Up With Women

When life on Earth first started, single cells depended mostly on mutation of DNA or RNA to create the variety on which natural selection acts to produce evolution to new species. Now microbiologists have discovered that microorganisms can also exchange genes through a variety of mechanisms called horizontal gene transfer. Both mutation and horizontal gene transfer enhance variation and speciation. For three and a half billion years the variation in life forms has spread out all the way to human beings. On the way sexual reproduction evolved as another way to mix genes and increase variety.

The Bible describes the evolution of man and woman in two different ways. In Genesis 1:27 God creates man and woman together on the sixth day. In Genesis 2:7 God first creates a human (adam) from the dust of the ground and blows the breath of life into (his) nostrils. This is the origin of the Biblical idea that life begins at the first breath. Later in Genesis 2:22 God uses the man’s rib to create a partner for him and calls her, “her man,” in a Hebrew pun. In English she is “woman” because she came out of man. See “Commentary on the Torah” by Richard Elliot Friedman for an illuminating discussion of creation according to the Bible. But, since the Bible was written we have learned a lot more about how life itself and human men and women evolved. We have found out that the Bible seems to have it backwards.

In Science, October 29, 1999, Lahn and Page trace the history of the development of the Y chromosome from the X. About 300 million years ago there was no distinction between the X and Y chromosomes. At that time animals essentially had two X chromosomes. Then, in a series of four major changes, large segments of one X were deleted or inverted producing first monotremes, then marsupials, then mammals, then primates about 40 million years ago. Modern humans are the last step in this evolution, first separating from our common ancestor with chimpanzees about six million years ago, then walking out of Africa as anatomically modern humans about 100,000 years ago. The Y chromosome that determines maleness is a puny fragment of the X from which it was derived, having only 19 of the X’s original hundreds of genes. But puny though it is, the Y determines maleness. The theological problem created by modern molecular biological research is that it is more reasonable to say that man is a derivative of woman than to say that woman came out of man. But the resulting sexual reproduction still serves the purpose of mixing our genes for each new generation so that variety is continually generated and natural selection has new material to select for or against.

So women are XX and men are XY. Even though maleness could be said to be a variation on femaleness, generated only so that natural selection would have more variety to work with, the XYs have asserted their primacy throughout history. In the Bible we see that women were second-class citizens. Eve was blamed for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, causing the banishment of humans from the Garden of Eden. Although Jacob loved Rachael more, Leah was more fertile and Rachael was shamed by being barren. Then God opened her womb (He controls reproduction) and she gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, for whom Jacob had special fondness, creating jealousy in the other brothers. King David had many sons from many wives. His son from Bathsheba, Solomon, succeeded him on the throne and is said to have had hundreds of wives and concubines. Such numbers remind one of flocks of sheep and herds of cows and horses. Women were part of the property of successful and powerful men.

However, though relatively rare throughout history, women have risen to positions of leadership. In the Bible, Deborah led the Israelites for a while, aided by her brave general, Barack. Elizabeth I of England, after a real scramble for power after the death of her father, Henry VIII, ascended to the throne after her younger brother, Edward VI, died as a teenager. Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century were two of England’s most revered rulers. Elizabeth II, who became Queen because her father, George VI only had daughters, has just surpassed Queen Victoria as the British monarch who has reigned the longest. The world has also seen several other quite capable women as heads of government, such as Indira Ghandi of India, Golda Meir of Israel, and Margaret Thatcher, again of England. Dare I mention that Hillary Clinton may yet be President of the United States? This brings up the point that many other countries have had women as leaders but not the United States. Women are tiny minorities in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the governorships of the states. Women are also rare as bosses of major corporations, as department chairmen (or chairpersons) in academic departments, and indeed, as tenured professors in universities.

But things are changing. Gregory Pincus invented the first practical birth control pill in about 1951 which became generally available in the 1960s. Since that time the percentage of women students in college has risen to a majority and has become equal to men in professional schools such as business, law and medicine. For reasons that are dangerous to speculate on women tend to make up majorities of the graduate students in disciplines such as liberal arts and biology but are still a minority in physics and math. All of this indicates that women have brain power equal to or exceeding that of males in essentially all disciplines. However, the biological facts of childbearing and childrearing still influence how far women can advance in professions and how fast. One simply cannot deny that the ability to decide when and how often to have children liberates women to enter professions outside the home.

In spite of women’s equal intellectual capability women historically spent most of their time as American citizens without the right to vote. The Constitution was adopted in 1789. Men could vote. Women, slaves and Indians could not. After the Civil War, the 14th amendment was adopted in 1868 and the 15th in 1870, giving male ex-slaves the right to vote. This was soon suppressed for almost 100 years in the South by what we call the Jim Crow laws. The 19th amendment was adopted in 1920 which gave women the right to vote. American Indians gained suffrage in 1924 although the States of Utah and New Mexico suppressed rights of Indians to vote until 1956 and 1962, respectively. It is also worthy of note that the so-called Equal Rights Amendment was written by Alice Paul in 1923, passed Congress in 1972, and died not ratified in 1982. Section I of the ERA states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This was not ratified by 15 states in the regions of the country you might expect on account of abridging their concept of “state’s rights.” The “state’s right” of slavery was a major cause of the Civil War.

Here are some interesting observations from my time at Stanford Medical School, from 1966 to 1971 that illustrate some of the really silly problems that women have had to face. When I entered in 1966, the class had the largest female contingent ever, 12 out of 64 students. Now both Stanford and UCSD, where I have been a Professor for over 30 years, have had at least 50% women in their Medical School classes for a decade. When I started my rotation in Surgery as a fourth year student at Stanford, I noticed that the two dressing rooms for the Operating Rooms were labeled, “Doctors” and “Nurses.” Female physicians and medical students dressed in the “Nurses” room. Male orderlies and medical students dressed in the “Doctors” room. Some women took umbrage at this but it took more than a year after the first complaints were raised in the 1960s to change the labels to “Men” and “Women.” An additional problem was that women were not allowed to wear scrub pants in the OR. They had to wear dresses. One particularly brave medical student a year behind me, Elsie Wong, obtained some green scrub pants on her own and wore them. This created a larger fight than one might expect, including some condemnation of Elsie by nurses. Now almost everyone wears a pullover T shirt and pants in the OR. See the TV show, “Gray’s Anatomy,” for an illustration. The point is that these restrictions had grown up for no good reason other than tradition and were hard to take down only because they were traditional.

If you look at history, contraception (and abortion) has made such progress possible. Women can aspire to all the professions (with steroids, even piano movers). Women who have ten children just don’t have time for another career outside the home. Women who have one or two children can, with Herculean effort, have a career besides that of wife and mother. The news today is full of discussions about birth control, abortion, the views of different politicians, the laws being passed in different state legislatures restricting abortion, including mandatory vaginal ultrasounds to image the fetus, and so forth. Young women entering their late teens today were born well after the birth control pill was in common use and do not know any other world. The current controversy must be very confusing to them. They have grown up in a society where almost all women use birth control methods no matter what their religion and now they hear women called “slut” or “prostitute” for doing so. They see Republican politicians decline (out of fear?) to condemn Rush Limbaugh for using such language and hear candidates such as Rick Santorum state that they even oppose birth control within marriage. Though amniocentesis makes it possible to identify devastating fetal anomalies such as Trisomy 18 or Tay Sachs disease and prevent their delivery by abortion, some legislators and Presidential candidates oppose both the diagnosis and therapy that would prevent these conditions. Some even oppose abortion in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. What are young women of today to make of this? Must every act of love-making carry the risk of pregnancy? Does every ovulated egg or ejaculated sperm have some “right to life?” I would point out that God doesn’t seem to think so since we now know that a majority of fertilized eggs don’t make it all the way to delivery of a normal baby. Of course, one could argue that this result is God’s business. But is it? Is this assertion made by God or men? Why shouldn’t a woman have control over her sexual and reproductive life? Why should men, clergy or legislator, control this? Just because it is traditional?

Here are some numbers to think about. Women are born with about two million eggs of which they will ovulate at most a few hundred. If they become pregnant, ovulation is suppressed for nine or more months since it often does not start again while the mother is nursing. A typical male ejaculate has about half a billion sperm. Over the years males produce trillions of sperm. Any baby is the product of one of about two million eggs and one of half a billion sperm. The huge majority of eggs and sperm go to “waste” during any act of sexual intercourse or during any human being’s life. Making every act of intercourse more likely to produce an offspring doesn’t make even a tiny dent in this fact. Every fertilization of an egg by a sperm is a random act occurring out of millions times billions of possibilities. So what is the point of saying that sexual intercourse should always risk pregnancy? We do know that the more children a woman has the more her other life options are restricted.

Lastly, there is a lot of evidence that shows that human overpopulation is getting to be an increasing burden on the Earth’s resources. For some reason the acceptance of this scientific observation divides along conservative and liberal political leanings. The conservative objection is that for society to restrict reproduction on the grounds of protecting Earth’s strained resources restricts an individual’s right to govern his/her own behavior. They don’t want the government telling people how to live their lives. Really? But facts are facts. Human activity and just population itself are straining Earth’s resources and we are going to have to restrict human reproduction in the near future. One of the best ways to do this is to allow women to govern their own reproduction, reduce the number of children they have and thereby have opportunities to enter professions. Societies where women are well-educated have birthrates at or below maintaining the current population. China, with its evidence of infanticide shows us how ugly this problem can become if women aren’t allowed to control their own reproductive lives and enter professions freely.

So, what will American women do about this? Women make up a majority of the electorate. Some men have shown that their desires to control the lives of women have not changed from medieval times. Women need to take notice of politicians with these attitudes and exercise their voting right to keep them out of public office. Women need to run for office. The quality and substance of debate change when women participate. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Professor of History at Harvard, wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” But voting one’s own self interest is not really bad behavior and it can make history. I apologize in advance for being a man and telling women what to do.