A golden age of female achievement, buttressed by an acceptance in the sacred sphere, is now largely unknown.
The female of the species is more deadly than the male, cautioned Rudyard Kiplingâ. Given Kipling’s love of mythology and prehistoric studies, he should perhaps have added “and smarter”. Because of all deities of wisdom across the globe and through known time, the massive majority—97%—were (or are) female. Mankind, for the vast span of human experience, has worshipped at the shrine not of the god, but the goddess, of wisdom.
Flesh-and-blood women, it seems, have managed to draw strength from this fact.
Women were often accepted as the prime educators in their communities but individuals also exploited the currency of sacred wisdom with surprising results. Religion is an easy target for accusations of repression and misogyny but achievement in the sacred and therefore socio-political sphere was often an option for women, thanks not to brawn, but to brain.
Take Theodora, the empress of Byzantium—the world’s first monotheist empire—who capitalised on the wisdom she was rightfully allowed to wield. Wisdom had already been memorialised in sensuous, female form in the Old Testament in the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs. And Theodora, who started life in the gutter as an erotic dancer, would end up ruling with “wisdom’s lilies” woven through her crown.
Soon after her coronation, Theodora incarnated the biblical understanding of wisdom as the ability to make sound judgments and she legislated furiously—introducing safe houses for prostitutes, outlawing pimps and introducing new penalties for rape. The Justinian code—the system of law she developed with Justinian, her husband and co-ruler—underpins much of European law.
Islam too recognised the key role women should play in implementing God’s instruction “to seek knowledge”.
Hadiths—sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad—recommended this as an activity for both women and men. Not only did Muslim women frequently found schools, but also one of the first recorded universities in the world—the Qarawiyyin University in Fez—was built in the ninth century by a Muslim Tunisian woman, Fatima al-Fihri.
For the past 25 years Muhammad Akram Nadwi, from the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, has been researching the role of female Muslim scholars. His tally of names reaches 8 500 to date. Particularly in the very early years of Islam, and again in the 12th century as a reaction to the threat of the crusades, women preached in the great mosques of Damascus, Medina, Cairo and Jerusalem.
The story was the same the further you travelled east. We eagerly discuss the educating vigour of the “tiger mother” today. Wait till you meet the premiere Asian matriarch—Wu Zetian, who in the seventh century used the power of words and belief to win out.
By rights Wu should be a household name, her achievements were so remarkable. But within decades of her death her memory had been slandered and physically eradicated and her memorial stone at Qianling in China’s Shanxi province has been left blank.
Consider what Wu achieved. She invaded Korea and Tibet; reformed the administrative system of the Chinese empire; provided Buddhism with a warm embrace when its influence was waning across the Indian subcontinent; and, vitally, she was a patron of printing 700 years before it arrived in Europe.
Determined to promote Buddhist ideas (and word of her power) throughout her vast territories, which reached from outer Mongolia to the Pacific ocean, she ordered the mass production of 84 000 Buddhist texts.
Written out of history
She was also the first imperial ruler to see the potential of printing technology in successful, sacredly tinged statecraft. For centuries Wu has been commemorated only by remote communities of Buddhist monks. To this day, at dawn prayers in Famen-Si monastery, they still chant the poetry she composed.
Men came to resent the liberty that learning afforded women like Wu and chose not to record these case studies in official histories. Religious institutions, with the patterning of those early goddesses of wisdom still in their DNA, were more confident about allowing women to be wise.
In the seventh century the monk Adhelm praised nuns under the care of the abbess of Barking who “gathered knowledge from law, histories and scripture as bees gather honey”. Again and again we find similar examples, up until the 12th century.
This golden age for women’s sacred wisdom was, though, short-lived. Once universities, rather than religious orders, were established as the key repositories of learning, women would find it ever harder to prove the pen as mighty as the sword. They were excluded from the university system; in Cambridge they only gained degrees on an equal footing with men in 1948.
Buttressed by an acceptance of female wisdom in the sacred sphere from the beginnings of organised religion 12 000 years ago to late antiquity and beyond, key women used wit and the power of the word to change the world around them.
No little irony that these same women do not now enjoy the name recognition that they deserve, because they have been systematically written out of history.—