The Bible has it that woman was molded from Adam's rib; the Greeks, that she was an irksome gift from the gods; and it was Pandora whose immoderate curiosity unleashed all the world's miseries. After centuries of publicity like that, it seems only just that the truth should turn out to be something else entirely: Nature's initial form is feminine; male development is, in fact, a deviation (dependent on two hormones) from the basic female pattern.
The data are cited in Juanita Williams' Psychology of Women: Behavior in a Biosocial Context, an extensive 400-page survey of research and modern theory about women which is not at all limited to psychology, but considers biology and behavior in fetal development, the emergence of innate and environmentally influenced differences between boys and girls during infancy and childhood, and the manifestation of those differences during other times in people's lives. It even sketches some of the myths - and, later, the psychoanalytic theories - which the actual second sex has applied in trying to deal with women.
From Freud, to Deutsch and Erikson, to Alfred Adler, Margaret Mead and others, Williams traces the evolution of psychological theory from its culture-bound, paternalistically oriented analytic origins to the fascinating cross-cultural studies in which Mead demonstrated that among primitive tribes aggressiveness and nuturant behavior are not gender-assigned as they have been in Western cultures; among the Tchambuli the roles and characteristics of men and women are the reverse of what we know; and among the Mundugomor, both sexes are aggressive, rivalrous, and by Western standards cruel to their children.
In fact, says Williams, there are only four behavioral invariates that can be absolutely related to sex: males impregnate and females menstruate, gestate and lactate. Practically everything else that qualifies as behavior is up for grabs.
There are some real physical differences: Boys and girls tend to reach their respective physical and sexual peaks at different ages. Female infants are biologically more mature at birth; males are generally bigger and stronger.But on the other hand there are estimated to be two to four times as many boys conceived as girls, but by birth, only 1.06 males has survived for each female. And by age 67, only 70 men survive to every 100 women - which certainly makes the male the more fragile of the species.
But by far the greatest part of what makes maled behavior or female characteristics - supported by a look at some "accidents of nature" who were brought up in a gender other than that represented by their chromosomes - is the behavior, attitudes and expectancies of the parents and the society with which a child grows up.
This mass of information - which also deals with birth control, pregnancy, aging, life styles and societal variations - isn't easy to take at a gulp. Moreover, you might challenge some of the research Williams has sampled, or wish for clearer explanations or a less dense style at times. But the book is well-referenced for those who want to dig deeper, and as a survey, it has an impressive scop. (Norton, $13.50)