Women at the Mercy of Men
- Hippocrates’ Women: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece by Helen King
Routledge, 322 pp, £16.99, October 1998, ISBN 0 415 13895 7
There is a disease which affects young girls, particularly around the onset of menstruation. It is known colloquially as ‘the horrors’, and its symptoms are evident. The disease makes adolescent girls violently aggressive, and commands them ‘to leap around, to fall down into wells and to hang themselves’ – to ‘take on a desire for death, as if it were a good thing’. Although, as with so many female complaints, the mind is affected as the disease progresses, the primary cause is physiological and connected to the bodily changes of puberty. ‘When the blood is flowing all the more copiously, because of nourishment and the increase in bodily size, and when the blood still has no means of egress, the blood leaps up from this surplus to the diaphragm.’ The cure: ‘my advice to young girls who suffer this is to have sexual intercourse with a man as soon as possible.’ Best of all, is to follow this with pregnancy and childbirth (where the blood really flows).
Vol. 21 No. 7 · 1 April 1999
Hippocrates’ cure for menstrual pain – sexual intercourse – was not an option when I was a teenager (‘Women at the Mercy of Men’, LRB, 4 March). Menstruation was an agonising process – one that my mother said was the ‘woman’s lot’ – whose cure was a hot-water bottle pressed so tightly against the pain it could raise blisters on one’s stomach. The Sixties took some time to reach our part of the world. ‘Sex’ was a word one didn’t see, neither of us knew four-letter words, and our doctor (a man fond of jokes, called Dr Black) did not suggest sexual intercourse when my mother rushed me round after I’d fainted down the stairs. He said, after he’d snapped my knicker elastic, that all would come right in a few years; after I’d had my first child. That would get me ‘open’. Then he slapped me playfully on my bottom – he’d been at my birth after all – and we both went blushing away. My mother was relieved that all was ‘normal’. But I must have made in the back of my mind some calculation of horrors to come, for I was later overwhelmed that childbirth was so swift and easy compared with the cramps I’d lived through.
What could I claim as to the effect this had? The vividness of the memory, and the resolve that my daughters, among others, should not have to go through the same experience, point to something. This particular ancient theory was right, perhaps.