This page is about how people in the past understood the differences between women and men. It is the first of a series of pages on how differences between groups of people were defined and understood in the past, and the consequences of these ways of thinking about difference. I begin with the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, both of who had definite ideas about the differences between women and men (and in Aristotle’s case more broadly between males and females).
Plato wrote one work on natural philosophy, the dialogue called Timaeus, which was written around 360 BCE. In this book, Plato described the creation of the entire cosmos by a benevolent deity, the “Demiurge.” After the Demiurge creates the heavens and the earth, it (the Demiurge doesn’t really have gender) creates the souls of human beings. These souls are immortal, and there are as many of as there are stars. The Demiurge, “assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny.” Initially, these souls do not have bodies. The Demiurge assigns the task of creating bodies to the lesser gods. These gods create human bodies for the souls to live in, but these bodies, unlike the souls, are mortal. But placing the immortal souls in mortal bodies causes the souls to become confused and disoriented. Inside mortal bodies, the souls are bombarded by sensory data; they experience pleasure and pain, hunger and thirst, fear and joy. These bodily experiences cause the souls to forget the perfect knowledge of the creation and of their destinies that the Demiurge gave them after they were created. Only by transcending the body and learning to use pure reason can the souls remember this knowledge. All those who manage to transcend the body and live according to the dictates of reason, rather than according to the drives and desires of the flesh, will return to heaven when their mortal bodies perish. Those who do not will be reincarnated in new bodies, this time as women. Those women who lead good and rational lives will be reincarnated as men, who will then have the chance to return to heaven if they lead a good life. Those women who do not lead good lives will be reincarnated as animals. For Plato, an irrational life is one dominated by carnal urges, and such a life is “evil.”
He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state.
Here, in one of the very earliest Greek natural philosophical texts, we have an account of the differences between women and men that posits that women are inferior to men – they are men who were evil in a previous life. And women are fundamentally less rational than men. No woman can lead a life so rational and good that she returns to her star when her body dies. However, in Plato’s account of human beings, souls have no gender. A soul can be housed in either a male or a female body. While it’s worse to be housed in a female body, the soul isn’t fundamentally changed by this. Plato’s account of the differences between the sexes is very brief, and leaves out a lot of details. What are the physical differences between men and women? If souls have no gender, why are men more rational than women? Plato asserts male superiority, but clearly takes this as a proposition his readers will be in agreement with. It’s not an idea he needs to defend.
Plato’s student Aristotle wrote considerably more on the differences between males and females. Aristotle made extensive studies of biology, especially zoology, including numerous dissections of various animals (although he did not dissect human bodies). Unlike Plato’s one small work of natural philosophy with a brief section on sex differences, Aristotle wrote several entire books on biological subjects. One of his most detailed biological works, in which he discusses sex differences at length and throughout, is The History of Animals.
Here’s just a sampling of quotes from this book on the differences between females and males of various species, including humans:
In all genera in which the distinction of male and female is found, Nature makes a similar differentiation in the mental characteristics of the two sexes. This differentiation is the most obvious in the case of human kind and in that of the larger animals and the viviparous quadrupeds. In the case of these latter the female softer in character, is the sooner tamed, admits more readily of caressing, is more apt in the way of learning; as, for instance, in the Laconian breed of dogs the female is cleverer than the male. Of the Molossian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as those elsewhere; but sheep-dogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals.
In all cases, excepting those of the bear and leopard, the female is less spirited than the male; in regard to the two exceptional cases, the superiority in courage rests with the female. With all other animals the female is softer in disposition than the male, is more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young: the male, on the other hand, is more spirited than the female, more savage, more simple and less cunning. The traces of these differentiated characteristics are more or less visible everywhere, but they are especially visible where character is the more developed, and most of all in man.
The fact is, the nature of man is the most rounded off and complete, and consequently in man the qualities or capacities above referred to are found in their perfection. Hence woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than the man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment.
As was previously stated, the male is more courageous than the female, and more sympathetic in the way of standing by to help. Even in the case of mollusks, when the cuttlefish is struck with the trident the male stands by to help the female; but when the male is struck the female runs away.
Note that for Aristotle, as for Plato, females are by and large inferior to males. Although females have some admirable traits – in certain breeds of dogs, females are easier to train and more obedient; and females of all species have what we might call “maternal instincts – most female traits are either less good than the corresponding male traits or actually bad. Female animals (and especially female humans) are “softer,” in both physical body and mental disposition. They are passive and cowardly, while men are spirited, aggressive and active. Further, women are mischievous, devious, and impulsive (rather like young children). They get angry easily, but unlike in men, where “spiritedness” and aggression are connected to greater courage and strength of character, anger in women is spiteful, jealous and shrewish. Men fight; women just nag. Women do not feel shame the way men do; they lack the same sense of honor and decency. This is a much more elaborate description of sex differences than that provided by Plato, and one ostensibly based on observations and dissections of numerous animal species.
Medical writers, as well as philosophical writers, took up the topic of the differences between men and women. For physicians this had particular practical significance. If women and men were more different than they were similar, then women and men would be prone to different ailments, and they would require different treatments for the same illnesses. If men and women were more similar than different, they would be prone to the same diseases and require the same treatment. Hippocrates and his followers generally took the position that men and women were VERY different. In humoral theory, women were understood to be colder and wetter and men hotter and drier. Women were more likely to be phlegmatic and men choleric. The bodies of men and women differed in their whole nature and substance, not just in the configuration of the genitalia.
The Roman physician Galen, for example, wrote:
A person who sees a bull from a distance recognizes it immediately as male, without examining its organs of generation, and it is possible similarly to recognize a male lion and distinguish it from a female lion, a cock from a hen, a buck from a nanny goat, a ram from a ewe. We also distinguish man from woman in this way, not undressing them first so that we may examine the difference in their parts, but viewing them with their clothes on. For they differ in their whole bodies, and of the so-called later parts [e.g. beards and body hair] some are not present in females at all, and some are of the same sort. (Galen, On Seed, excerpt from Helen King, The One-Sex Body on Trial (Ashgate, 2013)
The cold wet female body was softer and spongier than the hot dry male body, which was harder and firmer. This affected all aspects of male and female physiology. The four humors were produced through digestion. The first stage of dissection occurred in the stomach, where food was “concocted” or cooked and transformed into “chyle.” Chyle moved from the stomach to the liver, and a second concoction took place in the liver. This second concoction turned the chyle into blood, and ultimately the other three humors. (Note that the liver was a digestive organ in humoral physiology. Blood moved from the liver to the veins, and from their to all parts of the body. I discuss humoral physiology at great length in the page on William Harvey.) The successive concoctions of food produced waste products: urine, feces, and sweat. Because the female body was cooler than the male body, it could not “cook” and consume food as efficiently as the male body, so there were more waste products and unconsumed food left over from digestion. So women had an extra mode of evacuation to get rid of these extra waste products: menstruation. During pregnancy and breast-feeding menstruation was suppressed because the extra food the woman consumed went to feed baby rather than being excreted as waste product.
The understanding of menstruation as a form of evacuation analogous to urination or defecation is reflected in a famous Hippocratic case from the Epidemics (quoted in full below). A “woman at Thasos” becomes seriously ill “as the result of a justifiable grief.” This illness finally resolves when menstruation begins, thus purging the body of excess humors.
A woman at Thasos became morose as the result of a justifiable grief, and although she did not take to her bed, she suffered from insomnia, loss of appetite, thirst and nausea. She lived on the level ground near Pylades’ place. Early on the night of the first day, she complained of fears and talked much; she showed despondency and a very slight fever. In the morning she had many convulsions; when the convulsions had for the most part ceased, she talked at random and used foul language. Many intense and continuous pains. Second day: condition unchanged; no sleep and the fever higher. Third day: the convulsions ceased but lethargy and coma supervened followed by a return to consciousness, when she leapt up and could not be restrained. There was much random talking and high fever. That night she sweated profusely all over with warm sweat. She lost her fever and slept, becoming quite lucid and reaching the crisis. About the third day, the urine was dark and thin, and contained suspended matter, for the most part round particles, which did not sediment. About the time of the crisis, a copious menstrual discharge took place. (Hippocrates, Epidemics, translated by J. Chadwick and W. N. Mann)
For more on ancient views of menstruation, see the excellent blog posts by classicist Dr. Helen King: The history of tampons – in ancient Greece? and Four weird ideas people used to have about women’s periods. Menstruation was not an exclusively female phenomenon. Some men, those who were colder than average, also menstruated. Regular nosebleeds or hemorrhoids in men were often understood as a “male menstruation.”
So far, all the writers I have discussed have been Greek or Roman and none have been Christian. However, the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen on sex differences were very easily assimilated in Christian (and Muslim) societies in the Middle Ages. The dominant Christian interpretation of the story of creation from Genesis was that God created man (Adam) first, and woman (Eve) second, just as in the creation story in Plato’s Timaeus. Most Christians took this to mean that women were created to be subordinate to men and were naturally inferior to men. Further, the story of the Fall of Man, in which Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit and then in turn convinces Adam to eat it, signified to most Christians that women were less rational and more ruled by carnal desires than men. Again, this was very close to what ancient philosophers and physicians believed about women. The fact that ancient writers agreed with the Bible (or, more precisely, the dominant interpretation of the Bible) mutually reinforced the authority of each. Science and religion were in complete agreement where gender roles and relations were concerned.
This engraving of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer exemplifies the melding of Christian interpretations of Genesis and ancient philosophical and medical views of the differences between men and women. Both Adam and Eve adhere to classical canons of proportion. In other words, Dürer depicts both as ideal types. Adam is the most physically perfect man imaginable, and Eve is the most physically perfect woman imaginable. But they have very different bodies. Adam’s body is more muscular. It is darker (note the heavier shading). And his more active stance suggests greater physical vitality. Eve’s body is much plumper, softer and paler than Adam’s. Her more contained, drawn-in stance (legs together, arms closer to her body) suggests a more sedentary and passive nature. Dürer has depicted Adam as hot and dry, with a lean, hard, active body and Eve as cold and wet, with a soft, plump, passive body. This corresponds to ancient theories of sex differences, but also to Christian views of the inferiority of women.
In my discussion of the temperaments on the Medieval and Renaissance Medicine page, I list the characteristics of the choleric person as: lean and physically vigorous, aggressive, easily angered, mentally sharp and quick-witted. The phlegmatic person, by contrast, has a pale, soft, fat body, is slow, dull-witted and cowardly. These descriptions are of MEN with these temperaments. And in men, a lean, hard body was a physical ideal. Aggressiveness, courage, intelligence and physical vigor were also positive and highly valued qualities in a man. Of course too much anger and aggression, manifested in cruelty and excessive violence, were bad, but in general, in a man these qualities were good. By contrast, anger in a woman was almost never viewed positively. Aggression and physical courage were neither expected nor desired. And “quick-wittedness” and a sharp intellect in a woman were viewed at best with ambivalence. Thus, when women were choleric, they were deviant. For a discussion of Kate in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew as a choleric woman who must be “cured” see here. Conversely, although the characteristics of a phlegmatic – soft body, slow wit, and timidity – were viewed very negatively in men, they were viewed far more positively when they were found in women. In fact, as we see in Dürer’s image of Adam and Eve, the soft plump body was considered the ideal of beauty for women. A lean hard muscular body would be considered ugly in a woman. Views of sex differences were as much PRESCRIPTIVE as they were DESCRIPTIVE. That is, they told people how things OUGHT to be every bit as they described how things actually were.