Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Women vs Men: Battle of the Bodies

In the eighteenth century much of our medical understanding was founded on the knowledge of the Ancients. The Hippocratic doctrine of the four humors was its basis, and it attempted to explain the differences between men and women through them. For example it was believed that women and children suffered more from cold and moist humours than men (phlegm), leading to them having naturally weaker and less controlled bodies and minds.

The Four Humors

As society changed in England during the eighteenth century the role of women began to be questioned. Were women different because of nature or nurture? Feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft argued strongly that a lack of decent education for women, as well as social opportunities, were the causes of gender inequalities. Unsurprisingly however the male orientated world of science (or natural philosophy as it was called) generally argued the opposite. With new branches of anatomy and physiology, thanks to more opportunities for dissection, men directed their studies at trying to understand what made women so fundamentally different through studying the human body. It was important to them to try and establish exactly where women fitted in and why, and the skeleton was seen as the way to do this.

Before about 1750 the human skeleton was almost thought of as asexual, with gender differences only being apparent in reproductive organs and the exterior body. (Yet this in itself was still enough to prove some sort of gender superiority, as women's reproductive organs were seen as inferior to men's because they were an inverted version of the ideal.)  The first publication to contain both text and illustration of male and female skeletons was the Traité d’ostéologie published in 1759 with illustrations by Marie d'Arconville.

Marie Genevieve Charlotte Thiroux d'Arconville

D'Arconville chose to incorrectly represent the female skull as smaller in proportion to the body, as well as drawing broader hips and a narrower ribcage, perhaps reflecting the use of tight corsets during this period. Later, in 1796, a German anatomist called Samuel von Soemmerring also published illustrations of a female skeleton, but his were quite different to d'Arconville's, particularly with reference to the ribcage. In fact his work was criticised for not showing a narrower ribcage - not for scientific reasons, but for cultural ones: 'women's rib cage is much smaller than that shown by Soemmerring, because it is well known that women's restricted life style requires that they breathe less vigorously'.

Soemmerring's illustration showing the effects of corsets, 1785

Through these new medical illustrations of male and female skeletons however, men were now able for the first time to see internal differences between the genders, and it is interesting to see how they used this knowledge to further solidify their gender bias. Women's larger pelvis' were seen as 'proof' that women were naturally bound for motherhood and domesticity, unlike men who were clearly not, and this scientific knowledge complemented the increasing nostalgia for the role of motherhood that developed during the nineteenth century, reflected in art and literature. Likewise it was thought that the reason women and children had proportionately larger heads than men was simply because their skulls lacked the complete evolutionary growth of men's. This psuedo-science of craniology was also applied to Africans and Aborigines in an attempt to justify their subjugation by white men.

Skeletons by John Barclay, 1820

To conclude, by discovering differences in men and women's bodies in the later eighteenth century, anatomists sought to understand why women were culturally different, but without taking culture into account. Morality and gender, physicality and character, all were combined in 'scientific' understanding. This can be summed up by a doctor called J. J. Sachs who stated in 1830:
The male body expresses positive strength, sharpening male understanding and independence, and equipping men for life in the State, in the arts and sciences. The female body expresses womanly softness and feeling. The roomy pelvis determines women for motherhood. The weak, soft members and delicate skin are witness of women's narrower sphere of activity, of home-bodiness, and peaceful family life.