truth. If from that truth there emerges a political agenda, it’s only because so much evidence about women has been radically neglected and misunderstood. In one of many examples, Angier reports that "only two academic volumes are devoted to the clitoris." Yet countless books have been written about how and why women respond to sex. And as much as evolutionary psychologists argue that our social progress is limited to a Darwinian pace, Angier demonstrates that our gender roles are largely a matter of choice.

The biologist Ernst Mayr, now in his 90s but "still working, still writing and still thinking too quickly for comfort," Angier reports, recently opined that humans have stopped evolving. "There’s no system of isolation, and so we can never speciate," he told Angier; that is, the global village has brought us too close together to develop any more idiosyncratic adaptive traits. "There’s no basis for a real change in our genes." Angier boldly agrees. She ends her funny, effusive and unusually gripping book (when was the last time you read a biology book you couldn’t put down?) with a call to move past the moldy constraints of biological determinism and devote our big brains to "permanent revolution," a belief-system overhaul that doesn’t wait around for genetic mutation but promotes cultural evolution toward ever more freedom for both sexes, acknowledging not just our differences, but our respective choices, possibilities and, Angier argues, scientifically verified equality. In the end, Woman is a manifesto of tolerance and hope, and a celebration of the discovery that none of us, male or female, is carved in biological stone.

 

Angier on writing Woman: I had a miserable time writing it. It was so painful. It was too personal. There was this feeling that too much is at stake. The only thing that kept me going was my husband telling me that I had an obligation to my daughter to finish it. It’s so much easier to write about things you have an arm’s length from.

On whether women are more fascinated than men are by their bodies: Women do engage in all sorts of rituals with their bodies. And they seem to be more obsessed with their health — they go to doctors more and read magazines about it. Somehow men don’t seem to get quite as wrapped up in it, to such a personal degree. But that’s starting to change — men are starting to pay attention, too. They’re starting to ask, "Should you have your PSA levels measured? Is it necessarily a good thing to go around and monitor it all the time? Is there ever a good argument to be made for watchful waiting instead of going ahead and having your prostate removed?" These are similar to the kinds of questions women have to confront more often.

On the male reaction to the book: A lot of men have said that, first of all, they liked the book — more than I thought they would — and second, they’ve asked me whether I would consider writing a companion book about men.

On why she wouldn’t write a companion book about men: One of the things that I’ve felt about doing this book and thinking about evolutionary issues is that you can really get bogged down. I said to my editor at the Times, "I think I want to write about geology for a while, so I don’t get constantly pulled back into these arguments of male versus female, and the war between the sexes." If I were to write about men’s bodies, I would find myself back treading that same territory from a different perspective. You can feel a sort of despair over that.

On being included in the canon of literature on women’s bodies: Buddha said all comparisons lead to suffering. I’m beginning to think Buddhism is right about everything.

Natalie Angier will read from Woman: An Intimate Geography at the Los Angeles Central Library on Wednesday, May 5, at 7 p.m.


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