In Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier takes us on a journey through the magic of the female body, exploring the science behind each of its wonderful parts and functions – ovaries (the ‘gray sacks of heirloom pearls’), the womb, breasts (here by accident, apparently), the clitoris, female chromosomes, hormones (oestrogen is a mysterious creature), menstruation and menopause, and more.
Angier makes the complex accessible, bringing science to life with human stories, a great deal of wit (including some cutting jibes against ‘that most noisome and anti-feminist of self-proclaimed feminists’, Camille Paglia) and some very quotable, call-to-arms lines: ‘Must a woman go to her grave with a speculum chained to her thigh?’ I took issue with Angier’s habit of describing the outfits of the women she interviewed, superficial in the context of the phenomenal stories these women had to tell (scientist McClintock ‘is a woman of verve…who wears bright scarves over cashmere sweaters and unexpected accessories’), but forgave her.
I was especially fascinated by the Russian doll nature of mothers and daughters (‘halfway through her fetal tenure (Angier’s daughter) already had all the eggs she would ever have, packed into ovaries no bigger than the letters ova‘), the special genetic links between mothers and sons due to the wonder of the X-chromosome (‘your brother works out to be about 6 per cent more related to your mother than to your father, and he is 3 per cent more related to your mother than you are’), the importance of grandmas (‘when Youth comes calling, Experience gets out her shovel and digs’), and a celebration of periods:
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.
Angier also shows how far the female body has become a political battleground – abortion law being one obvious area – and has lots to say about how we can raise confident daughters within this challenging context:
(Adolescent) Girls can imagine futures for each other, with outrageous careers and a string of extraordinary lovers, because it is easier to be generous to another than to yourself, but imagining greatness for a friend makes it thinkable for yourself. Sports help. Karate helps. Sticking by your girlfriends helps. Writing atonal songs with meaningless lyrics helps more than you might think. Learn to play the drums. The world needs more girl drummers. The world needs your wild, pounding, dreaming heart.
Today, the first day of Donald ‘I grab pussy’ Trump’s Presidency, women-led marches will take place across the world, as part of an international day of action to safeguard the freedoms threatened by recent political events. If I am ever blessed with a daughter, I will be encouraging her to read this book as soon as possible. We ladies spend too much time loathing our bodies rather than respecting them, and in disrespecting the marvel of our bodies we give licence to others – dismissive doctors, badly-behaved boyfriends and plonker politicians – to do the same. Here’s a book that will leave any reader with increased respect for the female body and all it can do. I am happy to post a copy to The Donald.