- The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence by Helen King
Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013, xii + 274 p., $124.95
Helen King’s The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence engages an impressive range of sources examined through careful close reading to dismantle the central argument of Thomas Laqueur’s influential thesis about the “one-sex” body. When Laqueur’s Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud first appeared in 1990, reviewers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds celebrated its historical breadth and clear thesis.1 These qualities, King convincingly shows, were also the book’s greatest weaknesses. Laqueur argued that there was a historical rupture in the 18th century when a “one-sex” conception of sex, in which female genitalia were understood as inverted male genitalia, shifted to a “two-sex” model in which male anatomy and female anatomy were understood to be entirely different. King and many other historians simply did not find this thesis useful because it was often belied by the historical documents available, many of which Laqueur either did not reference or did not interpret in their original languages and historical contexts. As she points out in her preface, however, historians still encounter questions from audiences at conferences and readers from other disciplines who continue to see Laqueur’s argument as relevant and demanding of scholarly engagement. King’s book is a response to this scholarly environment as well as an engaging and richly detailed historical overview of the supposed debate between the “one-sex” and “two-sex” models that corrects and complicates Laqueur’s claims.
In order to dismantle Laqueur’s thesis, King offers a thorough historical examination and close reading of two medically focused stories about women, Phaethousa and Agnodice. These stories both originated in the classical world and were well known and widely discussed into the early modern period. The story of Phaethousa is a case history in the Hippocratic work Epidemics. She is a patient who suffers from symptoms that might seem to confirm Laqueur’s argument that the classical world subscribed to a “one-sex” model: she begins to grow a beard, her voice deepens, and she stops menstruating. As King points out though, rather than proving that the ancients believed in a “one-sex” model, the fact that Phaethousa dies as a result of these symptoms illustrates that the Hippocratic author did not in fact understand the female body as an inversion of the male, capable of experiencing a genital transition. Agnodice’s story comes through the Latin author Hyginus who probably drew on a lost Greek source. She is a virgin but dresses like a man to offer medical care to women who were ashamed to consult male practitioners. [End Page 252] Her story raises questions about whether or not men and women were perceived as being sufficiently different to require different medical care. A strict adherence to the “one-sex” model would suggest that since male and female physiology are homologous, they do not in fact require different treatment. The stories of Phaethousa and Agnodice seem relevant to Laqueur’s arguments, but, as King proves, the “one-sex” to “two-sex” thesis that Laqueur advances does not help us to understand or to interpret them.
The One-Sex Body on Trial is divided into three sections. The first section revisits Laqueur’s sources. King’s critique here is twofold. First, she argues that Laqueur lifts his sources out of context. Modelling a different methodology, King resituates these sources historically–in particular, the famous Figure 27 representing the womb in Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543). Second, King argues that Laqueur simplifies his historical narrative by attending only to the work of “the great men of the canon” of Western medicine (70). Sections two and three correct this latter error by examining the stories of Phaethousa and Agnodice. Drawing on an impressive variety of sources, from Pliny, to medical humanists, to Youtube videos posted by La Barbe (a French feminist group that wears beards to...