Women’s Biology in a Man’s World: Some Issues and Questions

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Women’s Biology in a Man’s World: Some Issues and Questions

by Rita Arditti

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 4, July 1973, p. 39 – 42

“Yes . . . but women are different” says the well-intentioned liberal, ready to support civil rights and other struggles of women. ..You really can’t trust women, they are too emotional, they get hysterical, they’re just different … ” says the employer, justifying having women in low-paying, low-status positions. “She is different, she is not like the other women”, say the colleagues of the woman who “made it”.

What do they mean when they say “different”? Different from what, the rest of the human species? And why are women always being measured against men? Are men “normal” and women biological deviants? Why have women been studied practically only. by males? Do these men carry into the study of women society’s prejudices and values? Does the scientist furnish the culture with new ideas about women, stretching the range of her potential or does the culture “dictate” to the scientist what he is going to find and how he is going to present it? Does culture make Biology? These are some of the questions that surround the study of women. Women’s biology offers a fresh approach to the question of the relation between science and society.

Biology is Destiny. Would-be scientific arguments have often been used to rationalize and legitimize every aspect of life. “The female animal”, a paper by Carroll and Charles Rosenberg1, brilliantly links the biological view of women with their role in nineteenth-century America. Briefly: the Victorian woman’s ideal characteristics: nurturance, intuitive morality, domesticity, passivity and affection were all assumed to have a deeply rooted biological basis. Women, nineteenth century Biology said, are “different”, weaker, with smaller skulls, more delicate muscles, more irritable, with smaller nerves. Physicians saw women as the product of their reproductive system: “as if the Almighty, in creating the female sex had taken the uterus, and built up a woman around it”2. The uterus, it was assumed, was connected to the central nervous system, and this link between ovaries, uterus and nervous system was the logical basis for the ideas that any disorder of the reproductive system could cause pathological reactions in any other part of the body. Childless women were supposed to have a shorter life-span, their nervous systems under constant pressure, their unfulfilled reproductive organs more prone to cancer and other illnesses. When American women, dissatisfied with traditional sex roles began to be involved in education, social movements and birth control, American physicians announced disaster for the species. The reasoning went something of this sort: American women were considered inferior physically to European women and many scientific authorities were convinced that education was the source of this. During puberty and adolescence . when the female reproductive system matures, she would be distracted into learning and her vital energies would be diverted from the achievement of true womanhood. If too much energy went to develop the brain, the ovaries would suffer. They also emphasized that it was the mother’s reproductive system which most directly affected her offspring so that women’s. violation of biological laws (too much education, too much activity) could only harm the species.

Has this streak really disappeared from the culture? Are there twentieth century counterparts of the physicians of the Victorian era? Who is saying now what is “natural” for women? In our times, Psychology supposedly furnishes society with insights about human personality and behavior. Bruno Bettelheim, widely-known psychologist states: “We must start with the realization that as much as women want to be good scientists and engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers”.3 This type of ideology clearly prepares the ground for natural scientists to propose androcentric (male-centered) theories of human nature and human evolution.

Desmond Morris, writing for general audiences, uses his training as a zoologist to discuss “the fundamental biological nature of our species”. In The Naked Ape4, 22nd printing in America, he says “it is the biological nature of the beast that has moulded the social structure of civilization”. Declaring that the naked ape is the sexiest primate alive, he enumerates the reasons that made this happen “…the females had to stay put and mind the babies while the males went hunting”… “the males had to be sure that their females were going to be faithful to them when they left them alone to go hunting… “. It’s all “natural”. Monogamy is the natural condition for humans and of course if there is some polygamy it is a male with several females, because the risky hunting life might result in fewer males than females. And why do women have breasts, round buttocks and hair in the armpit and around the female pubis? Why, because that is how men like women to be . . . Our bodies are the result of men’s sexual preferences, and that is how it all happened. The implications are clear: we exist as secondary life forms, our own physical being derives from men, we are truly Adam’s rib. It is not hard for any attentive reader to detect the countless fallacies on which his book is based, but scanty evidence and limited cultural perspective do not deter Morris from sweeping generalizations. “It’s the sort of book that changes people’s lives” says the Sunday Times. “The chapter on sex is his best” says the Times. For the record, a three page article by anthropologist Lila Leibowitz5 quickly disposes of most of his arguments on who shaped the body of women…

Another example of androcentric thinking disguised as science is “Men in Groups” by Lionel Tiger6, more pernicious and probably more efficient at helping keep women in their place. Tiger, an associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers, offers to us the interesting discovery that the secondary status of women is due to their inability to form viable associations among themselves, or to maintain a high standard when combining, non-sexually with men. He warns: “It may constitute a revolutionary and perhaps hazardous social change with numerous latent consequences should women ever enter politics in great numbers”. He thinks that women lack “male bonding”, which he sees as the “spinal column of a community”. Women, he assures us, do not form bonds, and there is nothing we can do about this, it’s “natural”. This book, which clearly tries to offer a “scientific” explanation for male dominance, is based on misrepresentation ·and selective quoting of data 7 . He doesn’t have much evidence for what he is saying but he is saying it anyhow . . . He ignores data, he selects data, he quotes just what he wishes to best make his case.

Compare sexism with racism. We know that modem racism was fostered by the work of pseudoscientists. Briefly, from de Gobineau’s (1853-1855) Essay on the Inequality of the Races to Stuart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century ran a streak that offered the intellectual justification for the myth of the Aryan race. Hitler borrowed from Chamberlain’s ideas in the Mein Kampf. In America, Madison Grant, a naturalist at the American Museum of Natural History of New York in his book The Passing of the Great Race argued that people of Nordic extraction were superior. He acted as advisor to the committees legislating on immigration quotas. Quotas were set up for immigrants, favoring those from Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries and Germany. Differences between people have over and over been used as the excuse to exclude them from participating as equals in the works of the society. Blacks have “rhythm”, women have “in. tuition” and they are both ill-fitted to interact efficiently in modern technological society. They are as we all know, “different”.

Hormones and Women

Another area which is a reservoir for the “naturalists” and of potential danger for women who will let themselves be intimidated by the “experts” is the area of hormone research. Well, everybody knows that females and males differ in sex hormones and since sex hormones enter the brain, you might run into a “scientist” who will say that there must be innate differences in “nature” The only thing that can be said is that there are differences in physiological state8 . How are these relevant to behavior? This is a complex relationship: any physiological state can lead to a variety of emotional states and outward behavior. depending on the social situation. Estelle Ramey, professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, discusses the evidence in her paper “Sex Hormones and Executive Ability”.9 She clearly states that for humans, it is the human cerebral cortex, not the endocrine system (which produces hormones) that confers the almost infinite variability characteristic of human responses to stimuli from the environment. What are the innate and immutable behavioral characteristics of the adult that can be attributed to the hormonal differences in the two sexes? More and more evidence suggests that humans are psychologically neutral as far as sex is concerned at birth.10,11 This psychosexual neutrality eventually develops into one or other orientation depending on the life experiences which individuals will encounter. We should be talking about our social interpretation of what is a man and what is a woman. This is called “gender role” and it involves a person’s own sex image, manner, interests, dreams, plays, reaction to situations, casual comments, spontaneous conversations. As reviewed in Ramey’s paper, in humans the attempts to correlate “typically” male or female gender roles with the basic physiology of development of the sex organs have not been very successful. In fact, there is evidence that genetic identity may be entirely overridden by early childhood training.

What about testosterone, the male hormone favorite to explain the “differences”? Precisely the choice of this hormone as significant shows the bias of these studies. The fact is that behavior characteristic of aggression is associated with changes in practically all the hormonal system. The animal studies themselves show that testosterone levels can be associated with pecking order only under certain conditions:

The same monkey with high testosterone levels when he is at the top of the hierarchy can be shown to have low testosterone levels in a different social order. In other words, it looks as if the high testosterone levels do not determine ranking order or leadership but the behavioral coordinates of being top monkey may change testosterone secretion along with many other physiological parameters.12

Sex hormones surely play a role in conditioning aspects of behavior in humans; the problem is to separate the imprinting due to hormonal mediation and the one due to learning. There is a tendency to extrapolate from animal studies (rats and primates) whatever seems to fit with the rather simplistic notion that hormones are destiny. There is serious good research being done with the intent of distinguishing what are the facts and what are the fantasies in the area of sex differences.13 There is a ray of sanity, and I quote again Ramey’s paper:

There can be no better conclusion to this rather pointless argument than to quote from the brochure that advertises a new book to be published in the Fall of 1972. The authors are the great authorities in this field, John Money and Anke Ehrhardt and the book is called “Man and Woman, Boy and Girl”. These experienced investigators are described as having reached the following conclusions: “In general, the authors’ research suggests that there are as great differences between individual men and individual women as there are between members of opposite sexes. They conclude, therefore, that the social roles of men and women should be related to individual needs rather than to membership in a sexual caste.”14

Birth Control and Contraception

The myth of the neutrality of scientific research explodes finally on the area of contraception. We all know that both the female and male reproductive systems are involved in the creation of a new being. However, 80% of the money and effort for new research in contraception is devoted to research on the females and the residual 20% for the male. While there are a variety of methods (awkward and inefficient as they are or plain dangerous) for the female, there is only one available for the male, the condom. The explanations offered for this situation run as follows: scientists know more about women because women have babies; women are the ones who get pregnant so it is safer and psychologically more reassuring to be in charge of one’s own contraception because who would trust a man anyhow. Apart from the sad fact that many women do enter into sexual relations with men they should not trust, the reality is that scientists do know more about the female reproductive system simply because they have studied it for many more years and have conducted their experiments on the material of their interest.

A balanced scientific approach would have required as intense a study on the male reproductive system, of which we certainly know very little, and adequate experimentation on the male subjects. By explicit statements of workers in the field we know that it is easier to experiment on women than on men:

Women can easily be assembled for clinical studies through their association with Planned Parenthood clinics and individual obstetricians or gynecologists; there exists no simple mechanism for assembling similar groups of males for clinical experimentation. 15

which clearly shows the scientist being caught in the value system of the society he is working in. Not only are women more expendable than men but also because of their subordinate position they are less likely to ask embarrassing questions or demand reparations (see Veatch’s article16, a report documenting research on side effects of the pill on Mexican women, who were unaware that they were part of an experiment and the pregnancies that ensued from it.)

The question of safety of oral contraceptives has often been dismissed as a sensationalist radical move. This is not so. The first book on the issue, Barbara Seaman’s The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill17, opened the eyes of women activists to another area in which women were being exploited. We still do not know what is going on with the pill and cancer. The National Cancer Institute is working on programs to test if the pill can both cause and prevent cancer18. In the meantime new reports keep coming in including one about a piece of research discovering that women using birth control pills experience bodily depletion of vitamin C19. A bit of information that should give some perspective on this issue is the fact that after a three year study of the pill and the IUD by the Soviet Academy of Medicine, the Russians decided to produce IUD’s but are still researching hormonal contraceptives, in other words, there is no pill for Russian women as yet20.

In the case of male contraception unusual stress is put on the need of finding agents that would inhibit sperm production without interfering with potency, libido or causing nausea and headaches. To quote the Westoffs in their book From Now to Zero:

In fact the perfect method of contraception may in the end depend on incapacitating the sperm rather than tampering with the female system.

and then,

How will men feel about receiving a capsule? Will they give up this one stronghold of male ego, even if temporarily? Will they voluntarily agree to sterilize themselves as nine million women Pill users in this country are doing every day? Or will they balk?21

Let us remember at this point that medicine and scientific research are male strongholds. Men have studied women and have somehow put themselves above nature. We know so little about the male reproductive system that news of hormonal and emotional cycles in men are greeted with disbelief and genuine shock 22,23. But who benefits from this ideology? Who runs the entire scientific and technological establishment? Needless to say, a small powerful elite, mainly white males, whose interests run opposite to those of the great majority of people, both men and women.

A final point: to assume that because women bear children they have to be the sole partner responsible for contraception makes as much sense as to assume that since blacks have pigmented skins they should be out in the field doing physical work under the sun because they are “naturally” fitted; they will not get a sunburn. That is nothing less than cultural exploitation of natural differences between people in order to deny them the full range of options, and it should be recognized as such.


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  1. Carroll and Charles Rosenberg, ‘The Female Animal’: Medical and Biological Views of Woman and Her Role in Nineteenth Century America, University of Pennsylvania, Manuscript, 1972.
  2. Charles D. Meigs, “Lecture on some of the Distinctive Characteristics of the female.” Delivered before the Class of the Jefferson Medical College, January 5, 184 7 (Philadelphia, 1847). Quoted in the Rosenbergs’ paper.
  3. Bruno Bettelheim, “The Commitment required of a woman entering a scientific profession in present day American society” in “Woman and the Scientific Professions,” the MIT symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering, 1965.
  4. Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, Dell, 1967.
  5. Lila Leibowitz, “Desmond Morris is Wrong About Breasts, Buttocks and Body Hair,” Psychology Today, 3, 9, 1970.
  6. Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups, Random House, 1969.
  7. Morton H. Fried, “Mankind excluding woman,” review of lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups in Science, 29 August, 1969.
  8. Naomi Weisstein, “Psychology Constructs the Female,” New England Free Press, 1970.
  9. Estelle Ramey, “Sex Hormones and Executive Ability,” paper presented at the New York Academy of Science’s conference on ”Successful Women in Science,” 1972.
  10. John Money, G. IL Hampson and J. L. Hampson, “Imprinting and the establishment of the gender role,” Arch. Neurol. Psychiat. 71: 333, 1957. Quoted in Ramey.
  11. J. L. Hampson and G. H. Hampson, “The ontogenesis of sexual behavior in man,” in Sex and Internal Secretions, W. C. Young, ed., Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1961.
  12. Estelle Ramey, “Sex Hormones and Executive Ability,” paper presented at the New York Academy of Science’s conference on ”Successful Women in Science,” 1972.
  13. Frances Lang, “Feminine, Masculine,” from Off Our Backs, January, 1973.
  14. Estelle Ramey, “Sex Hormones and Executive Ability,” paper presented at the New York Academy of Science’s conference on ”Successful Women in Science,” 1972.
  15. Carl Djerassi, “Birth Control in 1984,” Science, September 4, 1970.
  16. C. Veatch, “Experimental Pregnancy,” Hastings Center Report, 1971.
  17. Barbara Seaman, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, Avon Books, 1970.
  18. Science News, “The pill: confusion over cancer” issue, November 11, 1972.
  19. Michael Briggs and Maxine Briggs, Nature, August 4, 1972.
  20. Barbara Seaman, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, Avon Books, 1970.
  21. Leslie Aldridge Westoff and Charles Westoff, From Now to Zero, Little, Brown and Company, 1971.
  22. Estelle Ramey, “Men’s Cycles,” Ms., Spring, 1972.
  23. Gay Gaer Luce, Body Time, Bantam Books, 1971.