A healthy heart in an unhealthy body of opinion

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Great news for traditionalists this week: assertive women are more likely to have heart attacks. According to research published in the Lancet, a study of 809 men and 783 women, carried out at Edinburgh University, has shown that submissiveness has little effect on a man's risk of having a heart attack but a significant impact on the risk to women.

What's fascinating about this study is the way it has been reported. Although it's still the case that far more men in the study had heart attacks (10 per cent, compared to 4.5 per cent of the women), the general conclusion was that having an assertive personality poses a risk to a woman's health. "Meekness is good for a woman's heart" was the Daily Mail's headline, accompanied by a picture of a snarling Mel B and the news that "it's healthier to be a shrinking violet than a Scary Spice personality".

What the papers could have said, with equal justification, is that being female protects women against heart attacks even when they stand up for themselves. Yet they concentrated on the finding that for every four-point increase on a scale of submissiveness, women in the study decreased their risk of suffering a heart attack by 31 per cent. Dr Martha Whiteman, who led the research team, was even reported as insisting that her subjects were happy with their lot: "The people who scored highly on the submissiveness scale are content to be that way. They have not been forced to submit to anyone - it is their nature to be meek."

The women who came off best were those who described themselves as submissive and having low self-esteem, a female type hitherto unknown to medical science or indeed anyone else: the cheerful doormat with a low opinion of herself. I'm not convinced she exists, or that all those depressed housewives who liberated themselves from the feminine mystique are courting heart disease. The logic is transparently political, implying that new editions of The Female Eunuch and The Feminine Mystique should carry a warning: feminism damages your health.

EVER since I heard about this research, on my way to Heathrow on Thursday, I've been practising certain key phrases. "Don't mind me," I mutter, "No, really, I don't want to be a nuisance. Please don't go to any trouble on my account. You choose a film/bar/restaurant." But what the researchers haven't taken into account is that the more a normal woman attempts this brainwashing - the old assertiveness training in reverse - the higher her blood pressure rises, no doubt initiating any number of stress-related conditions.

Not to mention a healthy dollop of scepticism. It all sounded eerily familiar and as soon as I got home from the Edinburgh Book Festival on Friday, I looked up the diary of Beatrice Webb, the founder of Fabian socialism. Sure enough, in March 1889 she recorded a conversation with Alfred Marshall, a Cambridge professor. Marshall informed Webb that "woman was a subordinate being, and that, if she ceased to be subordinate, there would be no object for a man to marry. That marriage was a sacrifice of masculine freedom, and would only be tolerated by male creatures so long as it meant the devotion, body and soul, of the female to the male..."

In the 1880s, the scare story for assertive women was that they would be left on the shelf. (According to Webb, Marshall ended his little lecture with a warning: "If you compete with us we shan't marry you.") In the 1990s, it's not our marriage prospects that are at risk but our heads. What's so revealing is the universal relief with which studies like the Edinburgh one are greeted - and their timing.

The ends of centuries tend, as the American academic Elaine Showalter has pointed out, to be periods of sexual anxiety. Only last month I cited an article in which a neo-Darwinian biologist claimed to have found proof for fundamental differences between the sexes. This is exactly what we should expect as the millennium approaches; another American academic, the historian Thomas Laqueur, observed of the 1790s that "whenever boundaries were threatened arguments for fundamental sexual differences were shoved into the breach". The reaction to this week's study is the next line of defence, proposing that women who display traditionally "male" characteristics do so to the detriment of their health. As the late Angela Carter observed some time ago, "the fin is coming a little early this siecle".

I WAS in Edinburgh to talk about one of my books, an unconventional anthology of food entitled Hungry For You. I arrived in a cheerful frame of mind to take part in a session with another writer on food, Joanna Blythman.

At this point things began to go horribly wrong. The chairwoman introduced me as "an enigma", throwing me for a moment into a state of sphinx-like silence. Then I realised, too late, that there was no connection between the observations I had intended to make about food, oral sex and cannibalism and Joanna's impassioned attack on the food industry, which she illustrated by brand- ishing a couple of red peppers.

Even more incongruous was the display of cheeses, chocolate, cherry tomatoes and vanilla essence on tables in front of the stage. The temptation to leap down and embark on a crazed Fanny Craddock impersonation - "here's one I forgot to make earlier" - was very nearly irresistible. When the event ended I escaped gladly into the night, fetching up in the early hours of Friday morning at a restaurant with a French name and a Hungarian menu. Inside, to our surprise, the food consisted exclusively of tortillas and enchiladas. When my companion queried this bewildering culinary transformation, the waitress looked at us pityingly. "After midnight," she said, "we only do Mexican."

My friend's main course, tiger prawns served with yet more red peppers, arrived at the table on fire. The waitress plonked down forks and demanded to know, as though uncertain of our table manners, whether we would be wanting knives.

Two bills came, neither of them obviously ours. It was only when we were walking back to Princes Street that I realised what was going on. The entire evening had been an impromptu fringe event, with a cast of hundreds and an unwitting audience of two.