"Everyone," says Dr. Estelle Ramey with a poker face, "has always known men are the weaker sex. Big and strong and boom! . . . they fall like oaks in the forest. Go to Florida and there are all these blue-haired ladies running around and no men."
For some years now Ramey, 61, a professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University, has blasted holes in the myth of macho. Her first public salvo was in 1972 when Hubert Humphrey's former physician and political adviser, Dr. Edgar Berman, told a Democratic task force that women's leadership capabilities were limited by their hormones. When Rep. Patsy Mink protested, Berman labeled her a woman acting under "the raging hormonal inbalance of the periodic lunar cycle."
Enter Ramey, an endocrinologist who knows about hormones the way Hubert Humphrey knew about politics. With wit and medical data, she attacked Berman, becoming a public figure in the process. She also grew more interested in the physiological differences between men and women. Why, she wondered, did tests with animals show females withstood stress better than males?
That curiosity led to research which might interest males who thought Ramey was some kind of rabid man-hater. For the past six years she and another Georgetown University researcher have been trying to learn how to increase the life span of males, who die an average 10 years earlier than women.
"I asked why the hell more research hadn't been done by males - who do the bulk of medical research - on why males die earlier, why males are less resistant to cardiovascular disease. I was told, 'Maybe we don't want to know.' Or - and here's science at work for you - I was asked if I wanted to castrate all males.
"We were dealing with a little conundrum," says Ramey. "The little woman who outlives men . . . the weaker sex that is so physically enduring."
Ramey's preliminary findings indicate that when male animals are treated with estrogen, of female sex hormones, they seem to recover from such things as stress and blood vessel damage faster. One common substance, aspirin, has been reported helpful in preventing a recurrence of strokes in men while offering no corresponding effect for females, which suggests females already have a stronger kind of internal protection than men.
At any rate, Ramey says her research points up the importance of finding "out how to protect men as they're growing up by using agents that don't interfere with the reproductive hormones." The result could be a male hormonal system more resistant to stress and other factors that lead to disease and death. Noble for a woman of science once called "the Mort Sahl of feminism."
Nonsense, says Ramey.
"Every feminist I know who is a mature woman wants at least some men to live. I want my grandson to live and my son, and I'm fond of the man I've lived with 38 years. There's emotional poverty in outliving your life's companion. Women desperately want their men to live. I will say I think the fact I want to go full-steam ahead on this is that as a woman I have no hang-ups about discovering weaknesses. As a woman, it's my interest in protecting and nurturing men.
"It's a funny kind of business, this war between the sexes," says Ramey, who argues that society should value the different perceptions each sex brings to the world. Instead, women, who are generally regarded as having better manual dexterity, for example, find themselves nudged toward needlepoint instead of neurosurgery. "Nobody says, 'Who'd want to run a railroad that way?' Linguistics skills? That means she talks too much. Samuel Johnson was once asked who was superior, men or women. He said, 'Which man and which woman?' The biological differences aren't the real problem. We're dealing with an attitude.
"You perceive strength and weaknesses as it suits you. 'Women are gentle' but 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' 'Women aren't aggressive' but 'Have you ever seen women at a bargain basement sale?' 'Men are strong' yet 'They need a nest to come home to.' Well, it's double bookkeeping. We're much more alike than we are different."