Have you ever been reading or watching a report about a conservative man who said something so incredibly backwards that you swore he was living in the Dark Ages? Well, you’re not so very far from wrong. The Dark Ages were dark partly because education was discouraged and science was suspect, leading to some astoundingly silly things being taken for fact. Like, for example, that the heart was the seat of intelligence. Or that frogs spontaneously generated from mud. As fun as those sort of ideas are to explore, this article will be dealing with beliefs about that strange and inscrutable being: Woman.
Medical knowledge has become so easily obtained nowadays that it’s hard to imagine not knowing things like what the kidneys do or that penicillin kills bacteria. Heck, bacteria weren’t even known until comparatively recently. Before the 19th century, it was believed that contagious diseases spread through bad air or “seeds.” What we know today built upon discoveries of different cultures and scientists, over the growth of human civilization.
Throughout most of history, vivisection of the human body for educational purposes was at least, frowned up and, at worst, a cardinal sin. So learning about the body was a slow process. But we did learn, so there is no excuse for anyone, least of all doctors, to be so archaic in their knowledge of the human female. As we will see, these beliefs are sometimes very ancient and so very, very wrong.
Ignorance is bliss… for the Church: The ancient world was actually doing a pretty good job of discovering how our bodies work. Eastern doctors practiced Ayurveda, acupuncture and herbal medicine. Two Alexandrian surgeons, using criminals as subjects, did the first vivisections. But all of that knowledge vanished with the advent of organized Christianity, as the campaign of keeping knowledge from the people got into full swing. Keeping the masses ignorant was how the Church controlled them. One particular subject of attack were midwives: they were seen as a challenge to the authority of the Church (they were female and educated, you see) so, as much as possible, they were marginalized, even killed. With them went the only real knowledge of how women’s bodies worked. If this fear and loathing of powerful women sounds familiar, you’ve probably watched Fox News recently.
One reason conservative men are okay with rape: As far back as the second century it was believed that a woman’s “seed” was necessary for reproduction, and that if a woman did not achieve an orgasm during sexual intercourse, there could be no “seed” produced and, hence, no pregnancy. While this had some clear advantages for women, it is demonstrably untrue and it has left a lingering belief that pregnancy cannot result from rape. This idea was put forward most recently by Todd Akin. You knew it was backward, but probably not that it was that backward!
From woman-centered to male-centered, just the way they like it: Most ancient societies were matrilineal, passing titles and properties down through the female line. Because the role of the male was not understood then, there was no other way to be certain of who you were related to save through one’s mother. In those days, women instigated relationships, married who they liked and divorced them at will. They decided when to have another child, holding it off by nursing one child for up to several years. Once men discovered that they had a hand (so to speak) in procreation, they began to flip how society worked. In patriarchal societies, women are treated as lesser beings, their female functions – what made them women – were demonized and vilified. Just ask Rush Limbaugh.
Men became more important to the fetus: Men, it was now taught, gave the child its soul with his seed. Women were nothing more than the fertile field in which he sowed it. To this end, women were considered the gatekeepers of “morality,” and it fell to them to keep suitors at bay. Rather than making men responsible for exercising self-control, women were expected to be modest and never lead a man on. That her very presence was considered to be a seduction was her problem. We see this attitude, still, in the rape-friendly atmosphere that is so prevalent in our country. Blame the victim is still, sadly, the default setting for most conservative men like Bill O’Reilly.
Women must feel an emotional connection to enjoy sex: There is a persistent myth that women – but not men – must be in an emotionally fulfilling relationship in order to enjoy sex. Even though this has been scientifically disproved with regularity, this idea that women and men are inherently different in regards to sex and love refuses to die. Part of this myth is that women are “naturally monogamous.” One has only to look back to those ancient societies to see that this is false. But conservative men want it to be true so they cling to and keep repeating the myth, maybe hoping that if they say it enough it will suddenly be true. The idea here, is to discourage women from enjoying casual sex while freeing men to stick it wherever they want, whenever they want.
Ignorance of the female body was the norm: Until the 18th century, the process of pregnancy, including conception and childbirth, was surrounded with some pretty stupid ideas when seen through today’s lens. First of all, women were seen as inferior: in every aspect, men were naturally better. Women were “cold” whereas men were “warm,” which was viewed as the better way to be. Women were considered to be so cold that they could not extrude a penis, which would instead inverse itself to become a vagina.
Understanding of the uterus was next to nil: The uterus was believed to wander around the body, becoming quite vexed if it were not used for its proper purpose which was, of course, childbearing (but not sexual pleasure, NEVER that). It was even thought to have two (or more) chambers: cold ones where females gestated and warm ones where the males grew. Conception was known to arise from intercourse, but the mechanics of it were unknown for a relatively long time. The man’s seed, as previously mentioned, was what gave a child its soul. But it was on the woman to grow the child – if she miscarried or the child was stillborn, it was never even considered that the man might be to blame. As the Rh factor was unknown until the 20th century, there are hundreds of generations of women who were falsely blamed for these occurrences. In some circles, they still are. After all, a man that can’t conceive isn’t a “man” in our society. To be fair, this isn’t strictly a left/right problem but the right is more concerned with “manliness.”
Do modern conservative men believe in magic?: As we learned earlier, it was believed that men gave the fetus its soul with his semen, which brings up an interesting theory about the conservative antipathy towards abortion. Ancient men thought that anything that had been a part of him could be used to practice dark magic against him. Hair, fingernails, spittle, urine and, yes, semen, were considered to have a psychic link to their owners. Sympathetic magic used these personal items to cause harm to the owner. The current underlying fear of abortion may very well be a vestige of this primitive belief. It also has the delightful bonus feature of painting women as predatory, even on a subconscious level.
During the Dark Ages, and ever since then, women were considered property: They were defined by their relationships to men (flipping the ancient matrilineal code on its head). Their father, husband or even brother could make demands of her and she was bound to obey. Most marriages were arranged, even in the lower classes. A wife had no separate legal status apart from her being married to her husband. Women, with few exceptions, could not participate in public life, politics or the justice system (unless she was the accused). A woman was pretty much expected to stay at home, keep house and have kids. Especially the latter, as the interpretation of Genesis 3:16 (and other parts of that book) was that women were compelled to have as many children as they could, even at the cost of her or the children’s welfare. This is still the way some men feel.
Misogyny was taught by the Church: The Church was, in fact, the source of most of the misogyny that went on until very recently – unless you’re a certain kind of conservative man, then it’s still going on. Priests told women that they should be under their husband’s foot, acquiescing to him in all matters. She could not initiate sex but she could never deny it to her husband. She could never accuse her husband of rape even if he used violence and forced her to have sex. It was believed that, because of the frequent physical abuse, a woman could never really love her husband. In a way, women were sex slaves, no matter who they were or their social status. Young, single girls and widows were the only women who were exempt from this subjugation. For most women, though, her body was not her own.
Women’s children didn’t belong to them: They were even told that their children were God’s and not really hers. Is it any wonder, then, that unwanted babies were left by the thousands at Church-run hospitals and foundling homes? And what do you think they did with those babies? They killed them. The death rates at foundling homes were as high as 90%. But that was okay – as long as it was men who were making that decision. It is still this way with conservatives. They may not be doing the deed with their own hands, but they are certainly doing it with their policies.
Women should suffer: The Church also taught that women sinned more than men, so her suffering was deserved. She should be unhappy and bring forth children in pain. The latter was one reason Victorian and Edwardian doctors refused to give women ether or chloroform when they became available: God said that women should suffer, so no remedy for her pain was offered. Today’s conservative men heap humiliation on the pain, forcing women to have unnecessary procedures and treating them like children who must have their decisions made for them. That’s actually how women used to be classified for legal purposes: right there with minors and idiots. And that’s how certain men still see women.
When John Adams was working with the Continental Congress on plans to govern the new nation they had created, his wife, Abigail, wrote to him:
“…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
While her husband may have considered her words, his colleagues did not. It wasn’t until 1920 that American woman were allowed to have that voice. After that, women began to make headway against the archaic and misogynistic laws and attitudes that kept us under the thumb of our opposite gender. Many men help us with our struggle. But there are some men, most of them conservative and Republican, who still think like their ancestors did. They would love it if they could go back to controlling women: their lives, their status, their bodies. Which means we have to fight harder and remain vigilant. Returning to the Dark Ages is a terribly bad idea.