A brief history of brainy women

By Khaled Diab

Where does Gail Trimble fit in the brainy 's hall of fame?

February 2009

Some men define themselves by which part of the female anatomy they prefer: breasts, legs, arse, etc. Personally, I'm more a brains and face kind of guy. I've always been attracted to intelligent women with beautiful facial features, and my wife ticks those boxes for me.

Gail Trimble, the grand boffin of University Challenge who seemed to have a Google implant in her brain, has ventured into relatively uncharted territory for brainy women: she has become a media sensation. Not only have her lightening reflexes and her supercomputer brainpower won her a legion of admiring fans, she has even become something of a sex icon, complete with an offer to pose for a lads' magazine – which goes to prove that there are lads out there who appreciate brains and not just ‘booty'.

However, not everyone was impressed, with some bloggers and tabloids railing against her for being “smug” and “superior”. Shockingly, the Daily Mash reported that, despite the protective shelter of the body of Christ (Corpus Christi), Trimble was to be burnt as a witch, apparently because she recites “the periodic table backwards in Aramaic while dancing naked in a circle with a murder of gigantic, two-headed crows”.

Of course, that's far-fetched satire today, but this fate was a real occupational hazard for some of the brainiest women of yesteryear. Take Hypatia of Alexandria, who has the dual distinction of being the first and last great female philosopher of the classical era.

The Hellenic polymath must have been well pleased with herself when she became the first woman to head Alexandria's Platonist school and, in that great Greek philosophical tradition, donning her scholar's robes, she toured the town engaging in public debate and interpreting the works of other philosophers.

However, trouble was a-brewing for Hypatia. Although she was well-admired across the Hellenic world, she had amassed powerful enemies in the nascent Church, especially in the shape of Alexandria's bishop Cyril. Eventually, her “pagan” ideas and were to cost her her life as an angry Christian mob waylaid her chariot and brutally murdered her. It is ironic that the first notable female scholar of the Greek tradition also became the last.

Hypatia is one of numerous brainy women through the ages whom I have become familiar with as part of a fascinating project – at least for me – I am co-operating on which explores the contribution women have made to over the centuries.

Based on the women I have researched, a certain pattern is discernible in their quest for success and recognition: they often had to become honorary men, they were forced into marginal areas of learning (which ironically often put them at the cutting edge of new ), and they quite literally felt compelled to be second to nun in their morality, foreswearing carnal pleasures and embracing chastity.

Hypatia, for instance, reportedly rejected a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags (tampons to us), claiming that this showed there was “nothing beautiful” about carnal desires.

Of course, it wasn't all black and white. For instance, the German philosopher, physician and composer Hildegard von Bingen, who was saintly in her ways although she never quite became a saint, was an abbess and, hence, a virgin, yet she was possibly the first European to have described the female orgasm (albeit in medieval terms).

In order to advance her career, Hildegard quite literally needed divine intervention: the visions she claimed to experience helped her to get around the medieval Church's restrictions on women preaching and practising philosophy and the sciences. Of course, I use the term ‘science' here loosely.

Although she was at the cutting-edge of learning for her time, the bulk of her work could only be described as superstition. For instance, a remedy she proposes for a hangover in one of her medical works involves dunking a bitch in water and drinking the resulting murky liquid. If any readers feel brave enough to try this, please report back on your findings.

Starting in the 19th century, things started to get decidedly better for women, although they still had to swim against a tide of prejudice. Believe it or not but the world's first computer geek was not a bespectacled, socially inept male teenager, but an English aristocrat of the female persuasion.

Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron who never met her erratic father, was a mathematical whiz-kid and the mother of all computer nerds. She is credited with having written the world's first ‘computer programme' for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine (the ‘first computer'). Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers”.

In the 20th century, women played pivotal roles in many of the newest areas of physics and chemistry. The most legendary is probably the Marie Curie, the only woman to win two Nobel prizes.

Despite advances in the status of women, however, some did not get the recognition they deserved. Rosalind Franklin is a prime example: her images of DNA were essential to the cracking of its now famous double-helix structure, but she did not receive a Nobel prize for it. Even James Watson, despite his dodgy views on race, agreed that she should have also got one. Unfortunately, Nobels are not awarded posthumously.

Even today, the glass ceiling is still around to a certain degree, but it is far smaller and more permeable and, at least in principle, it does not exist anymore.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 28 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the , and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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