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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Female polymaths

Why are there so few renaissance women?

People have been misogynists and claimed that "the ration of male and female geniuses is 8:1". There are several men with high IQ compared to women with high IQ. All the main scientists are men. All the polymaths anyone has ever heard of are men.
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Leon Battista Alberti, Aristotle, Avicenna, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Mikhail Lomonosov, Thomas Jefferson... The Wikipedia "list of people who have been called polymaths" include only a couple of women. Hypatia and Hildegard...

I think it’s more because of the idea of a “renaissance man” being someone like Da Vinci – a scientist and an inventor.

Queen Margrethe of Denmark is a polymath – speaking fluently several languages, being an artist, designer, illustrator, writing, translating books, and having other skills and interests she excels – and being a great queen with all the knowledge of social science; anthropology and history; economics, law, politics, even military science, like strategy and military history.


A lot of women are very good in many areas of life, that don’t count. 

Take an ordinary housewife. Housekeeping is an art greatly unappreciated. People seem to believe everyone can do that. Well… everyone can read, too. There are actually VERY few people who are GOOD at housekeeping. And an ordinary housewife also needs to take care of children, cook and bake, take care of the family economy (and some times that is as demanding as balancing the state economy :-D ), take care of the garden and house plants, even medicine and education… And many SAHMs and housewives are also masterly organizers, from parties to events to time managing and planning. As if this wasn't enough, we have the housewives, who have time and interest for other things too. We have housewives who craft – sew, knit, make cards or scrapbooks, (the art so demeaningly called "pottering"), we have housewives who are excellent photographers - but because they just photograph children and "women's issues", no-one cares. We have housewives who write, we have housewives who engage in social issues, we have housewives who have started a home business... there's an ocean of excellent bloggers who are also housewives. None of this is considered when it comes to thinking who is a polymath. Because none of these skills is appreciated or valued, and all of them are heavily underestimated.

Then there are the women who are beautiful.

Victoria Silvstedt will never be considered a polymath, because she is “just a playboy bunny”.  
Modeling is considered to be a worthless skill, and all these models who act, sing, design fashion and present – does any of that even demand any skills?
If you think it doesn't, I challenge you to do it.
(Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so if you don't think she's beautiful, you don't need to. Your personal opinion has nothing to do with the point I'm making.  
A woman considered an object will not be also considered a polymath.)

(I would like to point out that Victoria is a bit more than "just a playboy bunny". She is very good at three things: 1) modeling/singing/acting/presenting/etc. - 2) athletism (competing on national level isn't "just a hobby") - 3) languages (most people know only one or two languages. Victoria speaks Swedish, English, French and Italian well.)

Hildegard von Bingen is an example of a female polymath. She was a theologian, writer, poet, composer, artist, medical researcher, botanist, linguist AND at the same time she was being a medieval woman with all the necessary skills expected AND an abbess.

But - how many remember her when talking about renaissance people?
And if we forget HER, how many others are we forgetting?
I mean... take the French revolution, for example.
There's Olympe de Gouges.
No-one's ever even heard of her, have you? Why?
Because the "equality, liberty and brotherhood" was not extended to women.
Women were considered BIOLOGICALLY different from men, people were discussing if a woman even had a soul, the idea of women's rights was ridiculous. You could be asking for rights for Jews, slaves, protestants, peasants, the poor, but women? Women's place was to take care of the home and children, feed their families, and keep their mouths shut. Women were not to speak in public, women were not to own anything, women were not to be educated... not even taught to read and write. Women were good for one thing, and that was breeding. If a woman was unable to breed, the pitiful, worthless piece of crap could be of some use as housekeeper or a whore. Or both.
And this was the situation some 2000 years in the written history of mankind.  

Some 2000 years when a woman was not given any possibilities to get any basic education, any books to read, any paper to jot down notes and sketches.

What women thought of or invented, no-one knows. Unless this woman was to have a man in their lives, who actually listened to her... but if these ideas or inventions were made public, the credit was given fully to the man, and he was not about to tell anyone about the woman's part in it.

It is really a miracle that we know of Hildegard. I suppose the volume of her creation is too huge to be ignored or brushed aside as insignificant.

Just think about Hypatia.  Sure, be intelligent, be genius, be a mathematician and a philosopher with large crowd... be that. And we will see you won't.

But, the world has changed since, hasn't it? We have equality now, women are considered as equal human beings, equal to same achievements as men, equally talented, capable, intelligent?
Are they...?

Hunting modern polymaths: 20 living examples
All men.

And how is people like George Foreman on the list? Yeah... he was a boxer and then became a minister. Er...? 99% of all athletes of the world are then polymaths according to the idiots who created the list. First they have their professional sports career, and then they have another career when they get older and aren't that good at sports anymore. Oh, but he's a "grill mogul" as well! Yeah... he allowed his name to be used to sell grills, and even appeared in ads. Wow.

Or Michael Frayn. He has "four strings" in his repertoir. He's a writer, a writer, a writer AND a writer! Phenomenal! Such multitalented person! Such renaissance man, excelling in multitude of areas! Now, mark you that I am in no way criticising Michale Frayn. He is a wonderful writer, and it's truly admirable to be able to write several different... styles? But this is not a list of exceptional, inspirational, talented people. This is a list of polymaths. People who excel in several different areas of interest. Writing - how many different styles you ever write - is yet only one.

Or Umberto Eco. I adore Umberto Eco. I absolutely love him. But... "novelist, medievalist, semiotician, critic"... You could add sociologist to the list too. But it's all one field. He writes about what he is interested in, and he is interested in one subject - "the undercurrents of human mind as expressed in the sociological behavior of humans as a mass". It IS very fascinating. But if he is a polymath, so is every member of SCA and every other society of historical enactment.
And... even though that is sort of true, it makes being a polymath a vastly common phenomenon.  And I kind of don't think it is. I expect a little bit more... no, I expect a HELL LOT more of a person before I'm ready to classify him/her as a polymath.

Why isn't Marilyn vos Savant on that list? She's a writer and a mathematician. (According to the article's way of counting, she's a columnist, author, lecturer, playwright, philosopher, mathematician, economist and entrepreneur... and also a very beautiful woman.)






Added 28th of April, 2015
Other female polymaths mentioned in the comments or otherwhere

Mae Carol Jemison

 Maya Angelou
Mayim Bialik - neuroscientist, actress, at least bilingual

Gwyneth Paltrow - actress, singer, cook/food writer


Michelle Obama  well... I don't know enough of her. She is a lawyer, was in gifted class in school, is very active in promoting healthy life style, is married to the President and does her presentation job well... but is that enough? I don't think so.


Maggie Aderin-Pocock, engineer and space scientist - enough? I don't know. She's clearly a very intelligent and talented woman, seems like a nice person, and has achieved a lot in her life. A true ideal and role model. Polymath? I can't say.


Lucy Worsley "She is a British ( English ) Historian, Curator, Author, Television Presenter, and Cross Country Runner". Well... yes, that she is. I count her "historian/curator/author/television presenter" as being one talent, and being interested in cross country running... well... that's just a hobby, I think.


Tina Fey  - well... another one of those "it's practically the same thing". Actress, comedian, writer, different jobs within film entertainment industry...

 Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Dorothy Dunnett
Here's a very passionate presentation and argumentation of why she should be mentioned

17 comments:

Robert said...

I have to agree with you that Female polymaths are not recognised but then the historical reasons are very obvious and they are still present today.

Although i think you'll find that Hildegard von Bingen would make the top 10 known polymaths in history - people have heard of her.


However you just set the bar on the ground with Victoria Silvstedt - come on really?
For starters no-one would say she's a accomplished singer or actor or TV presenter or fashion designer - she has those roles purely because she was a model and got the right breaks at the right time - by that logic Victoria Beckham is a polymath and so is her husband.

Her only impressive cerebral quality is that fact she speaks multiple languages but even then she isn't a polyglot.

I mean seriously you just put her above of say someone like Mae Carol Jemison who is more of a polymath considering she was/is: astronaut, physician, teacher, scientist, humanist, (dancer), (producer), (actress) - admittedly a lot of those things overlap.

Lastly there's the issue of what defines a polymath. Some self-professed female "polymaths" such as: Doreen Rosenstrauch who have essentially lied about their accomplished traits are clearly not. By her standards even I'm a athlete, humanist, artist and scientist. Oh I've written one book (unpublished of course) as well but that would make me a writer and I blog once in a while so I'd be a independant journalist and philosopher. I play the piano put musician there in as well, and did a bit of amateur acting - actor as well, wrote some poems - so I'm a poet. Personally I think that would be called a dilettante.

The idea of polymath is that their level of proficiency is close to that of an expert or master, otherwise a lot of people with let's say well rounded interests would make that cut.

Ketutar said...

Hi, Robert :-)

Hildegard von Bingen is mentioned most often as a female polymath, I agree.

Victoria Silvstedt... It really doesn't matter why she has done what she has done.
But if you look at the list "Hunting modern polymaths: 20 living examples" which I linked to, Victoria Silvstedt would qualify.

Nevertheless, I didn't mention her as an example of a polymath, but more as critique of the lists of polymaths I managed to find online. Mae Carol Jemison isn't mentioned on any of them, neither is Doreen Rosenstrauch, and I hadn't heard of either before you mentioned them. Why? Because most lists of polymaths don't mention women. (Except for Hildegard and occasionally Hypatia.)

I also say "even though that is sort of true, it makes being a polymath a vastly common phenomenon. And I kind of don't think it is. I expect a little bit more... no, I expect a HELL LOT more of a person before I'm ready to classify him/her as a polymath."
So you and I agree on that.

And thank you for your comment. I'm glad to learn about Mae Carol Jemison. :-)

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think that women's participation through history was only obfuscated later on.
Evidence: I visited an exhibition in Nuremberg about craft guilds, and there were documents that listed women masters of the craft, who also participated in the decisions of the guilds.

Same holds for the alledged oppression of women by the catholic church. If you look closely at medieval history, you will find double cloisters (led by male AND female leaders), and you will find women as Hildegard, Elisabeth of Thüringen (founder of a cloister, reformer, queen of her country), Teresa of Avila (reformer of the Carmelite Order, abbess, philosopher, one of three women holding the title "Doctor of the Church"), and many more.

Ketutar said...

Thank you for commenting, Anonymous :-)

I'm sure you're right - to some extend. The reality was much brighter than we now believe.

I have also noticed the existence and influence of women in the Medieval Catholic church, and I know the status of women was much better than the Feminist herstory writers want us to believe.

In reality it started to get really bad in the 18th century with "enlightenment", and women were treated worse than during the Medieval times during the Victorian era and 20th century.

Also the idea of that Catholic church especially would be misogynist, when we know about Hildegard of Bingen, we know about the abbedissa who went to Rome to tell the pope off, and he obeyed, because she was right, we know of Birgitta and other Catholic women with as much power, influence and rights as any man.

Nevertheless, everything cannot be obfuscated.

We know that in the 18th century they were discussing if women are even human beings, and they came to the conclusion that "yes, but..." Women are emotional creatures, more like animals in their minds, just like non-white people.

We know that it took a very long time for women in the Western world to get civil rights, and that after a long and hard fight where people were being abused, mutilated, even killed just for saying women are just as much people as men... Very much like during the black suffrage... and we know Feminism is still needed.

If one looks at books or lists of important people, polymaths, Nobel winners etc. etc. and compares that to some facts we know today - that one cannot really find any difference in the work of a female or male scientist, writer, artist, philosopher etc; that the produce of our mind is equal - and we know that there is a slight overrepresentation of women in the mankind, the underrepresentation of women on all these lists cannot be explained with some clouding and hiding of facts.

Nevertheless, I'd like to find more examples...

Anonymous said...

It is because of men like Robert ,
*who don't even know how to spell and
*who are totally ignorant to facts and
*who are slendering a good name of any accomplished woman ,
that female polymaths are so underrepresented in history.

Mike Fuller Mike fuller said...

Dr. Mayer Angelou ( 1928 - 2014 ) who died recently was a remarkable American dark woman in the days when dark people in America especially women like women in the Middle Ages such as Hildegard von Bingen ( 1098 - 1179 ) were seen as a lower class of person. Mayer was a Poet, Writer, Actress, Director, and much else besides!!! A truly amazing woman!!!


Cheers - Mike ( Fuller )

Anonymous said...

To blogger Ketutar says so. Request to remove comments from Robert on "Female polymaths" February 27, 2013 at 12:17 PM: Defamation of characters.

Mike Fuller Mike fuller said...

Maya Angelou ( 1928 - 2014 ) was a dark polymath, being a great poet, a writer, film director and I think she was an actor to. Another beautiful dark female mind is Doctor. Maggie Aderin Pocock ( b.1928 ) who is a British space scientist of Nigerian parents, who was told when she wanted to go into science but due to her dyslexia a teacher said to her that she should try nursing as that is scientific to. She left school with 4 A-Levels in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Biology. She is a science celebrity, being an enthusiast, communicator and populariser of science, as she has given a television documentary on the moon, gives presentations on science, and co-hosts the famous long lasting BBC Television show 'The Sky At Night' with the intellectual Chris Lintot. And of course as mentioned above, she has a Ph.D. 'A truly intelligent woman who gives pride and inspiration to dark people and the CRAP about dark people them being less intelligent!!!


Cheers - Mike ( Fuller )

Anonymous said...

A lot of people who aren't necessarily educated possess many talents and could be considered polymaths. Most farmers in my country, in the first half of the 20th century at least, were proficient not only in agriculture, but also in carpentry, construction, animal husbandry, and many more skills that have been lost to urbanization. I would suggest "polymath" is a term that an academic elite likes to use to flatter itself, but if you consider the broad range of intelligences, academic polymaths aren't the only kind of polymaths.

Ketutar said...

I'm not getting any notifications of comments to this blog. I have tried several times to correct the settings, but for some reason I only get notifications from two Blogger blogs. I'm sorry I didn't notice the comments.

I am not going to remove anyone's comments, unless they are SPAM, because one can remove one's own comment, and I think people may well be responsible for the consequences of their own words.

I wouldn't remove Robert's comment in any case.

Firstly, I don't consider there being any defamation or "slender" in his comment, and even if there was, I consider him fully responsible for his own words and I think he does too.

Secondly, that people make spelling and grammatical errors is no reason to remove their comments or blog posts. Especially when I am not flawless in that respect. (Or you, anonymous. It's "slander".)

Thirdly, ignorance is not a reason to remove any comments, neither is the fact that some people choose to post as anonymous. If you find him ignorant of the facts, please state the correct facts and inform us of the truth. I will not delete your comment. Don't you think it would be better if the people reading Robert's comment could also read the correction of facts?

Ketutar said...

Mike, yes, you are absolutely correct :-)
Maya Angelou is/was a very accomplished and intelligent woman and should not be forgotten :-)
Thank you for reminding us :-)

Mike Fuller Mike fuller said...



Thank You, Ketutar!!!

Mike Fuller Mike fuller said...


Hi Ketutar!


I heard recently that Lisa Jardine ( 1944 - 2015 ), who sadly died of breast cancer recently, was a polymath, being a Professor of History, holding a chair in Embryology, as well as being brilliant at Maths and English, Writing Books, and like her father Jacob Bronowski ( 1908 - 1974 ), being renowned for being a Public Intellectual.


Cheers - Mike ( Fuller )

Love your pictures you've posted! Inspired by my, and other people's comments.

Mike Fuller Mike fuller said...



Other suggestions, -

George Eliot ( 1819 - 1880 )?, Victoria Wood ( b.1953 )? and Shobna Gulati ( b.1966 )?


Cheers - Mike





Mike Fuller Mike fuller said...


Professor Lisa Jardine ( 1944 - 2015 )

British Professor of History, held a chair in Embryology, Science Author, and a brilliant student a Maths and English who like her Mathematician and Polymath father J Bronowski ( 1908 - 1974 ), revered as a Public Intellectual.


Victoria Wood ( b.1953 )

British Comedian, Actress, Singer-Songwriter, Script Writer, and Director.


George Eliot ( 1819 - 1880 )

British Novelist, Poet, and Essayist, whose giant and great intellectual capacity was fuelled by the whole world. She is claimed by 'Buzan's Book Of Genius', mentioned in 'Buzan's Book Of Mental World Records' to have had a historical I.Q. of about 180 on the Stanford-Binet scale! which has a Stanford deviation of 16. on this scale 132 represents Mensa illegibility level! Due to the Flynn Effect this score today in 2015 would equate to 158 on the Stanford-Binet scale with a standard deviation of 16.



British

Anonymous said...

Try with Anna Maria van Schurmann. Painter, sculptor,poet, scholar and polyglot. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Hedy Lamarr might also count.

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