The Modern Female Eunuch

Recommended by Dr. Michael White, Published on April 1st, 2013
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Historically, low levels of testosterone seemed to make eunuchs ideal negotiators. Their highly specialized and respected roles are now being filled by women.

Qing Dynasty Imperial Dowager Empress of China with palace eunuchs [Wikimedia Commons]

Germaine Greer's 1970 feminist screed The Female Eunuch gave eunuchs a bad name. Applying the term for castrated males to women's political and social disempowerment, Greer overlooked the fact that actual eunuchs -- and other men with low testosterone -- have occupied some of the most powerful positions in government and the military throughout history.

Only a few countries, and a handful of U.S. states, continue the practice -- long considered barbaric -- of actually castrating males. Even then it is voluntary. Today the term "emasculate" is typically used to imply political impotence rather than literally severed or nonfunctional testicles. Since eunuchs are without functional testicles, they are both sterile and deprived of the testosterone that promotes male characteristics.

Although Greer negatively equated women's disenfranchisement with castration, it is ironic that women, more than ever, fill roles historically and exclusively held by eunuchs. In fact, eunuchs ran the show in many settings and for a long a time. Historically, males were castrated before puberty to prepare them for governmental service. Classicists mostly agree that eunuchs served dynastic governments so well, and were not a threat to the dynasty, because they had no descendants of their own to favor. But they were also recognized for being more competent and accomplished in certain administrative areas than non-castrated males.

Eunuchs were not just bureaucrats and functionaries. They were the generals, diplomats, and negotiators in some of the most preeminent and enduring governments that ever existed. Castrated males were key to the functioning of some of the largest and longest-lasting dynastic governments across Asia from biblical times to the collapse, roughly 150 years ago, of the Ottoman and Chinese empires. They filled nearly all senior government posts. Many were warriors and military leaders. Indeed, Narses, the senior general under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, was a eunuch. The world would be very different today if, 1,500 years ago, Narses hadn't destroyed the Ostrogoths and saved the Roman Empire.

Clearly, eunuchs were far from being "wimps" because they lacked "balls." Take, for example, one of the most brutal power-brokers known to history, the eunuch Mohammad Khan Qajar. Khan unified Persia in 1795 and set up a dynasty that ran the country for 130 years. Sir John Malcolm, a contemporary British historian, describes Khan as methodical and calculating, yet he also pointed out how insightful and knowledgeable Khan was about the character and feelings of others.

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Both historical accounts and contemporary research on how testosterone affects personality reveal that eunuchs had traits that made them different from intact males, and in some ways more like females. Their astuteness and objectivity in assessing others' strengths and weaknesses made them particularly effective as bureaucrats, diplomats and tacticians -- quite the opposite of what most people now think of when they hear the word "eunuch."

When researchers examine how males and females differ in personality, one of the most consistently documented differences has been in agreeableness.

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The Modern Female Eunuch

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