Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Ada Lovelace Day: Trota of Salerno

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day, 14 October 2014: Trota and The Trotula

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, described by its sponsoring organization as "an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)." As part of the worldwide event, we are all encouraged to write about an inspirational woman and her achievements in one of the STEM fields.

A female medical practitioner, likely Trotula
(MS 544, Miscellanea Medica XVIII,
from Wellcome Collection, London)
To that end, I'd like to contribute the name of Trota of Salerno, a twelfth-century physician and medical writer.

Although her achievements--and even her existence--were disputed for centuries, Trota is now recognized as the most famous of the mulieres Salernitanae ("women of Salerno") known to have practiced medicine in Salerno in the Middle Ages. 

According to Monica H. Green, "Trota and her medical practices are attested by three distinct textual sources." The first of these is Practical Medicine According to Trota (Practica secundum Trotam), "a compendium of seventy-one different remedies for gynecological and obstetric conditions," and includes a wide variety of treatments for other, more general, medical problems, from lice and burns to toothache, hemorrhoids, and fever.

The "second witness" to Trota's medical expertise is On the Treatment of Illnesses (De egritudinum curatione), an anthology that includes the work of seven medical writers, including Trota. The third text associated with Trota is The Treatments for Women (De curis mulierum); Green suggests this volume may well be "a transcript of Trota's cures as she orally recounted them to a scribe, who then added further elements of his/her choosing."

Trota's name ultimately came to be associated with a group of three crucial medical texts devoted to women's healthcare, known collectively as "the Trotula." From the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the Trotula circulated widely throughout western Europe; today, nearly two hundred manuscript versions survive. A definitive edition and translation of these texts is Green's The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine. Her introduction includes information about the twelfth-century "school" of Salerno and its role as a center for medical study, information about "pre-Salernitan Gynecology," and a well-detailed discussion of women practicing medicine in Salerno in the twelfth century. 

Justine Siegemund, from the 1723 edition of her handbook
On this day celebrating the achievements of women in science, three other women practicing gynecology and obstetrics might also be mentioned here. 

Jane Sharp, a seventeenth-century English midwife, published The Midwives Book; Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered in London in 1671. 

Some twenty years later, in 1690, the German midwife Justine Siegemund published The Court Midwife. (To view a digital copy of the 1723 edition; click here.)

And, last but not least is Sarah Stone, an English midwife who published A Complete Practice in Midwifery in 1737. You can read her early eighteenth-century handbook, filled with case studies, here.

Update, 28 October 2023: I just ran across Isabella Gagliardi's "How the Middle Ages' Female Doctors Were Consigned to Oblivion," posted earlier this year at The Conversation. It includes a reference to Trota as well as other women who studied at Salerno's Schola Medica Salernitana.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Women Writers and the New York Times Book Review

"Women in Power," New York Times Book Review, Sunday, 12 October 2014

Today's "Special Issue" of the Times Book Review is, as its title proclaims, "special": "special," in this case, meaning that it focuses on books by women. The "Fiction" section looks at one novel by a woman, Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, reviewed by Anne Friedman, and includes the "Shortlist," reviewer Meghan Daum's quick view of three novels by women, Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred Year House, Susan Croll's The Stager, and Margaret Bradham Thornton's Charleston.

The "Nonfiction" reviews also feature works by women, including, among them, Katha Pollitt's Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights and Joan Biskupic's Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, as well as Jonathan Eig's book on "women's" issues, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (in addition to Margaret Sanger, Eig's "four crusaders" include Gregory Goodwin Pincus, John Rock, and Katharine McCormick). There is also an interesting "Author's Note" by Alexander Chee, "Gender Genre," responding to several recent calls to "read more women this year." Chee writes, "In 1988, at the age of 20, I stopped reading men and read only women for a period that lasted almost three years." These days it evidently takes a hashtag to encourage readers to read women writers?*  

Not that this effort to highlight books by women is problematic. Who would complain? But why do we need #Readwomen2014 or a "special" issue? Why can't reading work by women be normal, regular, routine, the way things are and should be? This week's NYT fiction bestseller list ("Hard Cover Best Sellers"), for example, includes 8 books by women writers among the top 15. The nonfiction list is less balanced, with 10 books by men, 3 by women, and 3 coauthored by a pair of writers, one man and one woman. (Books by Joan Rivers and Hampton Sides are tied for the fifteenth spot.) So why does writing about women's work require a "special" issue? Why do we have to enlist Twitter to normalize reading books by women? 

It's not that readers, male and female, aren't reading books by women. It's that their work still isn't being reviewed adequately and sufficiently, and that women still aren't afforded enough opportunities for reviewing the work of others, work written by men as well as other women. As the latest VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts count illustrates, women are making some, but not enough, progress:
Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.We break down thirty-nine literary journals and well-respected periodicals, counting genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.
We were not surprised to find that men dominate the pages of venues that are known to further one’s career.
The VIDA Count, annual since 2010, has not only effected change in the publishing industry, but has also created a strong community of writers and advocates who stand with us. There is much more work to be done.
With our annual VIDA Count we offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed. We ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse. Our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.**
VIDA notes that the Times gender disparities have "significantly" improved in its latest count, but there is still quite a way to go:

From the 2014 VIDA Count

A weekly Book Review issue that pays attention to women writers and that affords women writers the opportunity to review the work of others should be normal, not "special."

*Update, 12 October 2015: And now even the hashtag is dead!!!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ada Lovelace, Women in Math and Technology, and Walter Isaacson

"The Women Tech Forgot"???

In today's New York Times, Nick Bilton's brief piece, "The Women Tech Forgot," is inspired by the forthcoming publication of Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Isaacson seems to have been inspired to write his book, at least in part, by his daughter, through whom he was introduced to the English mathematician, Ada Lovelace.

Any focus on women who have been written out of history, their achievements and inventions either forgotten or credited to others, is always welcome. And the diminishing role of women in technical fields is stark. As Bilton notes:
The exclusion of these women has not only reinforced stereotypes about women and technology, but has arguably had a self-fulfilling effect. In 1985, 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women. By 2010, that number had fallen by half to 18 percent. 
While Isaacson's book will include an account of Ada Lovelace, as well as making some mention of the women who worked Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) program in the mid-twentieth century, there are a couple of problems with Bilton's otherwise welcome piece. 

First, its focus on Isaacson's forthcoming book is a bit problematic--there is no available table of contents to see exactly how much of this book about "hackers," "geniuses," and "geeks" is actually about women. The cover itself is interesting and perhaps illustrative--the images feature four people, only one of them female (Lovelace).

If the purpose of Bilton's piece is to introduce readers to women's roles in science and technology, there are many terrific books out there that are actually about the role of women in science and technology, including Vivian Gornick's Women in Science: Then and Now, Julie des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, and Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand's Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. And that's just for starters. Autumn Stanley's Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, first published in 1995, is still in print, nearly twenty years later.

(Meanwhile, even Wikipedia has extensive entries for Ada Lovelace and all of the women who worked on the ENIAC program, among them Kathleen McNulty Antonelli, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, Adele Katz Goldstine, Betty Snyder Holberton, Marilyn Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. Bartik told her own story in  Pioneer Programmer, published in 2013. And there is also an excellent new documentary telling the story of these women, The Computers, produced by the ENIAC Programmers Project.)

Again, it's hard to tell exactly how much of Isaacson's book is actually about women in science and technology, but Bilton seems to regard Isaacson's ignorance about Ada Lovelace as indicative of her "lost" status. "While some in tech may know of her," Bilton concludes, Lovelace "is far from a household name." Despite Bilton's unfamiliarity--and Isaacson's--I find it hard to believe any university student studying computer science today wouldn't have heard of Ada Lovelace--according to Bilton's own piece, Isaacson's daughter Betsy was writing her college entrance essay about Lovelace! The US Department of Defense named its computer programming language Ada in her honor--it was first released in 1980. Lovelace is a figure who appears frequently in pop culture, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated internationally since 2009, the Ada Initiative, founded in 2011, was named after her, and she was even honored with her own Google Doodle in 2012!

But the bigger problem--and a real howler--is the place this piece occupies in the Times. This article about "the women that tech forgot" is not included in the Technology section or the Science section or even among the book reviews. Bilton's essay about how women in science are either ignored or forgotten is printed in the Fashion and Style section--because, you know, women. Yeesh!

Isaacson's may well be an inclusive book, going far to reintegrate women into the history of "the digital revolution." But if you're interested in reading about women in science, there are many other excellent resources--and you can easily find them with a few tools produced by that digital revolution--with Google and a few clicks of your mouse.

Update: Brendan Koerner's review of Isaacson's The Innovators appears in the Sunday, 5 September NYT Book Review (BR 13). Among the "hackers, geniuses, and geeks," Korner mentions only one woman in his review, Ada Lovelace. And while his review is accompanied by a 1943 photo of ENIAC programmers Bartik and Spence, he mentions only John Mauchly and John Atanasoff's "bitter patent fight" in his discussion of Isaacson's book.

The table of contents of The Innovators is now available via Amazon. The table of contents notes Ada Lovelace in the opening and closing chapters. Under "women" in the index, there are only two entries: "as ENIAC programmers, 95-100, 117" and "math doctorates received by, 88." There is a fair amount of coverage of Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer programmer, 88-95 and 117-18, with a few additional scattered references. And Bill Gates's mom, Mary, gets a shout-out on p. 361. And so it goes . . .

By the way . . . Ada Lovelace day is coming soon--Tuesday, 14 October. You can honor the "women tech forgot" by checking out the events at the website Finding Ada