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Agnodice - History
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Recognized as one of the first female gynecologists, Agnodice is said to have courageously practiced medicine in Greece when women faced the death penalty for doing so. Eventually caught, she was vindicated and allowed to continue when patients came to her defense.
Despite extraordinary medical advances throughout history, more than 800 women still die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – 99 per cent of them in developing countries.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Following criticism for studying secular texts, celebrated writer and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz of Mexico memorably defended women’s rights to education in 1691 by proclaiming “one can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper." A national icon, today she appears on Mexican currency.
Stone relief from Isola Dell’ Sacra, Ostia, 1st century CE
She is credited with achieving the role of physician, although it was forbidden to her by law. It is highly unlikely that she was an veritable historical figure in third century Athens more likely, she belongs to the realm of myth and folk tale. Her story comes to us through Hyginus, a Latin author of the first century CE:
Midwives from the seventeenth century to the present day have used this tale to defend themselves against a male-dominated profession seeking to medicalize childbirth. Agnodice has been invoked as fact, and cited as a pioneering midwife, a precedent for women in medicine in general.
Agnodice: down and dirty?
The gestation of a book is an odd thing… So there I was watching a superb drag burlesque act, The Down and Dirty Show, featuring The Gentleman King and Foxy Tann, the scheduled entertainment at the 2011 Berkshire Conference for Women Historians. And the sky opened. Sometimes moments of insight come when you least expect them.
How many times have you assumed that the person walking down the street in front of you was a man, and then when the person turned round you realized it was a woman? We read various cues, but then we have to change our minds. In this show, men became women who became men again in front of our eyes which raised the question, were they men to begin with? Gender was most emphatically shown as something to be performed, meanings shifting with clothing and context, so that binaries dissolved and the world became a very different place.
And suddenly the imaginary ancient Greek midwife on whom I was writing a book, Agnodice, started to mean something very different. My main research question had never been the traditional one, namely ‘Was Agnodice a real person, a pioneering midwife who fought for the right of women to attend those giving birth?’ That question, the one asked by existing articles and books aimed at midwives, is I think a dead end. Of course this young girl, who is supposed to have disguised herself as a man to learn medicine and then practiced her profession until accused by jealous rivals, never existed. The story, culminating in her displaying her body to the court to prove she is really a woman and can’t have been seducing female patients, has many of the features of an ancient novel.
Having a ‘founding father’ for a profession is traditional, so claiming Agnodice as ‘first midwife’ just plays the same game as medicine and its specialisms: from Hippocrates as ‘father of medicine’ to Robert Koch as ‘father of microbiology’. Such games involve consolidating an identity for a newly emerging specialism, or making nationalist claims to precedence in a contested field. I was always more interested in how people over the last 500 years or so had refashioned Agnodice: was she, they wondered, a midwife or a female doctor? How that question has been answered can help us think today about debates over what midwifery is, how gender is relevant, and where the professional boundaries between midwives and doctors should be drawn.
One of the aspects of Agnodice in modern discourse that most fascinates me is her use in the name of the excellent Agnodice Foundation, a Swiss group working for the integration of those who are transsexual, intersex or transgender. I asked their founder, Dr Erika Volkmar, why Agnodice had been chosen. She was well aware that the story is a myth but replied that ‘We can assume that if Agnodice was successful in practicing OBG as a man, she must have been at least very androgyne and gender variant … Agnodice is perfect as she was both gender variant AND an outstanding professional. Equally, our foundation council is composed of a majority of great professionals with atypical gender identity. She is a model because as a gender variant person she obtained a major victory against the prejudice and sexism of our society, i.e. making medical studies accessible to women.’
The Agnodice Foundation is not the first to take Agnodice as gender variant. Here is James Sprague in 1912 imagining Agnodice speaking:
And so I reasoned, ’twas a blunder made, for which the gods were not responsible. Dame Nature ’twas who in erratic mood had linked a man’s mind to a woman’s form. And none suspected, none in all these years, the secret of my sex. Oh, strange indeed, the ways of gods are not like those of men — that by mere change of garb a woman is transformed into the semblance of a man, and that great inner difference concealed !
Her sex is female, in bodily terms, but here her mind is not. Would she have wanted to change her body to match her mind, had such an option been available to her? And it’s not just Agnodice’s mind that is male: for Sprague the court hears a voice whose full, rich, swelling tones were like unto an organ’s.
What The Down and Dirty Show showed me is that assuming that Agnodice was easily able to pass for a man because she was gender variant may make us miss an even larger point namely, that gender is always potentially ambiguous. How do we read the signs? We assume we know who the boys are and who the girls are, but it only takes a change of dress or hairstyle or gesture and our carefully constructed binaries fall apart. Seeing Agnodice as gender variant may just gloss over all the inadequacies of gender binaries, in history and today.
Sprague, James S., ‘Agnodice’, Dominion Monthly and Ontario Medical Journal, 38 (1912): 13–17.
8 Khawlah Bint Al-Azwar: The Woman Who Led The Muslim Army Against The Byzantine Empire
When the early Muslims led their armies against the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, a young woman named Khawlah bint al-Azwar followed along.  Her brother, Dhiraar Ibn al-Azwar, was a commander in the army, and she came along as a nurse to make sure someone was ready to heal his wounds.
When her brother was captured, though, during the Siege of Damascus, Khawlah refused to let him rot in a prison cell and die. She put on armor, veiled her face, and took his place on the battlefield alongside the other men.
Khawlah fought so bravely and ferociously that the army&rsquos general, Khalid Ibn Walid, personally met with her to recognize her as the hero of the battle. The whole army was shocked when she revealed her face.
Instead of kicking her out, though, Khalid let her lead a rescue mission to free her brother. Khawlah led a battalion of men into the Byzantine camp, rescuing her brother and every prisoner of war the Byzantines had captured.
Khawlah followed the army from then on, initially the only woman fighting in an army of men. That changed, though, when she was captured by the Byzantines and thrown into a prison for women. Khawlah armed her fellow prisoners with tent poles and pegs, leading her own crudely equipped female army in a violent jailbreak that ended with 30 Byzantine soldiers dead and countless women freed by their own strength.
5 Daring Women in History
Women’s History Month is well underway. Hopefully you’ve found some time in your busy lives to celebrate and learn about women in history! The Women’s Success Center would like to help you celebrate by highlighting the accomplishments of a few awe-inspiring women in history.
1. Agnodice (Born 300 BC)
Agnodice was a woman who lived in Athens, Greece. Her dream was to study medicine and gynecology. Sadly at this time, women were forbidden to practice medicine. However, this did not stop Agnodice! She promptly cut her hair, disguised herself as a man, and became a doctor. In secret, the truth about Agnodice spread among pregnant patients. Soon, all the women wanted Agnodice to treat them instead of the men. When Agnodice kept getting all the jobs, the men (not knowing that Agnodice was a woman), accused her of seducing their wives. Then, Agnodice revealed in court that she was, in fact, a woman. This caused even more of an outrage among the male doctors in ancient Greece! Quickly, the wives of these men stepped up and defended Agnodice, citing all the lives she had saved. Because of Agnodice, the law was amended to allow Grecian women to study and practice medicine.
Interested in learning about how other female scientists found success in male exclusive environments? Try reading Avenging Agnodice: The Struggles and Successes of Female Scientists, Antiquity to Present by Nancy L. Swanson.
2. Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Josephine Baker is one of my personal heroes. She is a renowned performer, WWII spy, civil rights activist, and adoptive mother of twelve. Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri to performer parents. By age 15, she had joined an African American theatre troupe. She moved to New York and celebrated black life and art during the Harlem Renaissance. Her success took her to Paris, where her show became major hit! While in France, she helped the French military in their fight against the Nazis. She was a spy that shared enemy secrets by writing them on her sheet music in invisible ink. When Josephine returned to the US, she used her fame as a platform to speak out against racial injustices. Her personal life reflected her commitment to ending racial inequality. During the course of her career, Josephine Baker adopted 12 children. She made a special effort to adopt children from a variety of countries, races, and backgrounds. She called her family “The Rainbow Tribe” because they were an example of many different cultures and colors living together in harmony. Josephine Baker is an inspiration for so many reasons. She spent her whole life performing and fighting for what is right up until her death at age 69.
Want to learn more about Josephine Baker? There have been many books written about this incredible woman, including Josephine Baker’s Last Dance by Sherry Jones.
3. Giorgina Reid (1908-2001)
Giorgina was born in 1908 in Trieste, Italy. When she was a little girl, she moved to America. She loved to learn, and was constantly reading and creating. She and her husband always dreamt of living by the sea, and after years of saving, they moved to a house near the shore of Long Island. They quickly realized that unless they did something, erosion would soon take their home away. Giorgina was determined to save her home, so she created an innovative technique and transformed her garden into a terrace of reeds, wood, and drainage pipes that slowed the erosion immensely. The historic monument, Montauk Lighthouse is also located on Long Island. The government decided there was nothing they could do stop the erosion and planned to shut it down. That’s when Giorgina Reid approached them with her erosion control technique. For fifteen years, Giorgina worked every day planting reeds to save the lighthouse. Most days, she enlisted volunteers to help her. In 1985, she finished her work on the Montauk Lighthouse at the age of 77. I am confident that Georgina’s brilliant ideas have will continue to help stop erosion’s destruction for many years to come.
For more information on the history of Montauk Lighthouse, we recommend reading Living on the Edge by Henry Osmers.
4. Temple Grandin (1947-)
Temple Grandin is a famous educator, animal expert, author, and advocate for autistic communities. She was born in 1947 and diagnosed with autism at age two. As a teenager, Temple invented the “hug machine” to relieve stress. This invention is still sometimes used today among children and adults with autism. Temple changed the livestock world forever with the implementation of her “curved corral” technique for slaughterhouses. Her technique improves production by reducing stress, panic, and hesitation in animals. Temple Grandin has been a teacher to many people. She earned a Ph. D. in Animal Science and is currently a professor teaching animal science at Colorado State University. Temple has given many lectures and written books about both animal science and autism. Temple Grandin has been a source of encouragement for people with autism everywhere. She has changed the world for good by showing that “different is not less”.
Temple Grandin has many books for you to choose from if you are interested in learning more about her and her accomplishments. Her autobiography, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, would be a great place to start.
5. Leymah Gbowee (1972-)
Leymah Gbowee was born in Liberia in 1972. When she was 17, an intense civil war broke out in her country. She married a man she met in a refugee camp. Sadly, her husband was extremely abusive. As the war raged on, Leymah enrolled in a social work training for war victims. She was trained on how to help victims of domestic violence. Her newfound knowledge and hope inspired her to take her kids and leave her abusive husband. Leymah began collaborating with other women. She cofounded WIPNET, the Women in Peacebuilding Network, to get women involved in ending the civil war. She united Christian and Muslim women. She encouraged women to go on sexual hunger strikes to get influential men to pay attention. When the Peace Talks began, thousands of women sat outside and refused to leave until a solution was found. Leymah was their spokesperson. Just weeks after this event, a peace treaty was signed. Leymah Gbowee is still working hard and changing the world. Her accomplishments are astounding and led to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Happy Women’s History Month!
If you’re looking for a book that covers the lives of many daring women like Agnodice, Josephine, Giorgina, Temple, and Leymah, check out Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu. This is a fantastic, beautiful graphic novel filled with 29 different vignettes about incredible women in history.
Agnodice of Athens
Once upon a time in Athens, there lived a young woman named Agnodice. Agnodice wanted to be a doctor but the law forbade women and enslaved people from practising medicine. Unafraid of the law, Agnodice decided to disguise herself as a man, cutting off her hair and dressing in clothing usually worn by men. Agnodice’s studies with a doctor called Herophilus went well, and she was soon seeing patients of her own, all the while remaining in disguise.
On one occasion, Agnodice visited a woman who was in labour. The woman was distrustful of the male doctor, but Agnodice revealed herself (quite literally) to the patient and, now satisfied that Agnodice was a woman, a bond of trust was established.
Word spread amongst Athenian women that Agnodice was in fact a woman in disguise, and she soon proved to be more popular amongst female patients than other (male) doctors. Presumably this was because the women were more comfortable discussing their health, particularly their reproductive health (see 1. in A few things to note below), with another woman.
Even today patients interact differently with male and female doctors, If you’re interested in reading further, see Alyahya, et al. 2019 in the source section.
The other doctors soon became suspicious because Agnodice, who remained in disguise, was the only person Athenian women would allow to treat them. The doctors were quick to accuse Agnodice of unprofessional behaviour, suggesting that the women were not really ill, but had been pretending in order to have affairs with Agnodice.
A group of judges called the Areopagites summoned Agnodice and accused her (still in disguise) of improper behaviour with her patients. Agnodice simply undressed to show that she was a woman and was incapable of impregnating women with illegitimate children a huge concern for men of the time. In the ancient world women’s bodies were policed to ensure that they were not given the opportunity to engage in pre- or extra- marital affairs, which would compromise the legitimate family line.
Despite Agnodice having revealed herself (again, literally) as a woman, the doctors continued to be outraged, but the women of Athens stormed into the court and defended Agnodice, stating:
“You are not husbands, but enemies, because you condemn her who discovered safety [or health] for us.”
The story ends with the law being amended to ensure that women could practise medicine in the future. And they all lived happily ever after…
Agnodice, illustration from Delacoux’s Biographie des sages-femmes célèbres, anciennes, modernes et contemporaines (Paris: Trinquart, 1833-34). 1833
Source: British Museum
It’s a great story. Cross-dressing, women in science, creativity and innovation, women defending women, an underdog overcoming adversity – what more do you want?
Unfortunately, we simply do not know if Agnodice ever existed, and it’s highly likely that she was a mythical figure. There are numerous reasons for suggesting that Agnodice is a mythical figure. Firstly, an Athenian law which banned women and enslaved people from practising medicine did not exist in any period that we know of. In fact, women (primarily enslaved women) were often trained as midwives and physicians as male doctors tended to avoid physically examining a woman’s body.
Secondly, the only place we find reference to Agnodice is in Hyginus’s Fabulae, a collection of myths and biographies of mythical or pseudo-historical figures. Hyginius is a notoriously difficult figure to pin down, we do not know when he lived, and the Fabulae exists in Greek, although it was almost certainly translated from Latin (which, sadly, we do not have a copy of). Thirdly, as Prof. Helen King points out, the story has many parallels with ancient novels – it’s simply too far-fetched to reflect reality.
However, the tale of Agnodice has been used by women to support their role in medicine since the 17 th century, and this is perhaps more important than whether Agnodice existed or not. Women in medicine, particularly those specialising in women’s reproductive health and midwifery were able to invoke Agnodice as ‘the first midwife’ and could therefore trace the precedent of women in medicine back to ancient times.
‘[The story of Agondice]’s main use is within the history of medicine and, from the seventeenth century to the present day, when midwives have defended themselves against a male-dominated medical profession seeking to medicalise childbirth, Agnodike has been invoked as fact, and hence as a valuable past precedent.’King, 1986: 55.
A few things to note:
- There is much debate about whether Agnodice was a midwife or a physician. For the sake of brevity, we shall assume that Agnodice was a doctor with training in or who specialised in women’s reproductive health and midwifery.
- It has been suggested that Agnodice was transgender. She is the namesake of a Swiss foundation ‘working for the integration of those who are transsexual, intersex or transgender’ (King, 2015). Once again, Agnodice (real or not) is invoked for good: a means of representing and supporting individuals who may be underrepresented, overlooked or discriminated against in their field or society.
Alyahya G, Almohanna H, Alyahya A, Aldosari M, Mathkour L, Aldhibaib A, Al-Namshan Y, Al-Mously N. Does physicians’ gender have any influence on patients’ choice of their treating physicians?. J Nat Sci Med 20192:29-34.
Keaveney, A. Bartley, A. 2017. Hyginus, Fabula 274.10-13: The Story of Agnodice. Giornale Italiano di Filologia. Vol. 69, pp. 171-189.
King, H. 1986. Agnodike and the Profession of Medicine. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. No. 32, pp. 53-77.
King, H. 2015. Agnodice: Down and Dirty? Wonders and Marvels [Online].
Agnodice nació nuna familia de l'alta sociedá n'Atenes. El so deséu de convertise en médica surdió al dase cuenta del gran númberu de muyeres sometíes a partos por demás doliosos. A pesar de qu'a les muyeres dexóse-yos aprender xinecoloxía, obstetricia, sanamientu y partería na dómina de Hipócrates, dempués de la so muerte los líderes d'Atenes afayaron que les muyeres realizaben albuertos y decidieron castigar cola pena capital a les muyeres qu'exercieren la medicina. 
Cuando Agnódice remontóse ante esta inxusticia de nun poder aprender medicina recibió'l sofitu del so propiu padre, quien la ayudar a camudar el so aspeutu pol d'un home.  Cortóse'l pelo y vistióse con ropa d'home p'aportar a la formación en medicina. Utilizó como sida la supuesta enfermedá d'un amigu pa xustificar les sos ausencies.  Darréu partió d'Atenes pa estudiar medicina n'Exiptu, onde les muyeres desempeñaben un papel importante na comunidá médica. 
Agnodice estudió medicina en Alexandría baxu tutelar de Herófilo, el gran anatomista de la so dómina. Llogró los meyores resultaos nel exame de medicina y asina consiguió lo qu'anguaño ye'l títulu en xinecoloxía y obstetricia. 
Cuando empezó a exercer facer calteniendo'l so aspeutu masculín anque en dalguna ocasión desveló ser muyer pa llograr un mayor enfotu colos sos pacientes. En poco tiempu estendió la información ente les moces de qu'Agnodice yera en realidá una muyer y buscaron el so cuidu. La so popularidá aumentaba y les muyeres d'Atenes preferíen la so atención a la de los sos colegues masculinos. La so eficacia y profesionalidá espertaron les envidies de los sos colegues d'oficiu. Empezaron los llevantos y foi acusada d'averase demasiáu a los sos pacientes ya inclusive de violar a dalguna d'elles. 
Cuando los médicos varones diéronse cuenta de la medría de la popularidá de Agnodice y del refugu que les muyeres teníen ante ellos, acusaron a Agnodice de seducir a les muyeres y a los sos pacientes d'asonsañar enfermedaes.  Agnodice foi xulgada por seducir a les muyeres ante un grupu d'homes celosos y colegues médicos. El tribunal axuntar nuna llomba cerca d'Atenes llamada Areópagu. Pa encarar el xuiciu decidió desvelar la so verdadera identidá femenina llevantándose la túnica, pero entós acusóse-y d'un delitu más grave: suplantación d'identidá pal exerciciu de la medicina prohibíu por llei a les muyeres.  Un ensame de muyeres llegó al llugar onde se celebraba'l xuiciu pa defendela emponderando los ésitos de Agnodice como médicu y reprendieron a los sos homes por intentar executala.    Dempués d'un curtiu alderique, Agnodice salvar de la pena de muerte, foi lliberada de los cargos impuestos nel so contra y llogróse un cambéu na llei ateniense por que les muyeres pudieren exercer la medicina.  
Nel mundu griegu antes de Agnodice, les muyeres podíen encargase del cuidu de los enfermos y tratar d'investigar el funcionamientu del cuerpu y les causes de les enfermedaes. Tamién se-yos dexaba ser parteres y ayudar nel allumamientu pero nun podíen exercer la medicina.  El xuiciu de Agnodice provocó'l cambéu nes lleis atenienses dexando a les muyeres estudiar medicina. La hestoria de Agnodice tamién foi utilizada a lo llargo del sieglu XVII poles parteres pa defendese de los oficios apoderaos polos homes que queríen incorporar l'estudiu de la medicina nel partu. 
Delles investigaciones suxurieron qu'Agnodice ye una figura mítica. Asina lo apunta "La Enciclopedia Internacional de les Muyeres Científiques", publicada en 2002 argumentando qu'Agnodice en griegu traduzse como "casta ante la xusticia " y una práutica común nos mitos griegos yera nomar a los sos personaxes d'alcuerdu a les sos virtúes. El segundu argumentu espuestu nel llibru referir al momentu nel qu'Agnodice llevántase la túnica pa revelar el so sexu, al considerar qu'esti xestu ye frecuente nos mitos, como na dómina clásica na que les estauínes de muyeres llevantándose la falda considerábase un xestu de poder contra'l mal.  Sicasí, Agnodice convirtióse nuna figura simbólica pa muyeres médiques anguaño. 
Agnodice - History
I was born in 300 BC in ancient Greece, and in today's world, you know me only as a legend. Did I exist? Or did I not? I shall leave it to you to decide. Here is my story:
I was a noblewoman who dreamed of becoming a healer. More than anything, I wanted to practice medicine in an era when women were legally prohibited from the healing arts. The only way I could achieve my dream was to cut my hair and wear men's clothing. Encouraged by my father, I dressed thusly and soon become an avid student of the famous Alexandrian physician, Herophilus where I earned the highest marks.
After I finished my studies, as I walked the streets of Athens, I heard the screams of a woman in the throes of labor. I rushed to assist her. The woman, believing me to be a man, refused to allow me to touch her. Desperate to convince her otherwise, I lifted up my clothes and revealed that I was a woman. She allowed me to deliver her baby. Women everywhere soon flocked to me. To evade the authorities, I dressed as a man, not only during my studies but also whenever I practiced.
When my male colleagues discovered that requests for their services were dwindling, while mine were increasing, they accused me of seducing and raping the women patients.
I was subsequently arrested and charged. At my trial, the leading men of Athens condemned me. To save myself from the death penalty, I revealed I was really a woman. A crowd of my patients declared in front of the temple that if I were executed, they would die with me. The wives of the judges argued, "You are not spouses, but enemies since you are condemning her who discovered health for us."
Under pressure by the crowd, the judges acquitted me and allowed me to continue practicing medicine.
I continued to work mostly with women and have been credited with being one of the first women gynecologists in history.
Whether or not the legend of my life is true, it is a story which the world of medicine has long cherished.
Telesilla of Argos
A native of Argos, Telesilla (c. 510 BCE), was a prominent lyric poet, considered one of the nine Female Lyric Poets of Greece by Antipater of Thesalonike. As she was constantly sick as a young woman, she consulted an oracle, who told her to dedicate her life to the Muses. She studied music and poetry and was quickly healed. She became an influential poet, but also gained fame by pushing the Spartan forces away from her hometown. King Cleomenes of Sparta defeated the Argive soldiers in the Battle of Sepeia, but when the Spartans were ready to take the city they found that Telesilla had gathered and armed the women, slaves and remaining men of the city. The makeshift army fought so valiantly that the Spartans fled.