The Real Truth About The Female Body

BY BARBARA EHRENREICH

Time, 1999 March 8

It's always been classier, and a lot more dignified, to be a woman than a female. Thanks to 30 years of feminist striving, the category "woman" has expanded to include anchorpersons, soccer moms, astronauts, fire fighters, even the occasional Senator or Secretary of State. But "female" still tends to connote the oozing, bleeding, swelling, hot-flashing, swamp-creature side of the species, its tiny brain marinating in the primal hormonal broth. From Aristotle to Freud, the thinking on gender has been that only one sex had fully evolved out of the tidal pool, and it wasn't the sex that wears panty hose.

Biology has usually been only too glad to claim the human female as its slave. The sociobiologists of the '60s and '70s, followed by the evolutionary psychologists of the '90s, promoted what amounts to a prostitution theory of human evolution: Since males have always been free to roam around, following their bliss, the big challenge for the prehistoric female was to land a male hunter and keep him around in a kind of meat-for-sex arrangement. Museum dioramas of the Paleolithic past still tend to feature the guys heading out after the mastodons, spears in hand, while the gals crouch slack-jawed around the campfire, busily lactating. The chivalrous conclusion is that today's woman can do whatever she likes start a company, pilot a plane but only by trampling on her inner female.

Yet a new attitude is bubbling out of that old female hormonal swamp, powered by new research and, at least in preliminary form, fresh perspectives on the gender-bifurcated human condition. There are signs of a growing acceptance of the female body with its signature cycles and turning points. Some midlife boomers are finding ways to celebrate the menopause, while a generation of "grrrls" is coming of age, with a new view of the menstrual period as an emblem of primal female power. At the same time, some of the sacred tenets of evolutionary psychology that men are innately more aggressive, more promiscuous and more likely to fall for cute young things have come under fresh challenge. As the century turns, it could be, Goodbye, women's lib; hello, female liberation!

The revolution already has a manifesto in the form of an ebullient new book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier, a science writer for the New York Times. There are other female-positive books hitting the stores, like Dianne Hales' thoughtful and eloquent Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science Is Redefining What Makes Us Female (just published by Bantam) and anthropologist Helen Fisher's The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Will Change the World (due from Random House in May). But it's Angier, who has already won a solid reputation (and a Pulitzer Prize) at her day job, who most decisively lifts the concept of the human female out of its traditional oxymoronic status. You gotta love a self-described "female chauvinist sow" who writes like Walt Whitman crossed with Erma Bombeck and depicts the vagina as a "Rorschach with legs." Woman: An Intimate Geography is a delicious cocktail of estrogen and amphetamine designed to pump up the ovaries as well as the cerebral cortex.

 
Vive La Difference!

"Feminist" was always a little too dainty sounding, so call the new consciousness "femaleist." The femaleist premise could be summarized as: Yes, we are different wanna make something of it? Up till now, feminists have usually been leery of acknowledging gender differences, arguing that all but the most visibly obvious of them are the products of culture, not genes, and could be erased by the appropriate legislation and child-rearing practices. But the differences are real, various and not easy to parse in terms of the Framer's intentions, if any. Women are more likely to be right handed and less likely to be color-blind than men. Their brains are smaller, as befits their smaller body size, but more densely packed with neurons. Women have more immunoglobulins in their blood; men have more hemoglobin. Men are more tuned into their internal aches and pains; women devote more regions of their brain to sadness. You do the scoring.

Yes, men are the physically more imposing sex. On average, they are 10% taller, 20% heavier and 30% stronger, especially in their upper bodies. But women are more resistant to fatigue; the longer the race, the more likely they are to win it. Furthermore, as millions of women prove daily by the sweat of their brow, the muscle gap is not carved in stone. Hales reports on a 1995 U.S. Army test of female physical potential, in which 41 out-of-shape women students, lawyers, bartenders and new mothers achieved the fitness level of male Army recruits in just six months of working out, getting to where they could jog two miles with a 75-lb. backpack and do dozens of squats with a 100-lb. weight on their shoulders. In competitive sports too, women have been playing a stunning game of catch-up. Today's women stars can run, swim and skate faster than any man of a few decades ago, and the gap may eventually close. Since 1964, women's marathon running times have dropped 32%, compared with only 4.2% for men. If the trend continues, female marathoners could be leaving men in the dust sometime in the next century.

© 1999 Time magazine
 

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