Friday Bookshelf - The Second X

It's Friday and though I have no heart for blogging, I promised you last week a new feature called "Friday Bookshelf". I feel some obligation to deliver, especially since I can't seem to get the damn Joy of Science discussion posts finished and now I'm sure they'll take even longer with this new blog malaise on top of a weekend full of activities planned by Mr. Zuska. I've had migraine all day and I haven't eaten so this is bound to be a mess, but for what it's worth...

I made a daring move and took the SECOND book off my bookshelf. It's called The Second X: The Biology of Women by Colleen M. Belk and Virginia M. Borden. Belk and Borden are both on the biology faculty at University of Minnesota-Duluth; Borden is an adjunct and Belk is an instructor. Despite their tenuous positions they have written this wonderful book as well as a biology textbook and accompanying lab manual.

The Second X is written to be used as a textbook, and has been used in women's studies classes. The title, of course, is a play on Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, and the authors say "In this text, we hope to do, in a small way, for women's biology what Simone de Beauvoir did so powerfully for the social status of women."

There are 14 chapters. The first three, "The History of Women's Biology", "Understanding and Evaluating Science", and "The Evolution of Sex and Gender", are meant to contextualize the biology to follow, and to help non-scientist readers understand how to critically evaluate what science says about women's bodies. Making those evaluations depends on having a solid understanding of what's been said about our bodies throughout history - understanding the legacy and metaphors handed down into the present; understanding how social factors influence design and interpretation of experiments in the biological sciences; and understanding how evolutionary explanations of gender roles may be limiting in our conceptions of the biological basis of sex and the relationship of behavior to sex.

The remaining 11 chapters cover "major themes in the life cycles of women", from sex determination and sexual differentiation and development, to menopause and aging. Along the way we look at anatomy, menstruation, oogenesis and fertilization, pregnancy and birthing, postpartum, fertility control, and women and cancer.

Here's a delightful quote for you from chapter one:

The residual effects of these philosophies [of women as a multilated male] can be seen in the negative aura currently surrounding women's biology. Not many people, male or female, would argue that women should be proud of their biology, while men are urged to do so. Take for example the braggadocio associated with male reproductive processes. Sperm counts are a sign of virility, while we would never expect to hear a woman boast about her egg counts. Think of how odd it would sound for a woman to say "Why, I ovulated well into my fifties."


They also talk about the shame associated with menstruation, and the common tactic of walking to a public restroom with a tampon tucked up the shirt sleeve, not held in the hand, if not taking your purse along with you wherein it lies safely buried. Oh my god I wrote "tampon" on a public blog. Now people will now I have periods! The shame!

I once wrote a rather funny short little piece about the shame of going to the bathroom with a tampon in hand...if I can dig it up I'll share it with you some day.

Anyway, this book is not something you'd probably buy for light reading; it's definitely a textbook. But it's a nice piece of work, and a lovely example of how feminism might transform one corner of the sciences.

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My tampon story:

A male friend who is a deer hunter told me that he uses used tampons as deer bait. He apparently takes them out of the trash once his wife has done with them [eeek].

However, if he is in the grocery store and his wife puts tampons in "his" shopping cart, he hands her the money and walks out the store. He doesn't want to be seen buying "feminine hygiene" products.


Ooohhh...tampon stories.

My brother and I used to take the tampons out of the wrapper and then push the string up into the body of the applicator. Then we'd hold the front part and give the back a good whack, launching the tampons at each other in mini tampon wars.

Eventually, he actually bothered to ask what the things were we were launching at each other.

Needless to say, we don't play that game anymore, but man, it was hilarious when we did.

What about the shame western culture attaches to the natural act of breasfeeding? I breastfed both my infants, and was practiced at doing it discreetly, such that you would have to be paying pretty close attention to me to tell I was breasfeeding at all, rather than just holding my baby. I used to breastfeed in public all the time and it was rare that anyone even noticed me (my discreet style came from a fair amount of of practicing in front of a mirror).

However, despite my ability to feed my babies the natural way without actually looking like I was doing it, I *never* would breastfeed in front of my physicist colleagues...even my physicist friends. There is so much shame (if that is the right word) associated with it that I did not dare to compromise my career on the likely chance that one of my male colleagues would have an extremely negative reaction to me feeding my infant in front of them. I mean, jesus, wasn't it bad enough they had to look at my huge pregnant tummy for months on end without having to view something as gross as a baby eating???

Some might be asking why the issue of me breastfeeding in front of co-workers would ever come up in the first place...the answer is that I was denied maternity leave after the birth of my second child and she couldn't go into daycare until she was 6 weeks old so I used to take her into work with me when she was a newborn and she would sleep most of the day in her baby carrier under my desk.