Amy Koerber

koerberpicTitle: Associate Professor

University: Texas Tech University


Symposium Submission:

The Hormonal Woman: A Critical Exploration of Expert and Public Rhetorics

After God so graciously created a helper for Adam, the man and woman lived together in pure bliss for a little while. Then one day, so the story goes,

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Genesis 3.6)

And we all know the rest of that story.

Whether through a religious tale about the first woman who could not resist a juicy piece of fruit, or through using the most sophisticated scientific techniques available in the 21st century, the effort to find language that accounts for the differences between men and women has been relentless. The historical era that stretches from the mid-19th century to the present has been an especially important one because it is during this time that a scientific rhetoric of sex difference has come to replace religious explanations. That rhetorical shift, with particular attention to the 1905 emergence of the term “hormone,” is the focus of my current book project and the topic I propose to address for this symposium paper.

In spite of the significant changes in understanding of sex difference that have occurred since 1850, the history that I examine in this paper is permeated with long-held Western beliefs that value reason (affiliated with the mind) over emotion (affiliated with bodily urges and impulses). Even in the most recent brain research, I argue, we can see traces of a gender-based hierarchy in which men are presumed more rational than women. Through understanding this rhetorical history, I argue, we can learn a lot about contemporary brain science and the reasons why interest in hormonal effects on female brains has been so much more intense than has been the case for male hormones and brains.

My paper addresses the “critical theory” and “methods” sections of the conference announcement. In relation to the “Looking Forward” theme, I’d like to open a conversation on the contributions rhetorical scholars can make to the well-established discipline of history of medicine. Although there is obvious overlap between these two fields, each has its own presses, book series, journals, and methodological approaches. In rhetorical studies, our approach to historical topics has been greatly influenced by Judy Segal’s kairology, which has proven to be a robust framework for illuminating connections among history, rhetoric, and culture. In addition to kairology, my analysis will also incorporate Michel Serres’ concept of time as topological. As explained by Serres, this is a conception of history as folding in on itself in a manner that resembles the kneading of dough.

Specifically, my paper will examine how ancient beliefs about the essence of man and woman continue to circulate and resurface throughout the historical period that is the focus of this paper. In the mid-19th century, many scientists believed that the frontal lobes in female brains were less developed than those in male brains and that women’s “cerebral fibre” is softer than that of men. Such scientists used these structural differences, which they claimed to have observed in dissected human brains, to account for women’s intellectual inferiority. Other scientists in this time period paid more attention to the total brain size, asserting that women’s inferior mental capacity derived from their brains’ smaller volume rather than from differences in the shape or form of specific regions in the brain.

A rhetorical shift started in the late 19th century and continued to unfold until the mid-20th century as the notion of hormones emerged and took hold, first as a vaguely defined “internal secretion” or “chemical messenger,” and eventually as something similar to our current understanding. When the term hormone was coined in 1905, my analysis suggests, it seemed that scientists might get distracted from their long-standing belief that male-female difference could be explained through deficiencies in the female brain. Instead, I argue in this paper, much research published between 1905 and the present continues to reflect centuries-old assumptions about the female brain’s inferiority. In fact, rather than leading scientists toward the more nuanced understandings that initially seemed possible, hormones as a competing explanation for male-female difference have become merged with older ways of thinking. As a result, scientists in various disciplines have become increasingly interested in hormonal fluctuation and its effects on women’s brains. Thus, even in the most recent literature, we see studies that examine, for instance, how the volume of regional gray matter in the brain fluctuates throughout the menstrual cycle, or how the “neuroplasticity” of female rodents’ brains increases after they bear offspring.

Always assumed in the language that accounts for sex difference is that women’s knowledge and ways of coming to that knowledge must be different than men’s knowledge and ways of coming to that knowledge. Thus, when Eve bit the apple that was “desirable for gaining wisdom,” the wisdom she acquired did not make her smarter than Adam; instead, it led to the irreversible downfall of the human race. And in today’s scientific rhetoric of sex differences, we see some of these same ideas resurface when scientists scrutinize the loss of mental capacities that occurs when female rats become pregnant, give birth, and begin to lactate.

As I will argue, Serres’ concept of time complements Segal’s kairology by exposing the precise manner in which old scientific or religious beliefs can resurface, even after seeming to be long disproven or forgotten. Taken together, these two theoretical concepts might point the way toward a distinctly rhetorical approach to the history of medicine, and I would welcome the opportunity of this symposium to expand my own thinking about this possibility.