Sappho, Hypatia, and
the Witch of Agnesi: work, life, and reputation murdered by anti-women
Rewind history 2,000 to 2,500 years... to the
time when this woman poet named Sappho lived...
So much is of her life and the talent of her poetry
is conjecture, but one thing is crystal clear: SHE WAS CONSIDERED ONE OF
THE MOST DANGEROUS WOMEN TO HAVE EVER EXISTED - OR AT LEAST HER WORK WAS.
as imagined by a 19th century artist.
From sketchy historical documents, it is surmised
that Sappho was a poet of ancient Greece who lived about 610-580 BC and
ran a school for young women on the island of Lesbos off the coast of Greek.
The school probably taught, amongst other things, music, poetry, dance,
etc., which were the accepted social graces for women.
Ten books of her poetry were republished
almost 600 years after her death. This was, of course, before the printing
press and they had to be handwritten which gives you some idea of her importance.
Sappho was the inspiration and mentor for Ovid
who considered Sappho's poetry lesbian in tone although many modern revisionists
claim that it was just silly, exaggerated woman-talk and not homoerotic.
During her lifetime and through the centuries
she was honored as one of the greatest of Greek poets, regardless of the
interpretation of her subject matter.
But as time went on, some thought their interpretation
was the right one and her subject matter the wrong one. Therefore, the
Roman Catholic Church condemned her work.
ALL of Sappho's poetry that could be found was
burned in 380 AD by order of St. Gregory of Nazianzus and what remained
was searched out and burned by PAPAL DECREE in 1073! A papal order for
a woman's works to be destroyed is a rather drastic move for silly woman-talk.
Actially, It is a miracle that the 700 lines we
have today remain - although hope is still alive that more will come to
light since fairly recently an Egyptian papyrus of one of her poems was
Fast forward to the life of Hypatia of Alexandria
who unfortunately was ALIVE when the religious fanatics took charge of
western culture and learning...
Hypatia of Alexandria,
the greatly honored Greek mathematician and philosopher was brutally martyred
because she was a scientist and because she was a woman. She was also a
pagan who refused to convert to the new Christian religion.
Hypatia (c370 415) was the daughter of mathematician,
Theon who was the last librarian of the fabled Library of Alexandria.
Hypatia's scientific inventions - according to
the letters of one of her pupils - included the hydrometer to measure the
specific gravity of liquids, the plane astrolabe that measures astronomical
positions and solves spherical astronomical problems, as well as several
methods of distillation. In addition she was a noted lecturer and writer.
Her Arithmetica was a 13-volume definitive study of algebra. None of her
work survived her murder and the destruction of the libarary
In 389 AD, Christian religious fanatics who felt
scientific study was antithetical to religious dogma burned the famed Serapeum
Library of Alexandria and in 412 AD, a group of monks inspired by Cyril,
Patriarch of Alexander who, it is said was unreasonablyjealous of Hypatia's
fame and influence, especially because she was a woman, killed her in a
terrible manner. (He was later canonized by the Roman Catholic church.)
Her torturous death - described in detail by Christian
historian Socrates Scholasticus - was at the hands of Parabolands monks
of the Church of St. Cyril of Jerusalem who ripped the flesh from her bones
with sharp shells while she was sill alive, cut her into pieces and then
burned the flesh into ashes. Such religious fanatics would lead the glowing
western civilization into the thousand-year-long Dark Ages in which women
in particular should study for causation and propagation.
Fast forward 2,000 years . . .and one can only
imagine how many women tried but could not break the societal mold that
dictated their minds were too weak for education (actually, the pseudo-scientific
reasoning was that education would affect their wombs and they would not
be able to bear children - the sole purpose for women's existence). But
in the background, women knew from thousands of years of experience that
they were at the complete mercy of the male perogative. Authorities did
not defend them against beatings, rape, incest - or the ruining of their
reputations. And they were all alone, defenseless.
Gaetana Agnesi (b. 05-06-1718 was a legendary Italian mathematician
and philosopher. As the oldest of 21 children, she was also the head of
the family to her very lonely, widower father who was a professor at Balogna
Regardless of her home life, she was a mathematical
genius whose abilities could be recognized because of her father's position.
Her masterpiece Analytical Institutions
(1748) that was the most complete work on differential and integral calculus
to that time. Critical historians claim it was merely written as a textbook
for her brothers. Those authorities fail to take into consideration her
1738 Propositiones Philosophicae which was a collection of essays
on natural science and philosophy, plus the later invitation to assume
her father's position at the university after his death.
The critics also fail to note that at age nine,
as a child prodigy versed in French, Greek, Hebrew, she gave an hour-long
lecture in Latin on the right of women to study (women's rights).
(Of course, such historical denigration doesn't
really work because she DID write the great mathematical book whether it
was for her brothers or not. . .and what an even great stunning accomplishment
it was if it was NOT a serious work! What could she have done, then, if
she had really tried :-)
She is best known for the curve called the Witch
of Agnesi (a mistranslation of Latin into English that is very Freudian).
The curcv has the Cartesian equation x*y^2=a^2(a-x). Agnesi was elected
to the Bologna Academy of Sciences and appointed professor at the university
by the pope. She probably never taught there.
Following the death of her father she abandoned
mathematics and this prodigious mind devoted the rest of her life to the
poor, homeless, and sick, especially women. She spent the rest of her life
entirely in the company of women where she rose to administrative positions.
One can only imagine what her home life must have
been like while her father lived - a home life that was known in the highest
social and religious circles.
Hers is an interestingly complex life waiting
to be explored by a modern woman biographer who will deal in source materials.
By the 18th century the "glass" ramparts
that guarded education from women were being buried under an avalanche
of PAPER. . .the invention of moveable type and the printing press by Johann
Gutenberg in the early 1400s would preserve women's writings for the first
time in history. Individual handwritten books, notes and letters could
be burned, but the flood of mass printings effectively destroyed that honored
Women were learning there were other women like
themselves: women could think! Masses were capable of education! The greatest
instrument towards women's rights was those little squiggles on paper.
Mass printings of books and pamphlets by women
flooded the arid plains of women's existence - and they bloomed.
Mount Holyoke College in the United States was
opened in 1837 by Mary Lyon as the first school-college in the United States
to offer near comparable-to-men-formal- education to women and it is extant
today, in fact one of the most highly regarded colleges in the nation.
Sixteen years before, the Troy Female Seminary
was opened by Emma Willard. It produced hundreds of teachers who were instrumental
in awakening women to their right to demand broader women's education.
Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, was founded
in 1836 and became the first college in the world that was initially chartered
to award women college degrees. It granted baccalaureate degrees for the
first time in 1842 to 11 women.
Male only universities such as Harvard opened
in 1636 almost as soon as the British invasion of North America occurred,
while Britain's Oxford University's first college opened in the 1100s,
and Cambridge opened in 1209. Many universities in Europe pre-date Oxford
by centuries. All had one thing in common. They denied education to women
until the number of the "weaker sex" enrolled in woman-only colleges
became large enough to be a financial enticement - something like we see
today with profitable companies being swallowed up by large corporation
for a money feast, The opening of male-only colleges and universities ro
women had very little to do with human rights; it was profit$ - note women
were "allowed" into Harvard Medical School for the first time
during World War II because there was a shortage of men students.
The first women's college at Oxford in England
was Lady Margaret Hall founded in 1878, incorporated in 1926 as was St.
Hilda's college that was founded 1893.
Girton College at Cambridge - and the education
of women at Oxford - is the direct result of the activism of Emily Davies,
born 04-22-1830. She and friends opened a college in 1869 and moved it
in 1873 to Cambridge as Girton. She believed, and her view prevailed, that
women should be admitted to college on the same basis as men. She was responsible
for women taking the examination for Cambridge University and responsible
for women to be admitted to British universities on an equal footing rather
than getting segregated education. She was responsible for University College,
London, admitting women to classes in 1870. ED was one of the organizers
of the first woman's suffrage petition offered in 1866 and in 1906 led
the delegation to Parliament demanding the vote.
A woman's seminary was opened in Benicia, California,
in 1852 and was purchased in 1865 by Susan and Cyrus Mills who moved it
to Oakland and renamed it Mills College.
There were a number of women's seminaries that
opened on a regional level and did extremely well but they were all taken
over by larger universities and lost their emphasis for women. There were
also a number of men's colleges that accepted women students earlier in
the 19th century, such as Ohio's Antioch in 1852.
Swarthmore College was founded in 1864 with the
first graduating class in 1873. Wellesley opened in 1870, Vassar in 1865.
Ursaline College (Roman Catholic) in Cleveland is listed as opening in
Wellesley College opened in 1875 just 24-hours
before Smith College. Radcliffe, as the women's annex of Harvard, opened
in 1879 when Harvard was 250 years old. Radcliffe was rechartered in 1894
as a separate entity. It has since closed and incorporated into Harvard
itself. Bryn Mawr College received its first students in 1885. Goucher
in Maryland is listed as starting in 1885. Barnard opened in 1889.
The unbelievably powerful and dedicated Mary McLeod
Bethune opened her school for black children in 1904 (five girls and the
one boy who was her son).
It is almost inconceivable to most modern American
woman that for thousands of years, men were so insecure that they forbade
- by force - any education for women.