Many Pythagorean women mathematicians (and philosophers in general) are mentioned by Iamblichos or Suda. Some women were students of Plato, others were daughters of philosophers. None of their books survived. Some say because they were destroyed by Christians for example because of the Pythagorean religion.
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University of Arizona
Greek Women Philosophers
Women were able to contribute to the "search for wisdom" during the period between 800 BC and 500 BC in Greece. Greek women had virtually no political rights in the male dominated society. Although woman did receive some education, a woman's place was in the house, supervising the daily running of the household ("Women's Life"). Keeping the women inside made it almost impossible "for women of the 'respectable' class to pursue a profession" (Finnegan). Philosophy was a male dominated profession even less likely to include women "since its practice often involved the discussion of theories in groups or sects" (Finnegan). The minority of women who were able to enter the field of philosophy overcame subjugation and found great opportunities in education in order to learn to read, write, and think.
Greek women received their education either in the home or from well educated experts. Girls were educated in their homes in areas of reading, writing, arithmetic, spinning, weaving, embroidery, singing, dancing and playing a musical instrument (Olsen 10). Spartan girls received a formal education more similar to the training boys received (Roice). Respectable women were not talked about in public. It was taboo to even mention them by name (Finnegan). Therefore, proof of female literary production is almost non-existent. Many people have often interpreted the scenes of painted vases with women reading or writing to be ordinary women but they often are portrayals of Muses (Finnegan). With a low percentage of literate women, the few working Athenian women had occupations that "could hardly be described as professional careers, but rather, as the least condemnable means of earning a wage" (Finnegan). The women hardly came in contact with men because they were avoided as many believed that the women belonged in the home. For a woman, artistic or literary talents that could win her fortune and fame were necessary to acquire political rights and an intellectual life (Donahue). There were various women who were able to pursue a chosen career and achieve fame.
In a time when it was common belief that a woman's nature was different from man's but not of lesser value, some women were major contributors to the works of the Pythagorean school. These select women entered the Pythagorean society on an equal basis as men. Pythagoras, known as the 'Feminist Philosopher' because many of his works were influenced by various women, founded the Pythagorean school. Pythagoras was well respected and often men "gave their wives into the charge of Pythagoras to learn his doctrines" (Finnegan). After his death in a fire in the home of one of his daughters, his wife Theano became the director of the school. Their three daughters Arignote, Myia, and Damo were also educated at the school and helped to continue it's teaching.
Pythagoreanism described a harmony in the "cosmos" that exhibits order and beauty. Numbers could explain all things in the universe. Since numbers include both odds and evens, all things have a contradiction- light and dark, the limited and unlimited, good and evil, male and female. The reconciliation of these opposites creates harmony (Kersey 199-200). For human behavior, this was harmony resulted from behaving temperately or by exhibiting moderation. Most Pythagorean women's writings demonstrated that life was harmonious. The Pythagoreans also wrote on the principle of harmonia or "of all things that are." These philosophers directed their discussion of this theory towards women to explain the relationship "between marital fidelity, child-rearing, parental piety, religious worship, and public demeanor on the one hand, and the nature of [the woman's] soul, on the other" (Waithe 56). They also wrote letters to other females about various female behaviors and expectations- women's chastity, women's duties, and women's behaviors if their husband were to acquire a mistress. The content of these letters were topics "dear to the hearts of men" (Lefkowitz). Phintys, a female member of the Pythagorean community summed it up by saying:Now some people think that it is not appropriate for a woman to be a philosopher, just as a woman should not be a cavalry or a politician...I agree that men should be generals and city officials and politicians, and women should keep house and stay inside and receive and take care of their husbands. But I believe that courage, justice, and intelligence are qualities that men and women have in common... Courage and intelligence are more appropriately male qualities because of the strength of men's bodies and the power of their minds. Chastity is more appropriately female.
These women understood their place in society and while remaining within these boundaries, they carved out their names in history.
Theano was the most famous woman of the Pythagoreans. She wrote on the "number theory" and explained it as a principle to create order that helped to distinguish one thing from another. Her concept of imitation explains that when questioned about the nature of an object, one can reply "either by drawing an analogy between that object and something else, or. . . define the object" (Waithe 13). Things are like numbers because by their participation in the universe they can be sequenced with other objects and counted. It is important to credit Theano with writing about this in the 6th century BCE because it establishes her as the first literary representative of the Pythagorean philosophy (Kersey 2). An apothegm attributed to Theano concerns the immortality of souls, and the transmigration of souls. She verifies that the Pythagoreans believed in "divine justice", the afterlife, and the "transmigration of souls after death into a new body which was not necessarily human" (Waithe 13). In a harmonious universe, everything has a specific place and function according to some laws- the laws of physics, logic, morality or religion. If the soul is not immortal then it would disrupt the harmony because the perpetrator would escape punishment at the expense of those whom were wronged. Since the balance can be restored, when the guilty accepts punishment, souls must be immortal (Waithe 14). The mathematical proportion is once again proven as it is possible that the return to harmony can be achieved after an immoral act.
Theano also wrote about the ethics a woman should adopt in daily life. In her book, On Piety, she explained that men and women have different natures and a woman's special virtue is temperance (Kersey 200). Several of Theano's maxims expose Pythagorean attitudes towards women. It defined that a wife's sexual activity must be restricted to pleasing her husband. She cannot have any other lovers. If a woman has sex with her husband, she remains "pure," since "in the context of marriage, chastity and virtue are not identified with abstinence" (Waithe 14). But a woman can never be "pure" if she has sex with someone other than her husband. Her view of romantic love was that it was nothing but "the natural inclination of an empty soul" (Waithe 14). A woman's responsibility was solely to maintain law, justice and harmony in the home. A woman who did not abide by this contributed to the chaos and disorder of society. Theano thought that it is "better to be on a runaway horse than to be a woman who does not reflect" (Waithe 15). She meant that a woman must be conscious of her actions and the consequences within society. Although Theano was able to make great contributions to her husband's school and achieve success, she was well aware of the woman's place in society and felt strongly enough to maintain those ideals.
Pythagoras and Theano's daughters also contributed many philosophical beliefs. Damo was the daughter entrusted with the works of her father which she refused to sell and therefore, lived a life of poverty (Kersey 90). Arignote is credited with saying "the eternal essence of number is the most providential cause of the whole heaven, earth, and the region in between. Likewise, it is the root of the continued existence of the gods and daimones, as well as that of divine man" which exemplifies the belief that the universe is mathematical in nature (Kersey 43). She echoed her mother in saying that all things that exist can be distinguished through enumeration. Numbers identify things, and also express orderly relationships among things (Waithe 12). The essence of numbers relates to the harmonious existence of all things.
Myia included the woman's virtue of temperance in her works. She discussed applying the principle of harmony in the daily life of a woman through the care and upbringing of a newborn infant in her "Letter to Phyllis" (Waithe 15). She states that one who raises a child must be modest, well disposed and temperate and when it comes to feeding, clothing, and bathing the child, moderation is the key (Kersey 43). Hiring a nurse for these duties was considered acceptable but "the nurse must not be given to excesses of sleep or drink, and must moderate her husband's sexual appetite" (Waithe 15). The well being of the child must be the first priority to persevere the harmony and contribute to a well-raised child. Myia recognizes the importance of moderation in advice giving and limits herself while providing useful and applicable advice.
The Pythagoreans may have dominated the philosophical practice, but they were not the only ones. Other women of the Pythagorean sect include Themistoclea and Melissa. Themistoclea is historically the first woman called a philosopher. She was a priestess of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. As possibly Pythagoras' sister, she presumably delivered him messages from the gods concerning his ethical principles (Kersey 201). Not many details exist about Melissa but she is believed to be an original member of the Pythagorean sect. In a letter written to Clareta, Melissa states that when it comes to clothing, the only red color that should be worn should be that of modesty, such as blushing, since that is the color of virtue (Kersey 156). The Pythagoreans were not the only women philosophers in antiquity. Cleobulina who lived in the 600's BCE, wrote philosophical riddles. She is one of the first women mentioned in connection with Greek philosophy. She was also the mother of Thales, a cosmologist who is often referred to as the father of Western philosophy, who refers to his mother as "the wise one" which can be translated as a woman devoted to philosophy (Kersey 3).
The Pythagorean women faced the task of educating other women about living harmonious lives and creating justice and harmony in their homes. They used a more "realistic" approach to moral philosophy while male philosophers attempted to educate men about harmony in their souls and the state through an "ideal" approach. These tasks are different because the nature of men and women are different (Waithe 17). This proves the female importance in the home while men had the responsibility and power to make economic and political decisions. The Pythagorean women's approach sheds light on the status of women in the ancient world.
The ethical practices described by some of the women are an indication of the times. Theano stressed the importance of a woman's duty to please and accommodate her husband and Myia wrote about raising children. It also gives evidence to the suppression of women. It was common belief during this time that women belonged in the home and not out in society. These Pythagorean beliefs echoed the conditions women faced during 800-500 BCE and offered advice for others as to how to "survive" given the circumstances. The application of the principle of harmonia could help a woman decide what she ought to do and how she should act. Women lacked the political rights and social opportunities the men had, yet in order to be good and orderly they needed excellence. Wisdom was not an excellence considered necessary for a woman. Moderation was the appropriate virtue for women because with that they were able to love and honor their husbands appropriately. The social roles of this time period reflect the nature of both men and women. The roles of the Greek males were based on the political, economical and social aspects of society. Therefore, it was necessary for females to philosophize about the roles of women. These works were able to offer support and guidelines on how to live within the social structure and maintain the harmony in the home and the daily life as well as leave behind an understanding of the history of the status of women in ancient Greece.
For most women in ancient Greece, the opportunities to become educated were limited. Women had limited chances to participate in the educational, cultural, or political life of their communities. Not much evidence exists to prove that women were educated. Many of the writings that exist from the women who were able to use their minds and contribute their philosophical insight have been contested as forged or pseudonyms, but evidence now links their authorship to the women. Many of the Pythagorean works were published as collaborations making it difficult to trace personal authorship (Crock). Most women in ancient Greece never had the opportunity to venture out from the home away from their duties of managing household affairs. These women philosophers were indeed a minority in these ancient times.