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Oxytocin: The Book

Feminism vs. Oxytocin

In the 1970s, another woman and I ran a house-painting business. This was a time when women mostly did traditional jobs, and a female in the trades caused, at best, surprise. We were feminists, which meant, to us, speaking up for and acting out an end to constraints on society's ideas of what women should do.

I loved the physicality of painting and the satisfaction of seeing my work so tangible in the world. I loved the authority of running a job and the visible flouting of conventions. We hired smart women and men and trained them to approach the work with intelligence and craft.

Then, we hired Sycamore Starsister. She too was a feminist, more political than us, who welcomed the opportunity to work for women. But in the first 30 days, we had a problem. It became apparent that Sycamore was just no good when she had her period. There was a week every month when she could get little done; it seemed like it was an effort for her to even move around. I still remember her pale, sweaty face as she hauled her paint bucket up the ladder.

We were a shoestring operation. We paid people well, and we needed them to get paint onto wood. We had to ask Sycamore to stay home when she had her period.

Feminist struggle ensued. Sycamore said we were sexist; we said we were being practical. But my partner and I were as disturbed as Sycamore. How did our experience of her menstrual symptoms gibe with our claims that women could do anything men could do?

Thirty years later, we're still struggling.

Feminists are protesting that Louann Brizendine's best-selling book, "The Female Brain," reinforces sexist stereotypes.

One of the harshest critics is Linda Hirshman, author of "Get to Work," a book that challenges women to stay in the workforce to help break the glass ceiling. She writes in her blog,

"… [T]errible methodology and hostility to women's aspirations combine to create an apparently unlimited market for books that punish ambitious women. … In "The Female Brain," Brizendine, a San Francisco Bay area psychiatrist, who runs a clinic she started to help women who think their mental problems are caused by their hormones, describes the life cycle of a contemporary American educated, neurotic, urban, privileged professional in a culture in which science is just another option, as if she had discovered Lucy, the mother of all mankind. Behavior familiar to many of us only from the wonderful bad Heather literature is presented as hard-"wired" ( the abuse of the term "wired" has already attracted the fury of the neuroscientist, Caltechgirl, not usually known for her liberal opinions, on her blog) into the female brain.

Brizendine's description of the hard-"wired" cervix and brain-softening, uncontrollable urge to mate with one's newborn baby, which makes wholesale desertion of the work place is as irresistible as the law of gravity, is the closest thing to soft porn I've seen emerging from the San Francisco Medical Center in a long time.

There seem to be questions about whether Brizendine's often categorical statements ablut xex differences are supported by the scientific literature she cites. Linguist Mark Liberman, after complaining about Brizendine's reinforcing sex stereotypes, debunked her claim that women talk more than men and use more words.

But "The Female Brain" is so successful because it feels true.

While Brizendine may exaggerate, the differences in the way oxytocin is expressed in the male and female bodies are well-documented, as are the differences in behavior caused by oxytocin's interaction with estrogen and androgen, the female and male sex hormones.

I too hate to think that our female hormones make us less able to compete in the workplace and more eager to nest. Where does that those of us who employ Sycamore Silversister and her progesterone-benighted sisters? 

Acknowledging the differences in neurochemistry gives us permission to stop struggling over some stuff.

I became fascinated by neurochemistry because it explained and validated my personal experience. It allows me to accept that men are different from me, to stop demanding that they be more like me, and to stop being angry when they’re not. It lets me feel okay that I care if the bed gets made, even if Mike doesn’t. I don’t have to wonder whether I'm frivolous for wanting a cozy house.

Nevertheless, acknowledging neurochemical differences does leave us feminists -- I still consider myself one -- in an uncomfortable place.

I don’t think the answer is to bash Brizendine as a tool of the patriarchy. We women are stuck being the ones who produce the next generation of humans. (Although many of us are now free to choose not to.) Somehow, we women have to learn to embrace our psychoneuroendocrinology, as we learn to express it in ways that allow not only ourselves but also that next generation to grow healthy and whole.