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Invisible Women of Science and Technology

by Susmita Barua

In 2005 a great uproar among men and women in academia ensued after the Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers suggested that "intrinsic aptitude" could explain why fewer women have excelled in science and math. This article would refute that assertion. Historical knowledge as we have been taught in schools is often a lopsided account of "His Story", the story shaped by the few men in power at the time. Women representing half of humanity did not share equality with men within the same social class and culture, except during pre-recorded and unwritten oral cultural days of ancient civilization in Egypt and perhaps during Pre-Vedic and early Vedic times in India (before 2500 to 3000 BC approx.). Women's access to basic education, let alone higher learning was severely restricted and discouraged throughout most of the recorded history and even to this day in many developing countries.

In ancient Egypt women used to manage, own, sell private property, bring lawsuits and carry financial transaction without any male help. Marriage required no religious or legal ceremony. Women like men could divorce for any reason privately without any legal action and were free to marry again at any age. Men worked alongside women in doing housework, rearing children, attending livestock or ploughing fields. Women kept the property rights of any dowry. Husband's deeded property to wives (even if divorced), because children inherited property through mother after divorce or father's death. Egyptian society was matrilineal and there were well over four dozens of references of women pharaohs who ruled Egypt from the very first to twenty second dynasty. Only a few like Queen Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra are commonly known.

Early Vedic literature mentions great women scholars and philosophers (known as Brahmavadinis), such as, Vac, Ambhrni, Romasa, Gargi, Khona, Maitrayee, and Lopamudra. Women, who so desired could undergo the sacred thread ceremony or "Upanayana" - a sacrament to pursue universal knowledge. Marriage was considered a joint partnership and the marriage vow was described in Rig Veda (Taittiriya Ekagnikanda I iii, 14) as: "Having paced the seven steps, we have become friends. May I retain thy friendship, and never part from it (Sastri 1918)." From Paleolithic times to beginings of ancient civilization, diverse images of the Goddess abound everywhere from India to Western Europe, without any male cult figure. It is a historical and anthropological mystery how the face of God and the entire human civilization changed from the feminine to masculine.

Women seemed to enjoy near equality with men in early Greek Civilization. Many women played a central role in the development of early Pythagorean philosophy. Records exist about Pythagoras deriving the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, the priestess of Delphi. Pythagoras' wife Theano of Crotona wrote treatises on mathematics, physics, medicine, and child psychology and wrote commentaries on marriage, sex, women and ethics. Mclemore writes that Theano's most important work was the principle of the "Golden Mean." Many women who joined as teachers and scholars in the mystery school of Pythagoras lived and worked in a communal manner and published all their writings under Pythagoras. Plato named Diotima of Mantinea as Socrates' mentor, but because of a 15th century false reference, Diotima was considered, until recently, as a fictional character! Aspasia of Miletus was a very renowned scholar at the time of Plato and taught Pericles rhetoric and matters of State. Socrates and others visited her often. Aesara of Lucania applied the normative principle of Harmonia in geometry, arithmetic, music and cosmos. Based on intuitive Natural Law Theory and pragmatic ethics she wrote "The Book on Human Nature."

Hypatia (370? -415) of Alexandria was the most eminent neo-platonic philosopher and mathematician. Her fame as a teacher traveled as far as Libya and Turkey. She was renowned before the age of thirty and taught geometry, mathematics, the works of Plato-Aristotle, neo-Platonism, astronomy and mechanics for 15 years. She is known for expanding and editing the mathematical work on conic sections (introduced by Appolonius). This concept developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses. Unfortunately Hyapatia's work was virtually ignored by Historians for 1500 years! She was a liberal Pagan while politically Christianism was getting strong in Alexandria. A Christian leader spread virulent rumors against Hypatia. In 415 AD, while returning home, a mob attacked and stripped her, dragged her through streets and killed her with pieces of broken pottery! This incident probably sent a foreboding message to society and women in particular about the deadly consequences of pursuit of learning!

Women's position started to take a steep plunge in the Middle Ages. The Holy Office of the Inquisition proudly declared in 1554 that to date they had burned thirty thousand women alive. Some estimates puts the total number of women killed for "witchcraft" between 14th and 17th centuries as high as 3 to 9 million, a virtual holocaust. Women who were persecuted in middle ages, were mostly healers, midwives, herbalists and naturopaths.

The earliest hand copied medical textbooks Practia Brevia and De compositione Medicamentorum that passed between doctors, generation after generation were written by Trotulla, a famous female physician at the Salerno school of Medicine in Italy. She taught her male colleagues about female physiology, wrote a book on Diseases of Women and advocated pediatrics as a special branch of medicine. She promoted cleanliness, exercise, balanced diet and stress avoidance for maintaining health. The surgical techniques and diagnostic methods she taught were used for centuries. Hostility towards women led to denial of her very existence and her name was misquoted as male Trottus by some Historians. Salerno was sacked by Henry VI in 1094 and Trotulla died in 1097. Trotulla's own books were scattered and lost. With the advent of modern medicine and hospitals (an invention of Florence Nightingale), women were marginalized and pushed out of mainstream medicine totally as herbalists, healers and midwives.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was by far the most extraordinary mathematician of the 18th century. By the age of twenty CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE


About the Author: Susmita Barua is a holistic thinker, philosopher, social entrepreneur and visionary engaged in raising human consciousness. She is committed to empower the individual and transform the planet through her writings, workshops and creative ideas in many fields. Visit her website at www.seek2know.net


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