“The pen is mightier than the sword,” is a truism that has stood the test of time. Nothing in history has been as powerful as the expressing of ideas, whether they were inscribed upon a clay tablet, piece of papyrus, vellum or paper. The power of words have endured and been pored over, analyzed and been celebrated. They leave a tangible record of the intangible thoughts of mankind and leave a trail that mock our beliefs in how “civilized” we are in our current Information Age.
Women, from the time that they were taught how to read and write have wanted to express themselves through poetry and prose, and they did, sometimes under noms de plume since only men tended to be published. It was a “man’s world”, after all, owning the printing presses and publishing houses.
Were there any women in antiquity who were brave enough to write? Yes, indeed there were. Not many, but the words of some have endured, such as Hypatia of Alexandria (Born circa 335 CE), the first known woman whose brilliance has left a legacy proving that a woman’s intellect was as good as a man’s. She was a philosopher and mathematician, subjects traditionally regarded as the sole province of male intellect. Another woman writer, Aesara, who lived in the same era, was a philosopher in the Pythagorean school. The only piece of writing which has survived is a fragment of an essay on human nature.Yet, these little pinpoints of light prove that despite the odds, women’s voices were heard, and their ideas contributed to the wealth of knowledge throughout the ages.
In the west, the Dark Ages, at the inception of the Christian era, saw the most brutal and efficient suppression of women; their voices, their ideas and their very presence relegated to the status of second class citizens. The women of the lower and middle classes in particular were devoid of status, education, property and financial independence. There were a few educated women whose works were published, such as the 12th century Azalais de Procairagues (France) and Ava of Melk (born in the 11th century, in Germany), to name but a few.
There is a common misconception that Muslim women were not allowed to receive any education. The truth is that they were allowed to study at madrasas and attend lectures. They were not permitted to enroll at these institutions, however. In other parts of the world we find Al-Khansa, an early Arabic poet who lived in the 7th century and converted to Islam after meeting Muhammed. She was told by a contemporary that she was the finest poet among “those who have breasts” and she supposedly replied, “I am the greatest poet among those with testicles too!”
In Japan, Akazome Emon (born in 956) , was a poet and historian, and in India and China there were many women writers prior to the advent of Christianity.
As the glimmers of light of the Renaissance began to penetrate the thick fog of male dominance, some poets such as Veronica Franco found a way to express her voice in the mid 16th century. There were a few others, like the French poet Madeleine de l’Aubespine, Isabella Andreini, the Italian playwright and poet and Juliana Berners, who wrote about hawking,hunting and heraldry (thought to have been born in 1388)
Mary Astell (1666-1731) is regarded as the “first feminist”, a woman whose rhetoric proved that women were as capable as men of reason and intellect. The notion had that “the gentler sex” were to be cosseted and protected, married off like chattels and then ignored had always existed, but the Chivalric Age had created false notions about womanhood (especially among the nobility) and the struggle to win back their self worth and their ability to be independent thinkers took centuries to be established.
The practice of educating women in all colonized parts of the world started with Christian missionaries of the 1800’s who took it upon themselves to educate the underserved members of society: the poor. Education has been the greatest boon to mankind, changing the way we see, feel and think, opening our minds to the possibilities that we all have the right to share our ideas.
Tell your story, write your book: we live in an age in which there is no excuse to be uneducated and ignorant!