37.7 Seconds, Part I


Lydia Sargent

What
is the significance of my title, 37.7? I got it from Has Feminism Changed
Science?
by Londa Schiebinger who writes: "A study in 1971 reported that
fathers spent an average of only 37.7 seconds each day communicating with their
babies during the first three months of life." Hmm, I thought, that’s
amazing, especially when you consider the amount of time women have spent trying
to win the right not to be treated as property but as human beings. It has taken
millenniums, and it’s not over yet. It shouldn’t even have been necessary.

Anyway, that said
I’ve been reading about feminism. It used to be a delight to read about
feminism. Especially if you’d been raised to become an appendage. It was a
glorious thing, that first reading about feminism. At least it was for me. But
now it’s just ticking me off. The feminism you hear about these day has three
main themes. (1) The women’s movement (about which they seem to have no clue)
made changes for women but they went too far by demanding to be men; (2)
feminism has been won because it was about choices, and we have those now; (3)
women are different from men (usually in all the traditional ways)—separate
but equal.

These themes are
getting played out in a current spate of "science" books by "feminists,"
using evolutionary psychology and related "femologies," as I call them, to
study what happened thousands and thousands of years ago and how that has been
imprinted on our psyches and in our genes and come to define us as female,
therefore different from males, with different brains, bodies, and behavior.
This blather, oops, I mean important scientific exploration, has contributed to
many new works on women, which have been duly reviewed (i.e., taken seriously in
the mainstream) in the New York Times Book Review section.

Satirist that I
try to be, I naturally rushed out to buy Just Like A Woman by Dianne
Hales and The First Sex by Helen K. Fisher along with Women: An
Intimate Geography
by Natalie Angier.   

Now, right off
let me make clear that I just don’t see why women have had to argue in detail,
for centuries no less, about why we deserve to be people not property. Nor do I
see why our XX’s and eggs and mammae have anything much to do with decisions
about whether women have the right to be bricklayers if they want to. Either
women are people or they aren’t. Clearly they are, so, while I am certainly
interested, even fascinated, by what science, pseudo or otherwise, has to say
about my chromosomes and that of my primate ancestors a gazillion years ago, I
don’t give a flying fandango about what it says about my so-called female
nature. If I want to be a bricklayer I’m going to do it.

Sure there are
differences. But usually that’s a code word for misogyny, followed by much
detail about the nobleness of man and the fecund passivity of women. Only in
this new version, fecund passivity is a mark of pride. Anyway, if we’re going
to study differences imbedded in our genes, let’s put all our energies into
finding out: (1) why (mostly) male people kill and enslave others and (2) why
fathers only spend 37.7 seconds communicating with their newborns.

But I digress.
This series is about reading feminism. Well, reading what claims to be
furthering the cause of feminism. In the last six months, in addition to the
books mentioned above, I have read Ceasefire by Cathy Young, The War
Against Parents
by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West, Stiffed by
Susan Faludi, The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer, and numerous biographies
of activist women in the 20th century.

Hales continues:
"…We humans cannot fully understand ourselves or realize our potential
unless we find out as much as we can about both halves of the human race…women
cannot fully understand or appreciate being female unless we delve beyond the
surface to comprehend all the dimensions that make us who we are. Only by
exploring this long-mysterious ‘foreign land’ can we begin to claim this
rich and varied territory as our own."

Uh oh. There it
is. The women as half of a whole argument—the other half being the man who’s
got those traits women are missing. What happened to becoming a self-managed,
actualized individual?

 

In
Chapter One, Hales asks what is a woman? She writes: "We have become women of
independence as well as independent means. More women everywhere are delaying or
deferring marriage. In Great Britain, women are waiting until an average age of
27 to wed; American brides are older (an average of 24.5 years) than they’ve
been in three decades. Fewer women are having babies, and those who do have
fewer of them. In Germany, one in seven mothers is unmarried…"

Hold it. Is she
saying that to be independent women of means we have to delay marriage and
children? Does that mean that once we marry and have babies we are dependent
women of no means? But isn’t giving birth one of the things that makes us
different from men, which is a key part of her theses?

She continues:
"In thousands of ways both subtle and significant, in a revolution so gentle
it feels like evolution, the planet’s 2.8 billion women are changing the
world…. To an extent never before possible, women can live just like men. Yet
most of us, even as we eagerly explore new realms of possibility, prefer to
remain true to who and what we are: female in body, mind, and spirit."

What? I don’t
like that word "remaining." That doesn’t sound good. Why would we want to
be true to what Hales claims was fashioned ages ago, and through a history of
oppression. Oops, I forgot, there was no history of oppression, just a gentle
evolution.  

Hales says: "In
every age exceptional women defied such dictates (biology as destiny), but it
wasn’t until the 1970s that the women’s movement [at last, and also one of
the few mentions of it in this book] began to sweep aside barriers for women of
all ages, races, and classes. …a new notion took hold, at least in some
quarters: that liberated women could somehow transcend biological
realities—menstruate without cramps, give birth without pain or painkilling
medication, sail through menopause without breaking a sweat. As many women soon
discovered for themselves, this isn’t so. Once again we found ourselves caught
between stereotypes and reality."

What on earth…?
What women’s movement is she talking about? Is she talking about the Our
Bodies Ourselves
women’s movement? Is she talking about the movement where
women demanded control over their bodies, which required understanding how they
worked? Didn’t we even get our own woman-designed tampon…?

Hales says that,
"In the last two decades, as women themselves began to matter more,
economically and politically, long unanswered questions have taken on new
significance. What does it mean to live in a woman’s body, to think with a
woman’s brain, drink in the world with a woman’s senses, act and react with
a woman’s sensibility?"

Well, if this
book is any indication of what it means to think with a woman’s brain….

Hales goes on:
"Finally, gender-specific research in various disciplines—from biology and
anthropology to physiology and psychology—is providing some answers and asking
ever more intriguing questions…. Then we learn some fascinating things about
ourselves:

  • There is a DNA difference
    of only 1.6 percent separates humans from our closest primate cousins, the
    chimpanzees. Like them, we have a large brain, V-shaped jaw, opposable
    thumb, big toe, and the same reproductive hormones. And we both are mammals,
    members of that deeply maternal animal class that takes its name from the
    mammae, or breast glands, that nourish our young.

  • In no species on earth does
    the stereotyped ‘female’—docile, dumb, and totally dependent—exist.

  • Even though we share many
    of the biological traits of the females of other species, the one creature
    on earth that a woman resembles most is a man.

  • In every species, however,
    the female is different from the male.


Here’s how Hales says we are just like a woman:

  • Women are, on average, 10
    to 15 percent smaller than men.
  • The bones of the female
    skeleton are shorter and thinner, our shoulders narrower, our rib cages
    shorter, our joints looser.

  • We hold our arms closer to
    our bodies; our necks are longer and slimmer.

  • We are more likely to be
    right-handed and less likely to be colorblind.

  • Our hearts beat faster,
    even during sleep.

  • Our core body temperature
    runs higher.

  • Women’s
    blood carries higher levels of protective immunoglobulin and lower amounts
    of oxygen rich hemoglobin.
  • We are twice as sensitive
    to sound, but only half as sensitive to light as men are.
  • Our vocal cords are
    shorter, our larynx 30 percent smaller.
  • The mix of chemicals in
    female saliva is different —and changes throughout the menstrual cycle.


Okay, but so what? Hales clears this up: "What difference do such differences
make? By most measures of performance, very little. The abilities of the sexes,
physical and mental overlap, and the variability within each sex can be greater
than between them."

If these
differences make very little difference, other than general interest and some
health issues, then why is she writing this book?

What they
contribute, Hales says, is an understanding about why diet pills and other drugs
that have been tested only in men can trigger serious effects in women.

We then go on to
examine women’s biological reality that has always shaped the lives of women:
we change, most noticeably in the rhythms and cycles of menstruation—something
that has no counterpart in the male.  "Try as we may, we cannot
completely ignore the blood on the tampon, the inexplicable hunger for a baby,
the unsettling aftershocks of birth, the temperature spikes of menopause…. Our
female rhythms no longer constrict the steps we can take and the moves we can
make, but they remain the chemical choreography of our lives."

Who are all these
women who try to ignore their menstrual cycle? Hasn’t this been done to death?
When are we going to get beyond the crotch?

Hales says that
until recently this was used against us, but now it isn’t. We’re not sure
why except for that whole evolution thing and a brief reference to the women’s
movement. We don’t really know why the menstrual cycle mades us hated and
ashamed (as Hales says, "stigmatized," used to discriminate against us) in
one society, but capable and proud in another.

Hales moves on to
the brain. "A woman’s brain itself seems a model of connectedness. Women
typically use more cells in more parts of their brain than men do. Even as we
read, rhyme, or balance our checkbooks, it seems, we never shut down the parts
of the brain that sense and feel. Could such fundamental differences in the
workings of a woman’s brain explain our gender’s renowned empathy,
compassion, and intuition? We don’t know yet."

If we don’t
know, then why is she claiming things about female nature based on it?

Hales points out
that generalities deriving from research on a specific group or population may
not apply to any or every individual woman. "‘It’s not that men don’t
have the same feelings as women, but that they have never been allowed to show
them,’ comments Virginia Sadock of New York City."

Wait. Even though
we are discussing difference and searching for what makes us truly female,
having found (or at least reported to have found) that the brain of a female is
a model of connectedness, Hales affirms that this doesn’t apply to many of us
and could apply to men as well.

Not only that,
Hales says, it seems that men feel they have missed out on a lot, like women’s
rich emotional life. But if men and women are different, why isn’t the desire
of men for a rich emotional life equivalent to men wanting to be women…and not
their true selves? Didn’t she just argue that apathy, compassion, and
intuition may be (although we don’t know yet) related to women’s brains.

She goes on:
"Especially as they age, men also might understandably come to envy another
complex aspect of women’s being; our sensuality. From the tips of our nipples
to the depths of our wombs, we are primed for pleasure… And in terms of sexual
satisfaction, once doesn’t have to be enough; women alone are capable of
orgasmic encores…

"Even the
much-hyped sexual revolution, which made it possible for a woman to have sex
just like a man (that is, without commitment or, thanks to effective
contraception, concern for reproductive consequences), has not changed a
fundamental reality: We prefer to make love, Bob Dylan sang, just like a
woman."

Hmm. Has she
listened to the song lately? It could be about oppression; it is more likely
about the pain of relationships (Dylan’s with Baez?). Making love like a
woman, for Dylan, for the particular person he is singing about, also involves
breaking down like a little girl. Not the image 1960s feminists were going for,
I’m sure.

Next we move to
therapy and what seems to be the defining psychological characteristic of women:
vulnerability. Not just, throughout the ages, to harsh climates, beasts,
physical dangers, and lethal illnesses, but to their own reproductive biology.
Also, women’s vulnerability is part of her having to bear life’s
psychological burdens, and so women are prone to different mental disorders than
men are and they respond to different medical treatments.

There are some
theories, it seems, as to why women are the sadder sex. Women’s clinical
depression, according to Hales, stems from a complex mix—"a witches brew, as
one psychiatrist put it, of factors that range from the neurotransmitter levels
in our brains to the tidal changes of our hormones to the nuances of our closest
relationship to the inequities of our lives."

Then Hales asks,
"Why study difference at all?" Hales tells us that, "the goal is…to work
toward the whole greater than its parts, that emerges when female and male join
together—physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, sexually. Just
as yin shapes yang and day defines night, women and men are designed to complete
and complement each other."