Neglected Women in History and Science

As suggested in the previous blog ‘Forgotten Women in Art History’ there were women prodigies and woman geniuses in all categories of study. They were often neglected in the history of man. Intelligence is gender neutral. Early Greeks and Romans recognized and recorded the ability of women, but mostly in poetry and on occasions in philosophy, medicine, music and history. Neglected women are a source of inspiration for artists of all genders.

Both the Old Testament and the New Testament, all written by men, are patriarchal documents from a patriarchal age. They limited women’s roles and functions to the home and severely restricted many of their rights.

The New Testament does place positions of leadership to women in the early churchWomen in the Bible, last accessed 4 May 2019

Bruce Metzger states the English language is so biased towards the male gender that it may restrict and obscure meaning from original languages. Attempts are being made to make the scriptures more gender neutral. Gender in Bible translation, last accessed 4 May 2019.

There is the story of Susanna from the bible in which Susanna was threatened of adultery by two elders watching her bathe in her garden, if she does not sleep with them. She refuses and is falsely accused by them. Her innocence is proved after the intervention of David, which prevents her from being stoned to death for promiscuity. The false accusers are put to death, and virtue triumphed. I am reasonably sure there were similar episodes in which the outcomes were less triumphant.

Figure B-1 is a painting by Guido Reni (1575 – 1642) of Susannah from the Old Testament. Last visited 4 May 2019.

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Figure B-1. Susannah and the Elders, Guido Reni, 1620-1625. Oil on canvas, 116.6 x 150.5 cm. The National Gallery, London, UK.

Many deserving women scientists were not recognized in their lifetime. Mileva Einstein-Marić, the wife of Albert Einstein was one among many. Einstein’s Wife: The Real Story of Mileva Einstein-Marić. Allen Esterson & David C. Cassidy, with Ruth Lewin Sime MIT Press (2019).

Other deserving female scientists were not afforded the recognition they deserved. Jane J. Lee writing in the national geographic magazine details six women who deserved recognition: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu, Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin and Nettie Stevens.

In her article, Lee summarized the case of each woman. The story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell provides an example. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars in 1967 while still a graduate student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University in England. The finding resulted in a Nobel Prize. The 1974 award in physics went to Anthony Hewish, Bell Burnell’s supervisor and Martin Ryle, also a radio astronomer at Cambridge University. In an interview with National Geographic News, Jocellyn Bell Burnell was fairly matter-of-fact, “The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren’t expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said.” Jane J. Lee, National Geographic, Despite enormous progress in recent decades, women still have to deal with biases against them in the sciences.

J. Lewis noted in an article on the ThoughCo web site that only the work of a few well-known women who wrote in the ancient world survived. There were also some lesser-known women writers, although mentioned by male writers, whose work did not survive. And there were probably other women writers whose work was simply ignored or forgotten, whose names we do not know. Those listed in the article were mainly poetesses. They include: Enheduanna, Sappho of Lesbos, Korinna, Nossis of Locri, Moera, Sulpicia I, Theophila, Sulpicia II, Claudia Severa, Hypatia, and Aelia Eudocia. Jone Johnson Lewis 2019 ThoughCo

These women were topics for future artworks. Artworks of Sappho and Hypatia are presented below.

Sappho of Lesbos was a poetess of ancient Greece. She is known through her ten books of verse published by the third and second centuries B.C.E. By the Middle Ages, all copies were lost. Today what we know of the poetry of Sappho is only through quotations in the writings of others. Only one poem from Sappho survives in complete form, and the longest fragment of Sappho poetry is only 16 lines long.

Figure B-2 is a painting of Sappho by Simeon Solomon, ‘Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene’.

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Figure B-2. Sappho and Erinna in the Garden Mytelene by Simeon Solomon. Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Image

Hypatia (350–370, 415 AD) was a teacher, writer, philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who lived in AlexandriaEgypt, Hypatia is thought to have been the first female mathematician whose life is reasonably well recorded. She made a commentary on Apollonius of Perga‘s treatise on conic sections, which has not survived. Many modern 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. The library containing her writings was destroyed by Arab conquerors.

Hypatia advised Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, who was in the midst of a political feud with Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Rumors spread accusing her of preventing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril and, in March 415 AD, she was murdered by a mob of Christians.

Hypatia’s murder shocked the empire and transformed her into a “martyr for philosophy”, European literature, especially Charles Kingsley‘s 1853 novel Hypatia, romanticized her as “the last of the Hellenes“. In the twentieth century, Hypatia became seen as an icon for women’s rights and a precursor to the feminist movement.

Figure B-5 is a print depicting the death of Hypatia at the hands of a mob.

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Figure B-3. A drawing depicting the death of Hypatia at the hands of a mob. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

Both Sappho and Hypatia and are represented and have their own plates in feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation artwork ‘The Dinner Party’. Barbara Strozzi is listed. The Dinner Party was produced from 1974 to 1979 as a collaboration and was first exhibited in 1979. Widely regarded as the first epic feminist artwork, it functions as a symbolic history of women in civilization. There are 39 elaborate place settings arranged along a triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women. Sappho and Hypatia mentioned above, are among the symbolic guests. Each place-setting is unique and includes a hand-painted china plate, ceramic cutlery and chalice, and a napkin with an embroidered gold edge. Each plate, except the ones corresponding to Sojourner Truth and Ethel Smyth, depicts a brightly colored, elaborately styled vulva form. Also in gold script are the names of 998 women and one man who have made a mark on history. (The man, Kresilas, was mistakenly included as he was thought to have been a woman called Cresilla.) He probably considered himself fortunate to be among so many great women! Subsequently, despite art world resistance and occasional criticism from women, it toured to 16 venues in six countries on three continents to a viewing audience of 15 million. Since 2007, it has been on permanent exhibition in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. The use of a triangular table suggest a vulva and is in keeping with a theme of the piece. I saw the ‘Dinner Party’ when it was exhibited in Boston. I had never seen so many vulvas. 13 settings on a side: why 13? Why are vulvas served on a plate?

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Figure B-4. The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1974–79.

 Judy Chicago. The Dinner Party, 1974–79. Ceramic, porcelain, textile, 576 × 576 in. (1463 × 1463 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. (Photo: Donald Woodman)

From Hildegard in the 12th century through to the present day, women have made a significant contribution to classical music, which has often been overlooked. 21 composers are included in Classic FM web site. 21 women composers documented in Classic FM

Four are included below: Hildegard von Bingen, Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi and Clara Schumann. Artists did not overlook many of these women, as portraits of them do exist.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a composer of 70 works and a writer of plays. Her Ordo Virtutum piece is the oldest surviving morality play. As a Benedictine Abbess, she founded two monasteries.                     

Francesca Caccini (1587-1640) was a singer, lutenist, poet and teacher. She became one of the most influential female European composers. Very little of her music survives. Her stage work, ‘La liberazione di Ruggiero’, is considered to be the first opera by a woman.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was said to be ‘the most prolific composer, man or woman, of printed secular vocal music in Venice in the middle of the 17th century. 
In 1637, Barbara Strozzi founded the Accademia degli Unisoni, a musical salon that met in the Strozzi home and showcased Barbara’s talents. From 1644 to 1664, she published eight volumes of compositions, seven of which survive. Her works constitute a significant contribution to early Baroque music. Strozzi led an unconventional life: she remained single but had four children. Three of her children joined monastic communities.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was the wife of Robert Schumann and herself one of the most distinguished pianists of her time, Clara enjoyed a 61-year concert career. She wrote her ‘Piano Concerto’ at the age of 14. She largely lost confidence in her composing in her mid-30s.

Shown in Figure B-5 are two portraits of Barbara Strozzi. Figure B-5a is a portrait of Barbara Strozzi painted by the Italian  Baroque painter Domenico Zampieri, known as Domenichino for his shortness (October 21, 1581 – April 6, 1641). Figure B-5b is a portrait (Circa 1630–40) of  Bernardo (Barbara) Strozzi ‘Female Musician with Viola da Gamba’.

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Figure B-5a. Strozzi                        Figure B-5b.

Bernardo Strozzi. Female Musician by Domenichino. With Viola da Gamba (Circa 1630–40). Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

Mothers (BC – 2019) are also an under-recorded group of women, particularly the responsible ones. They are recognized and honored in the United States on Mother’s Day. There is also an International Mother’s Day. Great that at least one day is set aside each year to celebrate motherhood.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Pit says:

    Great article! Very thought provoking. Forgotten, or ignored and ostracized by the delicate and insecure male ego? Makes me wonder how much great art , using, literature, etc. has been lost, not only from females, but from so many repressed groups ( the Impressionists were excluded from the Paris Salon because their art was so different and nonconforming, and they were white males!). Women, racial groups, religious minorities, homosexuals – so many brilliant and creative geniuses not recognized nor appreciated because they didn’t fit the norm. How much do I do this, too? ( Makes me think of my lack of appreciation for “Modern Art”) Pit


  2. Awesome article!


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