Why is Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria, a rarity merely for being a female philosopher in the ancient world? In fact, why have there been so few female philosophers throughout history – just a few in Egypt – at least until the birth of feminism when women began to find their voices?
When we learn what happened to this fabulous woman, it’s not surprising few cared to follow in her footsteps.
We have no written evidence from Hypatia herself, so it can be difficult pinning down what is true. Other anecdotes about her can be found in the “Sources” at the end of this article.
Diving into the Wreck of Women’s Lost Past
Hypatia was an early victim to the myth that women cannot, or are not entitled, to achieve excellence and receive accolades in academic study. It is claimed she was extremely beautiful and shapely, and, unfortunately this did not help her cause. She was married to Isidorus.
In her poem, Diving into the Wreck, the American poet, Adrienne Rich, presents a challenge to women everywhere to recover the evidence of the brilliance of their lost “grandmothers.” For there are many great women like Hypatia whose stories still lie buried.
The title Diving into the Wreck is, in fact, a metaphor for the long and painstaking project to find the hidden evidence of women of the past and to recognise the price they paid for their resistance to the negative conditions of their environment. The truth is that we stand on their shoulders.
In a nutshell, Rich is struggling to find her way to reality, by blazing a trail through the myths of the past. We must achieve understanding, and in its wake, redemption. With Rich, we struggle to engage and become involved with our past and to discover the truth behind the names we barely know and to which we owe so much.
Despite the terrible trials for the women of the past, Hypatia’s life story is especially chilling, even though accolades preserved from her time are full of admiration for her dignity and virtue.
Hypatia was the daughter of the philosopher, Theon Alexandricus, (335-405 AD) and she was fortunate in that her father nurtured her intelligence and encouraged her to feel confident amongst her peers. He treated her exactly as other good fathers would treat their sons.
Theon’s progressive ways led to Hypatia attaining knowledge in science, logic and astrology; we remember her as the first notable female mathematician. She and her father followed in the footsteps of the great philosophers, Plato and Plotinus.
The following quote from the Ancient and Classical History website explains one of her great gifts to mathematics: “By writing a commentary on The Conics of Apollonius of Perga, which divided cones into sections by a plane, Hypatia made geometry intelligible to her students and ultimately transmissible to the modern world.”