Thursday, 13 May 2010

Women in the new Parliament?

Some interesting statistics on the New Statesman website - link in title.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day Post: Hypatia of Alexandria

March 24th is Ada Lovelace day, a day when bloggers the world over pledge to write a post celebrating a woman in technology and science, in honour of Countess Ada Lovelace, nineteenth-century mathematician, the world's first computer programmer, one of very few people to understand Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine and foresee its implications for science and society. (This little animation explains the Enchantress of Numbers herself for a young audience.)

In this post, therefore, I am not going to talk about Lovelace herself, but about another historical woman mathematician, Hypatia of Alexandria (murdered by a Christian mob in 415 C.E.). A note: Ada Lovelace day is supposed to provide female role models for women and girls considering a career in science and technology. Many of my colleagues in both the information technology and the science fiction worlds are women who would make inspiring role models, so it may be perverse of me to choose a historical figure instead. However, as a historian I am probably more qualified to talk about a figure of Classical Antiquity than I am any contemporary scientist, so I make no apologies.

First a historical caveat: most persons from the ancient world who were not political or military leaders are known primarily through their written work (whether they be poets, historians, philosophers or scientists), and ancient biographies of these people were often written in later antiquity by biographers who used anecdotal snippets to show how their subject's life influenced their work (or, if you prefer, who used details from their works to invent the life stories that influenced them). These biographies are notoriously unreliable. In the case of Hypatia, in addition, her death occurred at a time and in circumstances that led her to be written about within a tradition of martyrology and religious conflict, and so the biographical information relating to her is perhaps even more prone to invention and elaboration than would otherwise be the case. In this post I shall be less interested, therefore, in the "facts" of her life than in the meta-biographical information that these biographies preserve.

Hypatia was a Pagan philosopher and mathematician, daughter of Theon, a mathematician attached to the library of Alexandria. She wrote commentaries on works of mathematics, philosophy and astronomy (including the existing version of Ptolemy's Almagest), and is said to have invented the hydrometer. In a time of political and religious strife, she was attacked one day in the street by "a multitude of believers in God", stripped naked, dragged through the streets to the church, flayed with broken pottery, and her body parts burned. Different biographers speak of this murder with outrage or approval, but the details are more or less the same in either case. Martyrs, whether Christian or Pagan, tend to be murdered in grisly ways, and it is typical that the slaying of women would include stripping naked and the defilement of the body.

According to the Suda entry on Hypatia:
In addition to her teaching, attaining the height of practical virtue (πρακτικῆς ἀρετῆς), becoming just and prudent (δικαία τε καὶ σώφρων), she remained a virgin. She was so very beautiful and attractive that one of those who attended her lectures fell in love with her. He was not able to contain his desire, but he informed her of his condition. Ignorant reports say that Hypatia relieved him of his disease by music; but truth proclaims that music failed to have any effect. She brought some of her female rags and threw them before him, showing him the signs of her unclean origin, and said, “You love this, O youth, and there is nothing beautiful about it.” His soul was turned away by shame and surprise at the unpleasant sight, and he was brought to his right mind.

Several typical features here: (1) the virtues listed are commonly attributed to philosophers and other moral figures, and while σωφροσύνη (prudence) is perhaps a stereotypically female, practical virtue and justice are just as appropriate for male philosophers and lawgivers; (2) that a female philosopher with such virtue should be a virgin may be especially typical of the late antique period, but the idea that virtuous women should not be sexualized is common to many patriarchal societies (and even those sources who claim Hypatia was married rather tenuously insist she remained a virgin); (3) the inventive story of the philosopher putting off a potential suitor with the unpleasant (ἀσχήμων) sight of her sanitary towel is an interesting mix of male discomfort with the menstrual function (which was considered ritually unclean in the ancient world--menstruating women were barred from many temples and sanctuaries), and admiration at Hypatia's resolution and creativity in preserving her "virtue".

This post may seem more a catalogue of historical sexism than a story of an inspiring role model. On the other hand, what we have preserved here is not merely a story of a martyred woman like Saint Perpetua or Catherine of Alexandria, whose fame is that they were cruelly tortured (details of which torture are lovingly dwelt upon by their martyrologists) and rescued and/or rewarded by God for their virtue, but rather a record of a woman who was respected in her lifetime for her intelligence, learning, virtue and leadership abilities, and whose works continued to be read long after her death, and some are still the standard texts in use today. In an age when women had far fewer rights than men, could not hold public office, were usually less educated, and were held to different standards of virtue and behavior, that was quite an achievement and should be an inspiration to women in science and technology everywhere.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Paternity Leave?

If you read the article from the Independent linked in the title of this post, you may agree that it looks as though attitudes have shifted little since the 1970s. Of course the inequality of pay between men and women, and the current fear of losing a job must also be factors. I do know many 'hands-on' dads now, as indeed I did way back when.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Women and public sector job cuts

From Left Foot Forward, an article which includes interesting stats about women working in the public services.

I should like to add that women are also disproportionately represented in low-paid jobs, such as cleaning and caring agencies, once public and now private.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Boys and girls and science

I've only just picked this article up, from BBC website, May 2009. According to an OECD study of 15-year-olds, girls in the UK lag further behind boys than in many other countries. Indeed in some countries such as Greece and Turkey, girls are ahead.

Monday, 8 March 2010

NYT blog about women who work harder than men

One of many snippets appearing in the press today - It's 100 years since IWD was established, but (I think) next year is the anniversay of the first march. Must check this info!

The same blogger puts forward his three important steps to improve the situation of women in the world:
1. education
2. deworming (!) and micronutrients
3. Support for women's businesses

Programmes on Women's Movement BBC4

Oh my, just watched a programme on BBC 4 with so many of the women who were active in the 70s (Greer, Millett, Rowbotham, Marilyn French, Susan Brownmiller) - so much has changed, yet so much hasn't.

There are programmes all week.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Trans inclusion at "women-only" events

For a powerful discussion of the important issue which is the need to make explicit the inclusion of trans-women in feminist events, especially those events that are designated women-only, see this post at The F-Word. Especially where women-only events or demonstrations are safe spaces for protests about violence against women or children, it is important that trans-women know they are welcome and safe there too, since this is neither a given nor always obvious.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Women in Space Program

A few months ago I came across this article (via Wired):
I don't know whether the physiology is interesting in the context of that scientific discipline (I certainly don't find it particularly surprising that women were just as qualified as men for even a very physical job), or if this is considered a quirky historical story. Nor is it especially surprising that women were preventing from taking part in this high profile, prestigious and dangerous work at a time when women were unable to take active service in the military in most countries (not that this is something one should necessarily aspire to, but it's one of the most discriminating employers even today).

What I did find interesting (if not unusual) was the way that even when this particular group of women, the Mercury 13, had been allowed to take the tests, and had proved themselves as individuals, and had shown that in many categories (especially tolerance to sensory deprivation and claustrophobia) they were categorically superior to males in the same category, excuses were made to deny them the right to participate in the space program. From the unproven (menstruation will interfere with their ability) to the Catch 22 (only experienced test pilots, a career from which women are already barred, may qualify); men set the goalposts to get the results they wanted in the first place. Plus ça change...

Anyway, if you're a bit of a space geek like I am, this is a cool story.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Feminist Science Fiction

This month's issue of the speculative fiction magazine The Future Fire (which I co-edit) is a Feminist Science Fiction themed edition, featuring five stories that focus on sex and gender, women's issues, strong female protagonists and other socially aware literary themes. TFF is a free online magazine that focuses on social, political and speculative fiction, and also runs a Reviews Blog.

The Feminist Science Fiction themed issue was advertised in early 2009 and called for stories that focus on "gender, sexual identity and sexuality; stories that take the "radical idea" [that women are human beings] and do something about it; stories that can engage, empower, educate, and inspire men and women alike." As always, only the most excellent stories, that were both useful and beautiful, would be published. In the end there were so many great stories submitted that the "feminist science fiction" issue was split into two parts: in January this year we published the first issue focused on sex and gender, women's issues and strong female protagonists. In March we shall publish the follow-up, with several stories focused on sexuality and gender identity, GLBT issues; the "Queer Science Fiction" themed issue, if you will.

All of the stories in this issue are wonderful, I can say without hesitation. They are also beautifully illustrated. If you read them, we'd love your feedback and comments--all of the authors and artists deserve your support.

Related links:

What do Muslim women want?

The question is rather disingenuous, since the category 'Muslim women' contains many different groups of women, whose opinions (and dress) vary as much as 'Christian women'.

But Salma Yacoob, a Muslim woman and Birmingham city councillor explores some of the issues in this article in today's New Statesman.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Afghan Women's Writing Project

About a month ago I came across the Afghan Women's Writing Project, a website designed to give a voice and an international platform to women writing in Afghanistan, which is even now one of the most difficult countries for women to live in. The blog posts one or two pieces of writing a day, from creative writing or poetry to personal stories and accounts, and I find a lot of the writing simultaneously moving, heartbreaking or horrifying, and surprising, warm and hopeful. Alongside the testaments to abuse and repression and lack of freedoms are stories of hope, of women supported and encouraged by both male and female relatives, of people simply keeping hope and education alive even under the Taliban.

The story that first brought my attention to this site was "I am for sale, who will buy me?" via calls to try and save this young teacher of English from being sold to an abusive relative by her Talib brothers. But this same piece contains the story of the father who taught his daughter at home when it was illegal for her to go to school, who bought her books and encouraged her to learn and, later, to teach.

Others stories shared on AWWP include a profile of a female karate instructor, a girl whose letter to her parents persuaded them not to marry her off at 14 but allow her to enter higher education, a harrowing tale of escape from vengeful Taliban, and many other stories. As I say, both sobering atrocities and simple hope populate my news feeds in the morning thanks to this site. It's an excellent, eye-opening project.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Global Health blog by Sarah Boseley

The title here links to this Guardian blog, started 25 January 2010. It has a story today about money going towards developing a microbicide to protect women against HIV caught from heterosexual intercourse. Not there yet, but it may be a more practical way for some women to protect themselves, rather than asking their partner to wear a condom.

IMF works toward cancelling debt in Haiti

From Johann Hari in today's Independent

... something new and startling happened this month. For the first time, the IMF was stopped from shafting a poor country – by a rebellion here in the rich world. Hours after the quake, a Facebook group called "No Shock Doctrine For Haiti" had tens of thousands of members, and orchestrated a petition to the IMF of over 150,000 signatures demanding the loan become a no-strings grant. After Naomi Klein's mega-selling exposé, there was a vigilant public who wanted to see that the money they were donating to charity was not going to be cancelled out by the IMF.

And it worked. The IMF backed down. It publicly renounced its conditions – and even said it would work to cancel Haiti's entire debt. This is the first sign that exposing and opposing the IMF's agenda works. Klein says it is "unprecedented in my experience, and shows that public pressure in moments of disaster can seriously subvert shock doctrine tactics." Of course, the IMF needs to be watched vigilantly. Already it seems to be rolling back some of its panicked initial rhetoric and saying that "beyond the emergency phase" it may go back to business as usual. Very powerful interests want the IMF to continue to dance to their tune.

Not specific to women - but see post by Djibril below:

Thursday, 4 February 2010

European Women's Forum in Cadiz

This opened in Cadiz on Feb 3 2010, concentrating on combatting Violence against women. Calling itself Beijing +15. Co-hosted by Harriet Harman and Spanish Minister for Equality, Bibiana Aido, and also proposing regular meetings, and measures to encourage high-level participation by women.

I can't find a reference in normal UK press, so -

Otherwise I found it on Canal Sur info page:

It's a pre-forum for the UN meeting on 1 - 15 March 2010.

Roller derby - a woman's sport

Alas, not one I'll be taking up now, but it looks fun -

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Friday, 29 January 2010

Suffering of women in Haiti

From the Amnesty International blog today:
In 2008 Amnesty produced a report highlighting that sexual violence against women and girls in Haiti is particularly rife and that the government should pay greater attention to stopping these abuses. With the quake shattering Haiti’s already fragile infrastructure, the risk of sexual violence being carried out with impunity may well increase.

The post ends:
The situation for women and girls is often forgotten about in times of disasters and crises and yet it's these people who are often the hardest hit. The international community cannot simply keep tacitly accepting this. Let's hope that for this crisis, the rights of women and girls are central to Haiti’s reconstruction and development efforts.

Many links in the original post worth following for background and opinion. We should not be picking on Haiti at the country's lowest point, of course, but this is an issue that is bigger than any one country. When a people suffer, their women suffer most.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Feminist things for 2010

From the Guardian, Viv Groskop's article on the Feminist Year ahead. Just noting this for future reference