Female Intellect: A Renaissance?

02/08/2012 11:10 BST | Updated 30/09/2012 10:12 BST

Intellect and power are words which by default we associate with masculinity. History records a long list of powerful people, political leaders, scientists, engineers, philosophers, writers, artists' et al, mostly male. In this male bastion ranging from ancient Greek thinkers like Socrates, Plato, scientists like Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, painters like Michelangelo, to the more modern, the famous Dr Lister, psychologist Dr. Sigmund Freud, and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, few women made any mark. Education, scientific thinking and public work or life was denied to women. Society and religion conspired to keep them uniformed and clever women were viewed with misgiving.

While women were confined to the house and domestic chores or looking after their families, it does not mean they were not innovators, as thousands of women have made their own private innovations in and around their homes. For instance, in 1813, a Shaker sister, Tabitha Babbit, invented the circular saw based on her spinning wheel. It is surprising that she got credit for her invention. For centuries, women with intellectual leanings had to be satisfied with supporting their husband's work and often made discoveries of their own for which they received no credit whatsoever. Modern history is dotted with examples of famous male innovators with no mention of the women who stood by them and even helped with their work. This makes previous eras look more progressive, like ancient Greece, where women were healers, mathematicians, philosophers and artists.

Thankfully, the 19th century had female pioneers who trail-blazed the way for the next generation. In today's world, we don't bat an eyelid when we hear of a female doctor. However, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, after a long struggle with numerous hospitals and medical boards, overcoming strong social and religious prejudice, became the first woman doctor and surgeon in 1865. From more recent times, we've had Madame Marie Curie the famous scientist who discovered radium and Florence Nightingale who revolutionized nursing and medical care, after surmounting many obstacles. Back then, the discrimination also extended to the written word. Earlier writers like Lucile Aurore Dupin, pen name George Sand (famous books, Indiana and Conseulo), Mary Anne, pen name George Eliot (Silas Marner and Mill on the Floss) used male pen names so that their writing would be taken seriously. It also helped them to get published.

But with time, education was opening up for women, and for a variety of factors, social, moral and religious norms loosened. The catalysts of change included World Wars I and II, as at the time women were forced to perform jobs earlier carried out by men. They worked in factories, farms, were nurses, doctors, scientists, drove ambulances, buses and even flew airplanes. This was the beginning of equal opportunities.

Does this hold good today despite the ample educational facilities and career opportunities available to both sexes? Women are still termed as the 'weaker sex', perhaps not so openly nowadays, but it is conditioned into the human mind.

Let's jump forward to the supposed male preserve of the world of computers. Many do not know that in 1961, Dr. Grace Murray Hopper working at Harvard, invented the first user friendly computer software programme, COBOL (common business oriented language). She contributed immensely towards the internationalization of computer languages.

Sadly, statistics show that in USA female students in computer education has been declining and is down to 12%. Not surprisingly, the job figures in IT are no better, having gone down to 29%. Pondering the impact of these skewed figures on technological innovation is worthwhile, given that technology is used extensively by both men and women for work, leisure and more. Will women find that they have to navigate their way around a 'man'-made hi-tech world?

This is certainly true for global work cultures. Structures in the corporate, scientific and political world seem increasingly skewed to benefit men and not women juggling kids and careers. Women still play the traditional role of being the caring mother and wife. She is torn between her professional ambition and the guilt of neglecting her family. On this altar, women by and large sacrifice their professional careers. What's worse is that the society is rather hesitant to admit to this openly. The furor caused by Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story in the Atlantic Why Women Still Can't Have It All, where she admitted to putting her family first is testimony to this. The opinion of an accomplished woman like Anne-Marie, a Princeton Professor and Director of Policy Planning with the U.S. State Department, cannot to be taken lightly, and it has made people uncomfortable. The media backlash was also noteworthy.

Media's criticism of women in powerful positions is particularly pertinent, as it reflects a seemingly inherent, hard-to-shake-off bias. Political leaders like Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, and the Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, are consistently portrayed as being lesser women somehow. Further, the women seem have made the conscious decision to play down their feminine nature so as to not be perceived as frivolous. Their plain tailored pant suits and no-nonsense short hair styles have turned them into caricatures of sorts. On the other hand, highly fashionable women, like Princess Diana, struggled to be taken more seriously. While she was powerful in many ways, she was constantly portrayed as a woman-in-distress.

Perhaps popular culture is largely to blame for the bias in the modern world. After all, it gave birth to the phrase, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus! This, in an era when having women as part of their outer space missions is a matter of national pride. China beamed as its first female astronaut, Liu Yang, returned from Space recently; Sunita Williams has just completed her second mission, making both the U.S. and the country of origin from her father's side, India, happy. Maybe, it's time we forge ahead together on planet earth, respectful of the needs of both the sexes.