Every woman knows the agony of getting a gynecological exam every year. The agony is compounded with shame and discomfort when the gynecologist is a man, especially if you are a teen or young woman. Now can you imagine the agony, the outright terror of being a young woman in ancient times in Athens, a most patriarchal city, who had to suffer exams by male physicians who either had no understanding or no sympathy for female biology. That was the case in Agnodice’s day. She grew up in a wealthy Athenian family but was horrified at the numbers of women who were bleeding to death, who suffered through early miscarriage, or otherwise were treated like heifers by a male-only medical establishment. Agnodice practiced in the 4th century BC, and the reason we know about her today and her spectacular efforts to improve the lives of women in gynecology was because her story or rather legend appears as one of the Fabulae by Gauis Julius Hyginus.
The Fabulae were 300 short accounts of famous Greek myths and celestial geneologies and legends. Hyginus was by no account a scholar or historian as even his own editor characterized him as”an ignorant youth, semi-learned, stupid.” But his manuscript, as the destiny of historical documents would have it, is one of the few to come down to us. Without this manuscript, modern scholars would not have knows about the myths many of the Greek playwrights used to base their own famous dramas on. We wouldn’t also have known about this remarkable woman who broke all rules and became a living legend in her day. Her notoriety helped bring her the necessary attention to actually have an ancient writer record her life and history proving the maxim that “good girls don’t make history.” Had it not been for Hyginus, in ancient and modern accounts, an arrogant nincompoop, we would never have found out about this extraordinary woman.
The other big issue, still one of the biggest in our adopted homeland, in ancient Athens was birth control. Well, lack of birth control more likely. When the women of Athens, especially the heterae or professional courtesans, started to take matters in their own hands and started performing DIY abortions in secret by going to certain “old hags,” the male medical establishment got all huffy and pronounced it a crime to have an abortion. While Hippocrates had allowed and even encouraged women to study medicine, midwifery, and obstetrics, once the Athenian patricians got whiff of women performing abortions, to put an end to the practice they passed a law (of course it was unanimous as there were absolutely no women in the Council of Athens to cast their vote as women were not considered “rational” enough to make a good democratic decision). They passed a law not only making it illegal to get or give an abortion, but also making it illegal for ANY woman to become a doctor.
This enraged Agnodice who had the spunk to cut off her hair, dress in male chitons, and literally turn into a man to gain admission into the male-only medical school at the time. As this was going to prove a bit tricky to pull off as people would start to wonder “Where did Agnodice go?” and “Who is this new refined youth in the Athens medical school?” She literally had to create a different identity by forging a fake illness in a far away friend in Alexandria. This gave her the excuse to leave Athens and go to medical school in Alexandria without blowing her cover.
In Alexandria she studied under the great anatomist of her day, Herophilos. Once she graduated from medical school in Alexandria, she returned to Athens, disguised as a man, in order to help out her fellow suffering sisters. The women were probably so terrorized by male doctors or rather butchers that some refused to even seek medical attention when their time came. This is exactly what happened on one occassion when Agnodice heard a woman screaming in agony in the throes of labor. She tried to give her care, but the woman refused help from a male doctor. It was then that Agnodice took off her disguise. She treated the woman successfully, and from then on the secret got out among the noble ladies of the city. Secretly passing on the information from one to another, when they had “female trouble” or were scared to death of giving birth, they would only ask for the gentle, patient, sympathetic young physician who lacked a beard. This pattern seriously pissed off the male medical establishment. But really, guys, how dense do you have to be to understand that in some cases like these, a woman would prefer to be treated by another woman? No offense.
Now, if you were a male gyno whose business was getting undercut by a rival, what would you do? Of course, call her/”him” out as an outlaw, a rogue to discredit her and get her/”him” out of the business. That is what happened. The male physicians began to accuse Agnodice for seducing the women and the women were accused of feigning illnesses. Instead of providing medical care, they claimed, “he” was providing a little other type of care, some “hootchie,” instead. How else would they explain his popularity?
Agnodice was then tried before a group of jealous husbands and rival doctors for seducing the women of Athens. When Agnodice was brought before the court assembled on a hill near Athens called Areopagus, the men began to condemn her. Can you imagine the ruckus during the trial? “You slept with my wife,” “You put your hands on my mother’s p****,” etc. etc. Just when the case was becoming critical, Agnodice reverted to the strongest piece of evidence she had to defend her case: she lifted up her tunic and showed the court her pudenda (in slang terms, her “pounani.)
That, unfortunately, backfired because then her case was changed and she was brought up on charges of deceit, fraud and false pretenses. This was a serious charge as it garnered the death penalty. Agnodice, just for trying to help fellow women in labor, was to be executed by the Athenian state. She tried intensely to convince the judges that she could not have seduced the women of Athens that she was only trying to help them. Her male accusers tried to get her for the crime of being a woman practicing medicine (yeah imagine that, it is a crime to be born a woman and to get an education. (Does not enlightened “Athens” sound like modern Afgan Taliban?”) The trial became intense.
However, before the judges ruled on the trial, a crowd of women arrived at her trial to praise her successes as a physician and chastised their husbands for trying to execute her. In other words, women actually stood up for one of their kind. They used their personal power of relationship to unforce their husband’s hands. “She is innocent!” “Set her free!” “She is a physician, not a seducer!” rang the slogans from the protesters, crowds and crowds of noble women, outside the courthouse. (How ironic yet again that truth and justice come from the voices of those outside the courtroom instead of the voices inside.) After a short debate, Agnodice was acquitted (hooray!) from her charges, and not only that but the actual Athenian law that made it illegal for women to be treated by female physicians was changed.
Agnodice became a rallying call–a victory for women in medicine and as patients. Agnodice’s influence was furthered in the law as well. The precedent set by her in this trial was used by a long history of women, especially midwives, in the medical arts trying to defend themselves against a rival, unsympathetic male medical establishment down to the 17th century in Europe.
Of course, history, male dominated, can do the worst injustice to Agnodice’s case. It can try to erase her. The case has been made that she never existed. That in fact, she is just a made up myth. Her name, which means “purity before justice,” could be evidence that she is just an allegorical figure, as names would stand for character traits. The act of picking up her skirt and showing her privates has long had a tradition in ancient Greco-Roman culture as symbolizing power over evil and like Baubo, as comic relief for a particularly tragic point in a story.
Whether fact or fiction, Agnodice still remains a powerful symbol for female physicians, female solidarity, and of course, many of us modern girls who still prefer to be seen by a woman gyno over a man.