September 10, 2010
On 9/11, our country was attacked by a sect particularly offended by the equality of men and women (an abomination in suicide/murderer Atta’s eyes). It is appropriate, then, to celebrate one of the most amazing revolutions in history—that women are not property but are persons. This revolution still horrifies many of the world’s more benighted cultures, as we know from their words and actions. See Time Magazine’s August 9 cover showing a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off because she had the temerity to run away from domestic abuse.
We are so accustomed now in the West to the equality under the law of men and women that we forget how new and rare that notion has been in history. Here is a quick survey of highlights.
Athens. We owe the ancient Greeks the concept of democracy. In Athens, 5th century BC, all male citizens voted. This was the first time men of every economic level, provided that they were not slaves and were natural born citizens, could participate in their own governance. Women were not accorded this right because, said Athenian philosophers, they did not have the mental capacity to reason like men. Only marriage and childbearing were appropriate to them.
However, some great Greek playwrights knew better: Antigone, in which a princess defies her king in a conflict between religion and state power; The Trojan Women, in which the survivors of the long Greek/Trojan War are shown to be intelligent and brave, and much more noble than their male conquerors; and Lysistrata, a comedy in which women from all over warring Greece get together to withhold sex until the men make peace.
And one brave philosopher, Plato, speculated that if women had the educational advantages of men that they could be just as accomplished. His model for this notion was the beautiful and brilliant lady Aspasia, companion and mistress of Athens’ most influential statesman and general, Pericles. Pericles could not marry her because she was foreign. And if he had, she would just be a Greek wife with no status at all.
Alexandria, Egypt. In the 4th century AD, in one of the great centers (and libraries) of Greek and Roman learning, one aristocratic lady, Hypathia, was famous as a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and professor. As Christianity won the struggle against Pagans, Zoroastrians, and Jews, the rules about women as articulated by St. Paul, put Hypathia in jeopardy. Because she was so different from the ignorant and repressed women of the time, she was thought to be a witch and was murdered.
Medieval Europe. The monastic movement produced a surprising fruit: convents in which some women rose to fame for their knowledge. There were writers and religious philosophers among them.
Byzantium. Roman culture continued by moving from Italy to Byzantium (Constantanople), where it flourished until brought down by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. In the 11th century, one royal princess, Anna Comnena, became the world’s first woman historian. She wrote a history of the first Crusade, describing some of the European warlords who came through Constantanople to get the Emperor’s blessings. This is a remarkable work of keen analysis of realpolitic and cynical machinations.
Renaissance Europe. Women monarchs, such as Elizabeth I, along with other noble women of the time, were educated and demonstrated brilliance. As the invention of the printing press made literacy possible for the Middle Class as well as aristocracy, women authors emerged who were recognized as great artists. Painting and sculpture lagged behind, as did musical composers and orchestral performers, which were less available to women than writing. But this impediment has now melted.
Modern World. Along with the political emancipation of women in the West has come a shattering of the barriers against women as scientists (Marie Curie), economists, professors, architects, astronauts, and inventors. Now even in Italy, a woman has cracked the glass ceiling of gondoliers in Venice.
But in benighted Saudi Arabia, women are still property and are not permitted to drive a car. How quaint.
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and writer. You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.