gender, midwives

When Agnodice became a handbag…

I am always interested in how the past is used in advertising. Whether that’s in a trade name (when I grew up, ‘Vim’ was used for scrubbing all sorts of surfaces and it was fun when I started to study Latin and found out it meant ‘Force’) or in an image (Greek columns as signifying a ‘classy’ if not a classical product), the ancient world is never far away. There’s a security firm in Vienna called Sparta, sparta security viennafor example – which has all the right sense of living a simple life, being careful with your money, being strong…

As readers of this blog know, I have a bit of a thing about the mythical ancient figure, Agnodice. I’ve written half a book about her. In the only ancient source in which she features, she appears in a story about how ‘the ancients had no midwives’ until she came along – but the rest of the story is about her disguising herself as a man and learning not midwifery, but medicine in general. At various points in the story, generations of readers have translated the Latin differently according to whether they want her to be the ‘first midwife’ or the ‘first female physician’. That second label is not straightforward – if she is supposed to be the first woman who becomes a physician, then what sort of physician does she become? A woman who can treat any patient, or a woman who can only treat her fellow women?

Like any scholar today, I’ve set up some Google alerts to let me know when key words from my research interests pop up on the web. I don’t get a lot for ‘Agnodice’. But one day recently I did – and it’s a great one. Because now you can buy a handbag called Agnodice!

In designing this bag with its ‘elegance and savoir-fair’, Porsche Design seem unaware of Agnodice’s main claim to fame: her willingness to lift up her clothes to prove she is a woman, a gesture she first does to a female patient who doesn’t want to discuss her medical problems with a man, and then repeats when brought to court on a charge of gaining her popularity as a physician by seducing women patients. But never mind. The company is quite up-front about why they picked the name. It’s not just the high-class nature of the product, with its ‘outstanding craftsmanship, luxurious leather and amazing brass metal details’. Rather, it’s the capacious nature of the bag; the design ‘is reminiscent of a traditional doctor’s bag and was inspired by the Greek physician Agnodike’.

So, in the long history of the debate over whether Agnodice was a midwife or a physician, Porsche Designs comes down on the side of a physician. And I have to say that I agree with them. The story gives every sign of being about a woman learning medicine and treating other women for a range of medical conditions.

The quality of the product is intended to ‘make Agnodice your perfect companion’. At 1790 €, however, much as I like Agnodice, I don’t think I can afford friends like that!


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