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The Boston Phoenix Body Works

An Absorbing, eloquent manifesto for the new millennium

By Susan Miron

JULY 5, 1999: 

WOMAN: AN INTIMATE GEOGRAPHY, by Natalie Angier. Houghton Mifflin, 398 pages, $25.

The engaging, witty, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times biology journalist Natalie Angier has the improbable knack of making science writing appear the most fascinating of literary ventures -- even to the scientifically challenged. Although she claims in her new book, Woman, to write as a "feminist chauvinist sow" who assumes that her "average reader is a gal," Angier has produced a captivating must-read for anyone even remotely interested in female anatomy.

"I believe," she writes in her introduction, "that we can learn from other species, and from our pasts, and from our parts.... My book sets out to tackle the question 'What makes a woman.' I hope simply to show how the body is part of the answer, is a map to meaning and freedom." Woman, she insists, is not a spinoff of Our Bodies, Ourselves, "a wonderful, ovarial work from which all we womanists hatched and needs no tepid imitations."

Throughout her book, Angier deploys a world-class nonsense detector, humorous wordplay, and piercing irony to debunk numerous myths and expose "flatulisms" in scientific and medical practice and philosophy. Of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae she declares, "It makes a gal so alarmed, so lunatic really, to witness the resuscitation in recent times of all the fetid clichés that I, and probably you, my sisters, thought had been drawn, quartered, and cremated long ago." When she offers advice, it is usually superb. One of the many targets of her anger is douching, about which she warns: "Don't douche, ever, period, end of squirt bottle."

We learn in the chapter "Unscrambling the Egg" that the egg -- the largest cell in the body, yet only a tenth of a millimeter across -- democratically allows all genes a voice. Angier follows Beth Derochea, a 28-year-old egg donor, as she has 29 eggs harvested for fertilization (for a woman who lacks viable eggs of her own). The egg's spherical shape, Angier explains, is a geometer's dream -- hard to crush, and among the most stable shapes in nature.

Responding to scientists' boasting about the prolificacy and renewability of a man's sperm production, she smirks: "The mere ability to replicate is hardly cause for a standing ovation. Bacteria will double their number every twenty minutes. Many cancer cells can divide in a dish for years after their founder tumors have killed the patient. Perhaps eggs are like neurons, which also are not replenished in adulthood: they know too much."

Angier waxes rhapsodic over the vagina and its ecosystem, "a land of unsung symbiosis and tart vigor. . . . The acidity of the vagina in health is just about that of a glass of red wine. This is the vagina that sings; this is the vagina with bouquet, with legs." As far as men's thinking of a vagina as "smelling fishy," well, she shrugs, "as it happens, sperm is one of the ingredients that can make a good thing go bad."

Angier scoffs at the notion of girls' putative passivity. "If you are or ever have been a girl, you know that girls are aggressive. This is news the way the Code of Hammurabi is news." Yet Angier is careful never to over-simplify matters. "If the link between testosterone and aggressive or dominant behavior in men is a mess, that for women is the floor under your refrigerator: you don't want to think about it." The importance of testosterone, she feels, is "oversold." Hormones, she insists, do not cause a behavior, but merely raise the likelihood that, other things being equal, a behavior will occur.

The clitoris, to Angier, is at the core of female sexuality, "and we must reject any attempts, Freudian or otherwise, to downgrade it." She scoffs at Freud's theory that a clitoral orgasm is an "infantile" orgasm and a vaginal one a "mature" orgasm. "His proposal was an anomaly, a blot on history's understanding of female sexuality," she writes. The notion that some women don't "need" to have orgasms for a satisfying sex life is, she believes, "as convincing as the insistence that some homeless people like living outdoors."

Why, Angier asks, have penis envy if one has a clitoris, "the wick of Eros, the site where the 8000 nerve fibers are threshed together into a proper little brain?. . . . Who would want a shotgun when you can have a semiautomatic?" Angier is particularly enraged over the two million or so clitoridectomies performed each year, mostly in Africa, and insists, "Genital cutting is an extreme abuse of human rights. Like slavery and apartheid, it is unacceptable," and unceasing political pressure should be used to fight this "repulsive rite."

Angier, acutely conscious that she is writing this book with both her mother and small daughter (to whom she dedicates it) in mind, is never shy about her pro-sisterhood stance. Where, she asks, are the no-women's-magazines aisles in supermarkets that allow us an escape from "the fascism of the Face?" She deplores the endless articles on the guilt of working mothers. Saddened to find women still indicting other women for their views on life and their choices of reproductive and emotional strategies, she argues that it makes no sense for women "to continue on this course of she said/she said, the yowling and mud wrestling. We need each other now."

I only wish Angier's book about "rapture grounded firmly in the flesh," had been available years ago. Reading it would have made me far more comfortable in my own body in my teens and 20s. Yet women of any age have plenty to learn and ponder from the wealth of information -- and wisdom -- Angier here provides with such flair.

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