March, Hypatia, and a Case for Optimism in Tech Culture

March 8 was International Women's Day. Some celebrated. Some scoffed. Some lives are so tough that calendars mean little. In the U.S., a Presidential Proclamation highlights the entire month of March; it's an eloquent document with compelling reminders of sacrifices made, achievements earned, brutalities endured, present and past, by women. The genderless, luminous being attached to my beautifully gendered identity and sexed body laments the necessity of these kinds of declarations.

But, I would use any tool, including "March," to spell out history and reality in the public forum, in a persistent attempt to stop vicious patterns from repeating themselves. I remain certain that an honorable alien trying to understand humanity, Googling rape statistics alone (much less employment disparity), would marvel in disgust at such mass carnage against body and soul and agree with Thomas Hobbes: What nasty, brutish, and short lives those humans lead! Zap them and put them out of their misery!

Hang on, alien (and anthropologically-minded friends), hang on.

Let's look at a woman, an example of a life, and find a reason for optimism. She's marked on our calendar at the office, an office full of decent, intensely smart, fast-car-drivin', software engineerin' men, whom I would never relegate to some pre-defined box. She's noted there, not out of jest, but out of deference and admiration. March is for Hypatia of Alexandria. The 8th was the anniversary of her death, almost 1600 years ago, as recorded by Socrates of Constantinople in the 5th century of the common era.

Quite a life you led, Hypatia. A patron pagan saint of computer science, precursor to Admiral Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Carol Shaw), and to many esteemed, unsung women in mathematics and physics. Primary sources are limited, but we know her contributions were key in development of the astrolabe and hydrometer. We know she provided an improved technique for complex division. We know she wrote an astronomical canon, a commentary on conics, a mathematics treatise, and that she frequently was sought to referee works of philosophy.

Consider early accounts of Hypatia from two very different kinds of men:

"There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius [AD 415]." Socrates of Constantinople, Ecclesiastical History (VII.15) 5th century CE

And, two centuries later:

"And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city [Orestes] honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom....And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house....And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate-now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ-and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tare off her clothing and dragged her through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him 'the new Theophilus'; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city." John, Bishop of Nikiu, The Chronicle (LXXXIV.87-88, 100-103), 7th/8th century CE

Right then. How divergent the perspectives of Socrates and John. And, the divergence isn't so much a function of time. John is championing Bishop Cyril's perspective, Socrates is championing the perspective of Bishop Synesius of Cyrene and other men of the Library.

There's a stereotype about the ancient world that zeros in on Athenian practices, some 800 years before Hypatia, and extrapolates that all women of antiquity were subjected to Taliban-like tactics. Well, as the quotes imply, yes and no. Women of legend and real women were fighters and slaves, lifted and oppressed. Some notable men were rancid, some were profoundly empathetic. Catullus unapologetically elevates Sappho to "famous male" status; Sophocles, Euripides, and Vergil are arguably feminists. Yes, really, give them a read. The ancient world is a complicated place. Broad strokes are too simplistic.

By Hypatia's time, the unraveling and transitions in religious truths are so heated, the resentment against science so bold, the invasions and corruption on the northern side of the Mediterranean so prominent, that Rome collapses. The Empire falls in the West. And, the rich traditions of "pagan" philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and physics-traditions bound to intellect and discovery of the universe above all else, enough so to allow a woman to rise on her merits through the ranks of the great Library-suffered too.

Hypatia is relevant because we play out the same love-hate drama century after century. She lives in every generation, everywhere. She can be especially close to the heart of a tech community, men and women alike, because she's our kin in studied inquiry and computational invention. Today, we don't rip apart the flesh of bright, assertive women with oyster shell roof tiles in a literal sense, but the incumbent question is: do we figuratively rip apart that woman still? ... and why? As Socrates of Constantinople noted, nothing good can come of it.

NPR's Tell Me More and other media outlets are celebrating March with "Women in Tech" series. Catharine MacKinnon is still pioneering next version legal frameworks around gender disparity, with her earlier work adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, World Court, and sovereign nations. A torch like Shanley Cane rightly burns, acutely pointing out to the wired set what many women have in other sectors: that men have got to get down to the real business of working with other men against patriarchy in technology. A man has to convince another, very different kind of man that the future is better without vicious patterns, that nothing good comes of dragging your sister through the streets, overtly or subtly.

Days ago, Radia Perlman discussed her pioneering journey through tech for The Atlantic. The interview is full of earned wisdom and the conundrums of working with two kinds of men. She observed, "... I was not good about making a big deal out of what I did. My designs were so deceptively simple that it was easy for people to assume I just had easy problems, whereas others, who made super-complicated designs (that were technically unsound and never worked) and were able to talk about them in ways that nobody understood, were considered geniuses." Thank you for your perseverance, Radia, and to the men who saw your genius and let it fly.

Happy Hypatia Day and month of March, everyone.

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