Synopses & Reviews
Natalie Angier's Woman
enchanted readers and critics everywhere and marked an important shift in feminist consciousness. This self-proclaimed "scientific fantasia of womanhood" moves beyond the polemics of the '80's and '90's toward an enlightened subversiveness that "gives feminism a cheerful, evolutionary twist" (Katha Pollitt, The Nation
Woman is a mesmerizing anatomy and physiology lesson that culminates in a fascinating revelation about the ways in which cultural biases have influenced research in evolutionary psychology (the study of the biological bases of behavior). In lively, elegant prose, Angier shows just how natural selection has been misused as a model for confirming gender stereotypes, such as the idea that women are innately monogamous while men are natural philanderers. In so doing, she has galvanized both scientific thought and feminist rhetoric, and deftly combined the two to ignite a new wave of feminism that scientists, feminists, and the media have aptly dubbed "liberation biology."
But Natalie Angier doesn't just point fingers, she offers optimistic alternatives, and Woman is a seminal work with universal appeal that "proposes revolutionary possibilities for both men and women" (Gloria Steinem). This is a book that will be read and discussed for many years to come, and that will endure as an essential read for anyone interested in how biology affects who we are — as women, as men, and as human beings.
"It's a book not just for women. With its massive data on the working biology of both sexes, skepticism of dominant theories about dominant males, and candor about the speculative quality of its own feminist hypotheses, it stands as a benchmark in male-female relations in the late 20th century." USA Today
"A treasure chest of did-you-knows...hits the bull's-eye every time." Newsweek
"A tantalizing, witty journey through female biology, debunking many entrenched stereotypes and myths and a lot of questionable science." Salon
"Natalie Angier has that rare dual talent: a true passion for science combined with a poet's linguistic flair. In this lively dissection of womanhood, she places everything from estrogen to the politics of motherhood beneath her flawlessly focused microscope, offering innumerable tidbits both surprising and fascinating." People, Book of the Week
"Intimate and idiosyncratic...dismantles the misogynist mythologies once advanced as the scientific gospel of the female body...Angier's brilliant and witty fantasia will inspire women to believe in their powers." The Boston Globe
"Natalie Angier's dazzling new book calls upon biology and evolution to celebrate the female body. Its upbeat message. . . is supported by rigorous scientific underpinnings." The New York Times
"A tour de force, a wonderful, entertaining and informative book." The New York Times Book Review
"Angier's Woman is as good as it gets." Los Angeles Times
"If Our Bodies, Ourselves has become the bible of women's bodies, let Woman: An Intimate Geography be our Shakespeare." Peggy Orenstein, Elle
"The chief manifesto of the new 'femaleist' thinking." Time
"...a remarkable document of universal interest.... a tour de force, a wonderful, entertaining and informative book." -- Abraham Verghese
"...dazzling.... What you'll see through her eyes will startle and amaze you." -- Marilyn Yalom The New York Times
"The revolution already has a manifesto in the form of the ebullient Woman: An Intimate Geography. There are other female-positive books hitting the stores - but it's Angier 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 is a delicious cocktail of estrogen and amphetamine designed to pump up the ovaries as well as the cerebral cortex. " Time Magazine
"In Woman, Angier wields her poetic scalpel to explore female biology, and the result is awesome."—Dr. Susan Love, Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book
"[Angier] is my kind of feminist. Unlike, say, Catherine MacKinnon, she has a sense of humor about the war between the sexes. .... It is the open-mindedness of Woman that is so beguiling. Natalie Angier encourages us to celebrate the diversity of human nature and to realize that the process of cultural evolution is only just beginning."—Erica Jong, The New York Observer
"O joy, O rapture unforeseen! Natalie Angier's fascinating book about the female body is a hilarious romp through, well, our innards. In a deliciously irreverent, energetic, and clear writing style, she demystifies and de-mythicizes women's anatomy and biological workings. Along the way, Angier leaves no metaphor unexplored....She reveals the mysterious universe of women's bodies for even the most scientifically impaired souls. Like the evolution she describes, Angier is self-selecting in what she writes about, but her passion for what make us gals tick is infectious. Her explanation of chromosomes veritably sings. Woman: An Intimate Geography will leave the reader, male or female, in sheer awe of the complexity and power of women's bodies."— Ms. Magazine
"A delightfully mischievous yet serious book on the biology of the female body. Mischievous in that the science is interpreted in terms of modern feminism. It is a great read." — Phillip Sharp, MIT professor and Nobel laureate
"A delighted and delightful book, scientifically intelligent, politically astute, and replete with the intense complexity and fascination of biology. The writing is wonderful and the humor and sensibility are as rare as they are welcome."—Perri Klass, M.D.
"Woman is so captivating I couldn't put it down. It is jam-packed with fascinating, carefully researched facts I never knew before about how we women work. Best of all, Angier's abundant sense of humor and colorful writing style make this an irresistible read for everyone interested in women's bodies and women's health."—Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D., Strong Women Stay Young
"In this witty, learned, adventurous book, Angier gives feminism a cheerful, evolutionary twist. Her deflation of the 'new science of evolutionary psychology' is a brilliant combination of hard science, humor and common sense exactly right."—Katha Pollitt, The Nation
"Angier has brought both her considerable intellect and wry sense of humor to this book. The result is brilliantly accessible and wonderfully subversive."— Dr. Christiane Northrup, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom
"Having occupied a womans body for nearly sixty years, I didnt think any book would have much to teach me. How wrong I was!" — Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, ethologist and author of The Hidden Life of Dogs
"Passion and intelligence meet in a gorgeous book about what it means to be a woman today, yesterday, and forever. Herein lies a fund of knowledge beautifully conveyed, as well as questions that have yet to be answered." Kirkus Reviews
"It's hard not to sound effusive about Woman: An Intimate Geography, since it's fabulous. Angier's book contains more facts about women than anything I've read since the Boston Women's Health Collective published Our Bodies, Our Selves in 1973. My advice about Woman is, get three copies, one for the beach, one for the bathroom and one to read under the covers with a flashlight." Elle
"To read Woman is to banish the gods of negative body image. It is transformative in the way Our Bodies, Our Selves was in the '70s, and no less radical. In fact, if Our Bodies, Our Selves has become the bible of women's bodies, let Woman: An Intimate Geography be our Shakespeare." Mirabella
"It's exhilarating to follow Angier's subversive logic as she dismantles the misogynist mythologies once advanced as the scientific gospel of the female body and replaces them with theories more congenial with the female soul....Angier's brilliant and witty fantasia will inspire women to believe in their powwers." Boston Globe
"One knows early on one is reading a classic—a text so necessary and abundant aand truuuuue that all efforts of its kind, for decades before and after it, will be measured by it. ... After a careful reading of this essential book, men should pass it along to someone they love-—their sons, daughters ... lovers and spouses. For a fresh look into the life's sciences ... and the pure pleasure of language in service to the facts of life, Angier's Woman is as good as it gets."— Thomas Lynch, Los Angeles Times
"The chief manifesto of the new 'femaleist' thinking, this ebullient and provocative treatise on women's bodies reads like a mixture of Walt Whitman and Erma Bombeck."— Barbara Ehrenreich, TIME cover story, "The Truth About Women's Bodies"
A new and updated edition of Natalie Angier's best-selling tour of the female body, published for its fifteen-year anniversary.
With clarity, insight, and panache, Natalie Angier explores that most enigmatic of evolutionary masterpieces, the female body. Incorporating new material on the latest science and changes in our understanding of evolutionary psychology, Angier guides readers through everything from organs to orgasm, hormones to hysterectomies.
In Woman, Angier shows how cultural biases have influenced evolutionary psychology and led to dubious conclusions about “female nature,” such as the idea that women are innately monogamous while men are philanderers. But she doesnt just point fingers; with enlightened subversiveness, she offers a joyful, fresh vision of womanhood. Woman is an essential read for anyone interested in how biology affects who we are—as women, as men, and as human beings.
National Book Award finalist
A New York Times notable book
"A tour de force, a womderful, entertaining and informative book." —Abraham Verghese, New York Times Book Review
After fifteen years in print, Woman remains an essential guide to everything from organs to orgasms and hormones to hysterectomies. With her characteristic clarity, insight, and sheer exuberance of language, bestselling author Natalie Angier cuts through the still prevalent myths and misinformation surrounding the female body, that most enigmatic of evolutionary masterpieces. Woman is a witty and assured narrative tour de force with a reliable grasp of science.
Updated throughout and with a new introduction bringing readers up to date on the latest science in evolutionary psychology and hormone replacement therapy, this new edition of Woman reinvigorates Angier’s joyful vision of womanhood.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -419) and index.
About the Author
NATALIE ANGIER writes about biology for the New York Times, where she has won a Pulitzer Prize, the American Association for the Advancement of Science journalism award, and other honors. She is the author of The Beauty of the Beastly, Natural Obsessions, and Woman, named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, People, National Public Radio, Village Voice, and Publishers Weekly, among others. A New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist, Woman is “a text so necessary and abundant and true that all efforts of its kind, for decades before and after it, will be measured by it” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Angier lives with her husband and daughter outside of Washington, D.C.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Into the Light xxv
Unscrambling the Egg 1
It Begins with One Perfect Solar Cell
The Mosaic Imagination 19
Understanding the “Female” Chromosome
Default Line 40
Is the Female Body a Passive Construct?
The Well-Tempered Clavier 64
On the Evolution of the Clitoris
Suckers and Horns 93
The Prodigal Uterus
MASS HYSTERIA 124
Losing the Uterus
Circular Reasonings 138
The Story of the Breast
Holy Water 162
A Gray and Yellow Basket 182
The Bounteous Ovary
Greasing the Wheels 199
A Brief History of Hormones
Venus in Furs 217
Estrogen and Desire
Mindful Menopause 232
Can We Live Without Estrogen?
Theres No Place Like Notoriety 241
Mothers, Grandmothers, and Other Great Dames
Wolf Whistles and Hyena Smiles 266
Testosterone and Women
Spiking the Punch 294
In Defense of Female Aggression
Cheap Meat 319
Learning to Make a Muscle
Labor of Love 336
The Chemistry of Human Bondage
Of Hoggamus and Hogwash 360
Putting Evolutionary Psychology on the Couch
A Skeptic in Paradise 397
A Call for Revolutionary Psychology
Reading Group Guide
Angier describes her book as "a celebration of the female body" (p. xiii). Having read her chapters on the intricacies of the egg, the clitoris, the uterus, the breast, and so on, are your ideas about the female body substantially altered? How?
2. In her introduction, Angier quotes cultural commentator Camille Paglia, who writes of the menstrual cycle as follows: "The ancients knew that woman is bound to nature's calendar, an appointment she cannot refuse. She knows there is no free will, since she is not free. She has no choice but acceptance" (p. xvi). Why is Angier so opposed to this kind of thinking?
3. Angier discusses medical evidence purporting that whether a person becomes a male or a female is a matter of chance, dependent upon the switching on or off of certain genes and the sensitivity of certain tissues to hormones while the fetus is forming. How does the evidence presented here affect your understanding of sexual difference, and the relative importance of biological and cultural determinants of sexual identity?
4. Do you agree with Angier's assessment that "the clitoris is designed to encourage its bearer to take control of her sexuality" (p.76)? What is the evolutionary purpose of the clitoris if, as it appears, it is an organ "dedicated exclusively to sexual pleasure" (p.70)?
5. Given the cases of Jane Carden, Cheryl Chase, Martha Coventry (pp. 28, 84-85) and others like them, should surgeons alter the genitals of infants and children whose bodies they consider abnormal? How similar is such cosmetic alteration to the genital cutting practiced in many African countries? If it is true that surgical alterations are made to womens' bodies far more often than to mens', what are the cultural assumptions that account for such inequity?
6. The use of HRT--hormone replacement therapy--for post-menopausal women has stirred much controversy, as has the widespread use of hysterectomy as a solution to the problem of fibroids. How does Angier's approach to these issues affect your position? Should the body be left to follow its own natural course, or do such medical interventions improve upon nature?
7. Angier contends that the institution of patriarchy belongs exclusively to the human species: "Only among humans is the idea ever floated that a male should support a female, and that the female is in fact incapable of supporting herself and her offspring, and that it is a perfectly reasonable act of quid pro quo to expect a man to feed his family and a woman to be unerringly faithful, to give the man paternity assurance and to make his investment worthwhile" (p. 302). Is there any evidence that patriarchal thinking has weakened in contemporary American life? Why has patriarchy been so successful in suppressing most expressions of female power except for those crucial to the domestic and maternal areas of life?
8. Following her discussion of the role of post-menopausal women in primitive societies, Angier presents her opinion of the necessity of female bonding, both within and beyond the group of one's age mates. Extrapolating from her own experience, Angier claims that "we keep looking for our mothers and those mythical creatures our female mentors" (p. 257). How widespread is this desire among women?
9. Angier has said, "I really object to the idea of females as more cooperative and less aggressive than men, both in terms of sexual drive and ambition....I know it's not true that women don't have an innate hunger to succeed" [Interview in Los Angeles Times, June 28 1999, page E1]. What then explains the fact (p. 361) that as recently as 1996, only four of the Fortune 1000 companies were headed by women? If, as Angier claims, "our strongest aggressions and our most frightening hostilities may be directed at other women" (p. 295), is it possible that women inhibit one another's success?
10. Angier notes that "most female animals are promiscuous" (p. 381) and strongly disagrees with evolutionary psychologists who "insist on the innate discordance between the strength of the male and female sex drive" (p. 364). Do you agree with her that women are as interested in sex as men? Do you think women pursue their sexual desires as aggressively as men do?
11. What message is being sent in the movie Thelma & Louise about what happens when women go in search of independence? Why do you think the film ended the way it did? If the film was made today, would the ending be the same? Is there any evidence that Americans are becoming less conventional and more flexible in their thinking about the independence of women?
12. Epidemiological studies show that, in terms of longevity and health, men benefit from marriage more than women do. Angier points out that this data conflicts with the position of evolutionary psychologists "men are 'naturally' ill-suited to matrimony" (p. 386). How do you make sense of this seeming contradiction?
13. Angier says, "It is still too costly to behave in a way that risks the investment and tolerance of a man, of the greater male coalition—We reject the idea of sisterhood and of female solidarity. We make fun of it" (p. 309). Still, she argues, female bonds are important, and women need them. Is she right in saying that in our culture, feminism gets no respect? If so, why have the energies of feminism dissipated since the 1970s?
14. Gloria Steinem calls Woman "nothing less than liberation biology," and says that Angier "proposes revolutionary possibilities for both men and women." How would women's lives be different if mainstream culture shared Angier's perspective on women's power and potentiality?
15. In Chapter 18 Angier takes issue with evolutionary psychologists who claim that we still live under the sway of prehistoric instinct when it comes to choosing a mate. Women, they say, seek stability and economic security, while men tend to seek youth and beauty. Why have the ideas of Robert Wright, David Buss, and others in their field gained such wide acceptance? Does Angier ultimately come closer than they do to answering Sigmund Freud's famous question, "What do women want"?
16. Why are women's relationships with their mothers often so difficult? What do you think of the wish Angier expresses for her relationship with her daughter, once her daughter is herself an adult, "that my daughter's need for me may prove larger, more enduring, and more passionate than the child's need for meals, clothes, shelter, and applause" (p. 258)? Do women in fact need their mothers more, not less, as they get older?
17. Woman is a very personal book for Natalie Angier. What has Angier risked—and what has she gained—by speaking of her own experience so freely, by making use of her quirky sense of humor, and by being so playful with language? How do the author's voice and prose style affect your experience of the book?
18. Remembering a conversation in 1987 between herself, her grandmother, her mother, and her cousin in which all four women agreed that if given the choice they would have chosen to be men, Angier ends the book by rejecting that wish: "the wish to be a man is a capitulation to limits and strictures we never set for ourselves. It is lazy"—and by inviting her women readers to celebrate their womanhood. "Our tribe is the tribe of woman. It is our tribe to define, and we're still doing it, and we will never give up. We live in a state of permanent revolution" (p. 401). Do you find this inspiring, liberating, or simply unrealistic?
"Natalie Angier's dazzling new book calls upon biology and evolution to celebrate the female body. Its upbeat message. . . is supported by rigorous scientific underpinnings." --The New York Times
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Woman: An Intimate Geography.