4,000 YEARS OF WOMEN IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
"What I have done here no one has done before"
In 400 CE in Alexandria, Egypt there existed one of the world’s rare treasures: the Great Library, founded by Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) of Egypt. It was the center of scholarship for the entire Mediterranean world. Scholars from the entire area came there to study and to teach. The library grew in size and reputation through the gathering of the literary works until it became the collective brain of the Mediterranean. This was often rigorously enforced by the taking of books from ships as they docked in the harbor and delivering them to the Library. The best minds came there to study medicine, biology, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and geography. Typically, scholars could only bring texts into the Library. They could not remove the books themselves, only copies. Tradition says it held upwards of half a million texts. Thus the Library grew in reputation and scholarship through the centuries. The original texts of most of the Mediterranean world’s literature were held there. A citizen of Alexandria was not only a citizen of a great city but also a citizen of the known world. The Library was eventually destroyed, not once but many times. Many philosophers and teachers worked there, including the philosopher/mathematician Hypatia (c. 355 – 415 CE), pronounced Hip-ah-ti’-a. When she was 19 years old a mob of Christians tried to destroy it. But it survived a little longer before its final destruction, ending a glorious tradition of scholarship.
We are on a search for scientists. A scientist is someone who studies the natural world, how it operates, moves and changes. It actually comes from a Latin word, scientia . Hypatia, though, would call herself a natural philosopher not a scientist. The word ‘scientist’ was coined apparently in 1840 CE by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Hypatia was not the earliest woman of science, technology and invention. We shall meet that lady a bit later. Hypatia is, perhaps, one of the more well known which is why I start with her. She lived and taught at the Great Library. During the time of Hypatia it was still a center of scholarship but soon it was to be destroyed completely.
Hypatia was an astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, and head of the school of neo-Platonic philosophy, an amazing suite of talents for anyone. She wrote at least three ‘books’, none of which survive: a treatise on the Conics of Apollonius, a Commentary on the Arithmetic of Deophantus, and an Astronomical Canon. The first two were expositions of rather difficult mathematics, the third probably an exposition of planetary positions. It may be that a fourth commentary of hers did survive – her commentary on Ptolemy’s Handy Table , although this is uncertain. She designed many tools of her trade including an astrolabe, a planisphere, and a method for distilling water. She corresponded with people all over the Mediterranean and letters addressed to “the Philosopher” were delivered to her. We know a little about her from her letters sent to others. It may be that she studied for awhile in Athens at the neo-Platonic school conducted by Plutarch the Younger and his daughter Asclepigenia, although this is speculation. As the leading philosopher in the city, officials who assumed public responsibility would call upon her. Everyone who wanted to study philosophy flocked to her from all directions. Much was made of her beauty and eloquence. She wore the modest tribon — a coarse workaday garment worn by the poor, ascetics, and philosophers.
“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting person as final.”
“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”
These are quotes from her. These words and others led to her eventual downfall. In her time Alexandria was controlled by Rome. The growing Christian church was consolidating its power and wanted to eradicate pagan influence. Hypatia stood at the center of the grave forces warring in Alexandria, and her words sparked the anger of the Bishop of the city – Cyril. Tradition tells us that a mob dragged her from her chariot one day and armed with broken bits of pottery peeled her skin from her bones, scattering them to the winds and then burning her body.
A tragic ending for a brilliant woman. Did her sacrifice end such persecution of women who dared to think? While her death occurred some 1500 years ago, I must note that meteorologist Dr. Ginous Mahmoudi was executed by firing squad on December 17th 1981 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for expressing her minority faith and being a woman of science.
Despite the dangers there were, and still are, many women who try the noble calling of science. Are you surprised? Even in the 21st century there are those who think women and science are not suited for each other. There are people who claim that the brains of women are not suited for mathematics. The current president of one our leading universities said that innate differences in sex may explain why there are so few women in science and mathematics.
Well, are there so few women of scholarship?
The answer is a resounding no! There are many, many thousands. I am one of them. But the women are mostly missing from the record. If we look in the history books we rarely find them. When asked to name a woman of science, the typical person can think of only one – Marie Curie. Dr. Gerda Lerner said in her address as the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians .
"…All women have in common that their history comes to them refracted through the lens of men’s observations and refracted again through a male-centered value system…. From that time on [the beginning of written history] women were educationally deprived and did not significantly participate in the creation of the symbol system by which the world was explained and ordered. Women did not name themselves; they did not, after the Neolithic era, name gods or shape them in their image…. If the bringing of women - half the human race - into the center of historical inquiry poses a formidable challenge to historical scholarship, it also offers sustaining energy and a source of strength."
Women hold up half the sky. They are half the human race. Yet, although things are improving, the notion that technical excellence is ‘not for girls’ (or minorities) persists. It is vital that we know what women have done, how they have contributed. We need to get them back into the history books, back into the center of inquiry, so we can draw on their strength as much as we draw upon the other half of the human race – the males.
Science and technology are innately diverse. The results of science have no gender. We need role models that highlight and celebrate this diversity. When the role models are plentiful (as they are) then that university president will know better than to state that innate differences in sex limit women in science and technology.
We all know that natural philosophy is an adventure, a trip that uncovers beauty everywhere with every new thing understood. Everyone deserves to share in this excitement and personal fulfillment. The results of science have no gender.
That is worth repeating. The results of science have no gender. We cannot back out of some invention, theory, or solution whether the originator was female or male.
Given that the results of science have no gender, what are the attributes of these scientists?
The attributes of the scientist are intelligence (the ability to combine information quickly, organize thoughts and coordinate actions to achieve results), doubt (the ability to question), luck (the ability to take quick advantage of an opportunity), sweat (the ability to work hard), and courage (the ability to maintain a clarity of thought despite opposition). Women have courage aplenty. Women share the common intelligence of humanity. They are superlative doubters. The sweat of their bodies waters all the monuments of the world. Many have shared luck with their male brethren. We need to celebrate these women along with the men and raise them all to be heroes.
Scientists have those attributes in common with each other. They share the attributes of intelligence, doubt, luck, sweat, and courage. The scientist often is in the right place at the right time; i.e., is lucky. The scientist absorbs as much education as possible. It is the education that provides the grist for the mind to use any luck it encounters. The scientist has a nimble and adaptable mind, well-equipped to doubt. And finally, a scientist works hard - very, very hard. Most of the effort is repetitive. The excitement is exquisite and rare, and when it comes, it is the deepest joy and greatest wonder - all the labor is worth those few ecstatic moments. When I first discover something, even a tiny something, it is the most exciting thing there is. Both women and men share these attributes. There is no gender lurking in this definition. None.
Understanding science will only strengthen our life, our work and our world. We want solutions to our problems. Solutions come from questions, research, thought and technology. For as long as we have been human we have developed and thought about science. For as long as we have been human we have looked forward to the next challenge, the next goal, and the next creative thought.
What makes us human? Many things do, and one of them is our ability to affect and predict our environment. I call this science - the definition of structure for our world - technology - the use of structure in our world - and mathematics - the common language of structure - science, technology, and mathematics, all have been part of our human progress, through every step of our path to the present. Women and men together have researched and solved each emerging need. Women and men together have defined the advancing path of this fundamental human activity. Women and men together have eased the burden for all of us. Women and men together have sought out this great joy – to be the first to see something new in the world. That excitement reaches the deepest part of our souls. To think is just about the greatest ‘turn-on’ that exists. It is irresistibly compelling.
Hypatia herself said:
“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all”.
That explains how important this search for women of science is. Where do we start?
We start with the world’s earliest literature. The name of an appropriate woman appears in some of world's earliest literature - over 4,000 years ago . Science has been the business of women ever since then. Certainly, though, women were questioners and thinkers long before that. Most myths, religions, and history place the beginnings of agriculture, laws, civilization, mathematics, calendars, time keeping and medicine into the hands of women. And the mythology is so very rich. The stories form our common wealth. But whether it was the Goddess of Wisdom or War or Love she was lost to the historical record yet kept strong in the dreams and myths of all peoples.
The Western world owes much of its world view to a thick thread of scholarship that goes back to ancient Greece and earlier. Women belong in that thread. However, filtered through modern eyes, it is still an open question whether women held high social status in that ancient world. We just don’t know. The poet Hesiod (7th century BCE) in his genealogy of the gods tells of the generations of gods first predominately female and then predominately male. Other scarce records of the Near East put female gods at the head of a complicated religious pantheon. It is tempting to assume that the earliest Near Eastern religions, because the main gods were female, reflect a high status for women. It is convenient conclusion but it represents only circumstantial evidence and is not proved. We have no historical records that clearly state the superior status of women. There are just a few things that hint at this. One example is the predominance of female figurines from the Neolithic era. Another is that females dominate in Minoan art. The figure to the left is a statue of the Minoan Snake Goddess. The historical records are scanty and inferential at best. Eventually, though, the early Semite tribes wiped out the female dominated religions of the Near East replacing them with a variety of male gods. By the time writing was common (around 3,000 BCE) the social structures were male dominated, with a few notable exceptions.
One such exception was in and around the Near East, in Sumer (in the lower flood plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers or Mesopotamia – Greek for ‘the land between the rivers’ – modern day Iraq). While Egypt united under one pharaoh, and settlers from Mexico migrated to the Caribbean islands in dug out canoes, and western European farmers constructed large, stone chamber tombs, the earliest civilization developed in the lands around and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which flow southeast into the Persian Gulf. The earliest city-states developed on the fertile Mesopotamian Plain. By 3500 BCE Uruk was probably the first city-state. It covered over 1,000 acres in Sumer. These early urban settlements built around the central temple complex (later known as ziggurats) managed by a suite of priestesses and priests.
Mesopotamian traders and accountants invented a writing system. The Sumerians developed writing with cuneiform, a way of arranging impressions stamped on clay by the wedge-like section of a chopped-off reed. Eventually the signs stamped onto the clay became more than mere pictographs. They stood for syllables and sounds. Our modern form of writing comes to us from these early forms. The Egyptians also invented writing using pictographs or hieroglyphs. The Egyptian form of writing, although resulting in a rich literature, did not develop into the alphabet type writing we use today.
The Sumerians used writing primarily as a form of record keeping. The most common cuneiform tablets record transactions of daily life: tallies of cattle, sheep, and goats kept by herdsmen for their owners, production figures, lists of taxes, accounts, and contracts. But there are tablets of letters and poetry as well. Each letter came encased in a slightly larger baked clay closed container, just as we use envelopes today. Another category of cuneiform writing includes a large number of basic texts which were used to teach future generations of scribes. By 2500 BCE there were schools built just for this purpose. There were female scribes as well as male scribes. Cuneiform tablets are not large; they are typically less than 25 centimeters on a side.
The people poured considerable wealth into the construction of clay brick temples and the residences of priests and priestesses who attended to the needs of the gods. The giant temple complexes were centers of economic as well as religious activity. Farmers would bring their produce to the priests and priestesses at the temple who would use enough of the produce to care for the gods and then redistribute it to the people of the city.
The great temples were centers of scholarly activity as well. The priestesses and priests controlled the vast set of astronomical observatories spread across the land to observe the stars and planets (mainly for calendar keeping). Our modern day astronomy can trace its roots back to ancient Sumer. For example, the number sixty, sacred to the god An, was their basic unit of calculation. Sixty minutes to the hour and 360 degrees in a circle were Sumerian concepts. Agricultural advances were based on astronomical advances. The priestesses and priests would tell the people when to plant crops, would predict lunar eclipses, make sundials, and provide calendars. The calendar they developed is still used in a modernized form to date certain religious events like Passover and Easter. All this activity depended upon the systematic astronomical observations made in the network of observatories around Sumer. The highly developed agricultural system and the refined irrigation and water-control systems that enabled Sumer to achieve surplus production also led to the growth of large cities.
So we have our exception. The high status of the chief (or en-) priestess was clear. She dominated the religious, scholarly, and commercial worlds, all of which came together in the temple complex that defined the city. In Babylonia, Sumer, and Akkad and their nearby cities the en-priestess was the center figure of the great commercial and scholarly expanses that stretched through the area. The kingly authority was sanctified by her presence.
Another important Sumerian legacy is its literature. The most famous Sumerian epic, and the one that has survived in the most nearly complete form is the epic of Gilgamesh. The story of Gilgamesh, who actually was king of the city-state of Uruk in approximately 2700 BCE, is a moving story of the ruler's deep sorrow at the death of his friend and of his consequent search for immortality. We do not know who wrote that great epic. The first poems whose author we do know are the great poems of En’Hedu’anna, the en- priestess of the city of Ur. three long poems to Inanna, three poems to Nanna, and forty-two temple hymns still found in translation today. She was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (2334-2290 BCE) who first established this leading position of the en-priestess. There are now excellent web sites describing her.
Sargon was the world's first empire-builder, sending his troops as far as Egypt and Ethiopia. He attempted to establish a unified empire of Sumer and Akkad and to end the hostilities among the city-states. Sargon’s rule introduced a new level of political organization that was characterized by an even more clear-cut separation between religious authority and secular authority. To ensure his supremacy, Sargon created the first conscripted army, a development related to the need to mobilize large numbers of laborers for irrigation and flood-control works. Akkadian strength was boosted by the invention of the composite bow, a new weapon made of strips of wood and horn.
We have our first name, that of En’Hedu’anna (2300 BCE). The tradition of women in science and technology begins. “Hedu’anna” means ornament of heaven, the name given to her when she was installed as en-priestess. We do not know her birth name. She was the chief astronomer-priestess and as such managed the great temple complex of her city of Ur. Although we do not have technical works from her we know that she was a learned, diversely talented woman of power. And we have her poems. We also have an alabaster disk that shows her in a religious procession.
She is shown in full religious regalia, the third person from the right. Our first woman of power and scholarship whose name we know, and the last in a long line of unknown powerful women of the past who followed the stars and the cycles of the Moon. Courtesy of the University Museum, Philadelphia.
It would be easy to say that En’Hedu’anna was unique. But she was not.
There were many such en-priestesses, each a powerful woman who controlled commerce and study. In fact legend claims that Queen Semiramis is the inventor of canals and bridges over rivers and the first to build a tunnel under a river – the Euphrates – to found the city of Babylon. The legend is probably based on Sammeramet who acted as regent of Assyria from 810 – 805 BCE. There are also known poets from this part of the world. Inib-sari (c. 1790 – 1745 BCE) and Eristi-Aya (c. 1790 – 1745 BCE) lived in Akkadia. They were two daughters of king Zimri-Lin.
About the same time across the world, on the eastern side of Asia, legend tells us that the first empress of China – Si-Ling Chi (c. 2640 BCE) discovered the secret of silk weaving by watching silkworms at work in her garden. She discovered how to unwind the silk from the cocoon and weave it into a garment, and so she founded the silk industry in China. Yao, wife of the fourth emperor, invented spinning. Unfortunately I do not know much about the names of famous women, technical or otherwise, of the past in China. The Chinese were great inventors and had many advances available to them long before they were known in the Europe. Things like the iron plow (6th century BCE) and efficient horse harnesses (4th century BCE) were known in China long before they came to the Europe. But the names of inventors were seldom recorded. They did record the names of poets and astronomers. Interestingly, the Chinese knew that the Sun had sunspots by the 4th century BCE – long before Galileo saw them through his telescope. The names of the historical astronomers, though, are all male. We do know that the Empress Shi-Dun (c. 105 CE) with her eunuch Cai-Lun first invented a method for making paper from mulberry tree bark. Many women of China were poets (which means they were literate). Pan Chao (50 – 112 CE) or Ban Zhao was an imperial scholar. She was an official court historian, administered the imperial library, and taught. One of her most famous works is “lessons for a woman”.
Wandering to India I find Gargi, daughter of Vachaknavi, (1500 BCE), honored as a philosopher in the ancient Sanskrit literature, the Upanishads . Upanishad means the inner or mystic teaching. They were written by the sages of India between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE. Maritrayee was similarly honored in later Hindu writings, although one ought not to assume from this that women held high positions in India. Another learned lady was Khana of India, assumed to live in between 800 – 1200 BCE. Her history is mostly legend, but it is said that her knowledge of astronomy was better than her astronomer husband’s. And coming back again to Babylon, Tappeti-Belatikallim (c. 1200 BCE) was known as an alchemist who worked with perfume production.
Tradition, as deduced from tomb paintings (7th – 5th centuries BCE), indicated that Etruscan women enjoyed an autonomy rare in the ancient world. It is fascinating to speculate what we might learn if we had documents from that period. In fact the tomb paintings show that the mirrors used by the women had inscriptions on them, thus implying that the women were literate.
And, of course, we started in Alexandria, Egypt. There were women of power and leadership in Egypt even earlier than En’Hedu’anna in Sumer. Around 3,000 BCE there was an Egyptian queen Meryet-nit who ruled during the First Dynasty of the united Upper and Lower Egypt. Many women influenced the pharaoh even to the point of assuming leadership roles. For example, Hetepheres II (c. 2510 BCE) became Controller of the Affairs of the Kiltwearers, which meant she ran the civil service, as well as overseers, governors, and judges. Around 1878 BCE Aganice of ancient Egypt ruled as consort (daughter or sister) of the Pharaoh Sesotris and supposedly was able to predict the planetary positions (which using hieroglyphs is a neat trick). The Egyptian queen Hatshepsut (c. 1500 BCE) was also known as a physician. There was Berenice who governed Egypt (246 – 241 BCE) when her husband was away. She was honored by her court astronomer Colon who identified one of the constellations as a lock of her hair. That constellation is still known as Coma Berenices. One of her descendents was Cleopatra, today known for her beauty, but in her time known for her diverse talents and intelligence.
And let us not forget Mary the Jewess in the first century CE also in Alexandria. She discovered the formula for hydrochloric acid. She invented many tools for handling chemicals, one of which is still known today as the ban marie – the water bath (the double boiler), Marianbad in German. It is also the prototype for the modern autoclave. She also invented a still called the tribikos, which may have been the first device for distillation. Once, while experimenting with sulfur vapor, she synthesized a metal alloy coated with black sulfide, a compound still known as Mary’s Black.
There was also Beruryah of the 2nd century CE cited for her scholarship in the Talmud.
I have not given many names, but enough to excite us on the search, and there are few technical male names from these periods as well.
Were women in general held in high regard in all these civilizations? As I mentioned earlier probably not, although I do not really know.
In general, very few people were literate, so one finds few men as well, and I suspect that the scholarly women were the lucky ones who had access to study and freedom from the drudgery of the general wifely state completely occupied with the skills of housekeeping. Access to scholars and information has always depended upon gender, location, birth and luck. If one was born to a secure family then one might learn to read, write and cipher. Men have the advantage here. Therefore, if a woman was literate and numerate, she was likely to have links to a tutor, a benevolent father, husband or brother who was willing to share knowledge. Literacy was a privilege for both men and women, but especially for women. Perhaps, though, she lived during a time when women had the great convent schools of England, France and Germany open to them . There will be more on that later.
Regardless, the overwhelmingly vast majority of people, both male and female, had no access at all. They labored for their very food and shelter. The freedom to specialize in scholarship rarely put food onto the table. This freedom springs from the human need to dream a future. Those who are freed to dream are freed by the willing labor of the rest.
One of the greatest strengths of our species is its recognition that scholarship is worthy, is important, is valuable, and necessary. The right to question must be sacrosanct. These women existed and were honored, even though their numbers are few. It would be wrong to assume that women held no positions of power just because I have so few listed. These wonderful women existed and form that thread of scholarship and invention that runs strong through history.
To bring these women out of obscurity and put them into the center of history and science is my goal. I have to look just about everywhere. That is clear from the few examples I do have. Scholarship is the key word, not science. The word ‘scientist’ is rather new, as I said before; now it means someone with a Doctorate in Philosophy, a PhD, who works in a technical field. This person has studied a narrowly defined field of research, and often is well trained only in that field.
But that definition is not broad enough. We need to include toolmakers, inventors, physicians, nurses, and natural philosophers. The “natural philosophers” are those whose endeavors typically cover the classic seven liberal arts ¾ grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. So we look for our women in all fields of endeavor. We need to look outside of schools, because schools did not always exist, and because women could rarely take advantage of those schools that did exist. When schools did not train scientists, learned people were either self-taught or privately taught.
To find these scholars I look for those holders of scholarly degrees from schools, yes, and also for poets and authors, architects and gardeners; I look in industry, in school lists, in textbooks, letters, and stories. The names of scholars may be deduced out of their poems, music, and writings. A literate person perforce meant a numerate person . So to track this, one needs to look at inventors and toolmakers as well as scholars.
Two sciences, however, stayed intact as far back as one wishes to go ¾ astronomy and mathematics. They represent the mainstream of pure science, and they, therefore, provide an especially rich source of names. Before humanity invented writing, we find astronomical based calendar stones and engravings. There are stones, lists, carvings, pictographs and bones for clues . Since astronomy and mathematics were the earliest scholarly arts, names from the history of astronomy and mathematics are easier to find than names from other areas. Astronomy and mathematics marched together through the centuries, not really breaking apart until the end of the 19th century. Historical records tend to record the work of the mathematician/astronomer because of its great practical importance.
Other sciences come from differing sources. For example, the chemists of the 21st century were once called alchemists, and they count as scientists. The names of these women appear in a wonderfully diverse set of places. Women are botanists, engineers, physicians, chemists, mathematicians, inventors, explorers, astronomers, agronomists, biologists, physicists, anthropologists, architects, archeologists – a grand list of scientific disciplines … as well as poets, artists, musicians, writers, singers, mothers, lawyers, activists, laborers, farmers, leaders, fighters. I concentrate here on the first part of the list not the second part. It is much easier to find information about the women in the second part. History easily records the warrior, the politician, and the poet.
There is one field where women always participated - health care. We cannot forget that much of what we call medicine and midwifery is and always has been the province of women. Midwifery was almost exclusively run by women until the 18th century when men usurped the lead away from this traditional women’s task. Unfortunately, history rarely records their names. Perhaps that is because women have always been physicians so they were too common to name. One of the earliest written names of a woman who was a physician is Merit Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), a name from 4800 years ago! Her image is on a tomb in the Valley of Kings in Egypt. She was described by her son, the high priest, as “the chief physician”. The participation of women in surgery began before that – over 5,000 years ago – when surgical instruments of flint and bronze were placed in the grave of Queen Shubad of Ur, ostensibly so that she might practice surgery in the afterlife . Lost in myth is Agande (12th century BCE) who Homer tells us was knowledgeable in the medicinal value of plants. The Greek Agnodice (4th century BCE) was a physician who was brought to trial for acting as a physician. The result of her trial was that the medical profession was legalized for all the free-born women of Athens. There was a nurse much honored by ancient Rome for her skill in healing and gynecology: Acca Laurentia (634 BCE). And six hundred years later women were still known for their healing skills. Ancient Rome had her own physicians – women like Victoria and Leoparda. Artemisia II (died 350 BCE), queen of Caria (the southwest of what is now called Turkey) is famed as a botanist and medical researcher. There are several physicians and midwives from the 1st century BCE Greece: Sotira was a Greek physician; Salpe was a well-known Greek midwife as was Olympias of Thebes and Metrodora. A manuscript by Metrodora exists in Florence. Laïs is yet another physician in Greece. One woman, Panthia, received a tribute from her husband, Glycon (2nd century CE). He was a physician and honored his wife as “not behind me in skill”. Fabiola (died 399 CE) was a Christian follower of St. Jerome who also practiced medicine.
Well, women have always been healers. What about the others?
Do we look for someone who changed the world? Did every scientist change the world? No. Do we look for just those few geniuses who changed the way the world thinks? We can easily remember the few people, both male and female, that produced something with a value that lives through centuries. These are the paradigm shifters - the rare true genius, people like Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. These two men defined the basic rules for the structure of our world. But they lived centuries apart from each other, one in the 17th century and one in the 20th century, thus indicating how rare such genius is.
Then there are those people, far, far greater in number than the paradigm shifters, who still produced something of value for their time and place, and possibly for many times and places. These people are much more difficult to find, and they are important. They provide the basis upon which the rare genius can build a new paradigm. As Sir Isaac Newton said “If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants”. These women and men are important; they are special. They are the hidden giants.
I seek the hidden giants.
As I have already said, the information about the traditional role of women in science and technology is not easily available. There were books written about the history of science and scientists during the 20th century. A book on women in science written in 1913 lists over 350 technical women of the past. This book is an amazing tour de force combining romantic views of women with solid references to original sources. Asimov’s classic book , some 50 years later lists sixteen women. Patrick Moore's book Men of the Stars , a mere decade after Asimov’s book, has none. This is a disappointing trend. Certainly, however, the past decade has produced a large list of publications about technical women. The 20th century CE is covered rather well. But it is misleading to assume that women were not scholars before the 20th century CE just because their names are missing from the history texts. Their absence is involuntary - a result of how history was compiled. We all have just opened the treasure box. These women contributed much. They had the entire universe to play with, to study and to enjoy. They were not left out of this great human experience.
Let me concentrate in one place where we do have a few records – ancient Greece. By Homer’s time (7th century BCE) Greek women perhaps held a disadvantaged position but nonetheless were capable of ruling in their husbands’ absences. They were not considered inferior or incompetent. Homer and other poets tell stories of these strong women. In addition, although the Amazons are lost in legend and unproved to exist, many wrote of them. In fact Homer tells us in the Iliad that the Amazonian queen Penthesilea fought in the Trojan War (c. 1200 BCE) and was killed by Achilles. Legend records that she invented the battle-axe.
Times changed though. In general women were expected to keep silent, stay at home and become proficient in the needle and the loom. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE, the great philosopher whose writings directed European thought for a thousand years) did not believe that women were educable. Athens (and eventually Western Europe) followed along Aristotle’s lines. Sparta, on the other hand still supported the education and development of women. History tells us the final outcome of these two great states. Sparta was eventually defeated by Athens. During this time the status of women in the Near and Middle East dropped significantly. Their legal rights eroded away to a shadow of what they had been. There are occasional records of women as poets, leaders and warriors, just as there are for men, but few of philosophy.
Nonetheless, despite the beliefs of Aristotle, some women managed to obtain access to scholars and scholarly pursuits. A very few valued names do exist. Perhaps surprisingly, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BCE) wrote about women in his great work The Republic . In the perfect state, he wrote, women as well as men needed education – the same education. The philosopher Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) honored Diotama as one of his teachers. Plato taught two woman in his school: Lasthenia and Axiothea of Philus (c. 350 BCE).
Sappho became so well known as a poet that Plato proclaimed her the tenth Muse. She had many pupils in her island home where she ran a school of poetry and music. But we look for those who were philosophers as well as poets. Hipparchia, the wife of Crates (c. 470 BCE – founder of the comedic play), wrote a lovely sentiment – “I am much stronger than Atalanta from Maenalus because my wisdom is better than racing over the mountain ”, an early example of the epigram ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.
Themista, the wife of Leon and a correspondent of Epicurus (371 – 271 BCE), was known as a philosopher in her own right; Themista was even called a sort of female Solon (Solon was “The Great Law-Giver” to ancient Athens). Perictione, a disciple of Pythagoras (c. 569 – c. 475 BCE), distinguished herself by her writings among which are Wisdom and The Harmony of Women. Themistocleia (6th century BC) was a Delphic priestess, the teacher and mentor of Pythagoras. Legend has it that Pythagoras admired Themistocleia to such an extent he kept his school open to women also. Whatever the reason, women did attend his school. After his death, the great school of Pythagoras was run by his daughter and his wife Theano. Theano not only worked in the areas of physics, medicine and child psychology, but was a great astronomer/mathematician in her own right. Her work on the theorem of the Golden Mean and the corresponding Golden Rectangle are considered to be her most important contributions. Her Life of Pythagoras is lost. Arate of Cyrene (5th century BCE) taught philosophy in a school in Attica. She was the daughter of Aristippus, the founder of the Cyenaic school of philosophy. Even in the time of Boccaccio (1313 – 1375 CE), 1,000 years later, she was still honored as a veritable prodigy of learning, writer of forty books, teacher of over 110 philosophers. Her epitaph
The splendor of Greece
The beauty of Helen
The virtue of Thirma
The pen of Aristippos
The soul of Socrates
and the tongue of Homer .
illustrates the high regard in which she was held.
These are but a few of the women of Greece who won renown for their scholarship. Many other women earned their way through the doorway of the hetaerae – the learned companions of men. Such a position does not exist now. These women were considered highly moral and virtuous, free, but unmarried. There were many such women who were respected scholars. Perhaps the most famous was Aspasia, the companion of the political leader Pericles (5th century BCE). Her house became a place of rest for many famous scholars and leaders of the day. Tradition has it that she was the teacher of Socrates in philosophy and politics and Pericles in rhetoric. Men brought their wives to her for instruction. Did she write some of the great speeches of Pericles? Maybe yes, maybe no. There is every reason to believe that she influenced Plato’s ideas on the equality of women.
Known as the witches of Thessaly (1st through 3rd centuries BCE), women such as Aglaonice, were thought to “draw down the Moon”. They knew how to predict lunar eclipses . The word “witch” is an epithet given them by later authors, although it is likely Aglaonice was regarded as a sorceress by her contemporaries for her skill in predicting eclipses. Her boasting gave rise to a Greek proverb used for braggarts “Yes as the Moon obeys Aglaonice”. A crater on the planet Venus is named for her.
Once small area of the world covering a mere century or so gives us so many names. The 5th and 6th centuries BCE are sometimes called the Axial Ages because so many influential people lived during this time span: Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, the Buddha in India, Mahavira (founder of Jainism) in India, and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Greece. Then five hundred years later Jesus lived in Judea, and then six hundred years after that Mohammed lived.
“What I have done here no one has done before”, En’Hedu’anna said. These women are shining lights from our past. Let me step forward in time to shine that light on others.