The Liz Library presents Irene Stuber's Women of Achievement - Women's History Month

Episode #WHM-15 for Day 15
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Sappho, Hypatia, and the Witch of Agnesi: work, life, and reputation murdered by anti-women forces

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.

SapphoSappho 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From sketchy historical documents, it is surmised that Sappho was a poet of ancient Greece who lived about 610-580 BC and ran a school for young women on the island of Lesbos off the coast of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 found.

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.

Maria AgnesiMaria 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 University.

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 control method.

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 1871.

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.

© 1990-2006 Irene Stuber, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902. Originally web-published at We are indebted to Irene Stuber for compiling this collection and for granting us permission to make it available again. The text of the documents may be freely copied for nonprofit educational use. Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are © 1998-2009 the liz library.  All rights reserved. This site is hosted and maintained by the liz library.