There’s more to the story of how it got to this point in the first place.
Whether myth or legend, a good story.
According to legend, Agnodice, also called Agnodike, was born into a wealthy Athenian family around the fourth century B.C.E. As she grew up, Agnodice was appalled by the high mortality rate of infants and mothers during childbirth, a traumatizing factor of female life that inspired Agnodice to study medicine—or at least to desire it. She had unfortunately been born into a time during which women were prohibited from studying or practicing any form of medicine, especially gynecology—in fact, it was considered a crime punishable by death.
Ironically, not long before Agnodice was born, women had had something of a monopoly on female medical treatment. Before the advent of Hippocratic medicine, childbirth was overseen by close female relatives or friends of the expectant mother, all of whom would have undergone labor themselves, and could therefore draw from their own experience as they coached other women through the process. Women who had a particular knack for this position slowly came to be known as maia, or midwives.
This practice was widely accepted for several years, and over time it truly began to flourish. Midwives began to accumulate an impressive breadth of lore and talent, learning enough to perform abortions, teach women about contraception and supposedly (though this is more unlikely) help women practice gender determination when attempting to become pregnant.
As men began to realize the capabilities of midwives, however, they began to feel extremely uncomfortable—even intimidated. In a world in which anxiety over lineage and heirs dominated much of the culture, the sheer amount of sexual independence offered to women by midwives and their reproductive knowledge posed a seemingly enormous threat. Men no longer wanted midwives to practice their medicine. Instead, they themselves attempted to dominate the medical field—a goal that, by the end of the fifth century B.C.E, was made more attainable with the help of Hippocrates (known today as the “Father of Medicine”) and his teaching facilities, which only admitted men. It is at this point that midwifery became punishable by death.
This proved to be a terrible blow to women—not just the women who suddenly had to give up their livelihoods, but also to the women whose labors and deliveries, without the guidance of a midwife, often ended in disaster. If you’re wondering why male doctors didn’t just take over and prevent these deadly deliveries, they certainly tried; but, in a society that highly valued female modesty, the transition from female midwives to male doctors did not prove easy. Despite the advances of medicine ushered in by Hippocrates, and despite the willingness of newly trained men to take over the gynecological profession, women adamantly refused to let male physicians perform examinations or help with deliveries. This shyness earned women an extremely poor reputation with doctors, who began to see women as stubborn creatures with no interest in their own treatment or health. Many Hippocratic treatises that survive today describe this problem, though none admit that it could have been avoided if men had not outlawed midwifery. Worse still than this unnecessarily poor reputation was the skyrocketing number of deaths related to childbirth.
Enter Agnodice. Determined to do something about the deaths and excruciatingly difficult deliveries that so appalled her, but legally prohibited from helping.
Myth or not, however, there is a lot to be learned from a story like Agnodice’s. In the end, Agnodice not only represents (to this day slightly contentious) the desire for women to control their own bodies, but also the underdog’s determination in the face of impossible odds or deadly threats. Her story also teaches us the importance of banding together as a community. Agnodice alone could never have changed the law in Athens—it was only with the help and support of her community that she was able to really effect any change. It is for these reasons that she remains an inspiration to women and men alike today. Time to take back what “men and their minions” keep trying to take away.
- In ancient Greece, women were forbidden to study medicine for several years until someone broke the law. Born in 300 BCE, Agnodice cut her hair and entered Alexandria medical school dressed as a man. While walking the streets of Athens after completing her medical education, she heard the cries of a woman in labour. However, the woman did not want Agnodice to touch her although she was in severe pain, because she thought Agnodice was a man. Agnodice proved that she was a woman by removing her clothes without anyone seeing and helped the woman deliver her baby.
- The story would soon spread among the women and all the women who were sick began to go to Agnodice. The male doctors grew envious and accused Agnodice, whom they thought was male, of seducing female patients. At her trial, Agnodice, stood before the court and proved that she was a woman but this time, she was sentenced to death for studying medicine and practicing medicine as a woman.
- Women revolted at the sentence, especially the wives of the judges who had given the death penalty. Some said that if Agnodice was killed, they would go to their deaths with her. Unable to withstand the pressures of their wives and other women, the judges lifted Agnodice’s sentence, and from then on, women were allowed to practice medicine, provided they only looked after women.
- Thus, Agnodice made her mark in history as the first Greek female doctor, physician and gynecologist. This plaque depicting Agnodice at work was excavated at Ostia, Italy and is now on display at the British Museum.