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image: Coursework headerDark 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."

Slatkin 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.'"

A 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.

"One 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 development."

With 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.

"It 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."

Seeming 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.

One classmate says she found it disturbing that doctors often diagnosed women without even examining them.

"It's highly imaginative," Slatkin says. "There's some mysterious thing within the body, and you understand it through the consequences."

Still 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.

"It's 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 the worst.

From 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.

Generally 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."

Her co-presenter backs her up: "Aristotle thought hot was good, so therefore women were cold."

Now 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.

Given 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.

One 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 she's pregnant."

Several students comment that it does seem as if the writings of the ancient Greek physicians were ways of proving certain beliefs rather than documenting truth.

That's 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."

The students throw out examples: "Bold men are the sexiest." "Well, that's true," says the man with the goatee.

"Women are irrational because they're PMS-ing." He lets that example slide.

The 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.

"Did they ever dissect humans?" one woman wants to know. Not at that time, answers Slatkin.

The 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."

"Undoubtedly 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. --K.S.

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  DECEMBER 1999

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