Skip to content

Guest Post: “Feminine” Was Always A Dirty Word

November 19, 2010

OMG two posts in one day?! The world is ending! But no, this is a guest post, because that’s just how awesome I am: I have friends who can write better than I can, but don’t yet have their own blogs.

Allow me to introduce Allison Choat, light of my life, travel companion extraordinaire, and die-hard Classicist (her full bio at bottom of post). I didn’t edit a single word, because a) she’s an excellent writer, b) I know nothing about Greco-Roman history, and c) I’m supposed to be driving to Wilmington, NC right now for tomorrow’s commissioning of the USS Gravely, but I had to stop for Starbucks, and found this in my email, and, well. Here we are.


I’ve been a fan of Diana’s blog since about twenty minutes ago, when I began reading it and was struck afresh by how lucky I am to know someone so articulate, brilliant, and dazzlingly witty. I continue to be amazed that – despite her arsenal of gun knowledge and my predilection for bad puns – Diana has failed to shoot me. I believe this to be a sign of great and enduring friendship – much like, say, guest-posting on someone’s small-arms-proliferation blog.

Today I’m writing in response to Diana and Lauren’s post on the use of “feminine” as a dirty word – especially when that dirtiness is evoked in the public or military sphere. While I know very little of dirt or the public sphere – and for this I thank the Swiffer Company and my own crushing agoraphobia – I do know rather more than average about ancient history, a time when public figures insulted each other with at least as much vigor and enthusiasm than they do now. What I find interesting is that, even though we’ve moved from ancient to (arguably) post-modern, the rhetoric being deployed is really very similar.

In order to cut right to the interesting part of this post, I should warn you that am going to go ahead and make some pretty sweeping generalizations about more than 2,000 years of classical civilization. If you really want to know more about what modern scholars think about Greco-Roman sexuality, try reading Foucault. Now back to calling people names.

In the Greco-Roman world, gender lines were drawn not by biology, but by behavior. Once the togas were off, you could be either an active partner or a passive one. (Don’t look for middle ground, because there isn’t any.) Being “active” meant being the boss in the bedroom – the dominant and penetrating partner. This was a role usually reserved for adult males, who, not coincidentally, were also the main movers and shakers in the political sphere. Being “passive” meant just the opposite – submitting to the sexual desires and penetrative force of your partner. Socially acceptable women were naturally passive, in both the sexual and political spheres.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. If you were a juvenile male (say, a hot young teenager) it was also okay to be passive – but only prior to assuming your rightful place in the socio-political world. In other words, once you started running for office, the wide stance had to go. There are several traditional humorous songs about this in the Roman world. I am not even kidding.

Let’s say you’re a hot young Roman teenager. You’ve had several lovers, some female (you’ve been active) and some male (you’ve been passive). Now you’re getting a little older. Maybe you’re the Roman equivalent of a college grad. It’s time to enroll in the Senate! Time to be politically active! – Which means, inextricably, being sexually “active” too. If you continue to behave passively in the bedroom, and your colleagues find out, expect to have it ruthlessly used against you. If you behave passively on the Senate floor, expect to have your colleagues draw conclusions about your gender and sexual prowess.

The point here is that in the ancient world, masculinity was active, destructive, and penetrative – and if you failed to be any of these things, in many eyes, you failed to be all of them. “Vote for my war against the Gauls, Petronius, or you take it from behind like a wussy little schoolboy GIRL.”

There’s even a Roman term for this: muliebria patior – to “suffer the womanly indignity.” Patiari, by the way, is a word for real and intense suffering. Later on, in Christian Latin, it’s the term used for Christ’s ordeal on the cross (see passus et sepultus est, from the Catholic Credo). In other words, Do Not Get Bent Over.

What does this mean? Well, it’s the deepest source of a lot of my favorite English idioms, for one thing. But it’s also the starting point of a kind of attack rhetoric that is as prevalent today as it was when Julius Caesar was alive. Women take it, men dish it out. In the most extreme versions of this ideology, that makes anything other than downright aggression un-masculine. The Romans would call it “passive,” and the Americans would say it’s “feminine,” but in either case, the equation is still there: if you’re anything less than violent, you’re something less than masculine. And here’s a big surprise: being less than masculine is bad. Some less-than-perfect, but still noteworthy, examples:

When the ancient Athenian Aeschines failed in his duties in the war against Macedon, his colleague Timarchos called him a failure and a fraud. Aeschines’ response? Maybe so, Timarchos, but you’re a woman and a whore. (Unsurprisingly, the oration itself makes fantastic reading). While the circumstances were more complex than I’m making them sound, the takeaway here is that political passivity and sexual passivity were, for practical purposes, interchangeable insults. And in many ways, they still are.

Roman Republican Cicero also used this kind of gender-politicking to try to push Lucius Catilina out of the Senate. Ironically, Catilina, who was reported to wear women’s clothes and sneak into girls-only parties, was also well-known for attempting a bloodthirsty military coup aimed at destroying the Senate itself. In this case, Cicero pointed out Catilina’s passive and feminine behaviors as a way of making him seem utterly insane. It worked, by the way. Everybody in the Senate got up and moved away from Catilina, as if he were the only one of them who hadn’t yet discovered deodorant (in fact, none of them had, as this was ancient times).

There you have it: in the ancient world, being a woman stinks. (Sorry, Diana, please don’t shoot me) [ed. note: of course not! we can go shooting together, though.]. Even over cultural boundaries compassing thousands of years, this same kind of anti-feminine, violent, inflationary rhetoric is really doing quite well. A part of me is glad, because I think it’s hilarious when people make fun of each other. But another part of me is picturing Lucius Catilina in a dress, shouldering a shortsword and plotting, plotting, plotting. Because wearing a dress doesn’t make you a wuss. Not necessarily. And it’s something everybody in politics would do well to remember.


Allison Choat‘s chief accomplishment in life is being Diana Wueger’s friend.  Other than that, she holds degrees in Latin Language and Literature from Oberlin College and in Opera Directing from Oberlin Conservatory, both earned in 2007.  Since then, Allison has made Boston her home base, dividing her time between the exciting worlds of opera and executive travel planning.  Her theatrical work has been featured throughout the United States at such venues as the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston Conservatory, Oberlin Conservatory Opera Theatre, Opera North, and the Santa Fe Opera.  Her travel planning work has been featured even farther away than that.  She has no qualifications for blogging whatsoever, other than a rudimentary knowledge of spelling and ancient Greco-Roman sexual politics.

  1. November 19, 2010 7:20 pm

    Two posts in one day?! O Tempora, O Mores!

    Interesting also is an old legend that Roman generals typically didn’t pray to Mars on the eve of battle–Mars was merely the god of the violent clash of swords and shields. Rather, according to legend, generals tended to pray to Minerva, the goddess of Wisdom.

    After all, it was with her help that Troy was sacked!

  2. Dotmom Childs permalink
    November 19, 2010 10:35 pm

    I have always been a major fan of Allison’s writing. She is too modest to declaim her writing publications and awards.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: