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Woman: an Intimate Geography (thoughts)

November 12, 2009

WomanI’m starting to feel a bit better guys. :) I’m hoping that means I’ll be able to resume daily posting, but I’m just glad I feel well enough to write a review today! (Also, thanks to everyone’s suggestions, I got 7 different TV shows on DVD from my library last night, so I have lots of options for relaxation time!)

I’ve read a lot of books since I’ve been gone: it turns out that when I can’t read blogs or work much on my own, I have a lot more free time. ;) Of course, I never would have found all the books I’ve been reading if it weren’t for blogging, so don’t think I’m going to disappear any time soon! Anyway, my point is, for my review today I had a lot of titles to choose from, but I didn’t hesitate for a second. I knew I wanted to talk about Woman: an Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier, which I read for the Women Unbound Challenge.

To say that I loved this book feels like a horrible understatement. I believe every single woman should read this book. If I were a billionaire, I would buy a copy for each woman who could read English, and press it into her hands with fervent good wishing. I think Angier has done a wonderful thing for her gender, and I’m so happy that Ana encouraged me to read this one (I didn’t enjoy the other Angier book I’ve read, The Canon) all that much.

So what is this book? It’s a scientific, mainly biology-driven, celebration of being a woman. Angier has a different style than most science writers; she tends to go off on crazy tangents, tossing three metaphors into the same sentence, and making lots of odd jokes and comparisons. This drove me wild in The Canon, but in Woman it really works. It makes it feel as if you’re having a girls’ night with a fun scientist who wants to tell you everything there is to love about your gender. But don’t take my word for it; here’s how Angier introduces her book:

This book is a celebration of the female body-its anatomy, its chemistry its evolution, and its laughter. It is a personal book, my attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling in to the sludge of biological determinism. It is a book about things that we traditionally associate with the image of woman-the womb, the egg, the breast, the blood, the almighty clitoris0and things that we don’t-movement, strength, aggression, and fury. It is a book about rapture, a rapture grounded firmly in the flesh, the beauties of the body. The female body deserves Dionysian respect, and to make my case I summon the spirits and cranks that I know and love best.


And seriously, who of us doesn’t want that?

Now, there are many delicious chapters in this book. The egg, the X chromosome, the clitoris, the ovary-these all get a chapter. The uterus and breast get two. Hormones, particularly estrogen and testosterone, get several. And if I could, I’d write a post thousands of words long telling you about all the amazing things I learned, about how much more I love each and every bit of my body now. But, I must be choosy, so I’m going to talk about my very, very favourite chapters, the ones I wish were somehow essays available for free online so I could make everyone go read them. That is, the ones on evolution. Here’s another passage from the introduction that will let you in on how Angier approaches the topic:

It makes a gal so alarmed, so lunatic really, to witness the resuscitation in recent times of all the fetid cliches that I, and probably you, my sisters, thought had been drawn, quartered, and cremated long ago. I have been writing and reading about biology and evolution for years now, and I am frankly getting sick of how “science” is pinned to our she-butts like donkey tails and hten glued in place with talk of hardheaded realism. I am tired of reading in books on evolutionary psychology or neo-Darwinism or gender biology about how women are really like all the old canards: that we have a lackadaisical sex drive compred to men and a relatively greater thirst for monogamy, and, outside the strictly sexual arena, a compartive lack of interest in achievement and renown, a preference for being rahter than doing, a quiet, self-contained nature, a greater degree of “friendliness,” a deficient mathematical ability, and so on et cetera back to the bleary Cro-Magnon beginnings. I’m tired of hearing about how there are sound evolutionary explanations for such ascriptions of woman’s nature and how we must fave them full square, chin up and smiling. I’m tired as well of being told I mustn’t let my feminist, pro-woman beliefs get in the way of seeing “reality” and acknowledging “the facts.”


Here, here!

Have you too, despite your pro-science, pro-evolution viewpoint, felt that much of what evolutionary science argues about women is bunk? Then you should read this book right now. The first time Angier shares an ‘alternative’ evolutionary theory is in the chapter “Mothers, Grandmothers, and Other Dames.” In it, she explains the ‘grandmother hypothesis.’ According to that, back at the dawn of humankind, sure there were hunters and gatherers, with men as the former and women as the latter. However, men’s hunting often didn’t bring in enough calories, and even when it did, the whole tribe benefited from whatever meat a man brought down-his family didn’t get a ‘bonus’ amount of food. So it was the abilities of the mother, as the gatherer, that affected whether her children had more or less to eat. But when the mother was nursing, she couldn’t gather as much. The men were off hunting, so she turned to her older female relatives: her own mother, maybe an aunt or two, an older cousin, etc. These women, who were past childbearing age, still played an incredibly important role in bringing up the young, in that they provided a cushion for the mother. So, the stronger a woman was after menopause, the more likely her extended offspring (aka grandchildren) were to survive, and we (women) became expected to live active lives post-menopause (unlike the other great apes and monkeys, who bear children pretty much until the end of their lives). Meanwhile, men became longer-lived as well, because most genes affect both genders. Also, as our lives got longer, our sexual maturity was delayed. So because older women were so important, our childhoods became extended, which in turn allowed for more intelligence and development. And since there were older women to watch and provide for the children, humans could venture into more difficult, non-child-friendly territory. Here’s Angier summing it up:

We usually assume that we got smart first and then had to have an extended childhood to cultivate the circuitry of that smartness, and then had to live long enough as adults to care for our smart, slow-growing kids. As Hawkes plays it out, the order of events is just the opposite. We got old, we got young, we got smart. She takes a thwack at the familiar figurine of Man the Hunter, questioning the role of the male in provisioning hte young and allowing children to be children. The original division of labor, as she sees it, was between childbearing women and post-menopausal women. Mothers bred what grandmothers fed. Through that compact, human fecundity and human mobility knew no limits.


Don’t you love that theory?! Doesn’t it sound just as plausible as the more ‘standard’ one? Perhaps even more so?

women_unboundBut even more than that hypothesis, I loved when Angier attacked evolutionary psychology for trying to support all those old stereotypes: “Evolutionary Psychology on the Couch.” First, she lays out the most important arguments:

  1. Men are more promiscuous and less sexually reserved than women are.
  2. Women are inherently more interested in a stable relationship than men are.
  3. Women are naturally attracted to high-status men with resources.
  4. Men are naturally attracted to youth and beauty.
  5. Our core preferences and desires were hammered out long, long ago, a hundred thousand years ago or more, in the legendary environment of evolutionary adaption, or EEA, also know as the ancestral environment, also known as the Stone Age, and they have not changed appreciably since then, nor are they likely to change in the future.

In sum: higgamus, hoggamus, Pygmalionus, Playboy magazine, eternitas. Amen.

And then she demolishes them, attacking methodology, assumptions, etc. It was so wonderful to watch, and I was mentally pumping my fist in the air all the time and yelling “You go girl!”

My favourite bits from the chapter:

What does it mean if surveys show that women want a man who earns a living wage? It means that men can earn a living wage better, even now, than women can. Men still own and operate most of what can be claimed and controlled. They make up about half of the world’s population, but they own somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of the world’s wealth-the currency, the minerals, the timber, the gold, the stocks, the amber fields of grain. …If women continue to worry that they need a man’s money to persist because the playing gield remains about as level as the surface of Mars-or Venus, if you prefer-then we can’t conclude anything about innate preferences.


Do women find older men innately attractive? Is it the men’s alpha status? Or could it be something less complimentary to the male, something like the following-that an older man is appealing not because he is powerful but because in his maturity he has lost some of his power, has become less marketable and desirable and potentially more grateful and gracious, more likely to make a younger woman feel that there is a balance of power in the relationship? The rude little calculation is simple: He is male, I am female-advantage, man. He is older, I am younger-advantage, woman.

As we have seen, DNA studies of chimpanzees in the Gombe show that half the offspring in the group of closely scrutinised chimpanzees turned out not to be the offspring of the resident males. The females of the group didn’t rely on sex “finding” its way to them; they proactively left the local environs, under such conditions of secrecy that not even their vigilant human observers know they had gone, and became impregnated by outside males. They did so even at the risk of life and limb-their own and those of their offspring. …We don’t know why the females take such risks to philander, but they do, and to say that female chimpanzees “work less hard” than males do at finding sex is not supported by the data.

Men say they want eight partners in two years. Women want byt one. Yet would a man find the prospect of a string of partners so appealing if the following rules were applied: that no matter how much he may like a particular woman and be pleased by her performance and want to sleep with her again, he will have no say in the matter, will be dependent on her mood and good graces for all future contact; that each act of casual sex will cheapen his status and make him increasingly less attractive to other women; and that society will not wink at his randiness but rather sneer at him and think him pathetic, sullied, smaller than life? Until men are subjected to the same severe standard and threat of censure as women are, and until they are given the lower hand in a so-called casual encounter from the start, it is hard to insist with such self-satisfaction that, hey, it’s natural, men like a lot of sex with a lot of people and women don’t.

Consider Pinker’s philandering caveman who slept with fifty women. Just how good a reproductive strategy is this chronic, random shooting of the gun? …if we assume that a woman makes no effort at birth control-and this is a concession to the philanderer’s point of view, for there is archaeological evidence that the use of rudimentary forms of contraception is quite ancient-the probability [of conception] is less than one percent. …If, for example, a man were to spend a bit more time with one woman rather than dashing breathlessly from sheet to sheet, if he were to feel compelled to engage in what animal behaviorists call mate-guarding, he might be better off, reproductively speaking, than the wild Lothario, both because the odds of his getting the woman during her fertile time would increase and because he’d be monopolizing her energy and keeping her from the advances of other sperm-bearers.

Ok, this review is getting crazy long, but I really hope that I’ve convinced you to read this book! It’s thoughtful and fascinating and sterotype-challenging, and women-loving…what more could you need?

If you could have every woman read one book, what would it be?

34 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2009 9:34 am

    I read this book when it first came out, and I’ve been thinking of rereading it. It is brilliant, and I agree every woman should read it. I haven’t read any other Angier, but this was the perfect choice for the Woman Unbound challenge. I hope more people read it too!

    If you’re looking for another every woman should read book, I highly recommend Sheryl Ellinwood’s Empowered: A woman-to-woman guide to preventing and surviving breast cancer. It’s wonderful.

  2. November 12, 2009 10:21 am

    Sold! I suck at science, so have no real background to counter the spurious science arguments. I need books like this to break the arguments up for me and explain exactly why they do not show what everyone thinks they do. I hope there’s something in there about how negative sexual expereinces due to mens general lack of knowledge about how a womans body works may also be the reason why women seek long term partners who have gained this kind of knowledge during the relationship, rather than casual encounters which may be really, really bad (just a working theory).

  3. November 12, 2009 10:24 am

    “Until men are subjected to the same severe standard and threat of censure as women are, and until they are given the lower hand in a so-called casual encounter from the start, it is hard to insist with such self-satisfaction that, hey, it’s natural, men like a lot of sex with a lot of people and women don’t.”

    I wonder if this is already happening, because the media gives so much attention to all the promient guys who have been cheating…. John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer come to mind! When Kennedy was doing it, the media looked the other way.

    Anyway, this looks absolutely fascinating and I’m writing the title down.

    Glad you are starting to feel better :-)!

  4. November 12, 2009 10:31 am

    Definitely convinced, this is going on my wishlist immediately, thanks for the review Eva

  5. November 12, 2009 10:34 am

    This book sounds just awesome. I love everything all those quotes are saying. The author’s theories do sound compelling, because there is no way to control for societal conditioning when these evolutionary theories are put forward based on studies of modern women. I just looked this book up at my library and they have it, I’m definitely going to get it this weekend and read it for myself. Thanks, Eva!

    I’m glad you’re feeling better!

  6. November 12, 2009 10:38 am

    What an interesting sounding book! I’ll definitely put this one on the list. It’s always interesting to see how people tease out biology from culture in gender differences, and without a doubt, science has had a masculinist bent for a long time…

  7. November 12, 2009 10:46 am

    Wow, this sounds fascinating. Depending on my mood in the next 13 months, I may pick it up for the challenge. I should probably get moving on the challenge, too…

  8. November 12, 2009 11:39 am

    Looks really good. You chosen some really great quotes to show us that we all need to read this book. I am definitely going to read this one.

    Good to know u are feeling better now. Take care.

  9. November 12, 2009 11:49 am

    My God, this sounds fantastic! I’m feeling particularly philosophical about the state of being female at the moment.

    My only concern- this book, naturally, explores the the female sex, but you refer to it as gender. Does this mean that the book doesn’t discuss transwomen at all, which would probably explain why it’s considered both gender and sex in the book itself?

  10. November 12, 2009 11:55 am

    Science really isn’t my thing, however it intrigues me that I have been living with this body all my life and that there is a whole book out there that will tell me lots of new information about this body. You would think that you know all there is to know concerning the female body, how wrong that assumption would be.

  11. November 12, 2009 12:40 pm

    Wow, first of all, I’m so glad you’re back! My day brightened immediately when I saw your post pop up in my Google Reader :) Thank you for your wonderful and in-depth review. I saw this book on someone’s Women Unbound reading list and was slightly curious as to what its slant was, and am now very interested in picking it up. As to which book I think every woman should read, I don’t know if I can think of one that I feel as strongly about as you do this one. One that was very influential in my late teen years and I believe to be very formative about my views on relationships was A Doll’s House by Ibsen.

  12. November 12, 2009 12:57 pm

    Your enthusiasm for this book is contagious! I don’t generally read this particular type of book, but I am considering this one.

  13. November 12, 2009 1:18 pm

    I haven’t even read this book yet, and I already love it! I read “The Canon” earlier this year and I loved that too. I have a feeling that I’ll love this even more. This is at the top of covet list. Great review!

  14. November 12, 2009 2:16 pm

    You’ve convinced me! This post was fascinating, and I can only imagine the book is that much more so. Going on my list right now.

  15. November 12, 2009 2:35 pm

    So glad you are feeling better! Your review really sold the book for me! It seems a really amazing read. I’ll put it into my to-be-read -list.

    I could recommend one book at least to every woman who has lost their mother (but it could be an interesting read to others, too). The book is Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman. It is for me one of the most important books I have ever read.


  16. November 12, 2009 2:48 pm

    Requested from the library :). It sounds fascinating. I remember the cover from your library loot vlog.

    Glad you are feeling better! Are you going to share which TV shows you borrowed?

    As for which book I would have every woman read… it used to be The Red Tent by Anita Diamant for its celebration of womanhood and menstruation but upon a reread with my new book group (at my suggestion), it was a little disappointing; now I would categorically have every woman read The Group by Mary McCarthy.

  17. November 12, 2009 3:34 pm

    I’ve heard many good things about this book, but you’ve really laid it all out. Excellent choice for the Women Unbound Challenge!

  18. November 12, 2009 5:30 pm

    Ok, ok! It’s on my list now. :)

  19. November 12, 2009 6:51 pm

    Wow, this is a great review, thank you so much. I am definitely adding this to my must read list.

    I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better.

  20. November 12, 2009 7:29 pm

    Well, Eva, you convinced me for sure! As if I don’t have a long enough list of feminist books to read… here’s another one to add. Thanks! ;)

  21. November 13, 2009 3:04 am

    Before your review, I can honestly say I would never have picked up this book. Seriously, ti’s not my type of reading. But now you’ve made me want to find a copy. Man, I think challenge is going to be BAD for my TBR.

  22. November 13, 2009 9:35 am

    Rich already planned to read this one for the Women Unbound challenge…good news for me, because then I can borrow it! :D It sounds awesome, Eva!

    But you know what I hate? That people give evolutionary psychology standing along with true science period. Ana once sent me this link. Rich now uses it as a visual aid in his lecture on evolutionary psychology in the evolution course he teaches. Yes, he has to talk about evolutionary psychology, because it’s out there and so many people buy into it…but his lecture points out how it is not science.

  23. November 13, 2009 7:59 pm

    Ohmigoodness that sounds fabulous! Sounds like something I’d read and then pass on to every single other woman I know. (Much like you’re inclined to do). Thank you for sharing!

  24. November 13, 2009 8:02 pm

    I would have every woman read this book too! I’m so glad to see someone else in the book blogging community finally read this book! I’ve been recommending it forever. Isn’t it the best book for women EVER????

    I probably didn’t convince anyone to read it because it was one of my earlier reviews and as such, is very short:
    Maybe with your much better review we can convince others to read it!

  25. November 13, 2009 10:11 pm

    Great review. Sold! Thank you.

  26. November 13, 2009 11:21 pm

    I love the sounds of this book. The excerpts you shared were amazing and humorous and very very smart. Definitely going to try to pick it up. I would also have every woman read Rosalind Miles’s book: Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World, which also touches on some of these issues.

  27. November 14, 2009 5:38 pm

    Thank you! I’m wishlisting this now.

  28. November 14, 2009 8:45 pm

    This challenge is going to be very, very dangerous to my TBR pile.

  29. November 15, 2009 1:23 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this post! I have WOMAN: AN INTIMATE GEOGRAPHY on my bookcase; will definitely put it on my list for Unbound – thank you!

  30. November 16, 2009 12:24 pm

    NomadReader, thanks for the suggestion! And I’m glad you love this book too. :)

    Jodie, I liked this too-it gave me concrete things to say to people instead of ‘that’s ridiculous,’ lol. And you make SUCH a good point on why women might want fewer, longer-term partners!

    Valerie, that’s true…I think it might be changing a little. But cheating is different from lots of casual encounters. ;)

    Violet, yay!

    Meghan, awesome! Can’t wait to see your review. :)

    Jason, oh yes-I hate it when biology becomes a social science.

    Aarti, LOL-you always crack me up w/ your comments. :) I hope your mood goes towards the book at some point!

    Docshona, thanks!

    Literary Omnivore, she talks about women who are born w/ XY chromosomes. She doesn’t talk about men who become women or vice versa, no.

    Vivienne, I learned quite a bit for sure! :)

    Bookshelf Monstrosity, aww-thanks so much. :D I’ve always meant to read “A Doll’s House”-thanks for suggesting it!

    Terri, I hope you read it! And love it! lol

    JS, I think this book is a billion times better than The Canon, lol.

    Jeane, yay!

    Tiina, thank you. :) That book sounds so sad, but so important. I’ve told my mom she can’t die until I do.

    Claire, yay! I’ll definitely add the TV on DVD to my Library Loot post on Wednesday. :) I haven’t heard of The Group, but I’m off to find out more about it!

    Florinda, thanks!

    Daphne, yay! :)

    Jess, thank yoU!

    Heather, lol-you’re the total queen of feminist books. :)

    Stephanie, I know-the challenge is going to be bad for my TBR list too! But this one is sooo good. ;)

    Debi, yay! I didn’t know he was joining in the challenge too-how fun is that? I hate that ev psych in considered a hard science too-it’s so silly.

    Jade, I love your enthusiasm!

    Callista, it totally is. :D

    DS, awesome!

    Andi, love the title of your rec. :)

    Care, I hope you love it!

    Softdrink, lol-I feel the same way. :)

    Dawn, I’m jealous-I wish I owned a copy!

  31. Jenny permalink
    November 17, 2009 2:43 pm

    Wow, Eva, what a fantastic review of a book that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed my radar. Thanks for this.

  32. December 4, 2009 7:56 pm

    Damn, I want to read that. Great review!


  1. Woman: An Intimate Geography « Care's Online Book Club
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