Chapter 1: The Nature of Women - Part I
Beauty, Brains, and Spunk!
If you think that Divas of today have challenges in being allowed to excel at whatever they wish to achieve, you will be astounded to learn that in ancient times, women were expected to behave like delicate and beautiful flowers with no intelligence, abilities, or skills other than bearing heirs, serving their husbands, and household management! Oh, and they were also event coordinators, throwing tea parties and dinners every now and then.
But women were seen (and not heard) in art, sculptures, pottery; and there were poems written about their beauty as men remained completely and helplessly taken by the female form. You see, women were seen as beautiful and precious objects, treasures to be protected, owned, and flaunted as symbols of a man’s power and influence. So our only purpose was as living accessories to be worn across a man's arm, or displayed in museums!
Throughout the ages and across many cultures, ideas of what ‘beauty’ looks like have evolved and differed vastly! In some regions of China, in ancient times, women’s feet were crippled during childhood! The reason is that they were to appear tiny and unnaturally pointy! This is the form of a woman’s feet that was considered to be most appealing at the time. So, for a thousand years, millions of Chinese women had to bind their feet with cloth or silk to make them small, pointed, and as tiny as possible. This was considered to be a mark of sophistication and beauty in medieval China. These tiny feet were referred to as the “Golden Lotus”, considered to be the gold standard of beauty in China.
During the colonial era (1789-1815), a Khoikhoi or Hottentot woman from Southern Africa, by the name of Sarah Bartman, was captured and exhibited as a freak show attraction, due to her prominent buttocks, full bosom, and wide hips! She was also referred to as the Hottentot Venus! She became the object of both fascination and ridicule amongst the conservative slight-figured European societies.
Indeed, women have had to endure admiration, abuse, and torture based entirely on their physical appearance! Is it any wonder then that women and girls have developed all kinds of eating disorders and psychological challenges based on their self-image? Do we really need to talk about the multi-million-dollar “nip-tuck” industry, whose clientele has expanded to include the younger demographic in their numbers in recent years?
Women currently make up just under half the population of the world (49.58%). Nevertheless, according to the award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster, Dr. Bettany Hughes, only 0.5% of women were highlighted in history books and documents! And it is not that women are vapid creatures with no purpose. We have tons of great qualities and achievements of our own. Therefore, our valuable and noteworthy contributions to all aspects of life on the planet should be found in history books everywhere.
There are not enough books out there that tell us what women have done in society since ancient times, and I think it’s about time we offered fellow badass Divas the full scoop about what actually went down in history and what we have done to shape the world. I want you to learn just how powerful and inspirational women really are.
As Michelle Obama so aptly said in her book, Becoming (2018), “If there is one thing I learned in life, it’s the power of using your voice.” To this end, I have decided to voice my appreciation of some of the Badass Divas in history that deserve a spot in the history books.
The Power of Women
Women are every bit as strong as men in almost every aspect of life! There are even female heroines in our history that have shown that our female qualities and skills do save the day. So, you don’t have to shy away from being a woman just to be taken seriously in a ‘man’s world’!
Embrace your feminine qualities for they help make the world go around! Just as it takes two hands to applaud, it takes both men and women to share the roles, responsibilities, and pleasures of this world. If a woman were to behave more like a man just to be taken seriously, who would then take on the ‘feminine’ roles in this world? Terms like ‘tomboy’, are viewed as a compliment while ‘sissy girl’, is derogatory! In a world where gender identity has become so fluid, these outdated terms have gone the way of the dinosaurs! Extinct!
Historically, women have been great healers, artists, wild women, and have even been deified into goddesses! We are going to learn about our female powers from women who have used theirs to light up the world in their particular field.
Who do you go to when you have a tummy ache or when something hurts and you don’t feel well? My guess is Mom (or some other loving woman in your life). And, I bet Gran has remedies that work better than any medicine from the drug store!
Women have natural qualities of healing and nurturing. We tend to have a deep interest in the different properties of herbs and even take great pleasure in growing them! Women, in history, would also train other young women in the ancient art of healing. They learned the skill of using the bounty from Mother Nature, the ultimate female healer of all time, to make medicines and remedies to cure all sorts of ailments.
Women were nurses and midwives through the necessity of bringing life into this world. They had to ensure that children grew healthy and well. Medicine women had to travel far and wide to bring relief to the sick and ailing. The history of medicine women goes back in time beyond ancient Egypt.
The High Priestesses of Isis were well-versed in the secret art of healing. It was believed that they got their healing powers directly from the Goddess herself. Egypt had been quite advanced as a civilization and Egyptian records reveal that there were actually female students enrolled at the royal medical school at Heliopolis in Cairo, Egypt as early as 1500 BCE! This is huge! Most of the world viewed women as weak and simple-minded in those times!
Over time, power and glory seemed to overshadow society’s intelligence in ancient Greece where it was believed that women had to be subservient and men had to take on a more dominant position in society. So, by the 4th century, women were forbidden to practice medicine in the region. However, a brave, badass Diva named Agnodice believed in herself and her calling as a doctor regardless of the rules. So much so in fact that she actually disguised herself as a man and attended medical school! The things a girl’s got to do to make a difference in the world!
Agnodice specialized in obstetrics and gynecology, so she became popular with all the female patients who had finally found a doctor who understood women and their healthcare needs! As it is with most deception, however, Agnodice’s real identity was discovered. As you can imagine, the outrage of the men resulted in her immediate arrest. She was put on trial for practicing medicine illegally!
But the women of Athens protested loudly against the punishment of Agnodice. So much so that not only was she acquitted, but the law was changed as well! Women were allowed to practice medicine once again. This teaches us what we can accomplish when we stand together as sisters. It also teaches us that our work speaks for itself despite all the challenges we may encounter, or what anyone says we can’t do.
Saint Fabiola was a fabulous Roman Diva who gave her heart and soul to serving the sick and dying. She belonged to a wealthy family, the gens Fabia. Although nobody can pinpoint the exact date of her birth, she died on December 27, 399 which is also her feast day.
A fun fact is that the word ‘faba’ in Italian translates to ‘bean’ and Fabiola translates ‘bean grower’. When we think about the seeds of medical care that Fabiola tirelessly planted in Rome in the 4th century, we can consider her name to be quite fitting, don’t you think? While she did contribute much of her wealth to the church, she spent most of her money on creating the first hospital and hospice in Rome.
But her life was not rosy. She married an abusive and vicious man who made her life intolerable. Even though divorce was and still is frowned upon by the Catholic Church, she had no choice but to divorce her first husband. Fabiola found love and married her second husband before her first had died. After husband number two died, she decided to make peace with the Church.
It was from then that Fabiola’s life became dedicated to the service of the sick and the poor. She used all her considerable wealth in this effort, building a well-designed hospital in Rome—the first of its kind in the region. Her life revolved around the needs of the Church and the care of the sick and poor. She would tirelessly tend to them personally. She had dedicated her life to serving under the guidance of St. Jerome who later instructed her to study scripture in Jerusalem. In 395, Fabiola built and lived in a hospice serving the terminally ill while also attending to her studies. She later returned to Rome due to a German invasion where she eventually died in 399.
We can learn so much from Fabiola. Obviously, we admire her for leaving a terrible and abusive marriage despite the implications her actions made on her society. The most important lesson, though, is that we should never let others tell us that we are unable to succeed in the world due to our past experiences. Another important takeaway from her life story is that money, when it is used in the service of others, can change the whole world. It is only when we use it selfishly that we tend to get destructive.
The fall of the Roman Empire led to the start of a period in history called the Dark Ages. During this time in Europe, it was the monasteries and convents that kept the healing arts alive. This is the reason the Church has always been so closely associated with medicine over the centuries.
Saint Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, philosopher, composer, Christian mystic, polymath, and visionary. Whew! Talk about being an overachiever! Regarded as the founder of scientific natural history in Germany, she was an all-around badass Diva with legendary superpowers!
Hildegard was the youngest of ten children and was sickly from birth. From a young age, she had experienced visions—dreams or a trance-like state in which a person can go into religious ecstasy. Due to her visions, her parents offered her as an oblate (person specifically dedicated to God’s service).
She served in the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg from the age of eight! Hildegard became the Mother Superior in 1136, but she wanted more independence and started her own monastery in Rupertsberg in 1150. She formed a second monastery for her nuns at Eibingen in 1165. She died in 1179 after a lifetime of achievements, spiritual training, and visions as well as composing and writing prolifically in several disciplines, including scientific and medicinal writings.
As if that were not enough, just for fun, she went ahead and invented an alternative alphabet and language which she called, Lingua Ignota (Unknown Language). St. Hildegard’s feast day is September 17th.
Saint Hildegard’s life has taught us that every moment of our lives is a precious chance to achieve something great and useful. Also, that we should never let our illness or impairments hold us back because we are unstoppable badass Divas.
Trota of Salerno
Salerno in the South of Italy was a port city and had the best access to knowledge about everything that happened or was discovered in the world. It follows, therefore, that the city was rather modern and that women were allowed to study and participate in society as equals, or at least for a time.
Not much is known about the personal history of Trota or even the exact time in which she lived. The closest estimation places her in the mid-12th century. She may have been a member of the di Ruggiero family and it is believed she married Johannes Platearius and had two sons, Matthias and Johannes the Younger, who were both medical authors.
During this time in Salerno, there was a School of Medicine, nothing like the formal medical schools that only came up later on, but it did serve an important purpose. It was here that new medical knowledge from Europe and Arabia was being taught and practiced. Even from before Trota’s time, patients would travel from as far afield as England for treatment.
Trota was the first-ever female medical student to graduate from the closest thing to medical school there was at the time. She had become a renowned gynecologist and doctor of female illnesses. Trota was also a prolific writer of medical books; her writing had been the go-to manual for female illnesses for at least 500 years! There were three major medical texts that Trota is most famous for producing: Practica Secundum Trotam (Practical medicine according to Trota); De egritudinum curatione (On the treatment of illnesses); and On Treatments for Women.
She also co-authored a book entitled the ‘Trotula’ of which there were three authors. However, with time the title of the book got mixed up with the name of the writer. So, ‘Trotula’ gradually became interpreted as the name of the author. Trota’s books, especially the ‘Trotula’ became the Golden Standard for treating female illnesses for at least 400 years in the 16th century when it was rediscovered.
We can learn that women have contributed greatly to science and medicine despite the incorrect ideas about how the human body works.
French-born Marie Henriette Suzanne Aubert was raised with respectable middle-class parents and had three brothers.
An unfortunate incident in which she fell through the icy surface of a pond when she was two years old left her temporarily crippled and blind. This incident along with the premature death of her disabled brother, Louis, inspired in her a deep empathy for the disabled.
As was tradition in those days, Aubert’s parents had arranged her marriage to the son of a family friend. But she refused to get married and when the opportunity arose to travel to New Zealand to join Bishop Pompallier’s mission in Auckland, she jumped at the opportunity. Along with three other Frenchwomen, Aubert dedicated her work to the poor and disabled people. She worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the Maori people and learned the language so well that she even wrote a Maori language textbook.
She went to Rome in 1915 to appeal for the New Zealand Church to be granted permission to operate independently. During that time, her medical services were greatly appreciated as it was the First World War. After four years of living in Rome, Pope Benedict granted the Decree of Praise to the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion (Aubert’s Church).
Aubert returned to New Zealand to continue her work. She also focused on medical training for the sisters so that they could offer free healthcare to the Maori people. Mother Mary Joseph, as she was better known, died on October 1, 1926, at the age of 91. Her’s was the largest funeral ever held of a woman in New Zealand.
We can learn from Aubert to always push for what you want to achieve. She never gave up on her dreams to help the people and establish an independent church. She listened to her heart and bravely tackled every challenge. Also, we should never allow ourselves to be bullied into a marriage when we are not ready or if we don’t wish to go down that route in the first place.