Comets and Uppity Women

woodcut comet image, Comets and Uppity Women

Comets and Uppity Women

Comets and Uppity Women. The thought might arise these two things have little in common, but Bathsua Makin said,

“A learned woman is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief whenever it appears.”

Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism?

I recently read an article in The Guardian about a study of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies conducted by anthropologists at University College London. I still need to track down the paper the article was based on. The Guardian quoted one of the authors of the study as saying, “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

Anthropologists for a long time have puzzled over why while people in hunter-gatherer societies show strong preferences for living with family members, in practice few closely related individuals make up the groups they live in. The study focused on computer simulations based on the assumption people would chose to populate an empty camp with their close kin– siblings, parents and children. When the choice was male dominated, the simulation showed a pattern closer to male-dominated pastoral or horticultural societies. When the choice was more sexually egalitarian, a pattern closely resembling the observed pattern of the contemporary hunter-gatherers emerged. And each hunter-gatherer group has far flung connections with many different hunter-gatherer groups.

The authors of the paper make a case for sexual equality as an evolutionary advantage for humans because then early humans would have had wider networks to interact with. With the advent of agriculture, our species skewed towards male dominance.  Agriculture brought with it the opportunity to accumulate possessions and wealth. It also meant groupings with men living with their brothers. The men’s wives were at the fringes of the group. A man’s children and relatives would be more numerous than the relatives within the group of any adult female member. And women lost their voices.

Losing Our Voices

Women lost their voices and many were forgotten through history. How many other Boudica lead armies? What female leaders and advisors’ names have been lost? What tales of adventuresome women are no longer told? How many inventive women’s engineering accomplishments were ascribed to men? How many women writers’ works have been lost? Can we continue with only a portion of the story? Can we survive with only a portion of humanity’s possible contributions?

Women in History and Feminism

I don’t have time or space in this one post to write a history of feminism. There have been powerful women, strong feminine voices, and human females all through out history. And not all of them are famous like Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt before Egypt became a Roman province. Or Queen Elizabeth I who was the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Most of the women in history who were accomplished, outspoken, adventuresome, powerful or extraordinary in other ways are not routinely mentioned in history books. I have written posts about several of them in the past on this blog. Women such as Ching Shih, Ada Lovelace, Grandy Nanny, and Queen Nzinga Mbande.

Further, there is a tradition of female intellectual resistance to oppression and repressive cultural norms that goes back centuries and includes women such as Christine de Pizan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and many others. I opened this post with a quote from Bathsua Makin.

Bathsua Makin

Bathsua Makin was the daughter of a schoolmaster named Henry Reginald. Bathsua’s father was enlightened in an age when it was considered that girls should only learn “feminine” arts such as dancing, singing and needle crafts. He trained his daughter in classical and modern languages. Bathsua Makin wrote a book of poetry at the age of sixteen that included passages in Greek, Latin and French.

During the seventeenth century in English culture, women were subject to men. Family, education and religion were all male dominated institutions. Queen Elizabeth’s reign shook things up and women had enjoyed more freedoms during her lifetime, but with the ascendancy to the throne of James I previous societal patterns returned. With one exception, Protestantism encouraged everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, including women. More women were taught to read. While women were relegated to the private, domestic sphere where they were under the governance of the men of the household, there was an undercurrent to challenge norms. While it was lauded for a man to publish his writings and take on a public voice, women were scorned for such an action. And still women such as Makin published.

Makin’s life was never easy. While she was considered “England’s most learned lady”, she struggled financially. Her husband, Richard Makin, was a minor court servant. When he lost his position, Bathsua petitioned for a position and was successful. She was a tutor to Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Charles I, and taught the girl mathematics, reading, writing and languages. After the death of the princess, Makin tutored Lucy Hastings, Dowager Countess of Huntingdon.

The Whole Nation Advantage

Makin understood the power of educating women. For ten years she ran a school at Tottenham High Cross. She advocated for teaching women a broad range of subjects including mathematics, history, science and languages. Dying at the age of 75, her life may have influenced many others in small and important ways. It’s hard to know what the impact of her work was in its totality. She wrote that educating women would give “the whole nation advantage”.

Comets and Uppity Women

It has been a while since I wrote about women through history who did unexpected, extraordinary, revolutionary things. Everybody needs role models. I feel society has taken steps backwards towards less egalitarianism and moved towards being more male dominated. In my opinion this development hurts our species. The challenges of our current time period require all the talent, hearts and minds available to us. As women we need to know women before us pushed boundaries, spoke out, and contributed. If writing about these women is mischief, then I will strive to be a maker of such. Look for another post next Sunday.