Historical essay
Being the Same and Different

Being the Same and Different

This time last year, I’d just returned from three months at the University of Vienna being the Käthe Leichter visiting professor in Gender Studies and Women’s Studies. This position, much like Iris Andraschek’s installation Der Muse Reicht’s, which dominates the inner courtyard of the main campus there, indicates the strides that gender studies has made as an academic subject.

Der Muse Reicht’s is a shadow figure, celebrating women coming out of the shadows. There is no body behind this shadow. The only other female figure in a courtyard lined by cloisters filled with busts of the Great Men of the university’s history is a Muse at the centre, and this shadow is nothing like her body. But normally, to have a shadow, you must first have — a body.

And the body is where we meet the general problems of doing history most acutely. Doing the history of medicine, and so meeting the body at every turn, is rather like walking a tightrope between recognition and over-familiarity, between a superficial recognition of “the same” (“Oh, it’s just like it is today!”) and a recoiling from “the other” (“Why on earth did they believe things that are clearly crazy?”). Either we make the past in our own image, or we are struck dumb by its difference, unable to say anything about it whatsoever.

In my own work I used to focus on difference. In particular, when I gave talks on my subject — ancient Greek gynecology, in particular theories of menstruation — I concentrated on how the medical practitioners who wrote the contents of the “Hippocratic corpus” thought about women as entirely different from men. It wasn’t that women had extra bits of their bodies — or lacked other bits — but instead the fundamentally different texture of all female flesh that interested these ancient Greek writers. Women, one of them wrote, are wet and spongy, so they absorb more fluid from their diet than men do. This fluid from their diets then builds up and causes pressure, unless it can be moved to the womb and leave the body in a timely and regular fashion. So, for this Hippocratic writer at least, women were utterly different, in every part of their bodies.

Reproductive organ illustrations by Vesalius and Vidus Vidius
Thomas Laqueur claimed that in 16th c. anatomists like Andreas Vesalius saw male and female genitalia as the same organs, with the vagina as an inside-out penis. In fact this model always coexisted with one in which men and women were entirely different (Left) Image of the empty womb, from Vesalius, Fabrica, sixteenth century. (Right)
“The vagina and uterus,” from Vidus Vidius, De anatome corporis humani, 1611. (Source: Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, p. 82.)

It was when I was speaking in Virginia, at one of those events where the med school as well as the humanities faculty is present, that I was taken aback by a woman from the med school who was impressed at just how right the Greeks were. Right? I’d been seeing them as very wrong indeed, typical ancient Greeks constructing women as “weird” in order to justify keeping them in their proper place. Their focus on women’s difference made them in turn very different from us and our “enlightened” medicine that holds that, for most conditions, people are just people, not radically different. Right??

But the more I work on this, the more interesting I find it. Modern western biomedicine increasingly notes differences between men and women in terms of the risk of developing certain diseases, what complications are most likely to occur, and what treatment options are the most appropriate. The push to acknowledge the differences came from a feminist direction, for example from the Society for Women’s Health Research. But western biomedicine includes a mixture of sex bias — so, assumptions that certain disorders “just are” more common in men mean that women’s symptoms are not taken so seriously — and sex disparity — some things really do seem to be more common in men than in women, or vice versa. Taking heart disorders as an example here, women’s hearts do, apparently, beat more quickly, an extra 3-5 beats per minute. Sex disparity. But tachycardia — in adults, a resting heartbeat of more than 100 per minute — is less likely to be diagnosed properly in women; in younger women it is likely to be attributed to anxiety attacks, in older women to hot flushes at the menopause. Sex bias. Biology and social expectations and opportunities are interrelated.

Where does that leave the ancient Greeks? The view that women were different throughout their flesh was only one option around; the writer of a treatise that has come down to us under the title “Places in Man” left women until the final chapter, and then put the focus not on the flesh, but on the womb, “the origin of all diseases in women.” So here medicine was mostly about people, but with women as having an extra bit that needs discussing.

1942 poster showing a nurse standing at the bedside of a man whose head is bandaged, with the text: "Save his life... and find your own. Be a nurse.
(Office of War Information/National Library of Medicine 1943)

This may all seem very theoretical, very historical. But I think it is applicable in many areas of our lives now. How do we as women today negotiate the lines between similarity and difference? In another area with which I’m involved, the Church of England, we’ve been all over the place with that one. Are women bishops impossible because men and women are just “different”? Are women bishops a good thing because they bring special, different, “female” qualities to leadership? This recalls Carrie Adkins” post on women as physicians in the Victorian period — women trying to become doctors argued for their empathy, moral values and sensitivity as important additions to the medical profession. Or are women bishops — or physicians — a good thing because women are just like men in the range of gifts they could have, so we just double the pool of possible bishops — or physicians?

It seems to me that a lot of topics in gender politics boil down to this basic question: how far are we different? As historians, we are always negotiating the extent to which the past is “the same,” and the extent to which it’s “different.” We place our emphasis according to what we want to use the past for. Are we searching it to find support for something we do, or would like to do, today, as in the attempts to support restrictions on abortion by claiming that the Hippocratic Oath forbids it (which, by the way, it doesn’t)? Or are we holding up the past as an example of difference, of our “progress” away from a less civilized time (“we” don’t do slavery: they “did”: rhetoric that denies the realities of people trafficking and slavery today)? And when we look at gender politics, there’s a similar range of possible uses of the other sex. The other is both the same, and different, and which one we stress will depend on what argument we are trying to promote. And that’s even without considering individuals who don’t fit into the binary we’ve created. When we meet the other, do we recoil from the shock of perceiving difference, or do we see apparent similarity and thus miss all the interesting differences?

Perhaps, as our own medical system adds to the list of biological differences between men and women, we should be careful that we don’t move back to a society in which our roles are restricted because of our biology.

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at The Open University, UK. After a BA in Ancient History and Social Anthropology at UCL, followed by a PhD on ancient Greek menstruation, she has worked in an interdisciplinary way on a range of topics around the histories of gender, gynecology, midwifery and puberty. She is a monthly contributor to www.wondersandmarvels.com and also writes for The Conversation UK, https://theconversation.com/profiles/helen-king-94923/articles

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