Aug 24, 2010

Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier

Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier

I have been writing and reading about biology and evolution for a long time now, and I am frankly getting sick of how “science” is pinned to our she-butts like donkey tails and then glued in place with talk of hardheaded realism. I am tired of reading in books on evolutionary psychology or neo-Darwinism or gender biology about how women are really like all the old canards: that we have a lackadaisical sex drive compared to men and a relatively greater thirst for monogamy, and, outside the strictly sexual arena, a comparative lack of interest in achievement and renown, a preference for being rather than doing, a quiet, self-contained nature, a greater degree of “friendliness”, a deficient mathematical ability, and so on et cetera back to the bleary Cro-Magnon beginnings. I’m tired of hearing about how there are sound evolutionary explanations for such ascriptions of woman’s nature and how we must face them full square, chin up and smiling.
From the Introduction
Natalie Angier’s brilliant Woman: An Intimate Geography is both an informative, accessible and entertaining science book about the biology of the female body, and a fascinating cultural history of the concept (or concepts) of womanhood. Each of the book’s chapters deals with a particular detail of female anatomy – the egg, the X chromosome, the uterus, the clitoris, the breast, the ovaries, female hormones, etc. Furthermore, there are chapters on evolutionary psychology, on medicine’s penchant for hysterectomies, on women and testosterone, on breastfeeding, on female aggression, and so on.

What’s really interesting here is that Angier writes about both the biological facts of the female body (and she makes the science sound more approachable and appealing than any other writer I can think of) and about the history of the cultural biases that have clouded our past understanding of them. To make it even better, she does so from absolutely the right perspective – Natalie Angier is clearly someone who both knows and deeply appreciates science. Much to my relief, she knows it more than well enough to be able to tell when someone is Doing It Wrong, and as a result she asks all the right questions about faulty methods, erroneous conclusion and personal biases without ever falling into easy and tedious old diatribes against The Evils of Modern Science.

The tone of Woman: An Intimidate Geography is enthusiastic and celebratory, but never na├»vely so. Yes, this is a book that will tell you everything you have always wanted to know about female anatomy and that will inspire a sense of appreciation and awe in the process. But at the same time, it’s also a book that successfully avoids any essentialist pitfalls. It’s a book about the wonders of the female body, but not a book about how wonderful and special women are simply by virtue of being biologically women. Likewise, it’s not a book that espouses any limited definition of femaleness based on mere anatomy. Angier is perfectly aware that reproduction does not define women; that hormones, periods or a uterus do not a woman make. Though the book is written from a cisgendered perspective (and it’s really, really a pity that it lacks a chapter on trans women), she takes care to use inclusive language and not to limit membership to the female gender do those who possess such and such working anatomical bits.

Woman is also an unapologetically feminist book, in the sense that it constantly questions the gender binary and the Great Divide that supposedly separates men and women. As science keeps showing us, and as Angier keeps reminding us, we are much more alike than different, both psychological and biologically. Angier clearly places women at the centre of this book – she presents them as biological beings in their own right and not as deviations from the male norm – but her clear awareness of gender as a social construct keeps her sarcastic rebuttals of the biological theories of female weakness and inferiority from ever turning into a war of the sexes.

Speaking of sarcasm, I absolutely loved Angier’s voice, her irony, her enthusiasm and her sense of humour. As I said above, she makes an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, but at the same time, when she has no patience for something she makes it absolutely clear. This is particularly obvious on the wonderful chapter on evolutionary psychology, where she rebuts all attempts to use pseudoscientific shenanigans to naturalise social injustices and power differences between men and women. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, but my chin dropped when I read that such attempts have extended as far as to the oh so wonderful practice of shaming women for their sexuality. Of course no man will want to stay with a woman who gives it up too easily, the theory goes – how would he even know the kids were his? It’s only natural, then, that we have developed all those sophisticated social mechanisms meant to let “easy” women know how worthless they really are. It’s a perfectly sensible evolutionary strategy – what else?

My absolute favourite, though, was the chapter on female aggression. Angier starts with a brief overview of what is currently known about testosterone and aggression, showing that the link is nowhere as clear as popular wisdom would have us believe. She then points out that while the expression of anger through violent behaviour is considered acceptable and natural in males, in females it has been recurrently linked with madness. Women, being as naturally prone to aggressive behaviour as men, have had to find other socially acceptable outlines for their feelings, namely verbal aggression. I loved this chapter because it dealt with something that really, really saddens me, and that unfortunately I come across often (coming from men and women alike): the idea that girls and women are “naturally” treacherous, backstabbing and deceitful, while men take the morally superior path and express their dislike of something or someone upfront. If – and I say if – there is any truth to this at all, there are social causes that are constantly overlooked. I’ve of course dealt with my share of deceitful women in my life, but I’ve also dealt with deceitful men, and with women who are absolutely incapable of guile. It seems so absurd to suggest that this behaviour is intrinsically tied to gender – and yet I hear it all the time.

As you can probably tell, I highly, highly recommend Woman. It’s both a book that celebrates the specificities of being biologically female and a book that defies the limited ways we have defined and continue to define what it means to be a woman or a man. And what could be better than that?

Interesting bits:
The ancients also saw no difference between men and women’s capacity for sexual pleasure and the necessity of mutual orgasm for conception. Galen proclaimed that a woman can not get pregnant unless she had an orgasm, and his view prevailed until the eighteenth century. This is a sweet thought, one of my favourite glaring errors of history, and a roundabout acknowledgement of the importance of the female climax to life as we know it. Unfortunately, the insistence that an expectant woman was a postorgasmic woman spelled tragedy for a number of our foresisters. Women who became pregnant after rape, for example, were accused of licentiousness and adultery, since their swollen bellies were evidence of their acquiescence and their pleasure, and they were routinely put to death.

Men whose gonads fail to produce enough testosterone sometimes suffer from gynocomastia. Without testosterone to keep breast growth in check, the men’s small amount of estrogen has the opportunity to lay down selective depots of fat hurriedly, demonstrating once again that the line between maleness and femaleness is thin—as thin as the fetus’s bipotential genital ridge, as thin as the milk ridge in all of us.

This study has been done many times. If you take a group of babies or young toddlers and dress them in nondescript, non sex-specific clothes—yellow is always a good colour—and make sure that their haircuts don’t give them away, and if you put them in a room with a lot of adults watching, the adults will not be able to sex the children accurately. The adults will try, based on the behaviours of each child, but they will be right no more often than they would be if they flipped a coin. This has been shown again and again, but still we don’t believe it. We think we can tell a boy from a girl by the child’s behaviour, specifically by its level of aggressiveness. If you show a person a videotape of a crying baby and tell her the baby is a boy, the observer will describe the baby as looking angry; if you tell the person the baby is a girl, she will say the child is scared or miserable.

We’re not supposed to talk about women’s rights anymore, for to do so is to commit the sin of “victimology”, to act the weak whiner, the neurasthenic corseted Victorian lady. The charge of victimology, like that of political correctness, instantly squelches all effort at precise protest, neutering a complaint before it has been uttered, for complain is what victimologists do. But if you don’t ask for a raise, you won’t get one, and if you don’t snarl about an injustice, it won’t go away. If women are prejudged as women to be lesser this or that, if a female guitarist is assumed to “suck” before she has taken out her instrument and played a single note, if women are still blamed for being bad mothers because they work outside the home, and if women are told there is an evolutionary reasons that they don’t really want sex, or if they do they should hide it, then we are not done with our women’s moil yet.
Reviewed at:
A Striped Armchair
Care’s Online Bookclub
Booked All Week

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. I'm not in the least surprised that you loved this, Ana, as I was fully expecting you too.

    I am still reading this sporadically (the book sits on my bedside table and I read a chapter here and there; I'm not quick at reading nonfiction) but agree that it is accessible, amusing and Angier's voice engages the reader. The complex science is presented so conversationally and I enjoy her analogies.

  2. I really need to read this (amongst other books that you recommend of course!) I also have huge issues regarding the gender labels. I kick myself sometimes for not realising it sooner when I was younger, and only gradually coming to realise how superficially segregated we are and how ingrained it is within society and language. Maybe it's because I've been pretty sheltered, and my father never distinguished between masculine and feminine in our household (he wanted me to become a rocket scientist!) Brilliant review Ana.

  3. "It’s a book about the wonders of the female body, but not a book about how wonderful and special women are simply by virtue of being biologically women. Likewise, it’s not a book that espouses any limited definition of femaleness based on mere anatomy. Angier is perfectly aware that reproduction does not define women; that hormones, periods or a uterus do not a woman make."

    Yes, Ana, you've made me fall in love with Angier already.

  4. I'm currently reading her book "The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science" and her wit is so incredibly clever and delightful, that it's just a joy. I would have to say the same things about her voice as do you: the irony, enthusiasm, and humor are outstanding!

  5. Debi bought me this book and your excellent review makes me sorry I haven't read it sooner. I always use the example of androgen insensitivity in my classes to show students how thin the "line" is between male and female...and how it's a continuum and not really a line at all. These folks are genetic males that lack testosterone receptors due to a simple mutation and look exactly like slip in DNA is all it takes. We all began this life as a hermaphrodite and could really have taken either the path to malehood or femalehood. Anyway...great review!
    And evolutionary psychology IS a bunch of crap...

  6. Oh my! I loved, loved, loved that quote at the beginning of your review, and I also loved your thoughts on this one. I think this would make an excellent read for me and probably dispel a lot of the misconceptions that even I have been force-fed. I was so glad to have read this review and will be looking into grabbing this book when I can. Thanks!

  7. I am so pleased with myself for getting a copy of this for a dollar at a book sale this summer. After everything I've heard around the blogosphere I know I'm going to love it. Angier sounds wonderful.

  8. I so want to read this book! I find the biology aspect really interesting, and it would be great to learn about it from this point of view. What a perfect book. Thanks for pointing it out!

  9. WHY is this still on my tbr pile and not read yet?! This sounds incredible! I especially love this:

    "Much to my relief, she knows it more than well enough to be able to tell when someone is Doing It Wrong, and as a result she asks all the right questions about faulty methods, erroneous conclusion and personal biases without ever falling into easy and tedious old diatribes against The Evils of Modern Science."

    Thank goodness! I cannot wait to read it now.

  10. I like the idea of looking at the biology without it being the ruling factor. It's so easy to accept gender stereotypes and it then play up to them. Funny how aggression has always been seen as negative in women and positive in men. The same with sexuality and vice versa for being emotional.

  11. This sounds brilliant. Especially the part about female aggression.

    Plus, it would be good to have some factual evidence in my back pocket next time I have the misfortune of being on the receiving end of some backward misogynist reasoning.

  12. I just read this book review and thought of you. I hope this link will work. The book sounds like something you would like!

  13. This does sound like an interesting read, especially for the biological aspect vs the social aspect. I work in women's health so I am always intrigued by reads such as this.
    Another book that is rather good,Birth, is very interesting because it takes a look at the history of the birth process for women.

    Anyway, I am putting this one on my list, and look forward to the reading.

  14. :D This book just sounds so incredible, Ana!! I really can't wait to read it now. And I will be soon, hopefully because I just scored a copy on Paperback Swap.

  15. I too especially loved her take-down of evo-psych! So satisfying.

  16. I finally bought a copy of this but I *still* haven't read it yet! I like your point about how women are somehow naturally assumed to be nasty backstabbers, whereas men just fight and get it over with. I'm a very open woman myself and will generally just say what I'm feeling to whoever I have a problem with, so that's a stereotype which has constantly confounded me. I really have to get to this soon.

  17. It sounds like a very interesting book ... with a strong point of view. I love that she has a personality to go along with the science stuff ... it makes for a better read I suspect.

  18. I recently bought this book. Reading this review has shown me (as most of your reviews do), why I should read this!Thanks!

  19. I adore the set up of the book, combining the factual with the more interpretive. And who doesn't like non-fiction with a bit of snark? Awesome suggestion.

  20. Claire: I'd have taken my time with it too, if only I weren't moving so soon! I think I'd have digested all the information she packs here better that way. But she does make it all incredibly accessible; much more so than I could have imagined.

    Sakura: I was pretty sheltered for a lot of my life too, so I understand. But once I opened my eyes I was amazed that we've made so little progress in some regards. And hooray for your father!

    Debi, and you'll grow to love her even more!

    Jill: I'm actually reading The Canon too! I had it on my tbr pile and couldn't resist starting it right after this.

    Rich: She mentions androgen insensitivity in one of the first chapters, and it was absolutely fascinating to read about. About evolutionary psychology, it baffles me how so many people can fail to grasp that psychological processes leave no fossils, and that as far as science is concerned the story ends there. And thank you for that link! The book sounds right up my alley :D

    Zibilee: We all unconsciously adopt some of those misconceptions - they're so prevalent that it's hard not to! But this is indeed a great book when it comes to that :)

    Jenny: What a wonderful find!

    Emidy: You're welcome - enjoy!

    Amy: Why indeed ;) This is SUCH an Amy book it's not even funny. You'll love it!

    Rhinoa: Yes, exactly! People just play the roles that are expected of them for the most part. Judith Butler was spot on :P

    Writerspet: Haha, my thoughts exactly ;)

    ibeeeg: That sounds absolutely fascinating - thank you for the recommendation! I've read a few articles about how pregnancy and the processes of giving birth have ceased to be seen as natural and entered the domain of illness in public consciousness in the past few decades, and I'd love to read a whole book on that.

    Chris: Awesome :D Enjoy!

    Emily Jane: Yes! It really was :D

    Meghan: It's a very disturbing stereotype :\ I know how frustrating it is to deal with people like that, but why do so many people automatically attribute deceitfulness to their being female? It makes no sense.

    Jenners: It really does. Her tone is so conversational and engaging. You feel like you're talking to a really smart and knowledgeable friend.

    Vasilly: You're welcome! I can't wait to hear what you think :)

    Trisha: Yes, who doesn't? You'd like this for sure :)

  21. This sounds like such an interesting book. I really liked reading your thoughts about the perceived different manifestations of aggression between the genders. The stereotype of some women being "bitchy" stemming from having to find socially acceptable outlets for aggression is something I must admit I've never thought about before, but it rings really true.

  22. Dominique, it does, doesn't it? I wish it were pointed out more often.

  23. This sounds like a phenomenal book, Ana. Thank you so much for writing this review. This book just shot to the top of my TBR :)

  24. This sounds BRILLIANT and a book I needed to read in my twenties when I was still buying in to some of the B.S about women. I'm glad I'm older and wiser and more enlightened now!

  25. The discussion about aggression and social judgment and categorization of female aggression really catches my attention. Although the whole book sounds fascinating. Thanks for the great review!

  26. This reminded me about paradigms for ethical development - always proposed by men, and (can you BELIEVE the coincidence?!) with men always ending up ranking higher on moral development. Because, you know. Women. They don't know what integrity is.

  27. I found a copy of this at the thrift store after Eva's glowing review -- I'm please that you enjoyed it as much and I'm looking forward to giving it a read.


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