“Nevertheless She Persisted”

Recently, we saw a male US senator silence his female colleague on the floor of the United States Senate. In theory, gender has nothing to do with the rules governing the conduct of US senators during a debate. The reality seems rather different.

The silencing of women ordinarily entitled to speak has often been the case during times of deep political acrimony. In March 415, a mob in the Egyptian city of Alexandria attacked and brutally murdered the female pagan philosopher Hypatia. Their grievance was a simple one. Hypatia had inserted herself into a conflict between Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, and Orestes, the Roman governor in charge of the region, that had degenerated into city-wide violence. Hypatia was working with Orestes to resolve this incredibly tense and dangerous situation. To Orestes, collaboration with the philosopher Hypatia was a prudent step consistent with longstanding Roman tradition. To Orestes’s detractors, however, Hypatia’s gender and religion marked her as an outsider. She had intruded into a public controversy where she did not belong.  Her voice needed to be silenced.

This murderous anger erupted against Hypatia despite the fact that Roman philosophers had been involved in moderating public disputes for centuries. The Roman world had long respected the wisdom and rationality of these figures. Since the late first century AD, everyone from Roman emperors to local city councilors accorded philosophers the freedom to give uncensored advice on public matters. Many philosophical schools came to expect that philosophers would be actively involved in guiding their home cities and fellow citizens. Hypatia herself had long played this role. She had hosted many Roman governors, Alexandrian city councilors, and important visitors at her home. She had also regularly given advice to these men in public.

Capitol Senate
Image Credit: Capitol-Senate, 25 May 2007 by Scrumshus. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

No other woman in early fifth century Alexandria had earned such access to power. Male authors were quick to explain that Hypatia’s influence resulted from her temperance and self-discipline, virtues they felt a woman who interacted regularly with such prominent men must possess. These men spoke at length about Hypatia’s virginity, even repeating a rumor that Hypatia once warded off a prospective suitor by showing him a used menstrual napkin. They clearly understood that Hypatia had to surrender some of her privacy in exchange for this extraordinary level of access.

Hypatia had earned this influence, but her position was fragile. It depended on a group of men continuing to agree that a woman should be given the sort of authority usually reserved for them. Hypatia might expect this recognition to endure during times of relative calm, but the tensions of 415 had produced toxic political dysfunction. Neither the bishop nor the governor trusted one another—and their supporters looked for someone to blame. For Cyril’s partisans, Hypatia was the perfect choice. She was a powerful outsider who suddenly seemed to exercise influence that far exceeded what a woman should. As tensions increased, discussion of why exactly a woman played so prominent a role started to emerge. Rumors spread that Hypatia’s influence with the governor came from sorcery not philosophy. Soon it was said that she had caused the entire conflict with the bishop by bewitching him. It was a short leap from there to the decision by Peter, a devoted follower of Cyril, to assemble a mob to silence Hypatia. While Peter likely planned only to use the threat of violence to intimidate Hypatia into silence, mobs are not easily controlled. When they found Hypatia unprotected, their anger became murderous.

Thousands of Roman philosophers, both famous and forgotten, played the same sort of public role as Hypatia in the first five centuries of Roman imperial rule. Only Hypatia was killed by a mob. It is impossible to say what role her gender played in her fate, but it is also difficult to deny that being a woman made her a target.

This points to a crucial and uncomfortable truth. It is far easier for societies to acknowledge and honor the achievements of prominent women during times of political calm, although, even then, publicly-engaged women endure scrutiny their male counterparts do not. During times of social stress these female leaders are often targeted in ways men are not. And yet, whether in fifth century Alexandria or twenty-first century Washington, these women do not stop speaking. Hypatia was undeterred by the slanders that made their way through Alexandria in the winter of 415. She continued playing the public role her philosophical convictions demanded. Her heroism in doing so stands unacknowledged by her male contemporaries. But this does not make it any less real. Hypatia had been warned repeatedly that her influence could be challenged, perhaps violently. Nevertheless, she persisted.

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