Agnodice (fl. 4th c. BCE)
Agnodice (fl. 4th c. bce)
Athenian and first woman of her city to be trained in midwifery and to practice as a professional, who successfully fought for the right to continue to practice before the court of Areopagus.
Agnodice was an Athenian woman (that is, not only an inhabitant of Athens, but also of a citizen family) of the 4th century bce. She is attested to have been a virgin in the ancient literature, and thus she must have been unmarried, unlike most adult women of her citizenship status. Since she found it necessary to financially support herself, Agnodice almost certainly was too poor for anyone associated with her family to offer a dowry for her marriage. Seeking a congenial profession, she decided upon a career in midwifery at a time when most practitioners of medicine of any sort were men. Disguised as a man, Agnodice attended a course in midwifery taught by the noted physician Hierophilus. Thereafter, she continued in her disguise until she had successfully discharged her duties, whereupon she would disclose her gender to her patient. So successful did Agnodice become that her fame eventually led to her being unmasked as a woman.
Her secret disclosed, some of her male rivals sued her before the court of the Areopagus. This was a body composed of ex-magistrates, which, by the 4th century, was concerned mostly with cases of a religious nature, especially those involving homicide or wounding (that is, in cases involving the letting of blood [itself firmly associated with divine power by the Athenians]). The exact charge against Agnodice is unclear, for it perhaps was not the case that women were explicitly debarred from her occupation, although it would have been very unusual for any free-born woman to have been so employed on her own in the Athens of the day. Since there were allegations of "corruption" aimed at Agnodice, it is possible that she was accused of some sort of professional incompetence in connection with a case gone bad. Regardless, in court Agnodice both admitted her gender and then defended herself so vigorously, with so many witnesses testifying on her behalf, that the Areopagus not only dismissed all charges, but also proceeded to support a law—which subsequently passed—explicitly permitting free-born women to learn and practice midwifery.