Hypatia of Alexandria
By Cara Minardi
Paper given at the Graduate English Association New Voices Conference (2008)
Introduction: The forthcoming text entitled The Present State of Scholarship in Historical Rhetoric edited by Lynée Lewis Gaillet and Winifred Bryan Horner tells a single and clear story: scholarship in the history of rhetoric is sorely lacking. This is especially true concerning ancient women. There have been important and numerous contributions over the last twenty years to feminist historiographical research of all periods, however, the amount of work left to do in the ancient world is enormous. We have, in fact, barely scratched the surface of the ancient world and have recovered only Aspasia and Diotima from the fifth century BCE. However, as The Present State of Scholarship in Historical Rhetoric indicates, there is not another single historical woman of note between these Greek women and Hildegard of Bingen who lived between 1098- 1179.
So I asked myself, what does it mean that there is not a single woman of note engaged in philosophy or rhetoric for more than 1500 years? The obvious answer until now has been that women during this era were oppressed and the lack of primary materials by ancient women is an indication of the reality of their oppression. In addition, feminist historiography is especially painstaking work and requires an enormous amount of time, knowledge, and/or motivation. Then, of course, even when historical women are recovered, scholars of historical rhetoric can resist newly recovered figures as meriting canonical status within their own historical period, insisting that women recovered in our age are a product of contemporary rhetoric. These problems serve to constrain the material reality under which all scholars of historical rhetoric must function and produce their scholarship. But, there are other problems too, problems we don’t directly discuss.
One of the most important and impactful problems is in our ideology about historical women itself. The ideology is the one that tells us, assures us, requires us to believe that ancient women did not participate in philosophical or rhetorical tasks, except rare situations. In Politics, Aristotle tells us, “silence is a woman‟s glory.” St. Paul wrote, “women should keep silent . . . they have no permission to talk, but should keep their place as the law directs” (1 Corinthians 33- 34). In 1 Timothy (2:12) St. Paul stated he did not “permit women to teach or dictate to the men” In Moralia Plutarch states the Roman position on women clearly, “the two great duties of a virtuous woman . . . are to keep at home and be silent. For she is only to speak to her husband, as by her husband. Nor is she to take amiss the uttering of her mind . . .” By adopting Platonic/Aristotelian ideologies of women we have, in many ways, reconstructed the universal woman and the universal woman‟s condition in the ancient world as unvaried and universally oppressed.