Women, Feminism and Fear Part 8

Dear Nancy:

Female fear is something I’ve not given as much thought as it deserves, and your last letter to me provoked me to take a serious look at it.

I have long been puzzled by the female tendency to see our bodies as weak and incapable in a way that is qualitatively different from the weaknesses and limitations of the male body, even though female muscle is no different than male muscle, and the female body’s capacity to build strength and aerobic capacity is greatly underrated. I have also long been puzzled by the female refusal to meet male violence with violence that dominates the escalation ladder: even edged weapons can be a great equalizer.

Clearly, I think traditional high rates of maternal mortality affected the way men and women see women—and for that matter, men. And I’ve touched upon what that does to perceptions of female strength. But I didn’t give enough weight to the fact that most women—any woman who gets pregnant, no matter how that pregnancy is resolved—are going to have to do something more physically painful and demanding than most men ever contemplate. And throughout much of history, pregnancy hasn’t been a 1-3 times in a lifetime experience, but a frequent occurrence, often producing serious, even mutilating, injury; complicated pregnancies and childbirths were probably the greatest direct and indirect cause of female mortality as well. This is our body, in the process of giving life, placing us at risk of terrible injury and slow death. A risk no man could share, and that sexual morality (i.e., only having sex with your wife/lover/partner/mate when she wanted you and a child by you) could not diminish below a very high baseline risk.

Now, when I look at the female body through the prism of maternal mortality and morbidity, as well as the simple caloric demands of pregnancy and lactation, I think am starting to understand this feeling of vulnerability, this physical fear which has little to do with muscular and aerobic reality. As for the fear of men, I think this is why women (and men) tend to regard men as innately violent and testosterone some kind of monster hormone (even though it is extremely close to estrogen, so close that the brain converts testosterone into estrogen), perhaps as more violent than men regard each other, even though most male violence is inflicted upon other males. Because men did kill women in huge numbers through reproduction, whether they wanted to or not, regardless of what their attitudes towards those women were.

I think that in any civilized society, where a modicum of trust can exist between people, there is a deep male instinct to not be violent towards women, to protect them on a personal level and not rape them, but I believe the sheer level of reproductive harm men did women coarsened their instincts, and that this is why many men today whose behavior is impeccable and whose instincts are sound simply do not know how to deal with rape and domestic violence. I believe this is also true for women: and in the case of our sex, dealing with it not only when it is done to us, but to other women. It seems natural, if not good, for men to kill women, and for women to be killed by men.

What I do not know how to do is talk about this in a modern political context, say, of the draft. Or ending rape in this society.

I think our fear of displeasing men—regardless of the objective facts of the situation, like he, or most men, is not a threat, or we have our own money and work—comes down to a combination of two things. For me, the first issue is maternal mortality: since time out of mind, men really did kill and seriously injure lots and lots of women through sex, whether they wanted to or not. (That right there explains so much of the bitterness in sex roles and stereotypes.) And then, if at best you’re likely to be pregnant, nursing, or cumbered by small children, you really do depend upon a man to take care of you. Whatever you might have been, you’re not: one thing I would strongly disagree with you about is that “Constant pregnancy was necessary to the survival of the species.” Nothing ruins more women faster, thus jeopardizing the survival of their children more, than early and continual childbearing.

However, I do think it was necessary for men, and helpful for women, to denigrate, if not dehumanize women, simply to maintain their sanity in the face of very high pregnancy and maternal mortality and morbidity rates. I think this also explains, not so much male violence against women (because men are often extremely violent towards other men), but the sexual nature and context of much of that violence, and the reluctance of others (of both sexes) to deal seriously with rapists, wife beaters, the incestuous. There is an enormous taboo against looking at sex and its consequences for women with moral seriousness, which is all the more startling for the general human interest in sex, and willingness to discuss it in other ways. (A good example of this is the sheer refusal, vis-à-vis HIV, which is burning Africa alive, to regard widespread, frankly deliberate and volitional male infection of women through refusal to use condoms, rape, etc., as murder.) I have come to believe that people could not place sex in a genuinely moral context (religion is not morality), to include being unable to take seriously crimes they often genuinely abhor because doing so meant taking maternal mortality seriously: if you took wife beating seriously, as a real crime against a human being, what did that make maternal mortality? Then it becomes murder, doesn’t it? Even if you were a loving and responsible husband who did your best to never get your wife pregnant unless she wanted a child by you, the more so because you did know that she could die.

I’ve had some interesting experiences when discussing maternal mortality with men, to include a man who simply stared at me, then turned and walked away as fast as he could when I said those words. And I’ve come to believe that only now are we able to begin to address this issue without hearing the murderous mantra, “Biology is destiny.” We had to get far enough away from it to have some perspective, and I think we have to say this, to begin to touch upon this in political writing. Which must not be left to the academics.

Re: physical strength. You know, I’ve been pondering this because I’ve just hit the point of being able to do pullups. (I spent over a year trying to do them wide-armed, which of course, most people … don’t. Then I figuredout what I was doing wrong.) Here’s my take. It is impossible to be too strong, or to have too much stamina. It is entirely possible to be too big and too heavy. Your body will set natural limits on how much muscle mass you can develop and how far you can strengthen it. Ditto for aerobic capacity. There is very little research on estrogen as an anabolic steroid, and what there is, is practically illiterate. (I cannot stand jargon.) But clearly it is, and just as clearly, testosterone is only an anabolic steroid, not some monster hormone. We need both, the body provides them in pretty much the right mix for everyone, and mucking around with any individual’s personal balance is something that I find, on many levels, horrifying, if only because it is profoundly dangerous.

Men can only very rarely get the idealized upper body strength naturally, just as women are not naturally weak. Most stables in this country are run and maintained by women, and your average hay bale (to be handled all day long, without much trouble) is about 90 pounds. We got in some bad hay last spring—wet, dirt and rocks in it—in these huge, tight bales, and it was like, what were they thinking of??? Those weighed well north of 100 pounds, but by the time we got rid of it, most of the women were handling those without trouble or injury. (The one male, who was only average size, did have an initial advantage, but it wasn’t huge, it was proportional to his height and weight, especially the upper body musculature difference, and it vanished in a few months.) When I lift, the only people who lift more than me are men who are much larger than me: they can lift twice as much, but they don’t have twice the musculature in their upper body. It’s probably four times what I’ve got. So they’re not getting pound-for-pound returns. Strength does not scale up, and you start doing steroidal supplementation, even if it works, it just ain’t worth it.

And, of course, upper body strength is useless without a strong back and legs, which is a female advantage.

In evolutionary terms, it would be very strange, not to speak of dangerous, if the males and females of a species as vulnerable as ours didn’t have approximately the same capabilities and capacities. I suspect the male advantage in height and muscle mass is meant to be compensated for by the female ability to use a higher fraction of aerobic capacity than a similarly fit male, a fraction that expands with duration.

Best,
Erin

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