It is a common trope in present-day discourse that feminism and the enforcement of gender equality are destroying the very foundations of our societies and ultimately ruining everything for us, to the detriment of those who seek equality in the first place as well as everyone else.
This is clearly nonsense, and the trope is not even a modern one: it has been around for millennia, and it has been used whenever someone felt threatened in their comfortable privileges.
One might be tempted to say, for example, that already the younger Seneca made a very similar point when he writes that (Seneca, Epistles 95.20-1) –
Maximus ille medicorum et huius scientiae conditor feminis nec capillos defluere dixit nec pedes laborare: atqui et capillis destituuntur et pedibus aegrae sunt. Non mutata feminarum natura sed victa est; nam cum virorum licentiam aequaverint, corporum quoque virilium incommoda aequarunt. Non minus pervigilant, non minus potant, et oleo et mero viros provocant; aeque invitis ingesta visceribus per os reddunt et vinum omne vomitu remetiuntur; aeque nivem rodunt, solacium stomachi aestuantis. Libidine vero ne maribus quidem cedunt: pati natae (di illas deaeque male perdant!) adeo perversum commentae genus inpudicitiae viros ineunt. Quid ergo mirandum est maximum medicorum ac naturae peritissimum in mendacio prendi, cum tot feminae podagricae calvaeque sint? Beneficium sexus sui vitiis perdiderunt et, quia feminam exuerant, damnatae sunt morbis virilibus.
The illustrious founder of the guild and profession of medicine remarked that women never lost their hair or suffered from pain in the feet; and yet nowadays they run short of hair and are afflicted with gout. This does not mean that woman’s physique has changed, but that it has been conquered; in rivalling male indulgences, they have also rivalled the ills to which men are heirs. They keep just as late hours, and drink just as much liquor; they challenge men in wrestling and carousing; they are no less given to vomiting from distended stomachs and to thus discharging all their wine again; nor are they behind the men in gnawing ice, as a relief to their fevered digestions. And they even match the men in their passions; although they were created to feel love passively – may the gods and goddesses confound them! – they devise the most impossible varieties of unchastity, and in the company of men they play the part of men. What wonder, then, that we can trip up the statement of the greatest and most skilled physician, when so many women are gouty and bald! Because of their vices, women have ceased to deserve the privileges of their sex; they have put off their womanly nature and are therefore condemned to suffer the diseases of men.
But it is worth reading this passage again – and to do so rather more slowly and carefully.
It seems beyond reasonable doubt to me that Seneca, in this passage, suggests that there is a specific ‘nature’ (natura) for either sex. As a stoic, Seneca would of course advocate the principle of living in accordance with nature (secundum naturam vivere).
It also seems beyond reasonable doubt to me that Seneca, in this passage, does not necessarily approve of the behaviour that certain women displayed at his day and age, namely their rivalling male indulgences, behaviours, and what he regarded as sexual ‘perversions’ (virorum licentiam aequare).
It is tempting to see this passage as historical evidence for a view that gender stereotypes that historians are keen to establish and to reinforce in their assessment of ancient Rome are more of a convenient historical fiction than an accurate description of what was, in fact, possible at the time.
But to focus on this alone would mean to miss an important point.
What Seneca says very clearly is that adopting a life according to a manly natura will, for anyone, male or female, come with inevitable ailments.
Seneca talks of corporum quoque virilium incommoda, ‘ills to which men are heirs’ (or, more literally, the ‘unpleasantries of male bodies’), and women choosing to adopt a male lifestyle damnatae sunt morbis virilibus, are ‘condemned to suffer the diseases of men’.
Not to adopt the lifestyle of men for women might mean to maintain the beneficium sexus sui, the ‘privileges of their sex’. But are those privileges meaningful and desirable in the grander scheme of things?
There is a twofold lesson in what Seneca has to say:
First, all women have to lose when shedding their femininity (feminam exuerant), according to Seneca anyway, is the privilege of having beautiful, lasting hair and an alleged resilience to gout.
A small price to pay for equality.
Secondly, pursuing the natura of manliness means suffering from male diseases.
Can we do better than this?
If women can ‘overcome’ (victa) their natura, why should the same option be unavailable to men, as a means to cure their morbi viriles, the ‘deseases of men’ and to replace them with beneficia – by finding their true natura in something that is not associated with manhood and manliness first and foremost?
The ultimate cure might be to live as human beings, abandoning static, imposed gender stereotypes, associated behaviours, and their hideous and painful side effects and to celebrate diversity instead.
An appealing thought indeed on occasion of International Women’s Day.