Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Are Women Biologically Adapted for Infidelity? Whatever Else We Think of Them, Women Who Reject Monogamy Are Brave

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Are Women Biologically Adapted for Infidelity? Whatever Else We Think of Them, Women Who Reject Monogamy Are Brave

Article excerpt

The best moment in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton almost goes to an adulteress. After the song "Helpless" has shown the meeting between Hamilton and his wife-to-be Elizabeth Schuyler, the score flips into reverse along with the dancers, and we go back to view the meeting again through the eyes of Angelica, Elizabeth's older sister. Angelica met him first, loved him first, but knows she can't have a poor man like Hamilton and so gives way to her sister. But, the quick-fire lyrics of "Satisfied" make clear, Angelica is achingly aware of what she's giving up. "When you said 'Hi,' I forgot my dang name," she sings to an unknowing Hamilton. "Set my heart aflame, ev'ry part aflame."

There's controversy about how intimate the Hamilton/Angelica connection truly was, but a legal relationship between the two was always out of the question, since by the time they met, Angelica was married to John Barker Church. But not in the musical--and in a narrative that sticks remarkably close to the history, it's a notable deviation. Why this change? "It's stronger dramatically if societally she can't marry you," Miranda has explained. Still, that can't be the whole of it: Angelica already being married is just as sure a societal bar to her getting together with Hamilton.

It's curious, though, to imagine how differently audiences might feel about a married Angelica. Public tolerance for the adulteress runs very low indeed. Hamilton can have his affair with Maria Reynolds in the second half and keep our sympathy, but another man's wife with her parts aflame for this young and hungry upstart? That would be pushing it. Wednesday Martin, though, is here for the adulteresses. "Untrue is a book with a point of view--namely that whatever else we think of them, women who reject monogamy are brave," she writes.

If this seems bizarrely grandiose, consider that women are killed by their current or former male partners at a rate of about 1.2 a week in the UK, with infidelity (real or perceived) frequently presented as the trigger for male violence. Where women are seen as men's property, and that possession is enforced by lethal means, stepping out is a daring act. Social sanctions can be almost as brutal a deterrent. We may no longer mark adulteresses with a scarlet letter, but they bear a stigma surely enough. And just as powerful as the external voices are the internal ones, with women condemning themselves as oversexed freaks for so much as looking elsewhere.

Nonsense, says Martin. Not only is female infidelity well within the range of normal human behaviour (something we can palpably observe to be true, because it happens), it may even be that women are adapted for unfaithfulness. It's routinely assumed that women are the ones who seek to settle down, and yet (as psychologist Marta Meana explains to Martin) women seem to be the ones who have least fun in long-term relationships, being more likely to have low libido and more likely to initiate divorce. What if it's not women who are dysfunctional, but monogamy?

To underline this argument, Martin draws on anthropology, primatology and feminist interrogations of Darwin's theory of sexual selection. It's here that the book's cover claim to be based on "surprising new science" comes unstuck. …

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