In the humble beginnings of education, people who engaged in active learning were called philosophers (a word that means lover of wisdom). All genders had access to education, albeit men outnumbered women and one usually had to come from a family of status and wealth in order to enjoy the perks of formal tuition from a philosophy master.
Records indicate Pythagoras had at least seventeen women in his cult, and at Plato’s academy there were two. One does not have to be a master mathematician to see that the number of female learners decreased as time progressed. In turn, it is no surprise that a few decades later, there were no female students taught under Aristotle (see Is Aristotle Overrated?)
Ancient Greece was a mixed bag of philosophical beliefs, however, the dominant group (cult) of the Classical era were men who supported patriarchal values. As told by Aristotle, this was mostly based on the belief that men’s souls were more evolved than women’s (see below).
“… the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in any of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature”Aristotle, c.350, Politics, Book 1, part 8.
Neoplatonism Neoplatonist's (c.300BCE - c.400CE) follow a harmonisation of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies. In regards to gender, this is presents as a belief that males have more intellectual spirit and females have more emotional soul. However, it was not an absolute distinction like it appears to be in Aristotle’s thought - but I'm also mindful that perhaps Aristotle did not strictly see all men as being superior and it is only via interpretations and translations (or mistranslations) that it appears he was blatantly sexist. When Neoplatonist, Iamblichus (c.245 - 325 CE), describes gender he states that some men are more like women and some women are more like men. From this, we can extrapolate two things, firstly, to be described as being like a women had a derogatory inference (i.e., overly emotional, inclined to hysteria, and weakness of mind), conversely, to be described as being like a man inferred positive cognitive traits (i.e., rational, intellectual, and strong). Secondly, the human population has never fit nearly into strict binary gender stereotypes, there has always been variations. An additional third consideration, is that patriarchal societies that degrade females’ value and treat them as though they are an inferior species is a form of trauma. Contemporary trauma-informed psychological research confirms that all genders are susceptible to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Historically, PTSD was called hysteria and considered to be solely a woman’s disease. It is therefore possible that the patriarchal traditional of viewing women as “hysterics” is proof of constant trauma. Further, it could be possible that all women today carry generational trauma dating back to the beginnings of patriarchal cults. If correct, then it will take several more generations of consciousness healing for the true qualities of “femininity” to be known.
Prior to this time, during the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100 – 750BCE), evidence suggests women had more influence and freedoms. How and why patriarchy flourished throughout the Mediterranean region, is a controversial topic I’ll skim over; suffice to say, a woman’s role became typecast to that of a mother, and records of female philosophers like Themistoclea (c.600s BCE), Theano (c.600s BCE), Myia (c.500s BCE), Aspasia (c.400s BCE), Diotima (c.400s BCE), Hipparchia (c.300s BCE), and Leontion (c.200s BCE) almost disappear completely for hundreds of years. Did female philosophers not exist? Or were records of them not kept by patriarchal historians? Perhaps we’ll never know.
From about the third century BCE through to the third century CE there are almost no accounts of women philosophers. Then, at this point, we have Hypatia of Alexandria who was killed by a mob of Christians in c.415. Evidence suggests Early Christians believed in gender equality but after Constantine this attitude changed. More about this shortly.
The different schools of philosophy that operated in Classical Greece could be thought of as cults. Each one had its particular approach to learning that stemmed from a belief system. These included Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureans, Cynics, and many more. Further, each ideology can be traced back to an initiator, a charismatic leader who defined a belief system that followers demonstrated devotion to. By the way, each of those four examples went against mainstream cultural attitudes by believing, to some greater or lesser degree, that women and men were of equal standing in intelligence and/or soul qualities.
Vignette of women and Ancient Greek schools of philosophy
Hipparchia of Maroneia (c.350 - c.280bce) was a Cynic. Being a Cynic meant giving up possessions, wearing simple clothing, and self-sufficiency. They were concerned with ethics and living by virtue which was believed to be achievable by living naturally, adhering to reason, and being critical of conventions such as materialism, politicians, and temples that focused on money. One of the most famous anecdotes about Hipparchia is that of when she was antagonised by being asked why she was not partaking in the usual female activity of weaving, she confidently gave a reply that inferred she knew her own mind and did not submit to social expectations: ‘do you suppose that I have been ill advised about myself, if instead of wasting further time upon the loom I spent it in education?’
The Cynic’s were the forerunners to the Stoics who also believed in living naturally, although they were not as extreme. The founder of the Stoics, Zeno of Citium, advocated for equality of the sexes, which included coeducational public exercise and training.The Cynic’s historical precedence of equality and denouncing standard conventions for women has been used by feminists to demonstrated that patriarchy is not a ‘natural’ state that women have historically accepted.
According to standardised history lessons, under Hellenistic (c.323 – 32 BCE) and Roman (c.31 BCE – 476 CE) rulership women were almost entirely (often literally) confined to the kitchen and were expected to cook, look after children, and do needlework. Meanwhile, boys could be taught trades, agriculture, and statemenships skills of law, politics, and rhetoric. There is truth in this depiction of history, however, a history recorded solely by patriarchs cannot be viewed as accurate or complete.
For the most part, it was men who had the most access to education in the ancient worlds. Male academics were often also religious leaders and they congregated together in places like the Library of Alexandria to share wisdom (the ancient world’s Harvard or Oxford). This library was created by Alexander the Great (Aristotle’s student) and it was a hub of intellectual activity for Greeks, Jewish, Egyptians, and later, the Romans. Influential men like Euclid, Ptolemy, and Philo are affiliated with the library.
Cleopatra (c.69 – 30 BCE), the Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, is reported to have frequented the Great Library as well. Further, she wrote several manuscripts that were housed there; sadly, these have not survived.
The previously mentioned Hypatia was a much loved teacher at the library until her untimely murder. Through the example of Hypatia it can be inferred that it was not impossible for a woman to be educated. Hypatia had a lot of support from some males, like her father; however, to achieve such academic heights meant overcoming prejudices that her male counterparts did not encounter. In the end, Hypatia paid the ultimate price for making a stand against patriarchy.
Depiction of Hypatia’s Death
Source: Smithsonian Magazine