December 12, 2006

Another Brizendinism

Mark Liberman has posted on Deborah Solomon's interview with Louann Brizendine in Sunday's NYT Magazine (p. 22), focusing on her conversion of her earlier claim about differences in words spoken per day between women and men to a claim about "communication events" per day.  There's a lot more on comment on in this piece, but I was especially struck by another Brizendinism, another remarkable statistic, in the piece:

If women have superior verbal skills, why have they been subservient to men in almost all societies?  Because of pregnancy.  Before birth control, in the 1700s and 1800s, middle-class women were pregnant between 17 and 22 times in their lifetimes.  All those eons upon eons, while Socrates and all these guys were sitting around thinking up solutions to problems, women were feeding hungry mouths and wiping smelly behinds.

So much for the complex story of relations between women and men throughout history.  What I'm going to focus on is the claim about pregnancy rates: between 17 and 22 pregnancies per lifetime?  Where does she GET these statistics?

Two side issues...  First, it's not entirely clear how "in the 1700s and 1800s" is to be understood in relation to "before birth control": is she focusing on this time period (the 1700s and 1800s) as a period before birth control (most likely), or as the period when birth control became common (which would be suggested by the reference to Socrates, who was definitely well before the 18th century).  Second, why the restriction to middle-class women?  My guess is that she has some source that addresses middle-class women (presumably in cultures where "middle-class" makes sense as a social category) in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now, Brizendine has a source problem.  She is not herself a scientist -- she does no research of her own (in the Solomon interview, she maintains that she does no clinical research because she objects to placebos, as being cruel) -- but a clinician (she has clients/patients, not subjects), and she gets all her data from what she reads.   As Mark has observed, again and again, she relies heavily on pop literature rather than the scientific literature for her statistics.  So we are entitled to wonder where the 17-22 pregnancies-per-liftetime figure comes from.  It certainly seems very high indeed. 

My guess is that this figure is an estimate of how many pregnancies a woman would have during 35 to 40 years of fertility (and sexual activity) if absolutely no steps were taken to limit pregnancies and she herself survived all those childbirths.  Neither of these assumptions is realistic; women have always used various means to limit pregnancies, and death in childbirth has been common until fairly recently.

I've mentioned my Swiss great-grandmother who had 14 children (some born dead).  Those 14 pregnancies were spread over a 33-year period, so that there was an average of 2.35 years between pregnancies.  This happens to be the spacing for a woman with 40 fertile years and 17 pregnancies.   Assuming fewer fertile years and more than 17 pregnancies gives smaller spacings, down to 1.59 years for 22 pregnancies in 35 fertile years.

Brizendine's statistics strike me as about as believable as the following datum, which came to me in spam this morning:

Hello chap

I don't care why your member is so small, but 71% of women do. They are pretty sure that bigger Johnson will make their desire stronger.

But if anyone has any idea where Brizendine's statistics came from, or if anyone can cite some actual research on the number of pregnancies over a woman's lifetime before the 20th century, send me mail.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 12, 2006 02:29 PM