In ancient Greek times women were not viewed in the same way as men.
Women had very few rights. They were still under the control of men that
held political office, and participating in the city-state or polis
prohibited. One of the possible reasons for this exclusion was due to their
biology. Their constant mood swings and erratic behavior, which was referred
to as "hysteria", made them incontinent and unable to make rational decisions.
The concept of "hysteria" is described in Hippocratic Corpus. The "Wandering
Uterus" was another familiar term that went hand in hand with "Hysteria"
. It was an ancient Greek belief that "a wandering uterus" needed to be
confined and controlled caused women's health problems.
The term "Hysteria" is traced back to the late fifth-early fourth centuries BC. A large part of our information about the physical side of women's lives in the classical age is derived from a collection of writings known as the Hippocratic Corpus. These are medical treatise by a variety of anonymous authors, some of which were attributed to the great fifth century doctor Hippocrates. Also known as the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates sought natural explanations for natural phenomena. Basing his opinions on empirical knowledge, not on religion or magic, he taught that natural means could be employed to fight disease.
During the classical Age 500-336 BC Greek Philosophy was in bloom, but women still had very few rights. They were still under the control of men and holding political office, and participating in the city-state or polis was prohibited. "In Athenian law women had no independent existence. She was always under control of a man. First her father, then her husband." Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher, used the idea of hysteria as a principle reason why women were unfit to participate in the polis or city-state.
The term hysteria comes from the Greek word hysterika, meaning Uterus. In ancient Greece it was believed that a wandering and discontented Uterus was blamed for that dreaded female ailment of excessive emotion, hysteria. The disease's symptoms were believed to be dictated by where in the body the offending organ roamed. It was not religious belief but a social belief.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was one of the first to identify this disorder. He noticed hysteria was common in women and thought it was caused by a displaced or "wandering uterus". Because there was very little understanding of women's biology the term "Hysteria" was used to describe most of the physical and emotional female illnesses.
In my opinion, it is important to make a connection between the ideas about women's biology and their social status during this time period. This correlation is important because for Aristotle, women were not factored into his philosophical teachings because of their "bad biology". In his book Nicomachean Ethics, he regards women to be unfit to participate in political justice because during their menstruation they experience many hormonal and emotional changes. According to Aristotle these changes directly effect their character, and thus they should not be able to participate in the polis since they are unable to hold their character, or keep it under control (as my philosophy teacher so nicely put it.) Aristotle uses this theory of "hysteria" for proof as to why women shouldn't be educated or allowed to partake in politics.
Even in history textbooks, we read very little about women. It was the men who held political offices, became priests and bishops, conquered land and became knights. "No Greek State ever enfranchised women. In Athens, they could not attend or vote at meetings of the assembly, sit on juries, or serve as council members, magistrates, or generals." ( Blundell, 128) Often, one will find that women were "viewed as a special case, a deviation from the masculine norm. This should serve to forewarn us that there is an element in the medical treatises which runs counter to the writer's emphasis on empirically acquired knowledge, and which derives from an ideological view of the physical nature of women." In the discussion of gynecology in particular, ideas about women's physiology are shown to reflect and reinforce ideas about their social and moral identity.
The people of Greece believed that the womb is the origin of diseases of women. There is one Greek myth that greatly influences this belief and the portrayal of women in Ancient Greece. That myth is about the first woman Pandora. "In ancient Greece, gynecology originated in the myth of the first woman Pandora, whose beautiful appearance was seen to cover her dangerous insides. Pandora represented to male humanity as beautiful, marriageable (Parthenos), threatens the work of the healer because her outside is deceptive, concealing the fact that her body contains a voracious womb- Jar and the mind of a bitch" (King, 40). Pandora's dangerous insides are her womb. We can relate this passage to writings found in Hippocratic corpus where the wandering womb was responsible for all illnesses. Hysteria was the name given to a number of female illnesses.
So far we have seen that women were not treated as equals to men in
Ancient Greece, and that their biology was largely misunderstood. This
misunderstanding of a woman's gynecology was Aristotle's sole reason for
justifying why women were unfit to partake in Ancient Greek politics. In
antiquity, it appears that no one really understood menstruation or the
rest of the female anatomy. Just like today, women experience changes in
the hormones that result in cramps, crankiness, and tremendous mood swings.
Because women could not control the emotions they felt each month they
were thought to be incontinent. Since they could not control their feelings
they were unfit to be a part of the government system. In conclusion the
"bad biology" of women was one reason why they were not allowed to participate
It is very evident that a women's biology had a huge influence on her in antiquity. It handicapped her in such a way that men viewed the female race as incapable to participate in their society. In present day America women have made great strides to be recognized as both a voice and a person. Years later the idea of the wandering uterus has become a myth, proven a fallacy by technological advances and present day physicians. But the myth of the "Wandering Uterus" and the theory of "Hysteria" have not been forgotten.
A new music band is currently on its "Wandering Uterus" tour, the group
named this tour after a belief in ancient Greek culture that a woman's
hysterical fits of emotion could be blamed on a wandering and discontented
uterus. Cheryl Meyer, assistant professor of psychology at Northwest Missouri
State University, offers a broad discussion of the interface between the
legal, medical, and political aspects of women's reproduction in her new
book The Wandering Uterus: Politics and the Reproductive Rights of Women.
She takes her title from the ancient Greek belief that women's health problems
were caused by "a wandering uterus" that needed to be confined and controlled,
Meyer exposes the way in which myths and prejudices about female sexuality
continue to influence the practice of law and medicine today. (http://www.weeklywire.com/ww/06-26-00/memphis_afea.html)
Blundell,Sue.Women in Ancient Greece. London: British Museum Press,1995.
Humphreys, S.C. The Family, Women and Death. 2nd ed. Ann Arbor: The University Michigan Press: 1993.
King,Helen. Hippocrates' Women. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Lefkowitz, Mary. Women's Life in Greece and Rome. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.,1982.
Rowlandson, Jane. Women & Society In Greek & Roman Egypt. UnIted Kingdom, CambrIdge UnIversIty Press, 1998.
Saxonhouse, Aaron. Women In the History of Political Thought. New
York: Praeger Publishers, 1985.
http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wbol/wbpage/na/ar/co/27034 A present day definition of the term Hysteria.
http://www.aolsvc.worldbook.aol.com/wbol/wbpage/na/ar/co/41270 A description of Pandora in Greek Mythology.
http://www.med.virginia.edu/hs-library/historical/antiqua/textg.htm A discussion on gynecology in Ancient Greece.
http://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/htmlver/index.html Description of a new pbs series about ancient Greek empires.
http://www.museum.upenn.edu/Greek_World/Daily_life/Women_life.html This page contains information about the daily life of Greek women.
Created by: Vanessa Traniello