Simone de Beauvoir probably would have agreed with Natalie Angier’s theory of feminism — with one exception. De Beauvoir believed women were the biological runners-up in the gender wars; Angier, the stylish, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, takes the contrary view. In “Woman: An Intimate Geography,” she argues that women’s bodies are complex, versatile and powerful, and that they often surpass men’s. To prove her point, she takes us on a tantalizing, witty journey through female biology, debunking many entrenched stereotypes and myths and a lot of questionable science.
Equipped with an eye for detail and a sure grasp of science, Angier maps the female body — eggs, uterus, breasts, hormones, brain — enlisting a remarkable array of studies and little-known facts, as well as examples from history and literature, to offer a feminist take on biology. She explains, for instance, that the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, twice as many as the penis. “All this,” she gloats, “and to no greater purpose than to subserve a woman’s pleasure. In the clitoris alone we see a sexual organ so pure of purpose that it needn’t moonlight as a secretory or excretory device.” She details the power of estrogen on the brain and heart and the complexity of the female chromosome, which boasts thousands of genes, compared to the male counterpart’s puny two dozen.
Though Angier toys with some fringe theories about women’s biology, including one that suggests female orgasms enhance fecundity, she saves her most trenchant arguments for the evolutionary psychologists, offering a refreshing rebuttal to the gender stereotyping of Robert Wright (“The Moral Animal”) and David Buss (“The Evolution of Desire”). Women, these writers believe, are innately less interested in sex, less aggressive and more invested in relationships than men are. Angier unearths numerous exceptions and alternative explanations. DNA studies, for example, show that female chimpanzees risk “life and limb” and the lives of their offspring to cheat on their possessive mates. And if women have lower sex drives than men, Angier argues, you can’t blame biology: Cultural mores across the centuries have punished women for their carnal interest.
Unfortunately, Angier has a propensity to engage in cheerleading about everything female, and the result can be sisterhood mush. In a chapter on menstruation, she implores women to celebrate this rite of passage together: “When your daughter or niece or younger sister runs to you and crows, ‘It’s here!’ take her out for a bowl of ice cream or a piece of chocolate cake, and raise a glass of milk to the new life that begins with blood.” Moments like this make you wonder whether you’re reading an early edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.”
Still, this is a minor quibble about a meaty book. Angier challenges readers to question assumptions about women’s bodies and minds. She prods us to understand biology as a feminist tool. And her book provides the analysis and the ammunition with which to do just that.