Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter

Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter.

I’m interrupting the series on the value of contraception for women, society, and the environment, to reblog this. The link is to a blog post by a woman scientist, and it offers insight into what women in the sciences must endure regularly. As she says elsewhere, it’s a wonder there are any women in the sciences. I am glad to have taken early retirement and to have had a marvelous second life traveling and writing. If I sometimes seem jaded, the above link should help explain why.

Posted in Being a Woman, social reform, Women and Men, women's health | Tagged | 2 Comments

Contraception and Human Social Well-Being


Not only is contraception good for women’s health, it is good for the health of a society, for the well-being of all its citizens.

Humans are social animals and smooth social functioning requires social structures and behavioral specialization, particularly involving group protection and child rearing. In Paleolithic tribal units, comprising between 30 and 150 individuals, interactions within the group were largely motivated by instinctual impulses and behaviors.

The functions of control and caring, essential to group cohesion, tend to be instinctively assumed by males and females, respectively. The steroid, testosterone, and the neuropeptide, arginine-vasopressin (AVP), usually in higher levels in males, promote aggression and the urge to control. By contrast, the steroid, estrogen, and the neuropeptide, oxytocin (OXY), normally higher in females, promote attachment and care-giving behavior.

Prior to the ready availability of contraceptive methods, the life-long preoccupation of women with childbirth and child-rearing robbed society of the wider civilizing force of female caring. Moreover, prior to the 19th century, with little opportunity for education, women had hardly any chance to contribute to the wider social good through political activity.*

In the 19th century, a few educated women instigated a great many of the unprecedented social reforms that took place at the time. Thus, educated women, often eschewing marriage and freed from the bonds of child-bearing and child-rearing, contributed enormously to social welfare in both America and Europe. We who are alive today can hardly imagine the conditions of life endured by those who lived only two centuries ago.

For example, Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale introduced the modern-day principles of nursing care as a consequence of witnessing the horrors of medicine during warfare. Barton was a field nurse in the American Civil War, and she afterwards established the American Red Cross, one of our most respected social-welfare organizations. Nightingale, a brilliant English woman and a skilled mathematician, cared for soldiers during the disastrous Crimean War, transforming the practice of battlefield care. She also developed mathematical models of epidemiology that improved mortality statistics in battlefield hospitals. She is viewed as the mother of modern nursing, but is less well known for her intellectual accomplishments.

Women were also essential participants in the abolitionist movement, inspired and supported by Harriett Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Harriett Tubman, and Lucretia Mott, one of the founders of co-educational Swarthmore College, as well as by two Grimke sisters from Charleston, Sarah and Angelina, who worked with northern abolitionists.

Social reforms of the 19th century, which were promoted primarily by women, but which did not come to fruition until the 20th century, included equal rights for women themselves, such as women’s suffrage, as well as the right to limit pregnancy by means of contraception. A great number of women were involved in these causes—too many to name or number—but some of the most notable included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the earliest suffragists, who wrote the Declaration of Sentiments (modeled on the Declaration of Independence); Sara Josephine Baker, a child-welfare advocate who is said to have saved the lives of 90.000 children in New York; and Margaret Sanger, who actively advocated for birth control and founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood.

Many of these women were both educated and celibate. Others intentionally limited the number of their children as best they could. It could be argued that the education of women in the nineteenth century catalyzed the wide-spread social reforms of the past two centuries.

posted by Planned Parenthood

Here are some interesting facts:

  • The first birth-control clinic in the U.S. was opened in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, who was almost immediately arrested and went to trial. She was convicted of running “a public nuisance” and the trial judge ruled that “women did not have the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”
  • It required a Supreme Court ruling in 1965 (Griswold vs. Connecticut) to overturn state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married people.
  • Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws prohibiting abortion during the first trimester, occurred in 1973, a mere four decades ago.
  • U.S. law does not allow birth-control information to be included in government-sponsored or government-funded aid to overpopulated, starving, and disease-ridden foreign countries.

Women, their concerns, and their value structures, are largely left out of political decision-making, even today.

Still, the virtues of caring and cooperation are at the very core of any civilized culture. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that civilization may have become possible, at least in part, because of decreased human male testosterone levels.** Anthropological evidence indicates that this occurred in humans following the Neolithic revolution, as agriculture came to contribute increasingly to human nutrition. The resulting decrease in male competition allowed the rise of large aggregates of cooperating people–a phenomenon we call civilization.

Because women tend to be more naturally empathetic than men and less prone to violence, their influence serves as a civilizing force on those cultures in which they are allowed power. We currently need more women in decision-making positions.

The very survival of civilization depends on it.


*A few notable exceptions were female monarchs, who ruled during the Age of Enlightenment. I plan to address the extraordinary influence of these women on European and world culture in another blog.

**The evolutionary selection pressures favoring increased socialization and decreased testosterone would make interesting speculation.

Posted in abolition, Abortion, Being a Woman, contraception, Motherhood, social reform, Women and Men, women's health, women's suffrage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Contraception and Women’s Health

The debate over contraception and abortion has raged around moral issues such as whether or not destruction of a conceptus (a fertilized ovum) is equivalent to destruction of a human life, and whether or not the use of contraception promotes promiscuity in women. I have yet to see the issue of promiscuity in men addressed except as it relates to rape; I have never seen it referenced in any contraception discussion I have read, heard, or watched.

Several issues of major human concern, which I have never seen addressed by those who are anti-choice or against birth control, and which are seldom considered even by pro-choice advocates, include:

  1. women’s physical well-being,
  2. human social well-being, and
  3. environmental well-being (quality of life on this planet).

In the next three blogs, I will address these three issues, which are effectively at the ethical core of the debate over contraception and abortion. These are larger issues about long-term human survival, unlike the false debate about whether a cell (or a cluster of cells) with 46 chromosomes is a human being.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge up front that the reproductive system, unlike all other bodily systems, is NOT designed for the preservation of the individual. All other systems of the body—for example, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and urinary systems—contribute to the maintenance and well-being of the person in whom they are found.

The function of the reproductive system, by contrast, is procreation and preservation of the species. It does not contribute to homeostasis; indeed, it frequently throws off the metabolic balance of the individual. A pregnant woman may develop gestational diabetes, for example—or osteoporosis, or circulatory problems, or pelvic floor damage, or lower back problems. So whatever else a pregnancy does, it takes a serious toll on the body of the woman carrying it, which can lead to long-term health problems.

Indeed, under circumstances “in the wild,” where no medical care is available, the likelihood of a woman dying in child-birth over her lifetime is about one for every seven to ten women. This dismal maternal death rate persists in many parts of Africa.

Comparable maternal mortality was also the case in the U.S. in the 1700s and early 1800s. Oddly, in the late 1800s, childbirth death rates actually increased substantially, largely because physicians replaced midwives as childbirth assistants. “Doctors” were often ill trained, were inclined to use instruments, and did not use aseptic technique. So the incidence of puerperal (childbirth) fever rose alarmingly, in some places as high of 40% of all deliveries.


Figure: Annual death rate per 1000 total births from maternal mortality in England and Wales (1850-1970)




J R Soc Med. Nov 2006; 99(11): 559–563.

These figures fit well with information from my own family history. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Cornwall to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late nineteenth century, had a total of twenty one children, with three (sequential) wives, two of whom died in childbirth. And only seven of the children survived to adulthood, one of which was my grandfather.

So it certainly was dangerous to be a woman prior to the mid-twentieth century. And the past high mortality among women may account for much of our culture’s patriarchy; it has always been debilitating and/or limiting to carry, bear, and care for children.

Along with improved medical care, the availability of birth control has enhanced the health and productivity of women in this and all other modern nations. Those who wish to limit women’s access to birth control apparently do not care about women’s health. To try to turn back the clock on the past century’s improvement in the well-being of women is cruel, unthinking, and barbaric.

Posted in Abortion, Being a Woman, blogs, contraception, Women and Men, women's health | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Women, Writing, and Blog Hops

woman-writing-poetry1  About a month ago, I agreed to participate in a blog hop focusing on the Writing Process. For those (few?) of you who haven’t participated in a blog hop, it goes something like this. One person writes a blog on a designated topic and, in the writing, links back to the original blogger as well as to one or more other bloggers, who then take up the baton and write on the same topic from their own perspective and for their own blog followers. This becomes a blog version of chain-mail; it’s way to promote blogs and books as well as friends’ blogs—and to increase internet interest in a specific topic or issue.

This particular blog- hop, started by Lynne Hinkey, was intended to promote the blogs and the books of Indie writers. So I agreed, having both a blog and a book I’d like to promote. Then I tried to line up a couple of author-bloggers to whom I could pass the baton, which became more problematical . Two writer-friends came quickly to mind; however, one has a blog  but her book is not yet in press, and the other has a book  but does not blog.

So I went further afield to a couple of writer-acquaintances, both of whom have blogs I follow  and books I’ve read. However, neither one had time to participate in a blog hop, which I understand, having passed through a harrowingly busy month of April, myself. And a couple other blog-acquaintances I thought of asking had been involved in recent blog hops, so I thought they were probably not up for another right now.

Since I try to keep my word (although sometimes belatedly), I feel compelled to continue this thread, but with no future promises. In this and the next post, I’ll be linking to several wonderful women writers; you can check out their sites and then pass them forward in your own blogs—or not, as you wish.

In the process of thinking about this topic and a way to frame it, I have also been mulling over women writers as a group—the ways we write, our major subject interests, the kinds of books we write, and why men seldom read books written by women whereas women often read books written by men.

So let me first fill in the blanks about the Writing Process.


Currently, I have two major projects in the works. One is a self-help book on Caring for Your Body, which brings together information on the structure and function of the body with tips on how to communicate with health-care professionals. The other is a book of short stories set in scientific labs, tentatively titled “Laboratory Notebook.” It is neither science fiction, nor truly main-stream fiction (few love affairs or dead bodies and no extraterrestrial creatures nor gruesome battles). I’ve posted a few of those stories in another blog site.


Both books I’ve published so far have been non-fiction. One is a travel memoir that takes a historical view of Korea, a country where I lived and traveled for two years. The book has a (mature) female perspective, as I compare my experiences with those of another female travel writer who visited Korea a century before I did, when she was the same age as I. The other is a book of meditations on the nature of spiritual experience, as viewed from a scientist’s perspective.

Neither book takes a traditional view of its subject matter: one is about the adventures of female travelers; the other is about spirituality from a scientist’s perspective.


I write about subjects viewed from a female scientist’s perspective, which means that I’m trained to think logically and linearly and yet can think with both sides of my brain. So I’m willing to intimate in writing the messy emotional under-story in a mesh-work of experiences described objectively. I write for others who might learn something interesting or valuable from the stories.


Unlike more economically successful writers, I take a rather scatter-shot approach to writing. I’ve actually been writing since age thirteen, when I began a journal in which I write to this day–if only occasionally–more than sixty years later. This habit has promoted an approach of introspective observer, some of which comes out in short fiction, my chief writing activity (besides scientific papers) during the decades I worked as a practicing scientist. At the time, I worked on stories when I had snatches of “free” time–for example, in airplanes on the way to and from scientific meetings. And I revised them during many evenings as after-hours mood-adjustment in place of drinking alcohol. The patient reworking of written words was deeply soothing.

Nonfiction has become a writing focus since retirement.  I’ve culled journals, letters and emails for topics of books and blogs. There seems to be endless material available.

In terms of discipline, I’ve rarely been able to specify a time each day when I write. As a consequence, my output is spotty, my blogs often lag or become temporarily abandoned, and I feel perpetually guilty and backlogged. My main discipline involves writers groups. At any one time, I usually belong to two or three groups which meet once a month, and I feel compelled to produce something new or revised for those. So—as in my prior work life—deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, seem to inspire the writing.

Moreover, I almost always have more than one book project in the works – two and sometimes three or four. I work on whichever one captures my interest at the moment, but then I may let it lie fallow if it seems to flag. When a project nears completion, though, I usually focus on that to the exclusion of all else (including housework), spending hours each day trying to revise a chapter or word-check a reference list.

So this is the writers’ blog hop I promised to do. Please click on the links in the text above (preferably opening in a new window) and read about some very interesting women writers and their work. More on women and writing in the next blog post.

Posted in Being a Woman, blogs, travel, women writers | Tagged , , , , , | 19 Comments

Are Men and Women Wired Differently? Part 2

This was my response to the blog on gender differences in brain wiring introduced in the last post.

I read your rant with a sinking heart, in part because I can understand where you’re coming from. I understand the annoyance and pain of feeling once more disempowered because you’re “different” from the “dominant” cultural type.

obvious problem

obvious problem

I don’t know how old you are or what your experience has been of the various efforts to bring into being greater human justice, including allowing women to have choices in careers and finances and marriage and child-bearing. So I will just try to relate my own background and experience, with the hope it may help you to be less angry about such studies as the one you linked to.

I am a biomedical scientist, trained as an anatomist and cell biologist during the 1960s, at a time when there were virtually no women in the field; those who existed were embattled, and almost all were single. When I received the Ph.D. and was introduced to prospective employers, the dominant attitude was, “What do you think the future could possibly be for a woman in Anatomy?” It was a rhetorical question, as the obvious answer was slim to none.

I did an end run around the reluctant Anatomy Department chairmen by doing post-doctoral studies – first in biochemistry and then in histo-chemistry. It was while working in this latter lab (with a very good boss) that I was lucky enough to get a faculty job in Anatomy because someone had died and they needed to fill the faculty position in six weeks or lose it. That was during one of those periods of 1970s belt-tightening.

It was also in the ’70s, that the women’s movement of the late 20th century took shape, and I was actively involved in trying to help pass the ERA in my state (in the process receiving a good deal of grief from male colleagues). The ERA failed to pass the requisite number of states (including mine) and I was devastated, probably feeling even greater disappointment than you felt reading the article on gender differences in brain wiring.

gender differences - salary

However, one of the things I learned by that effort (trying to pass the ERA)–and its failure–was that feminists, when they are up in arms, often don’t pay attention to reality, especially biological reality. I believe that, to a considerable extent, we–and the ERA–were defeated by other women, who felt threatened by the idea that their roles as wives and mothers were being denigrated by women whose worldview they simply didn’t understand. Many feminists of that era seemed to feel contempt for the natural, biological roles of women. I wasn’t one of those, as I was a biologist, and a wife, and a mother. And I tried to dampen some of the really negative, hysterical rhetoric that seemed to characterize the waning of ’70s feminism. But I was simply too busy with my life to be able to do much about it.

Another thing I learned after the denouement of ’70s feminism was that many of the changes that feminists were calling for actually did happen, despite the defeat of the ERA. Women now have the option of going into almost any career available to men. And women can, with enough grit and determination, become successful at almost anything they chose to do. Of key importance is that we should have choices–you know, the old “pursuit of happiness” thing.

If you had read the article carefully, you would have found several very positive comments on the skills that can come from normal female brain wiring. For example: “the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,”

Indeed, if women are in high positions in an enterprise, and/or if they make up a sizable minority of mid-level workers, the whole operation is likely to be more successful, both financially and in terms of working environment. Business school faculty know this–even if many of their former students don’t. Female monarchs such as Elizabeth I and Victoria in England, as well as Catherine the Great in Russia, reigned over countries that grew enormously in size and wealth while those women were on the throne, partly because they knew how to negotiate before fighting.

Males and females of mammalian species are constructed differently, and that difference includes not just genital anatomy, body size, muscle mass, and distribution of body fat; it also includes behavior, which is controlled by the brain. Look at all the connections in those brain maps, especially those cross connections in the frontal part of the female brain, the region where creativity and conscience seem to arise. Think, as a sociologist, about the differences in male and female behavior. Which gender is the most violent? Which produces the most mass murderers?

So I beg you, don’t declare war on biology. It will not do you or your prospects as a woman much good, and it may blind you to some aspects of the reality you need to take into consideration when making decisions. The enemy is not biology nor the finding that the sexes function differently; it is those people (usually non-scientists) who try to use scientific studies to influence a social agenda.


I guess I was lucky as a female child. My father was a scientist; the family was not religious; and I was encouraged to do whatever I wanted to do with my life (as long as it wasn’t destructive). I had one husband who tried to reverse that trend, and another who supported it to a considerable extent. I felt that I was not locked into any stereotype or situation. The key present reality (at least in the West) is that we women have choices. We are not bound culturally or biologically to doing or being what others think we should do or be.

Posted in Being a Woman, Women and Men, working mother | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Are Women and Men Wired Differently?


A few days ago I came across a blog by a woman who is clearly intelligent and is a feminist in the best sense, but she seems to be resistant to the idea that men and women may be different in their minds as well as their bodies.

The writer was incensed by what she perceived as just one more attempt by males to marginalize and belittle the attributes of women by comparing them (unfavorably?) with those of men. This despite the fact that several coauthors of the study were female, and the qualities attributed to women in the article are highly valuable in our contemporary culture. This is the report that led to the angry response.

We, as human beings, need to stop being so defensive–so eager to be in denial–about scientific evidence, and particularly about biological evidence. Scientific data should be inherently value-neutral. It is we who add the value to any interpretation of scientific results. It makes no sense denying the reality of things. Is the average world temperature rising or not? Are the polar ice fields melting? Yes it is, and yes they are. Those data are supported overwhelmingly.

It’s like asking whether or not the earth is round (O.K., spherical or eliptoidal, if you wish). It is what it is. It’s certainly possible, even desirable, to ask WHY something is as it is. And if it is an unpleasant reality, it’s certainly useful to ask if and how it can be changed. Indeed, that willingness to question reality–and to address it at its core–is the source of almost all human progress.

As with other differences between human beings, mental differences are broadly distributed, and no two brains are identical in composition or wiring (no, not even in twins). Moreover, brain wiring is highly plastic and is strongly influenced by environmental experiences.  But it is becoming increasingly clear that at least a large part (maybe not a majority) of mental functions find their origins in our genes. And these mental functions are reflected in behavior. I was struck one time when I heard a cousin laugh in another room and thought it was my brother. Those two laughs were identical in pitch and cadence. They were somehow wired to sound like that, and that wiring has some genetic component, probably like bird songs.

So I responded to her commentary with a long comment of my own, which will form the substance of the next blog post.




Posted in Being a Woman, Women and Men | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

2013 in review

I’ll be back to original stuff soon, but this seemed like an easy way to start this year’s blogging, which has flagged in recent months. This is partly because I’ve spent so much time on a book which came out late in 2013. Check it out!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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