Women’s Power

(transcript from the DVD by Max Dashu. [Additional notes appear in brackets].)

Continued from Part Three


Merit Ptah

This inscription describes Merit Ptah as "chief physician." A text at the temple of Neith [mother of all the Egyptian gods and goddesses] refers to female medical instructors "at the women's school at Sais where the divine mothers have taught me how to cure diseases."

Agodice, circa 300 BC
In Athens, Agodice practiced medicine in male disguise. Legend says her practice was successful, until the men discovered her sex and condemned her to death. The wives of powerful men staged an unusual public protest and got the law against female physicians revoked. [All this from a Roman-era source, Hyginus, maybe not so historical, except for what it reveals about attitudes. In fact many Greek women enslaved by the Romans were skilled physicians and much in demand.]

Chinese acupuncturist

Chinese women practiced many forms of medicine, as herbalists, midwives, surgeons, and spiritual healers. This indigenous southerner is learning acupuncture by needling her own points.


This Gaulish funeral stela honored a female physician, identified by the title medica.  
In Rome, the priestesses of Bona Dea kept an herbarium with serpents where they healed people.


Female herbalists had a wide knowledge of barks, roots, leaves, and minerals used to relieve infection and pain--like this poultice of poppy to treat a headache--as well as medicated baths, sweats and massage.

Preparing herbs

Some healers traveled with their pouches of herbs and prepared potions at the sick person’s bedside. Of course all midwives made house calls! [Sick people also traveled long distances to be treated by famous healers.]

Witch counselor

While healing was one role of the witch, she also acted as diviner, contraception and abortion provider, and counselor. In the 1300s, some French and Italian witch trials accused women of helping battered wives and women whose husbands had deserted them. [as in the cases of Gabrina degli Albetti, at Florence, and La Cordiere and Margot de la Barre at Paris.]

Shropshire herbalist

Paracelsus and other doctors said that they had learned herbal remedies from wisewomen. In 1775 William Withering learned about digitalis from an old woman herbalist in Shropshire, who used foxglove to treat edema.

Miranda Stuart aka Dr James Barry, 1795-1865 (two images)
The only way Miranda Stuart could attend medical school was as James Barry. She became a skilled surgeon

and rose to become Inspector General of Hospitals. She was dedicated to public health, but her mouth got her in trouble, and so did her eye for the ladies. She was once wounded in a duel, but her sex was only discovered after her death. 

Mary Seacole, 1805-1881
The intrepid Afro-Jamaican Mary Seacole saved countless lives in epidemics of cholera and yellow fever in Central America, and on battlefields in the Crimean war -- under fire. She funded her practice by running hotels and selling supplies. [No British officials would fund her volunteer service. She treated wounded soldiers on both sides in this bloody war.]

Elizabeth Blackwell

Refused by dozens of American medical schools, Elizabeth Blackwell was finally admitted to Geneva Medical College in NY. She faced ridicule, catcalls, shouts that she should put on trousers. She graduated first in her class, but had trouble getting work. She founded the NY Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in 1857.

Matilda Montoya

Matilda Montoya became the first female doctor in Mexico. The difficulties she faced in breaking into the all-male medical profession contrast with another Mexican woman…

Maria Sabina

…the famous curandera Maria Sabina, whose Mazatec Indian culture posed no obstacle to women healers. Her medicine was wholistic, treating body and soul.

Bernice Torrez

Another successful medicine woman was Bernice Torrez, daughter of the great Pomo yomta Essie Parrish. In some parts of northern California, most of the Indian doctors are female.

Choctaw herbalist

American Indian medicine contributed many potent remedies to modern pharmacology, such as willow bark from which aspirin derived.

North Carolina: African American herbalist at market
Ancestors of this Choctaw herbalist taught the use of sassafras and other herbs to both European and African Americans.

Bulgarian midwives

In Europe, the common people continued to consult herbalists, charmers, and faery doctors. Midwives too were thought to have supernormal powers. In Bulgaria they were honored and feasted every year on January 6, like latter-day priestesses.



Enheduanna, an Akkadian high priestess at Ur, is the first author in the world whose name is known, around the year 2250. She composed many hymns, including the famous Exaltation of Inanna: [nin-me-sar-ra. Here she presides over a libation ceremony.]


The renowned poet Sappho, with her tortoise-shell lyre, was also a priestess of Aphrodite. Because of her love-songs to women, the name of her home island Lesbos was transferred to women who took female lovers: lesbians.

Arabian poets

Arabia had a rich tradition of female poets. They sang erotic songs in the passionate manner of the Song of Songs, and did satirical commentary on political events. They figured on both sides during the Islamic revolution: Asma bint Marwan and al-Khansa. [Female satirists were also much-dreaded in Ireland.]

Walladah bint al-Mustakfi, 1001-1080, or 994-1077, or b. 1011
In Cordoba, Spain, a thousand years ago, Walladah bint al-Mustakfi was born to an Ethiopian ex-slave and a caliph. She was a poet who held salons for poets and artists at her villa. She refused to veil or to marry, and took female as well as male lovers.

Tuareg amzad player

Tuareg women sang Saharan histories of mothers who journeyed across the desert and founded lineages, of ancient female drum chiefs and of love affairs. They also had …

Tifinagh 1

… a female script passed on from mothers to daughters, the Tifinagh alphabet, that  scholars think was derived from the Punic script of the Carthaginians. It’s shown 

Tifinagh 2
with its Arabic and English equivalents. There was another female script in the ancient city of Wagadu near the Niger bend, where writing “was the business of the women.” [according to Clyde Ford, The Hero with an African Face, 1999, p 123]


In Hunan province, Chinese women created strong ties with sworn sisters, who used a secret female script to support each other under patriarchal marriage. This Nüshu writing may be as old as the 3rd century. Three days after marrying, a bride received a book with notes from her mother and sworn sisters, and they went on exchanging messages [over the years].

Wei Fu Ren, d. 350 CE
Some women became expert writers of the classic Chinese characters. This is the great calligrapher Wei fu ren, she of the "iron strokes, silver hooks." [Another lady Wei was a great Taoist master who founded the Shang Qing school.]


It was Japanese women who created the first vernacular literature, since the men thought it was more prestigious to write in Chinese. This is the Heian poetess Ko-ogimi.


The world’s first novelist was lady Murasaki, a thousand years ago. Her Tales of Genji, a 58-volume book, is still being read, translated, and published today.


Savinirmadi was a 10th century scholar “learned in all the sastras.” She was a commoner in Karnataka, south India, who never married. She is preaching from a palm-leaf book. [The most famous woman sage of ancient India was Gargi, so highly esteemed that she was chosen as judge in a debate at a philosophic conference, according to the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad and other sources. See Kamat's Potpourri: the Women of KalaRanga, an excellent site created by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat, and the source for the Savinirmadi info.]

Sufi woman in Iran

Though women had far less access to learning than men, some found a way. This Persian painting shows a spirited discussion of two Sufis.

Marie de France, active c 1170-1205

Marie de France was one of the writers who introduced Celtic folklore into courtly European literature. Her poetry belonged to the courtly love movement which attempted to raise women’s status.

Christine de Pisane

The first European woman to earn a living through her pen was Christine de Pisane. Her book The City of Women listed female achievements over history. She protested the pervasive misogyny of her time, asking, “Why are men so unanimous in attributing wickedness to women?”


In 1600, Lucrezia Marinella also challenged woman-hating doctrines in her book The Nobility and Excellence of Women. She pointed out that it was a woman, the Delphic oracle Phemenoë, who first uttered the maxim, “Know thyself.”

Juana de Asbaje

The Mexican genius Juana de Asbaje had two choices: marry or go into a convent. She became Sor Juana de la Cruz so that she could write, but the bishop was determined to stop her. Her Respuesta a Sor Filotea defended women’s right to a life of the mind.

Doña María Bartola de Iztapalapa

Was an Aztec royal who saw the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán and the execution of her brother Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor. She wrote the first account of these events, which the Spanish burned [but an early Mexican chronicler refers to her history by name.]

Humishumi (Mourning Dove, Christal Quintasket) 1884–1936
overcame boarding-school abuse and a hard life in migrant labor to write several books. She faced huge barriers in publishing her novel Cogewea, the Half-Blood. Humishumi was an Indian rights speaker and activist who founded the Colville Indian Association.

Gertrude Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa
Another Indian activist and writer was Gertrude Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa, a Lakota who wrote several books, many political articles, and composed the only Indian opera, Sun Dance. [more below]

Cheyenne drummers
Going back to a much older style of music, these Cheyenne women are part of a larger worldwide group of female drummers.

Burmese harpist

There were all-female orchestras in southeast Asia and Indonesia. This harpist is from Burma.

Songhay drummers
Women drummers, like this Songhay court musician in Mali, played across Africa and elsewhere too.

Siti binti Saad

Some female singers gave voice to political protest. The taarabu singer Siti binti Saad courageously challenged the caste system in Zanzibar and a masculist judge who let a rich man get away with murdering his wife.

Sotiria Bellou

Another kind of defiance was lived out by Sotiria Bellou, a beloved Rebetika singer and an open lesbian who wore men’s clothes and short hair in Greece—from the 1940’s on.

Violeta Parra

Violeta Parra also composed songs that spoke out against injustice toward Indian people and against political repression in Chile.



The learned Xüan

Around the year 300, Xüan, “the literary and superior,” opened an academy where she lectured to men from behind a curtain. She is said to have preserved classical Chinese learning in turbulent times.

Maria Hebraea or Prophetissa

was a great Jewish chemist of antiquity, possibly Egyptian or Syrian, who invented many types of stills, reflux condensers and the double boiler--named after her, the bain-Marie. Here she is depicted in baroque Jewish dress with the mystical alchemical conjunctio. [Alchemists revered her although little is known about her beliefs, or anything much about her.]

Hypatia (370-415)
was an Egyptian astronomer, mathematician, and a famous philosopher who headed the great Neoplatonist school of Alexandria. She also invented the hydrometer and the astrolabe, which determines latitude by the sun and stars. She was a pagan with students of all faiths, and was a leading citizen of her great city.

Assassination of Hypatia

Hypatia’s courageous defense of the Jews against church-instigated pogroms and expulsions led to her assassination by extremist monks, who cut her to pieces and burned her body in 415. Only a few of her sayings survived. [One of them was: “All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”]


In the following centuries, an authoritarian church barred free-thinking women from teaching and preaching. It persecuted them as heretics, with prison, torture, and burning at the stake.

Kraków Academy

A few women sneaked into the all-male universities disguised as men. A Polish student was discovered and expelled from the university in Kraków during Copernicus’ studies.

Anna Maria van Schurmann 1607-1678
A handful of females overcame these barriers. The genius Anna Maria van Schurmann taught history and philosophy at the University of Utrecht and practiced medicine. She was also a linguistic prodigy, a talented artist [sculptor, painter, and glass-engraver] and wrote yet another learned defense of women. [Apologia for the Female Sex]

Emilie du Châtelet
The physicist Emilie du Châtelet predicted infrared radiance in her dissertation on the nature of light. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica is still the standard French version today [with commentary theorizing the conservation of energy.]

In her Institutions of Physics she advanced an equation [proving that a moving object’s energy is proportional to its mass and the square of its velocity] foreshadowing E=mc2.

[A German man tried to claim credit for her work, and many were ready to believe him.] She protested to the Academie Française that they should not look at her as an appendage of some great man… “I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone, for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do.”

Mary Lyon
In 1837 the chemist Mary Lyon founded the first college for women, Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts.

Polish chemist

Female students surmounted daunting obstacles as they began to enter universities in the 1800s. [Shown here, an unknown Polish chemistry student.] The mathematician Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya was barred from attending Russian universities, and overcame tremendous difficulties to receive a degree. [She had to contract a fictitious marriage to get to Germany, and then convince professors to let her study. Even with a degree, she faced severe discrimination; no one would hire her, and when they finally did, they withheld her pay. (This painting depicts a Polish chemistry student, not Kovalevskaya.)]

[For more on the hostile reception to women entering universities, see Women's Access to Higher Education, which shows that the process of opening up major universities did not get under way until the late 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th. Male students rioted at Cambridge and Harvard attempting to prevent female admission, and an English preacher called one early women's college "that Infidel Place."]

Mileva Maric

In Serbia, the brilliant Mileva Maric was the first female student at her science school and went on to Polytechnic University in Zurich,

Mileva and Albert
where she became friends with Albert Einstein. They formulated theories together, and she introduced him to key research from her studies in Heidelberg. Russian physicist Abram Joffe saw the original 1905 papers of the theory of relativity, signed by both Maric and Einstein. [Shown, a later draft of this theory.]

General Theory
And Einstein’s own letters to Maric attest to their collaboration. [In 1901 he wrote her, “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion.”]

With the kids
But pregnancy ended Maric’s scientific career, and Einstein became a dictatorial husband. [He ordered Mileva to speak when spoken to]. Finally he left her in dire straits with their mentally ill son [whose violence she contended with for the rest of her life] her gifts wasted.

Shakuntala Devi
From early childhood Shakuntala Devi showed brilliant powers of calculation. She can mentally multiply trillions within a few seconds.

Ms Tseng

Some women dedicated their lives to educating girls. Ms Tseng turned down an offer of noble marriage, and remaining single, founded a school for Chinese girls.

Kartini (1879-1904)
Kartini Solo loved to climb trees, but when she turned 12 her noble Javanese family confined her to the house and ended her schooling. But she read voraciously and wrote letters about women’s rights. [Against her wishes, her family arranged her marriage to a man with three wives.] She founded the first school for Indonesian girls, open to all classes [but died in childbirth at 25].

Saudi teacher

Female rights to education has been a key issue for feminists globally, defended by Malak Hefni Nassef in Egypt and by Begum Roquia in Bengal. [She founded the first Muslim girls school in Bengal, against stiff opposition demanding that girls be kept home. Her sister was also an ardent feminist.]

Susie King Taylor

Gender was not the only obstacle. U.S. slave laws punished Black literacy, so Susie King Taylor learned in secret. She escaped slavery, became a nurse in the Union army, and taught black people to read and write. [soldiers, and later emancipated adults and children.]

Alaska natives

Education is also key to conserving American Indian language and culture, as this Athabaskan teacher is doing in Alaska, and in survival schools around native North America.

Aboriginal schooling

This goal is shared by indigenous people around the world, including aboriginal Australians fighting to preserve one of the oldest living cultures, going back over 50,000 years.


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