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37.7 Seconds, Part I
Reading "feminism" on the eve of a new millennium
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, thats 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 its not over yet. It shouldnt even have been necessary.
Anyway, that said Ive been reading about feminism. It used to be a delight to read about feminism. Especially if youd been raised to become an appendage. It was a glorious thing, that first reading about feminism. At least it was for me. But now its just ticking me off. The feminism you hear about these day has three main themes. (1) The womens 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 dont 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 XXs 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 arent. 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 dont give a flying fandango about what it says about my so-called female nature. If I want to be a bricklayer Im going to do it.
Sure there are differences. But usually thats 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 were going to study differences imbedded in our genes, lets 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 argumentthe other half being the man whos 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 theyve 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 isnt 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 planets 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 dont like that word "remaining." That doesnt 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 wasnt until the 1970s that the womens 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 realitiesmenstruate without cramps, give birth without pain or painkilling medication, sail through menopause without breaking a sweat. As many women soon discovered for themselves, this isnt so. Once again we found ourselves caught between stereotypes and reality."
What on earth ? What womens movement is she talking about? Is she talking about the Our Bodies Ourselves womens movement? Is she talking about the movement where women demanded control over their bodies, which required understanding how they worked? Didnt 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 womans body, to think with a womans brain, drink in the world with a womans senses, act and react with a womans sensibility?"
Well, if this book is any indication of what it means to think with a womans brain....
Hales goes on: "Finally, gender-specific research in various disciplinesfrom biology and anthropology to physiology and psychologyis 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 femaledocile, dumb, and totally dependentexist.
- 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.
Heres 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.
- Womens 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 womens biological reality that has always shaped the lives of women: we change, most noticeably in the rhythms and cycles of menstruationsomething 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? Hasnt 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 isnt. Were not sure why except for that whole evolution thing and a brief reference to the womens movement. We dont 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 womans 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 womans brain explain our genders renowned empathy, compassion, and intuition? We dont know yet."
If we dont 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. "Its not that men dont 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 doesnt 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 womens rich emotional life. But if men and women are different, why isnt the desire of men for a rich emotional life equivalent to men wanting to be women and not their true selves? Didnt she just argue that apathy, compassion, and intuition may be (although we dont know yet) related to womens brains.
She goes on: "Especially as they age, men also might understandably come to envy another complex aspect of womens 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 doesnt 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 (Dylans 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, Im 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, womens vulnerability is part of her having to bear lifes 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. Womens 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 togetherphysically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, sexually. Just as yin shapes yang and day defines night, women and men are designed to complete and complement each other."