Athens, 4th Century BCE.
The cornerstone of Greek mathematics and scientific innovations, Athens birthed the theorems and concept now widely adopted by schools around the world.
Towards the end of the earth shattering Peloponnesian War between Athen’s Delian League and Sparta’s Peloponnesian League, Greece was divided. At the time, the nation only existed as a cluster of kingdoms; their respective leaders at each others’ throats.
While Sparta boasted its militaristic power blessed by Ares, the god of war, Athens had devoted themselves to Athena, so much so that the city was christened as her namesake.
As Sparta continued to expand its territories, Athens conquered Greece with academics. Schools and universities were enacted with meticulous precision, as if the marble was conjured for Athena herself. The temples of wisdom harboured extensive knowledge written by the city’s sharpest minds, who are closely revered as gods today. Some of them are familiar: Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras. Others a bit more unaccustomed, unless you have studied the disciplines of geometry and calculus extensively, such as Theaetetus, a student of Socrates, and Euclid, the father of geometry.
Do you notice anything unusual?
These people who have contributed to humanity’s advancements in understanding the universe through numbers were brilliant, yet they were all men. It was conventional that ancient Greece held a strictly patriarchal society where only men could specialise in science, medicine, and philosophy. The Spartans were, in fact, far more progressive than their rivals for acknowledging their women to be compatible with men “as the mothers of warriors”. History today recognises the efforts of men while women remained suppressed from the sciences. It is a tale as old as time, and there are always deviations.
As Athenian doctors continued to study and research to master their field to its full extent, a woman named Agnodice was cast away from medicine on account of her sex. Around this time period, before CT and ultrasound scanners, Athens’s mortality rate rose at an unprecedented rate. It was not uncommon for other women to serve as midwifes for mothers in labor, yet the rate at which they died was astounding. Agnodice’s main incentive to study medicine was to lower the mortality rate, both for the mother and child.
She did not quit, however. Cutting her hair short and donning the robes of a man, she sailed to Alexandria as a disguised male student to complete her medical education. After completing her studies, she returned to Athens to begin her practice. Her disguise and degree tricked all men, who assumed she was a typical doctor.
Another custom in Athenian society was that due to their modesty, women would typically deny a male doctor to assist with labor, relying only on other midwives. Agnodice, with her expertise as a gynecologist, stunned women when she secretly revealed herself in disguise. Soon word of her talents spread Athens as more women specifically consulted her for labor.
This led the medical community to suspect Agnodice of seducing women and treating them. How was it otherwise possible that the women who denied all the other male doctors in the city accepted her? Aggravated, Agnodice was brought in before the court.
The only way to decisively prove the jury her innocence would be to reveal her clever charade to the public. Agnodice removed her robes to reveal that she had disguised as a man to save other women from dying in childbirth. This was met with greater shock by the doctors. A women practicing medicine was a criminal offense, one punishable by death.
When news of Agnodice’s fate broke out, the women protested her innocence. They assimilated in court demanding the lady doctor to be released. Unable to convince the crowd, the judges hesitantly released Agnodice and declared women to be able to study medicine alongside men, and the rest is history.
Most of us can agree that equality between the sexes is not recommended but required for a society to thrive. Today, the internet works as a powerful tool against suppression of education, as non-profit organisations like Khan Academy provide free, world-class material for anybody with an active network connection. As of writing this piece, India’s literacy rate has risen to 81%. Since 2011, however, the Indian female literacy rate has staggered 20% below the international average of 82.65%. The government has recognised this and have extensively drawn up policies to correct it by offering scholarships and material to those who can’t access them. The best way to show support is to donate to NGOs advocating education for young women and raising awareness.
Statistics gathered from: