Calling women ‘non-men’ isn’t inclusive, it’s sexism straight from ancient history

It’s Ancient Greece all over again.

Plato and Aristotle, mansplaining heaven and earth

Last month, Teen Vogue published a how-to article on anal sex that defined males and females as “prostate owners” and “non-prostate owners,” respectively. The magazine may have thought that these terms were more appropriate for an audience that includes people who identify as transgender or non-binary, and who therefore don’t feel the terms “male” and “female” apply.

However, in their efforts to be inclusive, the magazine tacitly perpetuated a sexist, patriarchal perspective as old as Aristotle: that women are a type of “non-man” rather than a distinct type of human.

Aristotle was an Ancient Greek natural philosopher who lived from 384-322 B.C and was renowned for his logic. But when it came to deducing why men and women were different, his assumptions were informed by a deeply sexist society that saw educated Greek males as the perfect humans and females as deformed derivatives.

In his text, “On the Generation of Animals,” Aristotle describes the female body as “a mutilated male,” arguing that “the catamenia [menses] are semen, only not pure; for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul.”

Aristotle thought that women’s “mutilation” was due to her cooler and wetter nature — a theory influenced by earlier writings by Hippocrates, an Ancient Greek physician considered the father of modern medicine. It’s this nature, Aristotle argues, that prevents women from having enough vital heat to develop into a fully formed human — that is, a man.

Women’s underdeveloped nature supposedly made them smaller, weaker, and passive, which explained why they needed to be ruled over by men. Their  “wetness” explained why they menstruated each month. Periods stopped during pregnancy because, Aristotle thought, menstrual blood built the fetus. The semen’s “principle of soul,” mentioned in the quote above, is what was responsible for bringing the fetus to life. Women just provided the supplies.

Aristotle’s logic made sense in a society where women were viewed as subhuman. It provided a mechanism for the sexist Ancient Greek hierarchy that placed women between men and animals. His writing proved influential long after his death, and shaped the theories of Galen of Pergamum, a Greek physician born almost 200 years after Aristotle died. Galen’s prolific writings formed the core of Western medical education for centuries, from the Middle Ages to about the mid-17th century.

Like Aristotle, Galen thought women were underdeveloped non-men. He reasoned that male organs initially formed internally, and that when the body reached the right temperature, a vital heat literally pushed the penis and testicles outside the body like a pop-up turkey timer. The internal location of women’s reproductive organs meant that they weren’t as fully formed as men’s. He saw them akin to the “imperfect” eyes of moles. (Side note: the miniscule eyes of moles are perfectly suited for a life spent underground.)

In his text, “Galen on the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body,” Galen writes:

“In fact, just as the mole has imperfect eyes, though certainly not so imperfect as they are in those animals that do not have any trace of them at all, so too the woman is less perfect than the man in respect of the generative parts…”

He continues:

“… though making the animal itself that was being formed less perfect than one that is complete in all respects, provided no small advantage for the race; for there needs to be a female. Indeed, you ought not to think that our creator would purposefully make half the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there were some great advantage in it.”

To Galen, one of the most influential figures in medical history, the mutilated female body constituted a necessary imperfection, required for human reproduction. The perception of the male form as the pinnacle of creation meant that the female form wasn’t simply different, it was inherently inferior. They were worse off non-men — not even dignified enough to grow beards!

From the vantage point of the 21st century, the theories of Galen and Aristotle may seem outdated, silly, or irrelevant, but when we have magazines labeling female anatomy as that of a “non-prostate owner,” I see a modern reincarnation of the sexist logic that classified women as a sub-standard variety of men for centuries.

With the voices and experiences of transgender people gaining greater prominence in society, more and more organizations are deferring to language that erases women in an attempt to be inclusive. Last year, Planned Parenthood used the word “menstruators” in a tweet about sanitary products. And in a Facebook post, the Green Party literally called anyone who wasn’t a man a “non-man,” allowing men to be the standard that all other groups of people are judged from.

That sounds more like sexism à la Ancient Greece than inclusiveness to me.

I think that most organizations mean well when they choose terms meant to encompass all types of people and bodies. A more inclusive way to do that would be to ditch the broader terms and instead get specific: If the term “woman” seems too limiting when discussing anatomy, refer to trans-identified men and women as well. Dividing the world into men and “non-men” dehumanizes and insults women, who are fighting a history wherein they have long been viewed as substandard “non-men” rather than people in their own right.

Monica Kortsha is a science writer, and an editor at the zine Vector. She earned her bachelor’s in biology and her bachelor’s in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.Follow her on Twitter @m_kortsha.

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  • Amy

    “If the term “woman” seems too limiting when discussing anatomy, refer to trans-identified men and women as well.” Why are you so concerned with inclusion of what to call the trans??? There’s men and there’s women, don’t try to appease a fringe group of mentally unwell individuals. That’s a slippery slope….next we’ll have the trans-species, etc etc. You either say a person or an animal, not a trans-species raccoon-identifying person. What separates transgender from that? This is a slippery slope that I don’t understand how the hell we got to. Seriously annoyed that trans hijacked the lesbian and gay movement, they’re NOT alike. A gay man or lesbian woman isn’t denying who they are, and trying to pretend. They just happen to be attracted to the same sex. Lesbian women are still women and have to deal with allllll the bullshit that any woman does. trans”women” however don’t….. They can ID as male when it suits them, and as female when that suits them (and that’s exactly what they do)/

    On that point, why’s transgender ok but not transracial? It’s not ok to caricature a race, but its totes fine to caricature women? We’re allowed to be stereotyped and there’s no repercussions to it. Dolezal is a monster who can’t relate to being black, because she’s white and has it more priveleged. But Jenner totally gets being a lady cuz he likes makeup, dresses and heels and is “brave’ for coming out. it makes no logical sense at all. Maybe if students started doing the Dolezal/Jenner debate people would see it’s the SAME thing. Oh, that’ll never happen because the students legitimizing Dolezal will be called bigots, both racist AND anti-trans. I hope in 100 years these MtT are demonized as much as we demonize (and rightly so) people who did blackface.

    • Dana

      I hate all the usual “transracialism can’t be a thing like transgender” arguments. Some circular logic about transgender being so progressive, while transracial is regressive and racist. Just because.

      There is exactly one line of thinking that can be reasonable employed to defend that stance and that is: the medical community recognizes gender dysphoria as a mental disorder, but (for now) nothing in regards to transracialism. Of course then you’d be a transphob, because you likened it a to a disorder and gender dysphoria isn’t even a prerequisite anymore, just wearing dresses and wigs is.

    • Aylune B. Papyrus

      It makes perfect sense, actually.

      Racism is taken somewhat more seriously than feminism because it affects both women and MEN. Consequently, it is logical that Rachel Dolezal’s actions would inspire indignation, but not Jenner’s. How could she even suggest that it’s possible to feel a certain race on the inside ? We see, rightfully, that she is reducing the lived experiences, personalities, histories of thousands of people to a feeling in her head. And the reason they are seen as people is that there are men among them, not just women.

      But women ? Pfff. Of course women aren’t individuals with personalities. Of course they can totally be a feeling in a person’s head. It’s just women, after all. They’re barely even people !

      One could perhaps argue that men are also being reduced to a feeling when transmen claim that identity. What about transmen being accepted as “men” by liberal discourse ? Their identities are recognized, I think, because liberal discourse accepts transwomen as women – as such, transmen have to be validated as well. It also serves patriarchy that some women would reject womanhood completely and instead choose to “become men” because they are masculine, thus reinforcing gender stereotypes. But it’s very clear that, if transwomen did not exist, no one in their right mind would accept that females can be men. These women would be mocked, ignored or called “extreme tomboys”. They would be punished socially for attempting to escape patriarchy.

    • Danielle Matheson

      I agree.

  • M. Zoidberg

    According to the Abrahamic religious traditions, men are the most important part of life, seeing as God, the prophets, the angels and pretty much all the important people in the stories of “the creation of the world” are men. Women are just there to be passive vessels for super important male sperm (or “holy spirit.”) Now instead of using faith, men are using their narrow view of science to tell us we’re still just imperfect men.

    • Hekate Jayne

      That’s why males invented religion and wrote them that way.

      Atheists are just as bad, if not worse, than religious males.

      You are absolutely right. We don’t matter to any male, because their God says so, or their “science” says so.

    • Cassandra

      And they made it that way and keep it that way through violence; their ability to rape and impregnate us and their generally larger physical stature, which makes us all afraid. And they say that because nature made these conditions, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, no matter how many women very naturally hate every part of it.

      Very obvious to us that it’s sex based. But the endless stream of people who deny it just never ends. Queer theory is just a new face in the line.

  • corvid

    “Like Aristotle, Galen thought women were underdeveloped non-men. He reasoned that male organs initially formed internally, and that when the body reached the right temperature, a vital heat literally pushed the penis and testicles outside the body like a pop-up turkey timer.”

    Lol!! Boooop, there’s the penis! That’s a mental image not easily forgotten.

    This is a great piece, but like some of the other commenters I’m mystified by the concession at the end to trans ideology. “If the term “woman” seems too limiting when discussing anatomy….” A woman is an adult human female. The definition of the word is “limited” to a specific kind of human. Having limits is not a bad thing. Men think women’s limits/boundaries are to be endlessly pushed and broken. Enough.

  • Amy

    that’s insane. these people need mental health intervention. Seriously, how do people not see MtTs as the delusional people that they are? As i’ve posted before, if someone called themselves a transraccoon, transasian, etc, we’d call them delusional.

  • ptittle

    And don’t all embryos start out female? But then some get ‘masculinized’?

    • Hekate Jayne

      The Y chromosome is parasitic in nature. It is actually a deformity.

      In other words, we all start out female, and ideally, we would all stay female. But the Y chromosome attaches itself and kind of infects the zygote.

      The Y chromosome is technically a birth defect.

      • ptittle

        Is it ever.

  • radwonka

    So… The question is… why the fuck did the Y chromosome appear? Because men destroy the human specie (and the earth too…) and have a very fragile ego, so I don’t understand why human evolution kept something so… useless. Except if human evolution wants the end of the human specie. Now, That would be a very intriguing plot twist lmao.

    jk, I guess that domination is very “natural”,it’s present everywhere, we women just have to dehumanize men, and then maybe we’ll be free.

    • Hekate Jayne

      The Y chromosome is degrading. It’s disappearing. In another few centuries, it will be gone completely, or at least morph into something different.

      Unfortunately, males are destroying the planet faster than that.

      • radwonka

        “In another few centuries, it will be gone completely”
        WOW really?? It’s so interesting! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

        • Hekate Jayne

          You’re welcome. 🙂

          I became interested in this after looking at some stuff online about chromosomes. I don’t believe just anything. I verify and double check everything before I talk like I know something.

          Anyway, if you look at pictures of chromosomes, they look kind of like rice grains. They all look pretty similar, with the exception of the Y chromosome. The poor little Y looks like it is sick and struggling. In comparison to the others, it even looks degraded.

          And I wonder if it’s part of why males are so awful. I have no way of knowing that, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

          Mitochondrial DNA is passed only through women, males don’t have anything like that. Science be misandry!

        • Hanakai

          No. This is twaddle. Do not take as scientific fact twaddle posted by a partisan who has no apparent background in science or commitment to truth. Seriously, how can anything be addressed and solved if we are relying on BS instead of fact and data?

          There is some evidence that can be interpreted as the gradual degrading of the Y chromosome, which seems to be losing genes. A few researchers have predicted that the Y chromosome will disappear: a leading figure is that it will disappear in 4.6 million years based on the current rate of decay; another figure is 125,000 years. The reality is that the Y chromosome is not going away anytime soon.

          What is happening, as humans continue to pollute and degrade the planet with toxic chemicals, is that sperm counts and sperm concentration are dropping, increasing male infertility. The same toxins are likely also involved in the increasing number of birth defects and other pathologies.

          • radwonka

            “Seriously, how can anything be addressed and solved if we are relying on BS instead of fact and data?”

            I mean, I didn’t say that we should rely on this theory to end patriarchy? I know the difference between a hypothesis and a fact.
            Most of commenters here support concrete actions, and this theory is just a hypothesis, which means that it has not been proven to be true yet, and thus can’t be the main “solution” obvs. Moreover, even if this hypothesis were correct, we will still have men who will try to fight it/defend their “line”, etc.

            So yeah, I just think that it’s an interesting hypothesis, and I’m quite sure that no one here will wait patiently 100000 Years for changes to “naturally” appear lol 🙂

          • Hanakai

            It is encouraging that you are not relying on the disappearance of the Y chromosome as a necessary precursor to the fall of the patriarchy. These suppositions about the future of the Y chromosome are not even hypotheses, as the time frame makes testing impossible.

            As for ending patriarchy, I do not see it happening as a result of humans becoming just and enlightened, or as a result of the activities of the minority of women presently devoted or sympathetic to the goal of destroying the patriarchal order. It seems that humanity is a terribly flawed and unnatural species, the way of life humans have developed is toxic, unsustainable and is destroying the biosphere, the entire natural ecosystem of the planet . As the inexorable effects of global warming reach tipping points, so-called civilization and society will likely collapse and I would not put money on humans and other large mammals surviving another century or two.

            And if society falls apart, what will happen? In the USA, there are hordes of armed men, including the huge number of armed criminals that constitute various police forces, who are all ready to take charge when things fall apart. There are some who posit that in the power vacuum created during collapse, women could seize power.

            The overlords, wealthy and ruling classes seem to get that societal collapse and ecological disaster are on the way. Why do you think the wealthiest men are buying land and building fortresses in New Zealand? Or why are the male tech overlords all hot to perfect artificial intelligence robotics, ways to download their special male selves into immortal machines?

            Precarious times, presumably anything can happen; applying the laws of cause and effect and seeing what causes are now being effectuated does not provide grounds for optimism. Women might do best to focus on how they are going to survive and even thrive what is to come, and I do not know that indulging in hatred and unscientific twaddle furthers female survival and actualization.

          • radwonka

            Oh I forgot to add: don’t be patronizing next time, I’m not your friend and you don’t know what I think is the “truth” or not.

            That said, since you think that we are a bunch of idiots and used this occasion to subtly blame us (everyone knows that radicalism is powerless because some women made harmless comments somewhere in the internet!), let me know what how you would adress and solve everything oh powerful Hanakai!

          • Hanakai

            Actually, the one with no commitment to truth or fact is the one who posted that the Y chromosome will be gone in a few centuries. There is no factual basis for that assertion, and indeed the assertion is contrary to reality and fact. Women are never going to prevail if they base strategy on irrational beliefs and magical thinking. Women gain power with knowledge, real knowledge of the real world, which is precisely why women were denied educational opportunity for centuries.

            Anyone who chooses to believe that the Y chromosome will disappear in a few years or centuries is as delusional as the men who think that wardrobe and mutilating surgery will turn them into women. The only way the Y chromosome will disappear in the next few centuries is if the abominable human species manages to extinct itself, which is actually a possibility, and in which case, the X chromosome will disappear as well.

          • veganray

            Well now we are denied the right to real knowledge equally so that our ignorance will maintain the hierarchy – our schools are little more than conditioning factories for order followers. Now no-one is trained to think except the elites…

  • Dana

    I honestly did not follow the “women as underdeveloped men” line of thinking at all. Because development is something that moves from a very complicated system able to bear offspring forwards to plopping out a couple balls. That’s how development works. Obviously the less complicated organism is the more evolved one.

    • Leo

      More/less evolved just isn’t how evolution or natural selection works, it’s not a conscious process and doesn’t make value judgements about progress. Organisms can become ‘simpler’, if that has an advantage in the environment (eg. blind cave fish).

  • fragglerock

    The sale of women or “bride price” has been documented even earlier (18th century BCE) in the code of hammurabi if you’re looking for evidence of misogyny throughout history.

  • veganray

    Why hate when you can despise its less hurtful to yourself. There is no “we” in concrete actions and you don’t need anybodies permission to act. And we certainly don’t need politics – its just a manifestation of the control system operating in plain sight.