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March 19, 2001

Natalie Angier:
An Intimate Biography

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 didn’t understand their own bodies, and most of the books out there were either sort of “textbooky” or something on the order of children’s 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?
There were so many things I learned that I hadn’t known. I was very impressed with what the internal organs looked like—I attended operations and surgeries to get a firsthand look, and I was very impressed with how beautiful [the organs] were.

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 can’t 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 it—they are that dynamic.

One of the things I set out to learn—I was always asking—was 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 tone?
I felt as though the only way to understand the female body was to look at it in 360 degrees. I myself think that way and look at the world that way. When I started out in life, back in college, I was always interested in ways to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences—which was my goal from the very beginning.

My own curiosity naturally makes me think both historically and scientifically, bringing in whatever can illuminate something that’s a mystery. Like female sexuality—you can’t just look at it clinically. You have to look at in the much larger, sociocultural context.

But I’m also a bit of a dilettante; I’m 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, we’re not highly specialized creatures. We are more like crows, very general, “weed species,” as we’re 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?
No. I remember a very vivid conversation back in 1988 at a dinner with my grandmother, who was then in her 80s, my mother, who was in her late 50s, my younger cousin Julie, who was in her 20s, and me, when I was 30. The subject came up: Would we want to be a man if we could? We all said yes—including my grandmother, which surprised me. I asked her why. She said because men have more freedom. We all agreed.

Not long ago, while I was working on this book, I revisited this conversation with my mother. She and I agreed that we didn’t feel that way anymore. It’s not just that we are getting older and wiser—because my grandmother was older than both of us when the first conversation occurred—but 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 else’s definition.

We are participants in this slow but steady, revolutionary process of redefining what it means to be a woman, and it’s 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 standpoint?
I think the “dialectics” between the sexes, a term that Patty Gowaty at the University of Georgia uses, is a kind of innate conflict that really reduces to this: Everybody wants to own the means of reproduction; everybody wants to own the future. That’s what the means of reproduction is, and the future is the female body.

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 of reproduction.

We both want the same thing, which is control over the female body, and that’s 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.

It’s 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.

You’ve 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. I’ve 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] isn’t condescended to to the degree that I am. Somehow, having a woman’s 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 of position.

But in that case, I don’t 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
a people person. That would prevent me more than my sex would.

Can you give us a sneak preview as to what you’ll be discussing in your key-note speech for Women’s History month?
Since my two favorite things are talking about women’s bodies and evolutionary questions, I’m going to combine a little whirlwind tour of women’s health throughout the ages, with a look at the evolution of beauty, about what beauty means to us. I’m going to kind of go from the inside to the outside, if you will, because that will cover both turfs—the anatomical and philosophical—by looking at how we have thought about beauty, what being beautiful means in an evolutionary sense, and why I think this Darwinian stuff is very silly.


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