Review: Woman

Woman

Woman: An Intimate Geography

by Natalie Angier

1999. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, NY.


Natalie Angier's introduction to Woman: An Intimate Geography gets my vote for best introduction of all time. She is very clear about her purpose, her biases, and her hopes for the book, and furthermore she is a lot of fun. Woman, she says, is her attempt “to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling into the sludge of biological determinism.” She digs up the biology of womanly attributes as tiny as ova and as expansive as motherly love, relentlessly exposing biased and limited research and offering alternative theories that are useful, hopeful, fascinating, or just fun. And all of this in the kind of fantastic prose that won her the Pulitzer Prize.

Woman is about half anatomy book and half evolutionary biology book. I usually get bored by anatomical diagrams and descriptions of feedback systems, but Angier's descriptions of textures, colours, and activity levels bordering on personality got me really excited. Obsessed, even. By now, most everyone in the English-speaking world has heard someone go off about the clitoris being “pure in purpose” and having more nerve endings than the penis. In the beginning, before the cliché set in, most people I know were pretty excited about that. It's an exciting bit of anatomical knowledge. Angier is not only the originator of the most quoted passage about the clitoris' pure status, she dishes out similarly exciting descriptions of the uterus (it makes huge amounts of opiates and pleasure chemicals), ovaries (a ripe egg follicle swells to half an inch high), Fallopian tubes (if one tube is out of commission, the other one will reach across to fetch eggs on the other side), and pretty much every other aspect of human female anatomy.

Angier then goes on to do essentially the same thing for the evolutionary strategies behind menstruation, menopause, mothering instincts, female friendships, jealousy, aggression, and even athletics. The evolution of gender and human mating behaviours is such a catchy, popular topic in the media that I can understand how Woman, as an overview of alternatives to the “women want a breadwinner, men want boobs” rhetoric, could garner jacket reviews exclaiming, “This book explains your whole life!” It explains evolutionary theories that real people can identify with.

I also credit this book as the one that made me admit I was a feminist. Up until reading it I was a bread-winning, hairy armpitted, pro-choice woman with a website about vaginas... who didn't identify with the word feminist. Even in written form, in a book that can't talk back, Angier could take my criticisms of feminism and flatten them. Her reasons for examining biology from a woman-centred perspective are practical, smart, and really, really interesting. She is so clear about her personal biases that in many places it hardly matters what her politics are: she discusses well-founded theories that she finds distasteful, she is honest about delightful feminist hypotheses that have been disproven by evidence. Reading a book that let logic preside over political motivations made it ok for me to be political. I think it also means it would appeal even to chauvinist readers!

All in all, Woman is an entertaining read, a good overview of the anatomy and biology of women, and a wonderful companion read for other evolutionary biology books (or even stories on the evening news). It gets a spot on my shelf of favorite women's sex, body and health books.

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This book would be a great companion to male-centred evolutionary biology books such as The Evolution of Desire by David Buss.

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