Western civilization has fostered a few female archetypes, among them the damsel in distress and the Amazon warrior. Neither is particularly apt today. Damsels seem to have vanished with the Wild West and Amazons are more the subjects of myth than a recognized reality.
But two research reports released recently, one using 1960s data and another that drew data from women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, suggest there's a physiological basis for female might.
First, the 1960s data. A team of researchers examined a fledgling women's program that existed in parallel with the early U.S. space program and published its findings in Advances in Physiology Education.
The authors first provide a fascinating history of the early days of the space program. In the late 1950s Brig. Gen. Donald Flickinger and Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II speculated that women might be better candidates to send into space than men because of their lower body weights and oxygen requirements.
The Women in Space program was established as part of Air Force research, but when news of the idea and testing of women began to reach the media, officers developed cold feet and dropped the program.
Flickinger and Lovelace weren't willing to give up on the idea, and Lovelace, who had been involved in creating the tests for the male astronauts and was one of the inventors of the oxygen mask for pilots, assumed leadership of the program. He began medical and physiological testing of several accomplished women pilots, many with more flying time than the men eventually chosen for space missions.
First recruited was Jerrie Cobb, who soloed at the age of 12, earned her commercial pilot's license at 18, and set numerous world aviation records for speed, distance and altitude in her 20s. She tested in the top 2 percent of all individuals — men and women.
In 1961 Cobb recruited 18 other women to undergo testing at Lovelace's research center in Albuquerque, N.M.
The women were given the same tests as the original Mercury 7 astronauts, with the addition of gynecological exams. Thirteen of the 19 women passed the physiological exams (compared to 18 of the 32 men). The women became known as the Mercury 13.
When Cobb was not allowed to undergo spaceflight simulation testing at an Air Force base, a NASA research center agreed to do the test. Alan Shepard had hit the "chicken switch" on his first attempt at spaceflight simulation, according to the researchers, but Cobb handled a multi-axis gyroscope — controlling the rig while it did 30 revolutions/minute on all three axes — for 45 minutes. (It echoes the quip about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, "backwards ... and on high heels.")
Lovelace was quoted at a time: "We are already in a position to say that certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to those of her male colleague."
The women seemed to do as well in the psychological testing. Cobb lasted 9 hours and 40 minutes in a soundproof isolation tank of water warmed to skin temperature. Previous experiments had shown that 6 hours was the limit before hallucinations commenced. Two other women lasted 10 hours. By comparison, the sensory isolation testing experienced by male astronauts consisted of being placed in a soundproof, dark room for 2 to 3 hours.
A combination of political exigencies — including the jealousy of an older woman pilot whose husband provided funding for the program — doomed Women in Space.
Years later, of course, women were welcomed into the space program — and into the military — which brings up our next example of female physical acumen.
In a study conducted by researchers at the Veterans Administration Connecticut Healthcare System and the Yale University School of Medicine, women veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq had a lower prevalence of pain than male counterparts returning from the conflicts.
The study appearing in Pain Medicine reported that female veterans were less likely than men to report any pain (38.1 percent of females reported pain, 44 percent of males). Women were more likely to report moderate-severe pain (68 percent female to 62.6 percent male) but less likely to report having persistent pain (18 percent) than their male colleagues (22.2 percent).
Researchers suggest a few possible reasons, including women not serving directly in combat roles and reluctance by women veterans to seek VA treatment. And past studies reported civilian women were more likely to report specific pain syndromes, as well as more severe and longer lasting pain, than civilian men.
Perhaps the two archetypes are still apropos. Damsel in distress or woman warrior? Take your pick.
And just for the record: Research suggests there really were Amazons.
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