In Part VI of this series, we looked at Natalie Angier’s Women: An Intimate
Geography, an entertaining, very thorough examination/celebration of our
bodies. We probed the intimate details of our eggs, our chromosomes, and
our vaginas, ending with an intense look at the clitoris. In part VII,
we continue in this vein with more about the clitoris, followed by the
uterus, the breast, the ovary, and estrogen.
Having concluded that the clitoris was “at the core of female sexuality,”
Angier states that we should “reject any attempts, Freudian or otherwise,
to downgrade it.” She then describes the depth and variety of the clitoral-derived
orgasm, including those who say that they climax best with the application
of deep pressure within the vagina, a claim that led to gynecologist Ernst
Grafenberg’s proposal of the existence of a Grafenberg or G spot, a sort
of “second, internalized clitoris.” Many contested this notion, still others
have questioned the G-spot’s existence altogether. Angier feels, “The roots
of the clitoris run deep, after all, and very likely can be tickled through
posterior agitation. In other words, the G spot may be nothing more than
the back of the clitoris.”
Angier looks at a study at the University of Sheffield where 28 women had
small heated oxygen electrodes inserted in their vaginas. (Who is participating
in these studies?) They were asked to masturbate to orgasm, to indicate
when it began and ended, and to grade the intensity on a scale of one to
five. The average orgasm turned out to be surprisingly long, lasting an
average of 20 seconds. Yet the intensity rate had nothing to do with duration
nor did the relative blood flow.
So this tells us….?
Next Angier goes into the issue of clitoridectomies saying, “there are
no official guidelines for what constitutes ‘clitorimegaly,’ but anything
projecting beyond the mollifying lips of the vulva is a candidate for clitoridectomy.
When a baby is born with equivocal genitals, surgery was, and is, the norm.”
Why, she asks, is the clitoris so vulnerable to the hatchet? “According
to proponents, genital cutting serves several purposes. It supposedly tames
a woman, abridging her innate wantonness and discouraging her from any
thoughts of cuckoldry. Less familiar to westerners is the cosmetic objective
of pruning, the desire to accentuate the visual discrepancy between female
Angier confesses to feeling depressed by the persistence of the rite, and
states, while we should be sensitive to cultural traditions, still she
considers genital cutting as an extreme abuse of human rights.
Chapter five is about the “prodigal uterus,” the part of the body that
is “unique to women, that doesn’t have an anatomical equivalent in the
male…” It is in this chapter, particularly, that we are reminded of why
women have had to go into such intimate anatomical detail in the process
of liberating ourselves. It’s in part because of this Galen character and
his followers for the next 2,000 years who basically conceived of the female
body as a male’s body turned inside out. That is, they saw the vagina
as an inverted penis, the labia as a foreskin equivalent, the uterus as
internal scrotum, and the ovaries as testicle equivalents.
Angier counters by telling us that, yes, the adult genitals are homologous,
but in her version the ovaries correspond to the testes, the clitoris is
the analog of the penis, the labia is equivalent to the scrotum, and both
sexes have responsive breast tissue. The homology also breaks down with
respect to the uterus. The uterus, she says, “offers a clear case of presence
Angier reviews the medical men: Hippocrates believed that the uterus wandered
untethered through a woman’s body, giving rise to women’s failings, hence
the word hysteria from the Greek word for womb. He also believed that the
uterus had seven chambers lined with tentacles or suckers. This nonsense
persisted until Leonardo Da Vinci drew an opened uterus fairly accurately
but he illustrated a milk vein that went from the uterus to the breast,
transforming blood from the pregnant uterus into milk.
Some physicians in the 19th century argued that the uterus competed with
the brain for blood, thus a woman’s effort to improve her mind came at
the expense of her fertility.
The war of the womb continues, Angier writes, as the abortion debate distills
to who owns the uterus. Also, although one-half the population has one,
the uterus is the “site of two of the most common surgical procedures performed
in the U.S: cesarean and hysterectomy.” Angier argues that the uterus was
and is “a magnificent invention, a revolution in physiology.” While it
may have nothing to do with a woman’s brain it has everything to do with
the brain of the fetus it bears.
She then takes up menstruation—“Not all women breed, but nearly all women
bleed or have bled.” She goes into the innumerable myths and taboos around
menstruation, many attributable to medical men mentioned earlier: Hippocrates,
Aristotle, and Galen—or HAG as she calls them. Hippocrates argued that
fermentation in the blood precipitated menstruation because women lacked
the ability to dissipate the impurities in the blood through sweat. Galen
believed it came from residual blood in food that women were unable to
digest. Aristotle assumed that it represented the excess blood not incorporated
into the fetus.
Angier writes that the notion of menstrual blood as toxic has pervaded
our thinking for years, even though no studies have ever borne out the
conviction that men can smell when a woman has her period or that menstruating
women attract bears (so don’t go camping). She quotes Camille Paglia on
the subject: “Menstrual blood is the stain, the birthmark of original sin,
the filth that transcendental religion must wash from man…”
Angier points out that, rather than women being less competent during menses,
the opposite is true. Research suggests, she says, that heightened activity,
well being, and sexual desire often accompany the premenstrual phase of
the cycle. Also, in the last few years, researchers have learned more about
the endometria’s productive capabilities. The uterus expresses hormones
and releases them into the body, it makes proteins, sugars, and fats that
prompt smooth muscle tissue to contract and expel decidua during menstruation.
The womb also synthesizes and secretes beta endorphins and dymorphins (cousins
to morphine and heroine). It makes anandamide, a molecule identical to
the active ingredient in marijuana.
Angier feels that while we don’t know how important this is to women’s
overall health or whether it continues after menopause, but such research
indicates that we should be very cautious about removing the uterus. Yet
every year 560,000 women in the U.S. “are hysterectomized.” (She refers
to it as womb-shucking.)
This is kind of a mild response, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we be a little more
Chapter seven deals with the breast. “A woman’s breasts,” argues Angier,
“are…pretty, they’re flamboyant, they’re irresistible. But they are arbitrary,
and they signify much less than we think.”
Only the human breast inflates at puberty and remains engorged through
life. No other organ except the uterus changes so dramatically. (By the
way, the average bra size is 36 B and has been since the modern bra was
introduced 90 years ago.)
“Breasts weigh a few ounces in fact and a few tons in metaphor,” writes
Angier. They have been described as communal kiosk; they have been portrayed
with snakes wrapped around them, dispensing poison as well as love; witches
and devils have withered breasts; goddesses have many breasts; Amazons
have mastectomies to improve their archery skills; women accused of witchcraft
often had their breasts hacked off.
Linnaeus, an early scientist, introduced the term mammalia (of the breast);
he also gave us our species name—Homo sapiens or men of wisdom. Thus, in
Linneaen terms “a female character (the lactating mama) ties humans to
brutes, while the male character (reason) makes us separate.” This was
used as an argument to deny women rights (to vote, divorce, own property).
Some 19th century scientists used breasts to demarcate various human races.
European breasts was small and civilized; the African breast was flabby
and pendulous like the udder of a goat.
Desmond Morris presented them as buttock mimics—that is, pair bonding to
raise children meant intercourse face-to-face rather than doggy-style,
therefore the clitoris migrated forward, the breast arose to mimic the
Angier says this is all fine but probably nonsense since women like a nice
butt as well, and it could only indicate that we prefer the curved to the
straight and narrow. (What?!) She is also skeptical about breasts as encouragement
for sex as “Several other primates, including bonobos and orangutans, also
copulate face to face, and the females wear no sexual badges on their chests,
no clever replicas of their narrow rumps or swollen vulvas. Nevertheless,
they are sought after—in the case of bonobos, many times a day. What is
P. paniscus’s secret, and does she have a catalogue?”
Because breasts play a part in reproduction, many theorists assume they
developed to advertise fecundity. Others suggest that breasts evolved to
deceive about a woman’s ovulatory status and mask issues of paternity.
Others claim the breast is for fat storage needed during years of lactation.
Still others (Helen Fisher of The First Sex, mentioned earlier in this
series) speculate that breasts are women’s pleasure chests. Elaine Morgan
believes that humans spent part of the time in water and sees breasts as
flotation devices for infants to cling to.
Angier says that breasts are a poor signal of a woman’s maternal worth;
that there is no evidence for the aquatic theory. She thinks they are the
body’s way of paying homage to the circle and that our mistake is attributing
a grander meaning them. “If breasts had something important to say, they
would be much less variable and whimsical than they are. They would be
like mere mammary glands, a teaspoon per breast per woman. If breasts could
talk, they would probably tell jokes—every light bulb joke in the book.”
Chapter eight, “Holy Water,” is about breast milk. Angier writes: “As a
sacred fluid, the milk of the Virgin ranks just below the blood that flowed
from Christ’s wounds.” But she says, “The Madonna’s was not the first latte
to be exalted, not the last.” She then tells the story of the Greek god
Zeus who sought divinity for his son Hercules, born of an affair with the
mortal Alcmene. Zeus sneaks into the bedroom where his wife Hera is sleeping
and puts Hercules to her breast for “a taste of infinity.” Hercules suckles
so hard that Hera awakens and shakes him off in outrage, “spurting milk
across the skies”—hence the Milky Way.
While menstrual blood is considered polluted, a woman’s breast milk is
considered pure. Yet throughout history breastfeeding has occasioned “spleen
and hectoring…. Lactation has not been allowed to be what it is, the business
of the body.” Few know much about it.
Angier points out that the breast can be thought of as a modified sweat
gland, but also as a modified placenta as they are both specialists, temporary
workers designed to nourish a baby. And regardless of a woman’s nutrition,
her milk is nutritious. It is a product of the mammary gland, Angier writes,
some components taken from the mother’s bloodstream, others are made in
the alveolar cells. “…milk is often billed as ‘nature’s perfect food,’
and in this case the ad copy is accurate. It is all that a newborn mammal
needs to survive.”
Yet, 40 percent of infants in the U.S. are bottle fed, and of the babies
that are breast fed to start, only half receive breast milk at the age
of six months. By a year 10 percent are still breastfed. Angier then gives
some interesting historical information on breastfeeding:
Wet nursing was used mostly by the wealthy until the 17th century when
half or more of all women were sending their babies to wet nurses. Only
10 percent of Parisian babies in 1780 were nursed in their own homes.
Some suggest that cows and goats were domesticated to feed babies.
Neither wives nor wet nurses were supposed to have intercourse while breastfeeding,
for it was thought that breast milk was formed in the uterus from menstrual
blood. Intercourse was thought to cause menstruation, which would taint
the flow of milk. So if a woman didn’t breastfeed she became pregnant sooner.
Wet nurses “freed” women to spend more time pregnant.
In 1694, Mary Astell wrote A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, arguing that
breastfeeding acted as a check on “excessive pride.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau attacked women who would not suckle and Linnaeus
condemned wet nursing.
William Cadogan wrote in Advice to Mothers in 1769 that mothers needed
the advice of medical men when it came to breastfeeding: In my opinion,
this Business has been too long fatally left to the Management of women
who cannot be supposed to have proper knowledge to fit them for such a
Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women urged women
to breastfeed, claiming that a husband would feel “more delight seeing
his child suckled by its mother, than the most artful wanton tricks could
In 1793, the French government decreed that if a mother didn’t breastfeed
her child she wouldn’t be eligible for “welfare” payments.
In 1794, the German government required all women to nurse their young.
After the 18th century, wet nursing became less popular and by the 20th
century infant formula had replaced it. Before 1930, most U.S. women breastfed.
By 1972, only 22 percent did and then for only the first few weeks of life.
Currently, breastfeeding advocates have made some progress, particularly
among educated women who now breastfeed at a rate of 75 to 80 percent.
Breastfeeding is back “in style.”
Angier concludes the chapter: “This stylishness is decidedly to the good,
for infants thrive on breast milk…. Still the tone of some of the La Leche-style
sounds suspiciously similar to the tracts by Cadogan and Rousseau—judgmental
and absolutist.” (Not quite the same, surely—they were patriarchal nits,
Angier writes, “Can we forgo the polemics and exercise a little more maternal
compassion here? In the real world of the two-career family, most women
will breastfeed for the first few weeks or months…. Like women throughout
history they will do the best they can under the constraints of work, duty,
and desire…. Whatever they do they will feel guilty for not doing enough,
and they will wish that they too could drink from the breast of Mary or
Hera, thus becoming immortal mothers whose children will never die.”
Chapter nine, “A Gray and Yellow Basket,” is about the ovary, which Angier
says is dull and gray, the size of an almond in the shell, but “lumpy.”
It is the egg’s basket.
Here we learn that until girls and boys are three or four a hormone pulse
secretes tiny bursts of reproductive hormones. A girl’s ovaries respond
and she is likely to be “slightly waggish and slightly erotic” and her
body, all bodies, fascinate her. At the end of toddlerhood the pulse generator
shuts down and she is likely to turn prudish. At around the age of ten,
the adrenal glands, “the blood-rich structures that sit atop the kidneys
like porkpie hats,” secrete adrenaline, “the fire-under the butt hormone,”
and they also release small doses of sex hormones. Says, Angier: It is
possible that the brain “adjudges reproductive readiness by fat content,”
as a rule of thumb is that when a girl reaches 100 pounds she pubesces
regardless of her height and age. Whatever the trigger, the ovaries “are
ready to roll.” They are the primary source of sex hormones that sexualize
the body—which cause pubic hair to grow and eventually for menstrual blood
Angier tells that the cycle is not dull but dynamic and athletic. Even
Victorian anatomists were astounded by the ovarian cycle—some fascinated,
many disgusted. For instance, Rudolf Virchow, the father of modern pathology,
compared it to teething, causing pain and the “liveliest disturbance of
nutrition and nerve force.” Historian Jules Michelet wrote of it as a woman
being wounded each month—“which is at the center of a physiological and
psychological phantasmagoria dominating her life. Havelock Ellis saw the
monthly release of an egg as a “worm” that “gnaws periodically at the roots
Angier sums up these patriarchs: “The ovary may be almond in size, but
to the voyeurs among Victorian physicians, it certainly was no almond of
She goes on to describe the ovulatory cycle in detail concluding that the
“ovulatory cycle is a matter of physiology, and it occurs more or less
on its own. But it is not entirely deaf to the cyclist.”
Studies of the cycles of roommates have shown menstrual synchronicity,
particularly in a 1971 study by Martha McClintock that was published in
Nature magazine. Subsequent studies have either confirmed or refuted the
synchronicity theory. Studies of rats show females strive to ovulate and
conceive within a week or two of each other, possibly because pooling puppies
seems beneficial. Also, if a female rat falls out of sync, she ends up
giving birth to a litter composed largely of daughters. Rather than the
standard half male/half female brood the theory being that if only one
or two pups are going to make it, it’s best that they be females. Says
Angier: “Among rats (and many other species), daughters are the safe sex,
sons are the high-risk sex. Daughters are government bonds; sons are junk
In 1998, McClintock published a major report in Nature confirming that
we have some rat in us: that ovaries are susceptible to the sway of the
group. Swabs from the armpits of women at different points in their ovulatory
cycle were applied to the upper lips of other women. The secretions either
hastened or prolonged the cycles of many, though not all, of the women
exposed to them.
Angier tells us that a lot of this research about synchronicity is still
in dispute. Women who live with men, for instance tend to cycle more predictably
than women who live alone, and regular cycling augments the chance of conception.
A woman might be responding to pheromones from the man’s armpit or groin.
Or it could be that pleasure, like the presence of other females, can have
congress with the ovaries and sway the timing of ovulation. Or “maybe a
follicle, on feeling the tremblor [as a result of orgasm] will quicken
the pace of maturation and tell the brain, Hurry up, please, it’s time,
and the brain will respond with an LH surge, the ovum’s hymn of freedom.”
In chapters ten and eleven, Angier takes up the history of hormones, focusing
mostly on estrogen. Lately, she says, there has been a hormone renaissance.
(Hormone comes from the Greek horman, which means to arouse, to excite,
to urge). It is fashionable, she writes, to ascribe such supposedly male
traits as the “tendency to swagger, posture, interrupt, and belch in public
to testosterone. And gals on a shopping trip become estrogen sinks or waft
billows of estrogen.”
There has been an explosion of hormone research as hormones seem to be
a quantifiable way to distinguish “men from women, competitor from cooperator,
domesticated from feral.” The key hormones for women are estrogen, progesterone,
testosterone, oxytocin, and serotin. Yet scientists’ truest love, says
Angier, is estrogen. They have created a “pharmacopoeia of synthetic estrogens,”
etc. Women are exposed to constant contradictions: we have too much estrogen,
we have too little, it keeps our hearts strong, our wits sharp—estrogen
has become a “Marvel comic superheroine.”
She then tries to separate what we know and what we don’t know from the
parables. Here are some of the things we now know:
From age 12 to 50, women have 3 to 10 times more estrogen circulating through
the bloodstream than men, but after 50 a man’s gradually rises as a woman’s
A given organ is sensitive to estrogen if the cells of that organ contain
estrogen receptors. In that case it takes very little to get a big response,
as women are very sensitive to estrogen
From a recorded case of a man without estrogen receptors, scientists have
concluded that estrogen is essential for the maturation and preservation
of bones in men as well as women.
Estrogen affects the onset of diabetes
It is important in maintaining the body in later life, but is not essential
to fetal survival
There is no association between rates of intercourse and where a woman
is in her ovulatory cycle (we do not have sex more often during ovulation,
the only statistical high point is the weekend).
There is no correlation between estrogen levels and physical arousability
A number of researchers have suggested that it is testosterone not estrogen
that is the true hormone of the libido in men and women alike. But the
evidence suggests that for women, testosterone is the “hand- maiden” to
Estrogen is a promoter, not an initiator
Angier looks at teen girls: “Who can forget adolescence? And who has ever
recovered from it?” At puberty, there is an often-overlooked correspondence
between this period of crisis and frailty for girls and the hormonal squall
in her head (as well as the mixed cultural messages she is getting). She
suggests that girls learn from other girls and women and defy the magazines.
“…Glue rubber insects and Monopoly hotels on top of a bathroom scale… Sports
help…. Sticking by your girlfriend helps…. Learn to play the drums. The
world needs more girl drummers. The world needs your wild, pounding, dreaming
Hormone therapy works: it reduces mortality by an impressive margin. According
to a 1997 report from a Nurses’ Health Study, women on hormones has a 40
percent lower risk of dying than women who had never taken them—mostly
as a result of a decline in heart disease. However…
Hormone therapy helped those who needed it most—smokers, those with high
blood pressure and cholesterol levels; for women in good shape there was
no statistical benefit.
Survival benefits declined with duration of use—the rate of death from
breast cancer cancelled the reduction in coronary disease.
Other studies on long-term (ten years or more) hormone replacement therapy
(HRT) showed that it is associated with a 50 percent hike in the risk of
Some studies show HRT may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 50 percent.
Many say that it makes them feel smart again, but estrogen doesn’t improve
a woman’s IQ.
Hmm, gluing rubber insects, and other individual solutions—that seems a
pretty pathetic way to confront the thousands of pages of media messages
and patriarchal/sexist attitudes about teenage girls.
Chapter 12 deals with menopause or “can we live without estrogen?” Angier
asks, “what is it about women’s ‘health’ issues that turns people malign?
Hysterectomies, cesarean sections, abortions, mammograms, hormone therapy:
our bodies, our hells…. Here we are saddled with another gynecrisis, another
source of anguish over the cantankerous merchandise the female body, this
crisis perhaps the biggest one ever. By the year 2000 there will be about
50 million women in the United States over the age of fifty, all of them
potential candidates for hormone therapy. If every one of them were to
take hormone pills for the next thirty years…that amounts to 1.5 billion
woman-years of drug consumption.”
Naturally, most gynecologists and internists think hormones are the right
choice for menopausal women. Angier gives us a few salient facts:
In the U.S. 46 percent of post-menopausal women take or have taken hormone
therapy. But it turns out one of the biggest reasons women reject HRT is
that they have positive feelings about menopause—they don’t think of it
as an illness, so what’s to treat?
Comparing a group of 45-year-old women who expressed an intention to use
hormone therapy after menopause with a group who planned not to, researchers
in London found that there was little significant difference in the women’s
health or socioeconomic status, but that “HRT intenders reported significantly
lower self-esteem, higher levels of depressed mood, anxiety, and negative
attitudes to the menopause. They also expressed stronger beliefs in their
doctor’s ability—as opposed to their own—to control their menopause experience.”
Angier notes that doctors have not responded well to talk about menopause
as natural (would she be referring to efforts by the women’s movement?).
To get women to take HRT, they must raise issues of infirmity, weakening
heart, crumbling frame, and enfeebled mind. If a woman asks her doctor
why women “lapse into this precarious state of hormone deficit in midlife
and why nature has not better equipped them for their sovereign years,
a doctor will reply, if it were up to nature, we wouldn’t be having this
conversation and I wouldn’t be writing this prescription…if it were up
to nature, you, my postreproductive doyenne, would already be dead.
“Or would you? Let’s ask that old woman out there in the field, the one
with the shovel in her hands. She’s digging up something, and it sure doesn’t
look like her grave.”
As readers can see, this book is fun to read, and its liberating get inside
Angier’s mind and sense of humor. She combines science with common sense
and an irreverence for the “established” views and studies. But a fair
amount of the relevant information has been made available through Our
Bodies Ourselves, which she references twice, briefly. There are no indexed
references to the women’s movement, a few brief, partly negative, references
to feminism, no referenes to any more radical women’s health writers, and
mostly individual solutions to what are clearly systemic problems and continued
patriarchy and sexism in the health and science fields. Everyone should
read it, yes, absolutely. Especially for one of the issues we will cover
in Part VIII—her take on evolutionary psychology. Z