"Rave On" is the Page Turner series that asks feminist writers, artists, musicians, activists, leaders, and scholars to talk about a book that completely rocked their world. Today we feature filmmaker Therese Shechter, creator of the documentary I Was a Teenage Feminist, on Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier.
My feminist inspiration came from an unlikely place: the world of science. Natalie Angier's book Woman: An Intimate Geography is all about women's bodies—from the smallest component, the single-celled egg, to great big concepts, like female sexual desire.
Angier describes what she does as "liberation biology," mixing hard science, personal stories, and sharp analysis of so-called conventional wisdom in a totally readable style. She wants us to love our bodies—but not in an Oprah way. She wants us to be exhilarated by our XX chromosomes and all that comes with them. Her question is simply, What makes a woman? The answer is a revelation.
I came across the book in an airport bookstore at an especially rough time in my life. I had just left a lucrative job in Chicago journalism to try my luck at being a filmmaker in New York. Approaching 40, single, childless, insecure in a challenging new career, alone in a new city, not exactly looking like a supermodel, I felt totally unmoored. It felt like everything about me was wrong.
I should say at this point that although I'm pretty sure I was a feminist at the age of 13, I lost that thread somewhere along the way. I was in need of some empowerment, but had no idea where to look. A few pages into Woman, my world was rocked. First, I realized how ashamed and insecure I was about my inherent femaleness: my scents and secretions, my aggression, and my desire. Second, I realized that I hadn't experienced anything this empowering since I watched Free to Be…You and Me back in 1974.
By the time I finished the introduction, I knew I would never think about myself the same way again. And maybe more importantly, I had a whole new framework for dealing with how others thought about me. This new worldview unleashed my activism and inspired me to start work on my first documentary, I Was a Teenage Feminist. Several years later, I find myself going back to the book again and again for my new documentary and blog about virginity and female sexuality.
I've always liked science and in this book, Angier uses it as a hammer to slam nails into the coffin of sexism—the kind of sexism that is routinely accepted as fact by much of society. After you've read the chapter on estrogen called "Venus in Furs," you'll probably never look at menstruation, menopause, or your sex drive the same way again. You know that evolutionary biology theory used to justify why men should be allowed to screw around and women just want a good provider and hate sex? She uses a wealth of scientific data as well as common sense to blow a giant hole in it.
When she writes about how every embryo begins female and only half turn male, she invokes the biblical story of Adam and Eve and wonders whether maybe they got it totally wrong. In her biological universe, we don't need no stinkin' Adam's rib. We happened first. Adam was made from us!
A chapter about how our bodies change during pregnancy ends with an impassioned support of abortion rights. Not just for all the political reasons, but also because a woman who carries a child to term and then puts it up for adoption must spend the rest of her life with its biological and chemical imprint forever in her body. She considers it "vicious" to force a woman to carry a baby to term only to have to give it up.
Angier teaches us about the importance of organized activism by writing about the intense sisterhood of our close relatives, the Bonobo apes, a group of "females sticking up for each other to such a degree that they are rarely violated or even pestered by males, despite males being larger and stronger."
This book isn't about male bashing. What does piss Angier off is how disinterested the male scientific community has been about what goes on inside us. As she writes: "From a man's perspective, the mechanism behind the growth of the fallopian tubes simply can't hold the fascination of the recipe for a penis." When data can be routinely under-researched or misinterpreted, it's clear why the world needs more female scientists.
Woman: An Intimate Geography may not be the first thing you think of for feminist inspiration, but it should be up there with Backlash and Manifesta, among so many others. Don't be scared off by the science tag. The book is so much fun to read—and to read out loud to your friends. In writing this column, I started to underline my favorite passages but realized whole chapters would be covered in ink. So I've picked one that, although it's not really scientific, always touches me:
"Learn to play the drums. The world needs more girl drummers. The world needs your wild, pounding, dreaming heart."
Therese Shechter is a filmmaker, writer, and activist whose documentary I Was a Teenage Feminist is probably screening in a woman's studies class near you. She's currently making a documentary about society's attitudes towards virginity and writes the blog The American Virgin on the same subject. Her production company, Trixie Films, is based in Brooklyn.