hair tucked into a bun, a student in a peach sweater has another
complaint: the writings treat women as the Other. "It's always
about the women," she says. "No one ever says anything about men.
It's always concentrated on the female part of the double standard."
elaborates: "They take the male to be normal; the female is a
deviation from the norm. Aristotle takes the female to be a deficient
male, a 'sterile male.'"
blond-haired woman wearing a gray sweater with white snowflakes
thinks that reading a Greek text on children would help her obtain
a more complete picture of ancient Greek medicine.
of the amazing things is that there's very little interest in
children," Slatkin responds, noting that the Greek word for "small
child" is grammatically neuter. "It is striking, especially when
compared to our contemporary preoccupation with early-childhood
the students' initial reactions aired, she's ready for today's
student presentation, part of a series designed to make sure the
non-classicists engage with the texts, too. Today's presenters
are sitting across the table from each other, a red-haired woman
wearing a round silver medallion on a cord and a woman in glasses
whose long brown hair extends below her waist. The presentations
are meant to be informal, with the students discussing the readings'
most striking points.
all comes back to the uterus," the red-haired woman says somewhat
incredulously, likening it to a wild animal careering around the
body. "The only way to control the uterus is to get it pregnant."
nervous about the presentation, her partner speaks quickly. She
was struck most, she says, by how physicians used science to rationalize
removing power from women.
classmate says she found it disturbing that doctors often diagnosed
women without even examining them.
highly imaginative," Slatkin says. "There's some mysterious thing
within the body, and you understand it through the consequences."
nervous, the long-haired presenter returns to her notes and begins
mumbling rapidly, so the class asks her to slow down. Pregnancy,
she repeats, seemed to be the cure for every women's health problem,
and being pregnant all the time had to limit women's activity.
a miracle they had any babies at all!" exclaims the intense woman
who began the discussion. She notes that the time the Greeks thought
was best for conceiving--at the end of a woman's period--is actually
there, the discussion moves to the topic of wet nursing. Then,
Slatkin goes for the segue: "Speaking of wet...." She asks the
student presenters to talk about how the concepts of wet and dry,
hot and cold, applied to ancient Greek medicine.
speaking, the red-haired woman explains, women were thought to
be wet and men were thought to be dry. Opinions varied on which
sex was hot and which was cold--but whether hot or cold, women
were always the ones whose condition required help. "It's interesting
how many contradictions about women there are," she points out.
"These medical writers were just making up stuff to fit their
theories, with no basis in fact."
co-presenter backs her up: "Aristotle thought hot was good, so
therefore women were cold."
it's on to the moisture question, which entails another contradiction.
The red-haired woman doesn't understand "how women are all wet
and spongy, yet their uteruses can dry out and wander around their
bodies in search of moisture." Slatkin notes that yes, judging
by these writings, women never seem to reach equilibrium--if they're
not wet, they're dry to the point of desiccation.
the nature of the treatments for a wandering womb--according to
Hippocrates, "dislocation of the womb" required taking a laxative;
fumigating the womb with fennel and absinthe; inserting pessaries
made of squills, opium poppies, almond oil, and rose perfume;
and possibly eating some beetles--a student wonders if women would
ever admit to being ill.
of the five men in the class then speaks up, the only one to do
so since the Berber house conversation. He has dark hair, a goatee
and mustache, glasses. "It's like a complete devaluing of women,"
he says. "She's just a womb. And the only way she's OK is when
students comment that it does seem as if the writings of the ancient
Greek physicians were ways of proving certain beliefs rather than
the point the secondary articles are trying to make, Slatkin agrees.
"What kinds of things serve as validation and reinforcement of
the social structure? We're accustomed to operating on premises
that are really ideologically constructed."
students throw out examples: "Bold men are the sexiest." "Well,
that's true," says the man with the goatee.
are irrational because they're PMS-ing." He lets that example
red-haired woman wants to return to the presentation; she'd found
another contradiction in the texts. While the ancient Greek physicians
normally assumed that human physiology was comparable to animal
physiology, she says, when it came to the womb, they ignored the
fact that in most animals, the uterus is held in place by tendons
and ligaments and cannot move around the body.
they ever dissect humans?" one woman wants to know. Not at that
time, answers Slatkin.
student in the snowflake sweater wonders what the Greeks made
of a prolapsed uterus. Did they see it as proof that the womb
could move? Surely a woman with a prolapsed uterus had to know
that it was attached internally. "That made me think that women
themselves had very different opinions than the physicians."
true," concurs Slatkin. And then it's time to wrap the class up.
She reminds the students to keep what they've discussed in mind
as they move on to next week's reading, a trio of plays: Oresteia,
Antigone, and Electra. The topic: "patriarchy and politics."
One can already imagine the rousing debate.