Hypatia and the Double-Edged Sword of Women’s Science History

„Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria“ from Vies des savants illustres, depuis l’antiquité jusqu’au dix-neuvième siècle, 1866, by Louis Figuier. Bild: wikimedia.org/PD
International Women’s Day, an annual opportunity to celebrate the empowerment of women—past, present, and future. It’s a time to reflect on the legacies of female historical figures, while also ruminating on the challenges facing women in the 21st century.

By Becky Ferreira|MOTHERBOARD

To the latter point, there are certainly plenty of challenges, ranging from expanding reproductive rights to passing the ​Bechdel test in pop culture. But one of the most hot-button issues, frequently addressed on Motherboard, is the ongoing effort to bridge the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

This fight to empower female scientists actually goes back millennia, and it’s one of the most simultaneously fascinating and frustrating stories in history. In both the ancient and Medieval world, female scientists made substantial scientific discoveries and engineered new technologies, but often experienced harsh backlash due to the patronizing attitudes towards women at the time.

Of course, this narrative is not unique to women. Male scientists born into low social standing, like Michael Faraday or Joseph von Fraunhofer, also faced an uphill battle when proving their worth.

he difference is that the history of science is packed to the brim with lots of other male archetypes, in addition to hard-working underdogs like Faraday and von Fraunhofer. Isaac Newton and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky were lone geniuses, for example, while Humphrey Davy and Carl Sagan were both charismatic science communicators.

The same diversity is not afforded to early women scientists, because they are so often pigeonholed into martyrdom. Take the life story of Hypatia of Alexandria, considered by many to be the first female astronomer and mathematician, as an example.

She was born sometime between 350 and 370 AD, and was famous for building astrolabes and delivering fiery populist lectures. “The woman used to put on her philosopher’s cloak and walk through the middle of town and publicly interpret Plato, Aristotle, or the works of any other philosopher to those who wished to hear her,” wrote the 5th century historian Damascius, in his biography Life of Hypatia.

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