Two questions around femininity have bugged me for a really long time:
1.Why was Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, criticised by women for ruling parliament, running Britain, like a man? I don’t get how a man presides differently to a woman – would the parliamentary machine they oversee behave somehow differently depending on the sex of the prime minister – would the processes of government change?
2. What did Hypatia of Alexandria (c.370-415 CE) mean by her mystifying response to a besotted student who attempted a romantic approach?
Hypatia’s response was bizarre. Imagine going up to a woman, your teacher, and asking her out on a date. It would take a lot of guts or a big, greasy-palmed dare. So, I’m not talking high school here. I’m not talking the New South Wales education system. I’m talking Alexandria in Roman/Byzantine Egypt. A time closer to Plato’s Symposium than white boards and Googledocs. Alexandria was at a point of flux, the old pagan gods and ways were being supplanted by Christianity. Hypatia taught pagans and Christians alike, but I’d bet, regardless of which altar the young man worshipped before, he would have been shocked, disgusted or even humiliated by her response. A simple, polite, civilised, “No, thank you,” wasn’t forthcoming. Instead, she bent her knees and tugged loose her soiled menstrual rags and presented them to him.
Why? Was there more to the request than a simple date? Was a different kind of relationship implied within the context of pupil and teacher? Did either of them imagine it as an offer that would be accepted practice among the philosopher’s at Plato’s Symposium? Hypatia was, afterall, a celebrated Neoplatonist as well as a scientist and mathematician.
Why did she hold up to him her soiled rags?
- a. She’d had enough of his hounding her. He wouldn’t stop at a simple, “No”. Humiliation was the final recourse.
- b. PMT
- c. Sanitary disposal bins hadn’t been invented yet
- d. She was offended at the implication of what a sexual relationship with him would engender. If she agreed, by virtue of her not having a phallus she would be relegated to being a novice (in terms of relations between the student and the philosopher discussed in the Symposium), where clearly she was superior in powers of intellect and reasoning. (Perhaps she didn’t like the sexual position of the novice prescribed by Plato LOL)
- e. None of the above.
No life depictions of Hypatia have survived. She is often depicted as a Classical woman of the Patrician class in expensive linens, golden stone set jewellery and pearls. If the depictions are accurate then I’m tempted to think that she defined her femininity, her gender, not by her linens or silks, her jewels, her breasts, nor by her intellect but by her menstruation.
Today, we can forget how restricting menstruation can be. We talk of PMT and a host of other ailments that come with it, but how much do the emotional consequences of those ailments distinguish us from our male counterparts?
Up until recently my avatar was Karagiozis, a male puppet. I chose him because he is a recognized clown, satirical figure and national icon for the Greeks, encapsulating the modern Greek spirit. Posing a lot of questions, speculating often and embracing the errors of my many meanders through history, I don’t want to be taken too seriously. Being a theatrical character that I could make up, he seemed perfect.
I considered using his wife, Aglaia, but she isn’t instantly recognizable. So I had to overcome the hurdle of how I could truthfully portray myself as a male puppet when I am female. Regardless of the much vaunted belief that inside us there is no male or female, I often had to remind myself why I chose him. I may relate to his spirit, intellect, intent, motivation and inspiration, but I feel that I am different because I am female. Not of more or less value – equal but different.
Since our bodies are different and on a cellular level we can be differentiated, could our souls also be gendered? Can our physical self be a product of our soul expressing itself? Inversely, can our physical body model a gender onto our souls?
What came first, the chicken or her egg?
When Hypatia demonstrated her menses to her would-be suitor was she making a statement that she, as a female, was defined by them, or even, perhaps defined by the emotional turmoil they stoke up with clockwork regularity?
If females and males can have the same convictions, motivations, intellectual capacity, leadership prowess as each other, how do females differ, how does menstruation make us differ? Could it be that the emotional monthly turmoil allows a softening of our stance? A leeway for questioning our conviction? A threshold for greater empathy?
If our femininity, our gender, is not defined by era’s old socialisation, nor by physical appearances then can it be a unique entity in itself, existing before socialisation and regardless of physical form? Something that can’t be commodified?
What if femininity was not something that could be traded or changed just because people’s perceptions of what being female is, can be.
So I wore the trappings of a male avatar, it didn’t make me male. Can I rationalise like one? I think I can but the convictions arrived at by that rationalisation can waver. And I can doubt, and I can question, and I can sympathise and empathise and soften in my stance, not because you might think I’m weak but because I am strong enough to hear doubts and differing points of view and give and inch or two.
A lot can be speculated after a bizarre offering to a jilted prospective young male.