CELEBRATING INTELLIGENT WOMEN
The University Challenge sensation Gail Trimble is not the first intelligent woman to face prejudice and slander
Some men define themselves by which part of the female anatomy they prefer: breasts, legs, arse, etc. Personally, I’m more a brains and face kind of guy. I’ve always been attracted to intelligent women with beautiful facial features, and my wife ticks those boxes for me.
Gail Trimble, the grand boffin of University Challenge who seemed to have a Google implant in her brain, has ventured into relatively uncharted territory for brainy women: she has become a media sensation. Not only have her lightening reflexes and her supercomputer brainpower won her a legion of admiring fans, she has also even become something of a sex icon, complete with an offer to pose for a lads’ magazine – which goes to prove that there are lads out there who appreciate brains and not just “booty”.
However, not everyone was impressed, with some bloggers and tabloids railing against her for being “smug” and “superior”. Shockingly, the Daily Mash reported that, despite the protective shelter of the body of Christ (Corpus Christi), Trimble was to be burnt as a witch, apparently because she recites “the periodic table backwards in Aramaic while dancing naked in a circle with a murder of gigantic, two-headed crows”.
Of course, that’s far-fetched satire today, but this fate was a real occupational hazard for some of the brainiest women of yesteryear. Take Hypatia of Alexandria. The Hellenic polymath must have been well pleased with herself when she became the first woman to head Alexandria’s Platonist school and, in that great Greek philosophical tradition, donning her scholar’s robes, she toured the town engaging in public debate and interpreting the works of other philosophers.
However, trouble was a-brewing for Hypatia. Although she was admired across the Hellenic world, she had amassed powerful enemies in the nascent church, especially in the shape of Alexandria’s bishop, Cyril. Eventually, her “pagan” ideas and gender were to cost her her life as an angry Christian mob waylaid her chariot and brutally murdered her. It is ironic that the first notable female scholar of the Greek tradition also became the last.
Hypatia is one of numerous brainy women through the ages with whom I have become familiar as part of a fascinating project – at least for me – I am co-operating on, which explores the contribution women have made to science over the centuries.
Based on the women I have researched, a certain pattern is discernible in their quest for success and recognition: they often had to become honorary men, they were forced into marginal areas of learning (which ironically often put them at the cutting edge of new knowledge), and they quite literally felt compelled to be second to nun in their morality, forswearing carnal pleasures and embracing chastity.
Hypatia, for instance, reportedly rejected a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags, claiming that this showed there was “nothing beautiful” about carnal desires.
Of course, it wasn’t all black and white. For instance, the German philosopher, physician and composer Hildegard von Bingen, who was saintly in her ways although she never quite became a saint, was an abbess and, hence, a virgin, yet she was possibly the first European to have described the female orgasm (albeit in medieval terms).
To advance her career, Hildegard needed divine intervention: the visions she claimed to experience helped her to get around the medieval church’s restrictions on women preaching and practising philosophy and the sciences. Of course, I use the term “science” here loosely.
Although she was at the cutting edge of learning for her time, the bulk of her work could only be described as superstition. For instance, a remedy she proposes for a hangover in one of her medical works involves dunking a bitch in water and drinking the resulting murky liquid. If any readers feel brave enough to try this, please report back on your findings.
In the 19th century things started to get decidedly better for women, although they still had to swim against a tide of prejudice. Believe it or not, the world’s first computer geek was not a bespectacled, socially inept male teenager, but an English aristocrat of the female persuasion.
Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, who never met her erratic father, was a mathematical whiz-kid and the mother of all computer nerds. She is credited with having written the world’s first “computer programme” for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (the “first computer”). Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers”.
In the 20th century, women played pivotal roles in many of the newest areas of physics and chemistry. The most legendary is probably Marie Curie, the only woman to win two Nobel prizes.
Despite advances in the status of women, however, some did not get the recognition they deserved. Rosalind Franklin is a prime example: her images of DNA were essential to the cracking of its now famous double-helix structure, but she did not receive a Nobel prize for it. Even James Watson, despite his dodgy views on race, agreed that she should have also got one. Unfortunately, Nobels are not awarded posthumously.