Who knows how many social and culture advances have been lost to the biased and inaccurate recording of women’s accomplishments throughout history? How many ideas have been lost, destroyed or simply overlooked by male historians? I suspect a great many. Have you heard of Emilie Du Chatelet, Sophie Germain, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace or Hypatia? Just a few female mathematicians who precede the women of Hidden Figures. I do not suggest that the women of Hidden Figures are not critical to our history in any way, I am merely pointing out that the struggle to value women has been going on for eons.

History tried hard to bury Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 CE - March 415 CE, some historians believe her birth was c. 350 CE). She was called a witch by the members of the growing new Christian religion, Christians were insane about women as witches long before the Malleus Maleficarum was written, and she was attacked by a mob of Christian men, the parabalani,  a volunteer militia of monks serving as henchmen to the archbishop, Theophilus, who destroyed the last of Alexandria’s great Library. Not content that they had already destroyed the remains of the Library of Alexandria they pulled the elderly teacher from her chariot as she rode through the city and dragged her to a temple. She was stripped naked, her skin flayed with jagged pieces of oyster shells, her limbs pulled from her body and paraded through the streets. Her remains were burned in a mockery of pagan sacrifice. Thus ending the life of a brilliant female philosopher (philosophy at this time would be considered science in our era) and mathematician.



She was the daughter of the mathematician, Theon, the last Professor at the University of Alexandria, who tutored her in math, astronomy, and the philosophy of the day, giving his daughter another option besides the traditional role assigned to women. He raised her as a father would have raised a son in the Greek tradition at the time; by teaching her his own trade.

Scholar Wendy Slatkin writes:

"Greek women of all classes were occupied with the same type of work, mostly centered around the domestic needs of the family. Women cared for young children, nursed the sick, and prepared food."

Hypatia was recognized in her own time as an exceptional counselor and learned teacher. We know that she wrote a commentary on Diophantus's thirteen-volume Arithmetica and another commentary on Apollonius of Perga's treatise on conic sections, which has not survived. Most scholars also believe that Hypatia may have edited the surviving text of Ptolemy's Almagest, based on the title of her father Theon's commentary on Book III of the Almagest.

Rome was going through a religious civil war, due to Constantine’s Edict of Milan which ultimately led to Christianity being the official religion of Rome. Initially the parabalani aided the dead and dying but often they terrorized pagan groups and leveled pagan temples, attacked the Jewish quarters, and defiled masterpieces of ancient art they considered demonic by mutilating statues and melting them down for gold. (Sounds a little familiar doesn’t it?)

Historical documents from the time describe Hypatia as a woman who was known for her generosity, love of learning, and skill in teaching the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy. As we have learned from history right up to current times religious fanatics do not tolerate intelligent, decent women.

Hypatia was an exceptional woman not just in 4th century Rome, but for any time and also a popular public speaker, the ancient historian Damascius described her public lectures:

Donning the tribon [the robe of a scholar, and thus an essentially masculine item of apparel], the lady made appearances around the center of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle or some other philosopher...There was a great crush around the doors [of her house], a confusion of men and horses, of people coming and going and others standing about for Hypatia the philosopher was now going to address them and this was her house.

Unfortunately, Hypatia was caught in the cross fire of the archbishop Cyril, and Orestes, the Praefectus augustalis, Roman governor of the province of Egypt. Hypatia’s death was brought about by their clash. The Christian chronicler John of Nikiu explains the situation from Cyril’s point of view:

And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her satanic wiles. And the governor of the city [Orestes] honored her exceedingly for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom.

As we see so often in religion those who caused harm to those who disagree are often revered as saints. Cyril was no exception, he was declared a saint by the church for his efforts in oppressing pagans and promoting the true faith. Historians often Hypatia's death is sited as a milestone mark in history defining the end of the classical age of paganism to the age of Christianity.

Have women gained power and rights since that time? Of course, but as we can see by today's politics and world events, we are not equal and we are not equally valued. The work of women is not finished, only continuing despite much animosity.

Deborah Baron

Deborah Baron

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