You Won’t Believe What People Used To Think Was True About The Female Body

Find out how science (read: men) historically got women all wrong.

February 7, 2017
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Remember when women were considered men’s property? It was a pretty wild time! Thankfully the women’s lib movement happened in the mid-20th century and men realized that women were actual human beings—with values, preferences, and rich inner worlds equal in complexity to their own—and they all lived happily ever after.

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Just kidding! Donald Trump is president. Anywho, if you have a vagina and you’ve often experienced the creeping suspicion that men misunderstand you on some fundamental level…well, yes.

But if you want to take that misunderstanding to a whole other, more empirical level, check out these fully bonkers theories based on of-the-time Science And Stuff, crafted—you guessed it—by the minds of men.

Women Were Underdeveloped Men

Whereas now traditional models of gender hold that there are two sexes—male and female—this was not always the case. It wasn’t until the 18th century, apparently, that the current gender binary emerged. Before that, women were not understood as a separate sex, but rather a lesser version of men.

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As Stephanie E. Libbon writes in her 2007 analysis, “Pathologizing the Female Body: Phallocentrism in Western Science,” for the Journal of International Women’s Studies: “According to the writings of ancient Greeks, there was a hierarchical order to life that placed all living creatures on a vertical continuum. Those bodies possessing the lowest heat or energy were located at one end of this spectrum and those possessing the greatest at the opposite end. By locating humanity at the hottest end and men above women, the Greeks defined humans as the most perfect life form and men, by reason of their excess heat, more perfect than women.”

Sounds right!

Women Produced Semen, Maybe

If you remember studying ancient Greece, you probably remember how into body fluids—”humours”—they were as an indicator of physical and mental health.

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“Of these humours, blood was seen as the most precious and life-giving,” Libbon writes. “When purified through heat, blood was held to reach its most refined state—that of semen.” Naturally.

So dudes running science and philosophy agreed that semen was pretty great. What they couldn’t agree on was whether women, too, could produce semen.

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Stanford

A prominent physician of the time, Galen, held that, since male and female genitalia were the same (though women’s testes were inside near their uteruses, and men, due to their hot hot bodies, carried their organs externally), women could produce semen. The difference, Libbon writes, is that Galen believed female semen “was thinner and cooler than the male’s, and thus indicative of her lower standing in nature.”

Meanwhile, “Aristotle claimed only men had the heat necessary to convert blood into this purest form.” Vintage Aristotle.

Women Who Craved Sex Had A Mental Illness

If you’ve never seen the movie Hysteria with Maggie Gyllenhaal, consider watching it as a fun educational primer on a condition whose existence has decidedly less fun implications—namely that women who craved sex were deeply disturbed.

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Hysteria has a long history that Maya Dusenbery explores in the Mother Jones timeline “Female Hysteria and the Sex Toys Used to Treat It.” Symptoms for hysteria “included fainting, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability, nervousness and ‘a tendency to cause trouble for others.'”

Oh yeah, also “erotic fantasy and excessive vaginal lubrication.” In other words, these women were what some of us might refer to today as horny af . “For centuries,” writes Dusenbery, “galloping on horseback, riding in carriages, or vigorous use of a rocking chair had been recommended to treat hysteria.”

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D.M. Bourneville and P. Regnard

The idea that women might just, you know, have sex drives exactly like men did not compute, however, so doctors came up with various “treatments” for hysteria over the years, many of which concluded in a “hysterical paroxysm,” or what some of us might refer to today as an orgasm. Pelvic massage anyone?

Women Who Exhibited Typical Human Behaviors Had A Mental Illness

Men calling women crazy is a trope that persists today with varying degrees of seriousness. In the 19th century, however, when men called women crazy, there was little doubt that they meant it literally, because they sent them to literal mental institutions.

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The reasons that might lead to a woman’s mental downfall and resulting institutionalization were myriad, and absurd, as is evidenced by a list from the Weston State Hospital for the Insane ’s log book that includes things like “novel reading,” “laziness,” “egotism,” “fits and desertion of husband,” and “masturbation.”

As you may have already guessed, some of these men had ulterior motives. Maureen Dabbagh notes in her 2001 book Parental Kidnapping in America: An Historical and Cultural Analysis that “[t]his opened the door to many spousal abuses,” including “[using] lunacy laws to rid themselves of their partners and in abducting their children.”

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Dabbagh goes on to to tell the story of 35-year-old Georgia mother who, in 1884, was “tricked” into a courtroom with her seven children after her husband had petitioned to have her admitted to an asylum for “unsoundness of mind.”

Women’s Uteruses Detached And Strolled Around Inside Their Bodies

You know that common joke about how a man’s penis has a mind of its own? Well, for a while, people really believed that a woman’s uterus was an autonomous agent—one that was inclined to get up and wander around her body, wreaking havoc on her mental and physical stability.

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This idea of the “wandering womb” originated, yes, with the ancient Greeks, specifically Plato and Hippocrates. But even centuries later, by the Victorian age, folks hadn’t gotten it right.

As is noted in the paper “Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health,” the majority of “women carried a bottle of smelling salts in their handbag: they were inclined to swoon when their emotions were aroused, and it was believed … the wandering womb disliked the pungent odor and would return to its place, allowing the woman to recover her consciousness.”

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Surprising no one (probably), physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia compared the womb to “an animal within an animal.” Cool to meet you too, Aretaeus!

Educating Women Would Make Them Infertile

Learning has typically been a no-no for oppressed groups, and women are no different. Usually the concern was more that the oppressed would become enlightened, realize they were mad as hell, and decide that they weren’t going to take it anymore.

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You know, things that oppressed groups have been doing historically since the beginning of oppression.

With women, the concern was more localized: would they still be able to pop babies out of their vaginas? The consensus among some thinkers of the time, strangely, was no.

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In Pathologizing the Female Body: Phallocentrism in Western Science, Libbon quotes an 1898 essay from German pathologist Paul Möbius: “If we wish to have women who fulfil their responsibilities as mothers, we cannot expect them to have a masculine brain. If it were possible for the feminine abilities to develop in a parallel fashion to those of a male, the organs of motherhood would shrivel, and we would have a hateful and useless hybrid creature on our hands.” K.

Women Had Vampiric Vages

If folklore is a reflection of a group’s most primitive fears and desires (hint: it is), men from back in the ancient day were kind of terrified of vaginas.

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YouTube/Vagyna Dentata

Evidence would be the pervasive vagina dentata myth about vagina with teeth. It’s a theme that’s shown up all around the world, dating back to ancient times.

As Gabrielle Moss writes in Bustle, “Most theorists believe the myth to be linked to ‘castration anxiety’ and a general fear of the power of women’s sexuality — especially because a lot of that folklore ends with the hero triumphing by breaking off his ladyfriend’s vag teeth and then doing it with her.”

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Roadside Attractions

Given the number of horror movies relying on plotlines that feature toothy or otherwise frightening vaginas , we’d say there may be some unresolved issues. You’d almost get the impression that men still have some sort of hangup about female bodies or women with power?

Women Had Poisonous Period Blood

We’ve heard women apply a host of descriptions to their periods, and while it’s true that most aren’t particularly overjoyed by them, they’ve never said something like, for example, “My period blood is actually poisonous and it can wilt flowers and ruin children’s eyes with a single glance.”

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Yet, these are a couple of real things that certain people (ahem, men) over the course of history have speculated that period blood, or a woman on her period, was capable of.

In a Refinery29 slideshow of “8 Of The Craziest Myths About Women’s Bodies You Never Heard,” it’s noted that “there was a serious debate in the 1920s about ‘menotoxin,’ a toxin that was believed to exist inside menstrual blood.” However, the theory of toxic menstrual blood “originally popped up in the 13th-century book De Secretis Mulierum (The Secrets of Women) ,” a book that notably calls women monsters.

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Monsters? That’s a pretty serious claim. We’ll address it just as soon as we finish vigorously using this rocking chair.

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