Discussing women seems no easy task. Poets, singers, philosophers and historians have attempted to do so from ancient times right up to today. Woman has held a unique role in the mystery of primitive deities as well as on church altars. Goddess, muse, girlfriend, lover, wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, niece… working hard from dawn till dusk in all areas of life, she will always provoke words, because she makes up one half of humanity.
Either perceived as fragile or as having surprising vigour, women emerge through history as a catalyst for life, and thus as the centre of the many other lives that make up community. Is there anyone who cannot recall a woman in their lives? Who does not have a woman in their lives? Is there anyone who so lacks humanity that they were not born of a woman? Even God became human and was given birth to by a woman!
And yet, despite her inescapable presence, no one has been more condemned, harassed, plundered and rejected. And, at the same time victorious, in control of herself and her destiny. She rises up from all the ruins and builds her destiny with a song of peace. Her history means that she knows the value of peace better than anyone, she needs peace in order to live her life and share with her family, friends and the community.
Women who have built spaces for dialogue
Since the beginning of time woman’s presence has been a cornerstone, not only of human biological development, as the uterus of life, but also in her capacity to create spaces to nurture, talk, create and recreate a world where people can live in peace.
If we look at Greek history we can observe women who stand out in certain areas of knowledge. Here are some examples of women who have transcended history:
Sappho of Lesbos, the poet, who was also known as the tenth muse, owing to the beautiful verses she composed. She lived in 6th century BC, and although at this time women were relegated to gynoecia, Sappho built peace through her poetry and her poetic production, her verses were recited at weddings and public acts. Her work as a poet allowed her economic independence and gave her recognition within her society.
Hipatia of Alexandria was an extraordinary woman; she was a philosopher, mathematician and philosophy teacher. She lived in 4th century BC. She was head of the neo-platonic school of Alexandria, where she dedicated herself to teaching and intellectual activity, taking on the important role as tutor for a select group of contemporary aristocratic thinkers.
Socrates Scholasticus said the following about her: “She achieved such a high level of culture as to supersede all other philosophers of her time. Heir of the Plotino neoplatonic school, she would talk about philosophical sciences to anyone who wanted to hear. As a consequence whoever wanted to think in a philosophical way would travel from far and wide to find her. However, in addition to knowing about philosophy she also worked tirelessly for mathematical sciences.”
Another outstanding woman from the Greek world was Aspasia of Miletos, she was Pericles’ hetaira (companion or escort), who was a rhetoric and logography teacher. She held great influence over Greek society in the year 3 BC. In Menexen Dialogue Plato points out the oratory excellence of this woman, who many people from Athens went to see in order to be taught about rhetoric, also suggesting that she taught Pericles oration and other topics.
The Dialogue also indicates that she was Socrates’ teacher, her status as an hetaira, and independent woman gave her the opportunity to take her place in intellectual circles that were otherwise exclusively reserved for men. In Pericles Life Plutarch tells how the strategist from Athens fell in love with Aspasia more because of her intellectual merits than her physical charm.
Well-known philosophers would meet in Aspasia’s house, including Socrates himself and other artists, poets and medics to enjoy the pleasure of debating with her. Some even brought their wives along so they could hear her speak. Some say that Plato based the character of Diotima on Aspasia in The banquet, who taught Socrates the true nature of mystical and philosophical love.
In the Middle Ages we find Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine nun who lived in 12th century AD, she was a doctor, writer, musical composer, mystic, poet and abbess. She is deemed the patron of linguists and novices, as well as being the first German woman biologist.
Hildegard von Bingen stood out for her independent decision-making, sharp intelligence, mystical vision and her imperturbable drive to work at achieving the things that she perceived to be her duty.
The proof is in the pudding. In spite of the limitations placed upon women through history and culture, from ancient history up to modern times, they have transcended the barriers imposed by the prejudice and narrow-mindedness of their times and opened up spaces for dialogue, social interaction and friendship, a perfect context for nurturing hope and germinating peace, both in the past and today.
It is for this reason that, despite the gynophobia and personal insecurities belonging to political, religious and economic leaders of all times that has driven them to want to cast women’s actions into anonymity, women have taken on their role as active citizens and intellectuals. From ancient times to modern day, female activity is like water that flows through the dykes of intolerance in search of new spaces for dialogue and expression of ideas, in order to create a better world.
Women in the 21st Century
Statistics show that the population of the world is approximately 6,911,133,600, with roughly 264,000 births every day. 3,428,196,000 of these are women. Meaning that 49% are women and about 3,482,937.6, or 51% are men.
This data shows us that approximately half of humanity is female. Such a revelation makes it clear that to go forwards with any project without knowing the important role of this collective and without hearing their ideas and voices would be naïve. Such authoritarian behaviour only adds to the creation of an abyss that does not allow understanding between humans, be they female or male, and this is even more the case when we are talking about building peace.
The 21st century requires harmony, collaboration, understanding and a lot of peace, and hence, women such as:
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu). After working as a teacher in the Sisters of Loreto school, she decides to dedicate her life to the poorest people in the world and travels to Paris to study nursing. In 1960 she founds the Missionaries of Charity Congregation and works with the unfortunate people who inhabit the streets of Calcutta and other cities in India. She is granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work for the good of humanity.
Rigoberta Menchu, activist for the rights of indigenous and rural working communities in Guatemala, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her fight to defend human rights. Michelle Bachellet, pediatrician, former minister of health and defence before becoming the president of Chile in 2006. These women, through the example they give and their dedication towards peace building, have contributed towards human cohesion and made the world a less hostile place for the people who inhabit it.
The effort made by these and many other women, whose history and lives it would be impossible to include in detail in this article, are the symbol of hope that we need in this world. These women of today, along with the labour of the women of yesterday and since the beginning of time, have nurtured and treasured peace, like a gift for future human generations, they show us that as long as women are risking their lives to build spaces to germinate peace, the world is worth living in.
Alina Bello (Teacher)
Dominican R. - Santo Domingo