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

Celebrating the bravest women in science history on International Women’s Day.
March 8, 2015, 10:35pm
​Image: "Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria" by Louis Figuier. Image: Louis Figuier.

​Today is 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.

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.

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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.

The 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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"Such was Hypatia, as articulate and eloquent in speaking as she was prudent and civil in her deeds," he continued. "The whole city rightly loved her and worshipped her in a remarkable way, but the rulers of the city from the first envied her."

Damascius goes on to pin this envy primarily on Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, who was involved in a public spat with the city's governor Orestes, an admirer of Hypatia's. Cyril ordered his band of thuggish monks to publicly assassinate Orestes, but the governor was able to escape thanks to his guards. His plans dashed, Cyril decided to hit the city where it hurt: Hypatia.

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With no real guard to protect her, Hypatia was overwhelmed by Cyril's bloodthirsty monks, who gruesomely assassinated her by scraping her skin off with oyster shells. Her body was torn apart and burned in separate parts of the city—a desecration that was later judged by 7th century Christian historian John of Nikiu to be totally legitimate, given that Hypatia was obviously practicing witchcraft.

"They tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died," John writes of Hypatia's death. "And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city."

It's so brazen for this guy to see no problem with ripping up a brilliant human being over an esoteric concept like idolatry. The passage is truly one of the most grotesque "she was asking for it" copouts in history. But as much as John of Nikiu would like to wipe away the stain of Hypatia's martyrdom, it has become the most important part of her story.

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And that's gets to the heart of why the history of women in science can be such a frustrating subject. Here we have a Sagan-level orator who enthused and enriched her audience with vibrant speeches. She was also a Newton-level lone weirdo, who was so intent on avoiding marriage that she resorted to frightening suitors away with her menstrual rags.

What a bizarre, wonderful, utterly unconventional human being Hypatia must have been. Yet her accomplishments in life will always be overshadowed by the brutality of her death. Just as she represents the reality of female genius, she is also a reminder that it can come at a hefty price.

Women's science history is rife with similar stories. Another example is the physician Agnodice, said to live in 4th century Athens, who cross-dressed to gain acceptance and specialized in women's health. Jealous of her success, the male Athenian doctors put her to trial, and were only dissuaded when their wives said, "you men are not spouses but enemies since you are condemning her who discovered health for us," according to the historian Hyginas.

Agnodice's story has a much happier ending than Hypatia's—and one that emphasizes sisterhood—but she still had to go to trial just because she was a woman of scientific merit.

As the centuries rolled by, these attacks against female scientists became generally less violent, instead evolving into a kind overbearing condescension. For example, the 17th century German astronomer Maria Wilkelmann was told that she couldn't be admitted into the Berlin Academy because "mouths would gape," as if that is a valid reason. The paleontologist Mary Anning, born in 1799, was excluded from the scientific community even as her discoveries and theories fundamentally shaped it.

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All of this raises an obvious question: What is so threatening about female scientists? After all, science, of all disciplines, should be a meritocracy, because it is so empirically bound and consistent in its process. So why couldn't ruling classes in history embrace the work of early women scientists, instead of ignoring or even punishing it?

It's a question that still has repercussions today, though thankfully we have come a long way from Hypatia's Alexandria. Fortunately, women are no longer impeded by that level of rigidity, and the intellectual payoff of this empowerment is gratifying. So as much as we may recoil at the excruciating fates of so many female scientists, today is the day to honor their sacrifice, and continue the work they started.