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No. 213:
The Pythagoreans

Today, we meet some Greek feminist philosophers. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Nothing mirrors a society's attitude toward women more strongly than its view of their mathematical ability. Male-dominated societies have always discouraged women from learning mathematics. Some even forbid them to do so.

And that's why the Pythagoreans were so interesting. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras founded a scholarly community in Southern Italy in 539 BC -- a commune somewhere between a religious order and a university.

The Pythagoreans founded their philosophy on mathematics. But their mathematics embraced musical structure and other arts as well. Pythagoras won an important battle at his school's outset. He forged an agreement that women would be recognized as coequal to men in the order. His wife Theano was on the faculty.

Pythagoras himself wrote only a small part of the mathematics that we call Pythagorean. Theano was just one of many Pythagorean women who helped give us that large body of mathematics. She gave us the concept of the "golden section," which you might remember from your geometry class. She also wrote on physics, medicine, and even child psychology.

A century and a half later, Plato visited a Pythagorean order and later modeled his own Academy on it. He was explicit in saying that men and women are not just intellectual equals -- they're also intellectually alike. In his Republic Plato wrote,

The gifts of nature are alike diffused in both ...
all the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women.

At first that seems no more than a reasonable statement by a reasonable man. Then we learn that, by prevailing Greek law, women couldn't even attend public meetings in Plato's day.

The Pythagoreans lasted only until the middle 300s BC. But the Pythagorean respect for women's minds lingered in the Hellenistic world for seven hundred years.

On the surface of things, we've finally learned that women make fine mathematicians. We can point to people like Sheila Widnall, who just retired as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She's a distinguished applied mathematician at MIT.

Yet we still give girls shaky encouragement to study mathematics in high school. In some dark corner of our minds, many of us go on believing that women can't stand up to the rigors of mathematics. The saddest among us are the young women who are numbered among the bright people who buy into that myth.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1974.