Estelle R. Ramey; Used Wit in Women's Advocacy

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Estelle R. Ramey, a Georgetown University endocrinologist who never hesitated to craft a funny and pointed line to overturn assumptions about the physiological differences and similarities between women and men, died Sept. 8 at her home in Bethesda. She had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Ramey, dubbed the "Mort Sahl of the women's movement" and "George Burns with an X chromosome," burst into the headlines in 1970 when she challenged the assertion of a Democratic National Committee official that women were unfit for the presidency or for handling emergencies such as the Cuban Missile Crisis because of their "raging storms of monthly hormonal imbalances."

As a credentialed expert in the field, "I was startled to learn that ovarian hormones are toxic to brain cells," she wrote in a letter to the Washington Evening Star. She pointed out that President John F. Kennedy had Addison's disease, a chronic, severe hormonal imbalance, and that his medications could result in dramatic mood swings.

"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.

Dr. Ramey became a popular and much-sought speaker on society's myths about how physiological gender differences affect political and social roles. She won over an audience of conservative women in Winter Park, Fla., and the graduates of Sidwell Friends School, where she was the school's first female commencement speaker. Always good for a quote, she appeared in major publications across the country and wrote two books, numerous scientific articles and a piece ("Men's Cycles -- They Have Them Too") for the first issue of Ms. magazine.

Her wit was rooted in statistics, scientific research and personal experience with discrimination.

Born in Detroit as Stella Rosemary Rubin, she was raised in New York City by her mother, a French immigrant who was illiterate but insisted on education for her daughter. Dr. Ramey skipped several grades, graduating from high school at age 15. Thanks to the virtually free Brooklyn College, she graduated in 1937 and was immediately hired to teach chemistry at Queens College. Teaching by day and studying by night, she earned a master's degree in chemistry at Columbia University in 1940.

She met her husband, James Ramey, a Columbia law student, at their New York boarding house. They were married by the not-yet-famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his apartment.

In 1941, the couple moved to Knoxville, Tenn., where her husband worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The chemistry department chairman of the nearby University of Tennessee refused to hire her because he thought she should be "home taking care of her husband." But when the military draft of World War II thinned his faculty of men, he asked her to teach Air Force cadets. No matter that she was pregnant -- Dr. Ramey took the job, at one-third the pay of her predecessor. Her husband, she told the New York Times, "was absolutely determined that I not falter in my career. . . . He didn't have to carry me piggyback while he was climbing.''

After the war and a short period in Washington, her husband got a job in Chicago at the Atomic Energy Commission. Dr. Ramey earned her doctorate in physiology at the University of Chicago in 1950, on the relationship of the nervous system to stress responses. She taught for several years in the university's medical school until her husband's career bought them back to Washington in 1956. Dr. Ramey became a faculty member at Georgetown, where she worked until retiring in 1987. She was a founder and the second president of the American Women in Science.

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