March 19, 2001
Natalie Angier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times science writer, will deliver the Women's History Month keynote address on Thursday, March 22, in Cannon Chapel. Emory Report Associate Editor/Designer Stephanie Sonnenfeld spoke with Angier about her upcoming lecture and latest book, Woman: An Intimate Geography.
| Emory Report:
Your last books were about cancer cells and the animal kingdom. How did
you decide to write Woman: An Intimate Geography?
Angier: I started off wanting to write a general book about the human body because I felt too many people didnt understand their own bodies, and most of the books out there were either sort of textbooky or something on the order of childrens books. I felt there were no books for adults about how their bodies work, but my editor, Peter Davison, was the one who suggested writing about the female body. When I started to get into the project, it took a different turn from just being about the body to being about females in general, from anatomy to behavior to evolution and psychology. This often happens with books: you start off with one idea, and you end up writing a very different book.
What information surprised
you most when writing this book?
My favorite were the fallopian tubes. They looked like sort of feathery
sea anemones. I also learned interesting things about the fallopian tubes.
They are very active. Say you have endometriosis and, as a result, one
of your fallopian tubes is lashed down into place and cant retrieve
eggs from its ovary. If there is an egg being released by that ovary,
the fallopian tube on the other side of the body will reach across to
retrieve itthey are that dynamic.
One of the things I set out to learnI was always askingwas
why female genitals smell the way they do. I found a woman who was studying
what she called the ecosystem of the vagina and found out
that, contrary to the notion of it being very dirty, the vagina is in
fact the cleanest orifice in the body. It has a chemical state analogous
to a glass of red wine or cup of yogurt (the same pH level).
I learned about how women hold the cells of fetuses in their bodies for
decades after they give birth. These are living cells that are still dividing
in their bloodstream, and this could account for any number of things.
It could account for the fact that women have more autoimmune diseases
than men do; it could be some sort of subliminal, continuing attachment
to your children long after they are born.
Your book has been praised
for illustrating science with personal stories, art and literature. Why
did you choose an interdisciplinary approach versus a strictly clinical
My own curiosity naturally makes me think both historically and scientifically,
bringing in whatever can illuminate something thats a mystery. Like
female sexualityyou cant just look at it clinically. You have
to look at in the much larger, sociocultural context.
But Im also a bit of a dilettante; Im interested in a lot
of different things. I suspect that human beings are by nature dilettantes
or generalists. When you think about how we've evolved, were not
highly specialized creatures. We are more like crows, very general, weed
species, as were called. We are omnivores; we eat everything;
we live in different environments. The cognitive corollary of our generalism,
I think, is that by nature we are curious about a lot of different things.
You once said, I really
wanted to be a man. I felt that it was just easier to be a man in this
society. Do you still feel that way?
Not long ago, while I was working on this book, I revisited this conversation
with my mother. She and I agreed that we didnt feel that way anymore.
Its not just that we are getting older and wiserbecause my
grandmother was older than both of us when the first conversation occurredbut
we decided that the more we thought about and defined the terms of being
a woman, the more we rejected the idea of what a woman is by anybody elses
We are participants in this slow but steady, revolutionary process of
redefining what it means to be a woman, and its a very interesting
enterprise. Maybe men feel the same way about redefining manhood.
Do you think men and women
will ever understand each other from both a biological and psychological
Basically, the way Gowaty phrases it, female primates, including humans,
want two things: access to resources (money, in our case) and control
over reproduction (the ability to reproduce when and with whom we want
to). Males have two goals: access to resources and control over the means
We both want the same thing, which is control over the female body, and
thats where the fundamental conflict comes in. Is that ever going
to go away? Maybe not, but I think the way in which that conflict and
dialectic plays out is something that is very context dependent.
Its the same as the innate conflict we all suffer between the desire
to be selfish and the desire to be generous, to compete or to cooperate.
That conflict is not going to go away, either.
I think men and women have a lot more in common than they do in difference.
Youve made incredible
strides in two areas that are traditionally male dominated: journalism
and science. Do you think it would have been easier to end up working
for the New York Times and winning a Pulitzer if you were a man?
There have been times that I have thought that. One of them was when
I was reporting out on the road and dealing with people. Ive been
a reporter since my early 20s, and when I was out on the road dealing
with men, I would get hit on a lot. This was very disturbing to me, and
I did not know how to handle it.
I remember being at a conference on the bonds between animals and humans,
and this guy said he wanted to give me one of his papers. This conference,
like so many conferences, was taking place in a large hotel. So I went
up with him to his room to get the paper, and he almost attacked me. He
said, Come on, you knew what you were getting into by coming back
with a man to his hotel room. I said, No, I am a reporter,
and I honestly just wanted to get the paper from you. He was so
rude and mean, and I was just completely flustered.
The other thing is that I know my husband [Rick Weiss, a science reporter
for the Washington Post] isnt condescended to to the degree
that I am. Somehow, having a womans voice in a telephone interview
conveys the impression that you are not quite as trustworthy.
In terms of my career, I have done fairly well in getting what I wanted.
If I wanted to rise up in management at the New York Times as an
editor, I probably could, because they tried to solicit me for that kind
But in that case, I dont think that I have the right temperament
for it. Not because I am a woman, but because I have something of an anti-social
streak, and to be a good manager you have to be
Can you give us a sneak
preview as to what youll be discussing in your key-note speech for
Womens History month?