September 19, 2006

Estelle Ramey: Rage On

Could a female president — prone to hormonal shifts and mood swings — be trusted to run the country? That question seemed quashed for good last year when soon-to-be President Mackenzie Allen smirkingly responded to her political nemesis’ reasons for why she shouldn’t move into the Oval Office with one of her own: “And there’s that whole once-a-month, ‘Will she or won’t she push the button’ thing.”

OK, so Allen was a fictional character. And “Commander in Chief” never made it to a second season (thanks to lousy writing and irrelevant storylines concerning Allen’s whiny husband and kids). But in that moment, the series took a concern that up until very recently many Americans probably had voiced (at least privately) and made it seem, well, quaint. The days of women in politics being judged by their biology rather than their policies appeared to be finally over (the writings of a certain columnist notwithstanding).

Estelle Ramey would have been pleased.

The 89-year-old doctor died this month, 36 years after she drew attention for refuting the assertion that women were unfit for certain jobs because of their “raging” hormones, according to the L.A. Times. Elaine Woo writes:

The controversial comments were made by Dr. Edgar F. Berman, a retired surgeon and confidant of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. At a session of the Democratic Party’s Committee on National Priorities, he dismissed Hawaii Rep. Patsy T. Mink’s call for action on women’s rights with a diatribe on what he saw as crippling differences between the sexes.

“Suppose,” Berman conjectured, “that we had a menopausal woman president who had to make the decision of the Bay of the Pigs?” (He was referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, during John F. Kennedy’s presidency.) “All things being equal,” he continued, “I would still rather have had a male JFK make the Cuban Missile Crisis decisions than a female of similar age.”

He insisted that women’s “raging storms of monthly hormonal imbalances” made them unfit for high office.

Hormonal imbalances happened to be Ramey’s specialty. When a friend told her about Berman’s comments, the endocrinologist wrote letters to the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post criticizing the Democratic advisor. The Star published her letter, in which she wrote that she was “startled to learn that ovarian hormones are toxic to brain cells.”

She pointed out that during the Cuban missile scare, Kennedy suffered from a serious hormonal disorder — Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal gland — and that the medications he took were capable of causing severe mood swings.

A short time after Berman made the offending remarks, he accepted an invitation from the National Women’s Press Club to debate Ramey. She claimed the advantage from the outset: When Berman opened by saying, “I really love women,” she clobbered him with “So did Henry VIII.”

There’s more to love Ramey for, like the fact she entered college when she 15, graduating in 1937 from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biology. And 35 years later, as president-elect of the Association for Women in Science, she took on a medical publisher that thought nude female strippers were the best way to illustrate anatomy textbooks. The L.A. Times obituary is too good to miss.

So is this Washington Post obit (via the Boston Globe), which also notes her views on women in the White House and men and women’s longevity:

“If it’s testosterone the public wants in a president, as an endocrinologist I can’t recommend a 70-year-old man in the White House. They should get a 16-year-old boy instead,” she said. “It seems the only thing the public doesn’t want to see in a president is estrogen.”

Men, she said, are clearly the weaker sex, and Mother Nature may well be a radical feminist, based on the biological evidence. The female of every species, she noted, is stronger in terms of stamina, longevity, and performance under stress.

“Men were designed for short, nasty, brutal lives. Women are designed for long, miserable ones,” she opined.


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