Woman: an Intimate Geography
An Abridged Review by Pop Feminist

The New York Times recently ran a story entitled “What Did You Call It?” in which the genesis and subsequent history of the word “va-jay-jay” is recounted. The word, borne of the resourceful minds on the Gray’s Anatomy writing staff, has proven a successful submission to the open application for an alternative to vagina— the unutterable word.

Va-jay-jay seems to have finally answered the prayers of the vagina-phobic masses, yearning for something less, well, icky. “Vagina” isn’t just a rather ugly word, it refers to what is thought to be a rather ugly thing: the mysterious sex organ of woman. Why is the vagina, a condition of every second person on earth, so taboo? In Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier embarks on a valiant crusade to uncover the biological and discursive history behind the vagina, the clitoris, the womb, the breast, and the whole corpus of woman which have, as we find out, been terribly misread, misunderstood, loathed, loved and shunned by the scientific community.

The biological “woman question” (yep, another one) never seems to be resolved: what does the female body do, and how does it do what it does? Amidst these vexing questions and jumbled half-answers, Angier stands up to ask why, with so many minds on the topic, don’t we already fucking know? Woman is a journey through the labyrinth of biology, with Angier as our tour guide– a veritable anatomical Virgil—who succeeds in her aim to convince us that the question she poses, is one for the historians.

While Angier’s informative work can at times err on the side of being excessively wry, the theory consistently crowded out by winks, eye-rolls and elbow-nudges, one can hardly complain given how expertly her prose brings gray science to color. And so it is with conversational elegance that Woman makes the case that the body—especially the female body—has a history. It is a canvas for cultural meanings, and is readable like any other text. Allowing that the body is a kind of literature, it’s certainly not part of the For Dummies series. It’s more of a Shakespearian sonnet, inexhaustibly productive of meaning, nuance and symbolic reinterpretation—depending on the imagination with which it is approached.

Angier illustrates the imaginative shift that takes place regarding the study of women’s bodies throughout her work, challenging the symbolic value with which it has historically been ascribed and the agendas these readings serve.

Pseudo-science (often misnamed, “science”) , as shaped by the legions of phallocentric imagination, has long been in the arsenal of patriarchal weaponry, bringing the battle of the sexes to a chromosomal level.

Early anatomists, uh, “working”.

Recalling an argument between her parents, Angier describes her father’s point that women’s chromosomes (XX) are fittingly dull and ordinary, but the male (XY) has got zazz. In this frustrating exchange, the problem of imagination is made agonizingly clear. There is agenda in this kind of “analysis”. If the opposite were true one can imagine Mr. Angier proclaiming that women (XY) were fittingly chromosomally unstable, while men (XX) are, as ever, solid and fortified. The fact is, “…the X is bigger, much, much bigger, both in sheer size and density of information” while the Y “is among the tiniest of the lot…” (21). It seems that Mr. Angier just might want to reconsider the phallus-chromosome analogy in this light.

It’s tempting to simply snicker at the transparent agendas in this kind of “science”, but a disturbing fact is being brought to light. Science and history share a common problem that has had very real and often grave reverberations in the real lives of women. The minds behind these disciplines are usually elite and male, whose (perhaps unconscious) interest in maintaining patriarchal power paradigms informs their work, which is deployed against those who must necessarily be suppressed.

One chilling example of this as Angier points out, has been the historical misconception of conception. On and off throughout western history, women were thought conceive only in the event of orgasm. Therefore, women who became pregnant after rape, “were accused of licentiousness and adultery, since their swollen bellies were evidence of their acquiesce and their pleasure, and they were routinely put to death” (50).

The theory of the “wandering womb”, the disorder behind so-called hysteria, has offered a scientific basis for women’s exclusion from the public sphere and positions of power and responsibility. Furthermore, the charge of “unnatural behavior” in the form of sexual expression, lack of desire for children, athleticism and self-determination has placed many a woman beneath the pointing finger of accusatory governances emboldened by facts and figures claiming self-evident truths in scientific books.

Even when the data has been accurate, as Thomas Laqueur describes in his wonderful study, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, the way it is interpreted can be far off the mark. Laqueur calls the ideas of Galen as phallocentric, “taking the male pattern as primary and describing the female from that reference point” (49) in imagining women’s anatomy. The woman’s ovaries resembling testicles, her urethra, an inverted phallus, scientists for centuries “thought that the human body was basically unisexual and that the two sexes were inside-out versions of each other” (49). Even if early anatomists saw the same exact autopsied body that scientists today examine, they approached their findings from a standpoint that altered its interpretation. Like an M.C. Escher illustration, an imaginative shift is required to see another picture, and form different conclusions.

A medieval anatomical illustration of women’s sex organs pictured in Making Sex.
C- Vulva
B- Vagina/ Vaginal “shaft”
A- Cervix/ Uterus
D- Ovaries
Looks like a big ol’ penis though, right?

As some enlightened historians have come to discover, a woman’s eyes may see things in a new and important way, and her mind conceive of never before asked questions, invaluable to the integrity of the discipline. Angier concludes her study with an exploration of evolutionary psychology, which posits that the theory of evolution accounts for men’s promiscuity and preoccupation with beauty, and women’s need for stability, which is Angier’s cue, of course, to call bullshit.

As with biological science, the simple explanations for gendered human behavior don’t add up and are, in fact, often untestable. The argument that women are naturally less sexually promiscuous is of particular interest given aforementioned patriarchal agendas. Angier agrees that women may not display such emboldened sexuality as men , but it is intellectually irresponsible to point to a scientific explanation when “[women] are universally punished if they display evidence to the contrary—if they disobey their ‘natural’ inclination toward a stifled libido” (366). Indeed, “the diagnosis of ‘nymphomaniac’ is never made on a man” (366), suggesting that social factors often precede and corrupt scientific findings.

Though the holes in evolutionary psychology are evident, it– as well as studies proclaiming biological determination– remains regrettably prevalent. “We want to explain ourselves to ourselves, and hormones look like a clean and quantifiable way to do so, to distinguish male from female, competitor from cooperator, domesticated from feral,” Angier explains, “we are incorrigible categorizers” (195).

It’s hard to resist cataloging Angier’s many fascinating refutes of evolutionary psychology and biological determinism, but be assured that her well made point is always the same: these explanations are not good enough. The problem with science as well as history is that we have only sketches and shaky frameworks with which to flesh out theories and assert tentative conclusions. Humans as a subject of analysis, scientific or historical are, as Angier says, “a moving target” (281)—just when the bulls-eye is in sight, we seem to loose aim. Angier is not suggesting that we throw our hands up and cease investigation, but perhaps the truths we seek to not follow straight lines, deployed from the shaft of an analytical *ahem* pistol.

Woman: An Intimate Geography is an undeniable must-read for men and women alike. If nothing else, the contested history of women’s bodies illustrates the subjectivity of all disciplines, science being no exception. Finally, Angier encourages a celebration of women and their biology. The woman’s body is a remarkable thing after all, a true testament to the wonders of Mother Nature, of Gods and Goddesses, if it must be so, a patriarchal Trinity– whatever or whoever we credit for the wonders of all life, the vagina is certainly no exception to this miracle. Oops, I mean, va-jay-jay.

Red Canna, Georgia O’Keefe