The contributions of women were often downplayed or disregarded, particularly in ancient times. But history has shown us that a number of important women in ancient Greece helped to shape classic thinking and left their imprint on the culture. Many of them laid the foundation for the remarkable women who came after them and helped to blaze a trail for gender equality. Let’s take a look at a few of the notable women of ancient Greece and their contributions to the world.
One of the first female mathematicians, Hypatia of Alexandria (350-415 CE) was also a noted astronomer and philosopher. She oversaw the Philosophical School of Alexandria and was the librarian of the famous library of Alexandria. She often presented lectures on both mathematical and philosophical subjects, along with her father, the astronomer, and mathematician, Theon of Alexandria. Hypatia is even credited with developing the astrolabe, an instrument that was used to calculate the positions of celestial bodies. Hypatia was a proponent of Neoplatonism, a belief that sought to reunite abstract ideas with the tangible human. Many Ancient Greeks considered this philosophical ideology to be in opposition with religious beliefs and Hypatia was accused of engaging in witchcraft. She was stoned to death.
Hydna of Scione was a tremendous athlete. Coached by her father, Scyllis of Scione, Hydna (c. 500 BCE) was one of the best swimmers and divers of her day and was equal to or better than many of the male swimmers. Her skills came in handy during the Persian siege of Salamis in 480 BCE. Hydna joined her father in swimming unseen toward the ships in the Persian fleet. They cut the ship's moorings and watched them drift away. Some even crashed into each other and sank. The ensuing chaos bought the Greeks enough time to mobilize their naval forces and defeat the Persians. Statues of both Hydna and her father were dedicated to them at Delphi.
A courtesan in Athens, Phryne of Thespiae (370-316 BCE) gained notoriety for winning a court case by stripping off her top and showing her breasts to the court. A model and muse to artists of the day, the beautiful Phryne was charged with impiety stemming from her participation in an initiation ritual for the cult of Demeter. Defending her in court was her lover, Hypereides, who seemed to be losing the case despite praising the fine qualities and virtues of Phryne. In desperation, Phryne disrobed and loosened her hair to show the court how closely she resembled the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Her accusers were so taken with her extraordinary beauty that they acquitted her of all the charges against her.
The first known female midwife, Agnodice of Athens was from a wealthy family. In order to study medicine, she disguised herself as a man and learned the craft from Herophilus. Once her training was complete, she began to practice medicine, still hiding her true gender. She often helped women during the birthing process because male doctors refused to assist laboring women. She soon became so popular as a doctor for women that her fellow doctors accused her of seducing her female patients. She was eventually forced to reveal her true gender and was charged with practicing medicine as a female, but thanks to the testimonies of the wives of several Athenian statemen, she was acquitted of the charges. Her case helped to overturn laws preventing women from practicing medicine in Ancient Greece.
Aspasia of Miletus (470-410 BCE) is credited with establishing a school for girls and working to remove barriers to education that were placed on girls in Ancient Greece. A woman of incredible intelligence, Aspasia immersed herself in the intellectual culture of Athens and was often found in the company of many of Greece’s prominent writers and philosophers. So skilled was she at understanding complex material and explaining it to others so that they could understand it that she was often included in lectures and teachings. Her school for girls helped to show that the female brain was equally capable of advanced thought as a male brain.
In the fourth century BCE, Philaenis of Samos wrote a provocative work on etiquette for courting members of the same and opposite sex, which included information on lesbian sex position, ancient birth control and abortive recipes, and kissing techniques. Although her book was publicly condemned, it was still wildly popular. Almost every member of the elite class in Ancient Greece claimed to have read it. Sadly, no copies of the manual remain today. We only know of the book’s existence because it is referenced in many other works.
When the Spartans invaded Argos in 494 BCE, the city was all but in ruins. Cleomenes had sacked the city and decimated the army. Desperate to save what was left of her city, Telesilla raided the temples and armories for whatever weapons were left. She organized the women of Argos to don armor and take up the weapons and prepare to defend their homes. Cleomenes was forced to make a moral decision. Going forward with his attack would mean he would have to slaughter women. But if he allowed them to win, he would forever be known as the leader who was defeated by an army of girls. Cleomenes decided the best thing he could do was to walk away from the battle. Argos was saved by Telesilla and her women warriors.