Today, we meet some Greek feminist philosophers.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Nothing mirrors a society's
attitude toward women more strongly than its view
of their mathematical ability. Male-dominated
societies have always discouraged women from
learning mathematics. Some even forbid them to do
And that's why the Pythagoreans were so
interesting. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras
founded a scholarly community in Southern Italy in
539 BC -- a commune somewhere between a religious
order and a university.
The Pythagoreans founded their philosophy on
mathematics. But their mathematics embraced musical
structure and other arts as well. Pythagoras won an
important battle at his school's outset. He forged
an agreement that women would be recognized as
coequal to men in the order. His wife Theano was on
Pythagoras himself wrote only a small part of the
mathematics that we call Pythagorean. Theano was
just one of many Pythagorean women who helped give
us that large body of mathematics. She gave us the
concept of the "golden section," which you might
remember from your geometry class. She also wrote
on physics, medicine, and even child psychology.
A century and a half later, Plato visited a
Pythagorean order and later modeled his own Academy
on it. He was explicit in saying that men and women
are not just intellectual equals -- they're also
intellectually alike. In his Republic
The gifts of nature are alike diffused in both
...At first that seems no more than a
reasonable statement by a reasonable man. Then we
learn that, by prevailing Greek law, women couldn't
even attend public meetings in Plato's day.
all the pursuits of men are the pursuits of
The Pythagoreans lasted only until the middle 300s
BC. But the Pythagorean respect for women's minds
lingered in the Hellenistic world for seven hundred
On the surface of things, we've finally learned
that women make fine mathematicians. We can point
to people like Sheila Widnall, who just retired as
president of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science. She's a distinguished
applied mathematician at MIT.
Yet we still give girls shaky encouragement to
study mathematics in high school. In some dark
corner of our minds, many of us go on believing
that women can't stand up to the rigors of
mathematics. The saddest among us are the young
women who are numbered among the bright people who
buy into that myth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds