The wonderful Twitter just drew my attention to this article I’d missed on the OUP blog when it was published in July: ‘The influence of premodern theories about sex and gender’ by Adrian Thatcher.
Thatcher asks great questions about why the world and the church still haven’t given women equality, why we don’t just accept intersex and transgender people ‘as they are’, and why ‘millions of straight people’ have ‘visceral reactions’ to same-gender attraction. To answer these questions, he outlines a historical shift away from ‘the ancient world’, which he presents as functioning with a continuum model of gender with women located at the weak/cool/less rational/less perfect end of that continuum. He doesn’t give any references but the main ancient Greek statement for the continuum model comes in a treatise called On Seed/On the Nature of the Child (some extracts here) and the underlying theory applied by Thatcher comes straight from Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (1990). Like Laqueur, Thatcher goes for an early modern shift (Laqueur called it a ‘watershed’) between this more fluid model and the emergence of the idea of ‘two “opposite” sexes’, and he links it to ‘advances in anatomy and microscopy’ meaning that ‘the basis of biological differences began to be better understood’.
Bodies ancient and modern
I should be sympathetic to Thatcher’s argument that most people read back the ‘two-sex model’ of difference into the Bible, without realising that it’s a model that only goes back a few centuries. And I am, sort of, and I like his initial caution in presenting this – ‘But there are answers! This is how one of them goes’ (my italics). Despite that caution, however, he still seems to buy into his own/Laqueur’s binary, the idea of a one-sex model (‘the ancient theory’) and a two-sex model (‘the modern theory’). Thatcher presents ‘the ancient theory’ as one which ‘asserted a common humanity’ – hmm, not necessarily, and there’s no reference here, for example, to the influence of Hesiod’s Pandora as the first of the ‘race of women’, which doesn’t major on ‘common’ anything. And what about that word ‘ancient’? Is ‘the ancient theory’ supposed to apply equally to the ancient Near East, to the Hebrew Bible, to New Testament societies and to ancient Greece and Rome? Even ignoring that question, is that ancient/modern split really valid?
All this happens to be something I know about. In 2013 I published The One-Sex Body on Trial. Because academic books are expensive, and with the publisher’s permission, I published the Preface on my institutional repository. There, I pointed out that ‘one-sex body’ and ‘two-sex body’ may have some value as ‘ideal types’, as concepts or comparative tools; but they don’t work as anything other than imaginary constructs. Reality is messier, and I suspect always has been. There was never a ‘one-sex past’ and we don’t now live in a ‘two-sex world’. In some contexts, we stress the difference between men and women, or between male and female: in others, we concentrate on what is shared.
In that Preface, I also introduced my main argument, that Laqueur was ignoring completely a view of men and women that went back to at least the fifth century BC and resurfaced in the Renaissance, a view which focused on difference. The Hippocratic treatise Diseases of Women (not by Hippocrates, but of a fifth/fourth century date) saw women as ‘more’ wet and spongy than men. This more/less could be read in a ‘continuum’ way, but working in the opposite direction is another point made there, that ‘the healing of the diseases of women differs greatly from the healing of men’s diseases’. Women’s flesh was presented as so very different from that of men that it required a different sort of healing, and indeed needed several treatises concentrating exclusively on women’s bodies and what can go wrong with them. When Hippocratic medicine was rediscovered in the sixteenth century, this model of difference resurfaced; or, perhaps, the need to find a medical rationale for practices of difference led to the enthusiastic embracing of Hippocratic gynaecology.
Between men and women
And what about those whose bodies placed them somewhere between the ideals for ‘men’ and those for ‘women’: the effeminate boys and the tomboy girls of the spectrum presented in On Seed/On the Nature of the Child? Thatcher speculates that a one-sex, continuum model was one which allowed people who were ‘neither men nor women’ to be accepted; I think that’s rather optimistic.
Much of my book concerns a Hippocratic case history of a woman who had formerly had children, but stopped menstruating and grew a beard when her husband left: Phaethousa of Abdera. She’s already an exception to the ancient gender binary by being named, when normally women are ‘wife of x’ or ‘daughter of y’. But she doesn’t become a man, and she doesn’t restart her periods. She dies, which may be why normal considerations of modesty don’t apply and so she can be named. It fascinates me that, in the sixteenth century, we can find both ‘two-sex’ readings of this case in which she has to die because sex change is seen as impossible, and ‘one-sex’ readings in which she actually turns into a man! Two models thus co-existed at this point before the Laqueur ‘watershed’. In the original story, the ancient medical view seems to be that you do need to be one sex or the other, and you can’t survive with an ambiguous body. Throughout, the writer refers to Phaethousa as ‘she’; whatever her body’s externals are saying, she is defined as a woman.
Thatcher presents the one-sex body, the continuum model, as likely to align with the view that women can’t be ordained – if women are imperfect males, how can they represent the perfect God? He links support for the ordination of women to the idea of ‘two equal sexes’, presenting proponents as ‘two-sexers’. In my years of involvement with the movement for the ordination of women in the Church of England I’d simply respond here: ‘It’s more complicated’. The past is far messier than any category of ‘the ancient theory’ allows.
People have been trying to set the borders of sex and gender, and to police them, since the beginning of recorded history. Our ancestors have constructed ‘one-sex bodies’ as fluid, or hierarchical. They have imagined that movement along the spectrum was possible – or not. The outside, or the inside, have been favoured as the site of the ‘true sex’. If we want to use the past to understand the present, we need a far more nuanced reading of that past.