Until the second wave of feminism took hold back in the 1970s, women’s history had been kind of ignored. It was assumed that only men had ever done anything interesting in past centuries… Which we now know is total nonsense. Women have been utter bosses for millennia, despite the fact we haven’t had the easiest ride. We’ve overcome oppression and struggle, and disproved some really odd perceptions about our bodies and actions along the way.
Pretty much since the dawn of time, men have been coming up with some really strange ideas about the female sex. Some are pretty laughable. Their ideas about pregnancy and periods, for example, were often hilariously stupid. But then what do you expect when medical guidelines were being written by people who’d probably never seen a uterus or vagina? Other historical views were more damaging, and are still having a negative impact on countless women today. Here are some examples of some weird, some wonderful, and some worrying historical views about women. Some prove that we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries; others show that we still have a long way go before we can really say we’ve eradicated misogyny.
16. Women are witches who keep penises as pets
Back in 15th century England, people were utterly terrified of witches. They did everything they could to hunt down and execute anyone they even slightly suspected of engaging in the dark arts. But how could you even tell who was a witch and who wasn’t? Luckily, there were a few guidebooks out there to assist the amateur witch-hunter. One of these books, the Malleus Maleficarum, had some pretty ‘unique’ views about a witch’s day-to-day hobbies. Apparently, these women had the power to make penises completely disappear! A dude would presumably look down one day to find that he suddenly had the non-genitals of a Ken doll. And what would witches do with the penises they stole? Well, keep them as pets, of course, and feed them a nutritious diet of oats and grains. Yep. Seems legit, right?
15. The womb can ‘wander’ around the body
How utterly terrifying does this sound? In Ancient Greece, a number of prestigious philosophers put forward the view that a woman’s womb had the potential to ‘wander’ around her body if she didn’t look after it properly. Aretaeus, a ‘physician’ living in the 2nd century AD, believed that a womb could move upwards, downwards, or sidewards if women didn’t abide by certain rules. The first of these was to keep the uterus nice and occupied – basically, have a lot of sex. The second related to keeping certain smells and liquids away from your nether regions: if a uterus sensed something smelly nearby, it could go on the run! The treatment for this was simple: stick something up your vagina that smelled really nice! The uterus would be so happy that it’d come crawling back into place.
14. Being educated weakens a woman’s womb powers
Yep, you read that right: if you’re a woman who’s dared to get a high school diploma or even a college degree, you’ve made a terrible mistake. In 1873, a Harvard University professor called Edward Clarke published a book called Sex In Education; Or, A Fair Chance For The Girls. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t actually advocate a fair chance for girls at all. Instead, Clarke argued that women shouldn’t bother getting an education, mainly because their only real task was to reproduce. If they did decide to ignore his advice and go to school, terrible things could happen: the act of learning things could damage their reproductive system, especially if they were on their period at the time. Clarke’s theory was supported initially, especially by anti-education activists, but was eventually debunked when generations of college-educated women all turned out just fine.
13. Women can give birth to rabbits if they think about them too much during pregnancy
This odd belief is most evident in the story of one Mary Toft. Back in 1724, she underwent what seemed to be a fairly normal pregnancy. However, when the big day of her labor came, everyone was very shocked to discover that she’d given birth to not one, not two, but TWELVE rabbits. I know what you’re thinking: this can’t be real! Well, it did all turn out to be an elaborate hoax. However, Mary’s story was initially believed thanks to an odd contemporary view that if you thought hard enough about a certain thing during pregnancy, your baby’s appearance would reflect it. Mary claimed to have been startled by a rabbit mid-pregnancy; the incident plagued her mind so much that it allegedly led to her giving birth to rabbit babies. It might seem totally crazy, but this strange theory of ‘maternal impression’ lasted well into the 20th century.
12. Beautiful women have receding hairlines
There’s been some weird fashion trends and beauty standards throughout history, but this one really stands out. In 15th century England, having a high forehead and receding hairline was thought to be a sign of true beauty. Women took this so seriously that if you were unlucky enough to be born with a low hairline, your maids would literally PLUCK OUT YOUR HAIR until it was at the desired level on your head. So imagine the pain of plucking your eyebrows, but at least ten-fold. Even the Queen of England at the time, Elizabeth Woodville, engaged in this particular trend. She was said to be the most beautiful woman in England; you can judge that for yourselves.
11. Wearing a goat bladder or weasel testicles can stop you from getting pregnant
Why have our doctors never suggested this particular contraceptive method to us?! It sounds way better than the pill or IUD… Okay, maybe not. In fact, it just sounds messy and gross. In Imperial Rome, women were encouraged to fashion condoms out of goat bladders in order to prevent unwanted pregnancy. We should all be incredibly grateful for the invention of latex. Alternatively, you could just wear the severed testicles of a weasel in a little pouch around your neck; it was a sure-fire way of preventing pregnancy! If you want to place them somewhere a bit more discreet, you can tie them around your thigh: that apparently works too! Seriously, where did they come up with this nonsense?
10. Women who want long, black hair should rub fried lizard on their head
Have you ever cut your hair short only to regret it a few months later? Are you looking for a quick, sure-fire way to give you long, flowing locks again in no time? Do you also want your hair to be colored a deep raven-shade black? Well, look no further than this incredibly strange medieval beauty advice! All you need to do is find yourself a green lizard; remove its head and tail; cool it in some oil; then rub the lizard-infused oil on to your head! You’ll have the hair of your dreams in no time! Alternatively, you could just wait for our hair to grow, then buy a box of dye from the drug store. Seems a shame to kill a poor, innocent lizard.
9. The touch of a menstruating woman can kill plants and spoil food
If this crazy theory is true, then your ‘time of the month’ is the perfect time to be weeding your garden. You might think that such a crazy idea comes from the ancient era or even the medieval period. But no. As recently as the 1970s, people were having legitimate debates about whether menstruating women had a toxic effect on plants and food. According to proponents of this theory, menstrual blood contains an invisible chemical called menotoxin. Menotoxin is so destructive that it can stop plants from flowering, prevent bread dough from rising, and stop foods like jelly from setting. In more extreme cases, it can even kill an entire field’s worth of crop-eating insects. Frankly, having these kinds of powers during your period would be a bit badass. However, menotoxin theory has been thoroughly debunked in the last couple of decades. Took them long enough…
8. Women’s bodies are the devil’s gateway to earth
Ah yes, the classic connection between women and the devil. Ever since Eve took a bite of the sacred apple in the Garden of Eden, us ladies have been inextricably linked to Satan and his powers. According to the early Christian author Tertullian, literally all women are a gateway to the devil. All of us have the potential to let Satan into this world, simply because we’re not men. In his work On the Apparel Of Women, Tertullian rants about how women are “a temple built over a sewer, the gateway to the devil,” and says that demons live inside all of us. While modern views on this subject might not be QUITE so extreme, let’s not forget when Trump labeled Hillary Clinton ‘the devil’ during the election debates. This is a stereotype that women are yet to fully shake off.
7. Menstrual blood can stop women’s boobs from sagging
Wow, the people of the past had some really strange ideas about period blood, didn’t they? According to Ancient Egyptian medical professionals, smearing period blood all over your breasts and thighs is a sure-fire way to prevent sagging boobs. The idea was that since period blood came from the womb, the protector of new life, it had rejuvenating cosmetic powers. I mean, that’s all well and good, guys, but surely smearing blood everywhere is just a bit messy? Plus, other important thinkers of the time believed that period blood was actually toxic and damaging to the body! How are we supposed to cope with all of these mixed messages and keep our boobs intact?!
6. Women are secretly evil, lying spiders
Women have been linked to spiders throughout history. Apparently, we have an affinity with the little eight-legged creeps because we also like to weave destructive webs of deceit and pain to trap our innocent victims! But of course – that’s how we spend our typical weekends. Ancient Greek legend claimed that Arachne, a mortal woman gifted in weaving, was transformed into the world’s first spider by the goddess Athena. Ever since then, spider-woman symbolism has been rife, mainly thanks to our shared bad reputation. Saying that, the Hopi culture’s creation myth casts Spider Woman as the all-powerful goddess of the Earth – clearly our arachnid roots aren’t all bad!
5. If we have three nipples or six fingers, we’re witches
Yep, we’re back to the whole ‘witchcraft’ thing again. I’m not saying that Early Modern society was totally paranoid about this sort of thing, but it totally was. It was widely believed that all witches had some kind of physical ‘sign’ that marked them out as a practitioner of the occult arts. Having a third nipple was a common ‘sign’: it allegedly allowed a witch’s familiar or imp to suckle blood from her body. Nice. Having six fingers on one hand was also considered to be sure-fire evidence that a woman was a witch, the most famous victim of this superstition being Anne Boleyn. When King Henry VIII got sick of his second queen, he ousted her by claiming she was an incestuous, adulterous witch. Part of the evidence brought against her was her infamous sixth finger. Poor Anne ended up with one extra finger, but one less head.
4. If your mom breastfeeds you while eating celery and rocket, you’ll become a lesbian
So apparently, what a pregnant or nursing woman eats can influence the sexuality of her child – but only if the baby is a girl! Well, that’s according to the ninth-century Islamic world. Apparently, if an excessive amount of these foods was passed to a child through a mother’s breast milk, it can provoke a so-called ‘labial itch’ that caused life-long lesbianism. Apparently, the itch was only sated by rubbing your vagina against another woman’s labia. All this because of some salad! Another culprit that allegedly provoked the itch was the leaves of an orange tree. Why these particular foods caused lesbianism isn’t explained, probably because this entire theory is utter nonsense.
3. Shoving garlic in your lady parts can help you to determine your fertility
If using apps, thermometers or shop-bought tests isn’t for you, why not try this Ancient Greek and Egyptian method of determining fertility? The concept is simple. You wash and peel a single clove of garlic, and insert it into the uterus. The next day, smell the woman’s breath. If it smells of garlic, her fertility is good. The fact that the garlic smell could travel from the vagina to the breath means that there are no unhealthy obstructions in a woman’s womb. If your breath doesn’t smell, something’s wrong with your reproductive system. Either that or you’re already pregnant, and it’s a baby that’s blocking up your womb! The whole thing doesn’t seem very scientific, and it’s a bit of a waste of a good clove of garlic.
2. Rape victims can’t get pregnant
Not all historical ideas about women are humorous; this one certainly isn’t. It’s an uninformed myth that has probably led to thousands of rapists evading justice over the centuries. We originally have the Greek philosopher Aristotle to blame for this: he believed that female pleasure played a huge role in conception. Thus, if a woman became pregnant after intercourse, she must have enjoyed it and must have given her consent. These ideas persisted for millennia and had become a standard legal defense against rape by the medieval period. You’d think that by the modern era people might have finally abandoned this ridiculous notion; however, Todd Akin’s comments a few years ago prove otherwise. When you’ve still got such archaic views being cited in modern politics, it’s clear that the feminist cause still has some major battles to fight.
1. Women of color can’t orgasm
Again, this historical fallacy is no joke, and again, it can be blamed on Aristotle. He was adamant that only fair-skinned women could achieve climax, despite having no legitimate evidence to back this view up. People seem to have glossed over this element of his ideology; it’s not really openly referred to anymore. It might seem like a completely ridiculous idea that nobody could possibly believe these days, but its part of a bigger problem. It’s yet another instance of untrue, racist myths being perpetuated about the sexuality of women of color. This is definitely an issue that we still need to tackle, and it’s one of the many reasons why intersectional feminism is so important!