By Lisa Autz
One day on the hot, desert streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 415 or 416, angry Christian radicals grabbed a woman from her carriage, dragged her into the church, and proceeded to strip and beat her to death with roofing tiles.
Her name was Hypatia. Her crime was being one of the great thinkers of ancient Alexandria. She faced additional charges for being one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.
Caption: “The death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria.” Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Though her death was gruesome, it vividly illustrates the literal and symbolic treatment of so many heroic women of our history.
History–or his-story, as it was referred to in the late ‘60s–is known to cast off minority characters from standard textbook knowledge. Women were no exception. It was only during the first women’s movement, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that activists began to detail their own biographies, duly making diligent efforts to resurface long-buried heroines.
Eventually, a history of ladies was excavated. Dug up were figures that date far before the contemporary suffrage and feminist movements.
Taking it to the medieval age, there was Hildegard of Bingen, a woman of many “firsts.” At a time when few women even wrote, Hildegard was creating treatises, advising popes, and composing musical plays for the convent.
In the early 12th century, her work gained the respect of bishops, popes, and kings who all sought her advice and consultation. She is also the first music composer whose biography is known.
Hildegard made sure that the convent was filled with the ethereal sounds of the medieval chants and Latin liturgical songs that she composed. Today, musicologists and historians focused on science and history recognize her contributions to music.
Though Hildegard’s heroism was often overlooked in the past for its subtle nature, she still serves a place in the forefront of history. She paved the way for women in authority to harbor and develop independent thoughts.
Other women claimed their exceptionality in more physical acts of courage. Malalai of Maiwand, for instance, was the Afghani girl who stood up for her country on the battlefield against the British in 1880.
Malalai of Maiwand is a known heroine of the second Anglo-Afghan war. She does not appear in any British account of the Battle of Maiwand but, as explained by Afghan folk tales, her actions eventually led to the British Empire’s defeat.
According to oral tradition, Malalai’s original job at war was tending to wounded soldiers until the British began making use of superior artillery and drove the Afghans back. It was then that Malalai took to the battlefield calling on her fiance and the soldiers her support and love for the country. Soon after her courageous act, she was shot down, and has since become a martyr. Her grave now serves as a place of historic pilgrimage.
While these women found a haven where their names did not fall into oblivion, they still remain largely absent from mainstream history.
Here at BTR, we humbly take a small part in writing heroic women back into our consciousness. Some prominent figures in contemporary female and gender studies can further help us discuss more exceptional names to add to the list.
Melissa Gentry, a map collections assistant at Ball State University’s GIS research, spoke with BTR about her project that outlined impacting African American women who are rarely known.
“Last year in celebration of Women’s History Month I created a map of important women in Black History,” says Gentry. “During my research I really learned a lot about some women who are often neglected in the study of American history.”
Added to the map is Ida B. Wells-Barnett–or as Gentry refers to her as, “the first Rosa Parks”–who refused to give up her seat on the train in 1884, then successfully sued the railroad for it. Though the decision was later reversed, her action as an outspoken women’s and civil rights activist is seen as extraordinarily bold.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“She showed a remarkable amount of courage for her time,” says Gentry. That especially shows in an era when the civil rights movement was but a dim light in people’s minds.
Linda Martin Alcoff, director of Women’s Studies Certificate Program at the CUNY Graduate Center, discussed with BTR another leading woman in social movement: Rosa Luxembourg.
Luxembourg was Polish Jewish writer, theorist, and political leader active in Germany during the socialist movement in the early 20th century. Though she was murdered by the right wing German government after WWI, her work is seen as unprecedented, even in comparison to her male counterparts of the time.
“Luxembourg’s analysis of capitalist economics went beyond Marx in important ways, and her critical analysis of the anti-democratic practices of vanguard parties was prescient for what happened later in the Soviet Union,” insists Alcoff.
Women are important in tech, too. Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, reminds BTR about the first computer coder who forged a path for our digital age.
Ada Byron, countess of Lovelace, is the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. However, during the 1800s she pioneered the idea of writing a plan for how an engine might calculate Bernoulli numbers. Her plan is what came to be the first “computer program.” So much so, that the US Department of Defense developed a software language named “Ada” in her honor in 1979.
Ada Byron, countess of Lovelace. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Women like Ada Bryon only scratch the surface at the many underlying heroes that live beneath our ideas of history. They are women who fall outside of what’s expected in favor of strength, passion, independence, and simply doing.
Women’s studies only began to take shape after the women’s liberation movement of the late 60s and early 70s. Now, most institutes of higher education designate a department to women’s and gender studies. As much as that shows progress, the truth remains that society still holds the tendency to view female figures as constituting a separate sphere from our overall history.
Whatever the future brings, women will surely find a way to continue to act and trample obstacles. As Mother Theresa famously assessed, “What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.”