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REFERENCED:
Aglaonice
Hypatia
Hildegard
Herrad
Marie Cunitz
Sarah Jinner
Mary Holden
Emile du Chatelet
Maria Margarethe Winkelmann
Caroline Herschal
Sophia Germain
Evangeline Adams
Elsbeth Ebertin
Ivy Goldstein Jacobson
Olivia Barclay
Lois Rodden
Notes & References
About the Author

 

More Than Just a Footnote - Centuries of contributions from women to the development of astrology and the way we think about the cosmos. By Sue Toohey



The history of astrology has been reasonably well documented in recent years. We have considerable amounts of information going back to very ancient times giving us an interesting picture of some of the most influential figures who have contributed to our knowledge of the universe. However, like many other areas of knowledge, women are essentially missing from this picture, leaving us with the erroneous view that they played virtually no part in the history of ideas. This article is an attempt to shed light on a number of women who have made significant contributions in the past. Invariably, there are many who remain unmentioned - this work is not exhaustive. It is merely a small example of achievements that have gone largely unnoticed and an endeavour to bring them to light.


One of the earliest names we have in the history of women who studied the cosmos is that of Aglaonice. The difficulty is that we know virtually nothing about her other than she lived in Thessaly, ancient Greece, and became famous in the fifth century BCE for her ability to predict the eclipses of the Sun and Moon. She was considered to be a sorceress who could make the Moon disappear at will. Anyone who was able to predict such events was considered to have special powers and Aglaonice was said to have bragged of these powers to make the Sun and Moon disappear at will. We have the names of many women of this period (e.g. Theano, wife of Pythagoras) but we know nothing about them. It wasn't until many centuries later that a few women began to have their stories recorded.

Hypatia of Alexandria is one of the first women to come to our attention as a significant contributor to the understanding of the universe. She was a mathematician, astronomer/astrologer who lived at a time when the Christian Church was gaining considerable power over those whose beliefs were contrary to the teachings of the Church. Hypatia wrote commentaries on popular works including those of Euclid and Ptolemy. However, the only certain trace of her literary activity is in her father Theon's commentary on Book Three of Ptolemy's Almagest, which Theon had stated was largely the work of his daughter. She contributed to her father's texts on mathematics and astronomy, often compiling tables of the position of celestial bodies. She was well known for her development and construction of astrolabes. Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob in 410CE.[1]

For the next 1000 years we have very little information on the contributions made by women. One woman who deserves our consideration is Hildegard of Bingen. Known as the 'Sibyl of the Rhine', Hildegard was born in 1098 and entered the convent at the age of eight. It is safe to say that, during this time, the majority of medieval scientist/philosophers, both male and female, lived as members of religious orders. Particularly in Germany, where Hildegard lived, being an abbess was a very commanding position. Hildegard was to become one of the most influential of these ecclesiastics and her authority was pervasive. She may be best remembered as the composer of some beautiful Gregorian chants and for her cosmological artwork, but she was a prolific writer on many subjects of great erudition. She wrote extensively on subjects including medicine and cosmology and, while it has often been said that she condemned astrology, some of her writings are remarkably astrological in their content. She wrote at length on the four humours and on the temperaments of people according to the phase of the Moon in which they were conceived. For example, a woman conceived on the eighteenth day would have health and longevity but with a predisposition toward insanity, and she would be a cunning liar, causing the death of honourable men.[2] All of her cosmological writings centre on the belief in the microcosm/macrocosm that was popular at the time. Hildegard, like many great philosophers of the time, developed a somewhat complicated cosmological structure of how she perceived the universe, something that she revised in later years. Much of what she was writing was not new; these beliefs go back at least as far as Pythagoras. However, her interpretations and her conclusions were quite unique.

Hildegard appearing on a German stamp.

Hildegard appearing on a German stamp.
Image source: Klöster

At the time Hildegard was writing, another abbess was composing her own work. Herrad of Landsberg wrote Hortus Deliciarum (Garden of Delights), which was a book of religion, history, astronomy, geography, philosophy, natural history and medical botany. Unlike Hildegard, however, Herrad was happy to quote from secular writers and her writings contain some remarkable ideas of the time. Her work was comparable to that of Hildegard in many ways. However, she was able to explain more clearly the relationship of the winds to the four elements and their effects on the four humours. The work includes an illustration of the signs of the zodiac and a table for determining festival days. Such tables were essential in the twelfth century and Herrad's was considered one of the best. She worked out the dates for Easter and the day of the week of Christmas for a cycle of 532 years, from 1175 to 1706.[3] This was an extraordinary achievement but one that is long forgotten by most people.

Marie Cunitz (1610 - 1664) is certainly one woman who deserves more acknowledgment than she has received. She was a truly skilled woman, mastering seven languages, and was skilled in painting, music, poetry, mathematics, medicine, history and astronomy. A study of her private correspondences has revealed that she had a lifelong interest in horoscopes and genealogy, spending much of her time studying and commenting on these areas.

Cunitz published a book entitled Urania Propitia in which she translated and explained the works of Kepler's Rudolphine Tables of planetary motion in layperson's terms. But without financial resources or observational instruments, she was limited to manual calculations. She was able to correct many errors in the original work, but unfortunately also introduced some errors of her own. However, she made this work more accessible to the scholars of the time and, for several centuries, her translations were the only ones available. Such a book being written by a woman was virtually unheard of at this time and most people refused to believe it was her own work. In subsequent editions, a preface had to be added whereby her husband asserted that he took no part in the work.

Even though women had a lot of difficulty with their published works at this time, almanacs were one area of publishing where women were able to make some headway. During the seventeenth century, astrological almanacs were some of the biggest selling books available. There were several versions, mostly written by men. However, there was a small number of women publishing at this time. Two of the most widely read and successful of these were Sarah Jinner and Mary Holden.

It appears that one of the main reasons for the emergence of almanacs written by women was that women, who were becoming increasingly better educated, were gaining better access to classically-based medical knowledge and saw the almanacs as a way to spread their medical knowledge. One explanation that has been put forward is that it was spurred on by the appearance of Nicholas Culpeper's English translations of such authors as Galen and his publication of texts concerning pregnancy and child birth (where he apologised for the inadequacies of being a man writing about women's issues and asked women to acquaint him with knowledge of his failings).[4] Both Jinner and Holden had to constantly defend themselves and their right to practice astrology.

The first surviving almanac for Jinner is from 1658. It followed the standard of the day and included tables for both the Julian and Gregorian calendars,[5] dates of the terms, the zodiacal man, a legend of symbols, monthly ephemeris tables, prognostications for each month, and 'Physical Observations' on medicine. In a letter 'To the Reader', Jinner takes exception to Aristotle's claim that women are only imperfect men and lists the achievements of a number of women of note including Elizabeth I and Maria Cunitz.

Sarah Jinner appearing on the frontispiece of her almanac

Sarah Jinner appearing on the
frontispiece of her almanac

Like most of the women mentioned, we do not have a lot of particulars about the life of Mary Holden. What we do know is derived from information scattered throughout her almanacs. It seems she was a midwife and herbalist among other things and described herself in her almanacs as either 'Student in Astrology' or 'Student in Physick'. At the time Holden released her almanacs, the popularity of astrology was declining and scepticism was rife. She set about to argue that astrology was a legitimate tool to comprehend the universe. She provides biblical quotations to reveal the 'ancient origins of knowledge of the stars, passed down to modern times as a prisca theologia.'[6]

For as much as some do think that astrology was invented by the Heathens, I shall endeavour to prove that it was from the beginning of the World, derived by the Sons of Seth, and for as much as they feared lest their art should perish before it came to the knowledge of men, for they had heard their Grandfather Adam say that all things should be destroyed by the universal flood, they made two Pillars, one of stone and the other of brick, to the intent that if the brick washed with water or stormes, yet the stones should preserve their letters whole and perfect, and in these Pillars they graved all that concerned astrology, or the observances of the stars, and therefore it is credible that the Egyptians and Chaldes learned astrology of the Hebrews and so consequently it spread abroad in other Nations. Therefore I would not have any to despise the art of astrology, the art and study is both laudable and excellent, and founded upon good principles of Scripture, as you may find from Genesis 1 to 14 and from 14 to 18, Judges 5 ver. 21, Psalms 3 ver. 6.19 Isaiah 40.22-26, Job 38.31,32. Look in the 7th chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon from the 17th verse to the 21st and I hope it will satisfy you.[7]


Over in France, European academia had taken a slightly different route from that of England. Although English scholars received Isaac Newton's Principa eagerly, the same could not be said for its reception in France. However, one woman was set to change all of that. Emile du Chatelet (1706 - 1749) was seen by some as being principally responsible for bringing about the transition in France from the outdated Cartesian model to the Newtonian cosmic order. The Cartesian model of the universe had been the dominant theory and when Newton released his work, it was rejected by most of Europe in favour of retaining the Cartesian model. When du Chatelet translated Principa into French, it exposed Newton's works to many people for the first time and a shift occurred.


Emile du Chatelet

Emile du Chatelet

The famous French philosopher Voltaire was a close friend of du Chatelet and the two had once been lovers. Voltaire believed that the most remarkable thing about her abilities was that she was a woman. In the foreword to du Chatelet's translation of Isaac Newton's Principa he wrote, " Two wonders have occurred. One that Newton was able to write this work, the other that a woman could translate and explain it." It was Voltaire who ostensibly authored Elements de la philosophie De Newton, a work on the main principles of Newtonian philosophy, but he repeatedly claimed that it was du Chatelet who made the substantial contribution, saying that it was she who had to describe the more complex aspects of the cosmology to him. Emile du Chatelet's translation of Newton's Principa was a remarkable achievement. She completed it a few days before giving birth to a daughter and died a few days later. It remains the only French translation of Principa available.

Many women who remained unrecognised for their achievements were often overshadowed by the assumption that it was their husband who did all the 'real' work. Maria Margarethe Winkelmann (Kirch) (b. 25th Feb 1670) was one woman who suffered from this burden. She was the first woman to discover a comet but unfortunately, the comet was simply called 'the comet of 1702' after the year of its discovery and she got no credit for the discovery. Initially, the report of the sighting was sent to the king with the name Kirch on it and it was automatically assumed that the discovery was made by Gottfried Kirch, her husband. Privately, he would acknowledge that the discovery was his wife's but it was many years before he acknowledged it publicly. However, it is Caroline Herschal who is today remembered as the first woman to have discovered a comet. Winkelmann discovered her comet fifty years before Herschal was born. We cannot blame Herschal for this but rather the conditions under which women often failed to be treated as legitimate scientists with legitimate claims to scholarship.

At the time of Winkelmann's discovery, Gottfried Kirch was astronomer to the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He and Maria shared the workload, taking turns to sleep while the other watched the skies. It was on one of those routine watches that Winkelmann discovered the comet. One of her main tasks was to draw up the calendars. This was a task required of every astronomer in a position of authority. However, it was left to Winkelmann to complete this time-consuming task that would also include astrological prognostications.

When her husband died, Winkelmann thought it too forward to ask for the position of astronomer for herself but petitioned for the position to be held jointly by her and her son. Even though everyone at the academy was aware that she had been doing exactly the same work as her husband, she was refused. Johann Jablonski, academy secretary, had this to say:

"Already during her husband's lifetime the society was burdened with ridicule because its calendar was prepared by a woman. If she were now to be kept on in such a capacity, mouths would gape even wider." [8]


The proposal was refused and the academy employed an astronomer who turned out to be highly incompetent. After his death, the academy employed Maria's son and she once again became an assistant.

Winkelmann has been most remembered, if at all, for her observations on the aurora borealis (1707) and her writings on the conjunction of the Sun with Saturn and Venus (1709) and on the approaching conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 1712.[9] Along with these observations were Winkelmann's astrological predictions of these events and the significance of the Jupiter-Saturn cycle.

Winkelmann continued with her observations and calculations. However, as time wore on, members of the academy became increasingly incensed after she refused to remain hidden when visitors came to the observatory. The members finally insisted that she leave the facility altogether and she spent her final years banished from the work she spent a lifetime developing.

During the 1700's, women were still excluded from studying at any educational facilities. They had to rely on the good nature of their male relatives or a friend who would help. It was still considered to be unnatural for a woman to want to take on studies of any kind. One woman who was determined to study was Sophia Germain (1776 - 1831) who was dubbed the Hypatia of the eighteenth century. From a very early age, she read and wrote extensively about several subjects, principally astronomy. Her parents tried to dissuade her and believed that unnatural study was the cause of her health problems. They took away her candles, banned her from having fires and did everything to stop her from reading well into the night. When Germain was eighteen, the Ecole Polytechnique was founded to train mathematicians and scientists. Although women were unable to be admitted, Sophia was able to receive the lecture notes. She corresponded with a number of people about her work but, because of the general attitude towards women, wrote under the pseudonym of M. LeBlanc. One man in particular, Carl Gauss, corresponded for a number of years before becoming aware of Germain's gender. Fortunately, he had no objections and continued to treat her as a learned colleague. He became her mentor and, with a male to introduce her, she was able to enter the circle of scientists and mathematicians in a way previously denied her.

One of Germain's textbooks contained a sentence describing the stability of orbits and how perturbations affected them. A reader of this textbook, John C. Adams, a 24-year-old English astronomer, went in search of the planet disturbing the orbit of Uranus. This planet turned out to be Neptune. However, there was a dispute over the discovery. Le Verrier had also predicted the presence of this planet and it was Johann Gottfried Galle, using the predictions of Le Verrier who is today credited with the discovery. Adams, and Germain who gave him the idea in the first place get no credit. Germain is most remembered for her work on Fermet's Last Theorum and her part in it is known as Germain's Theorum. A crater on Venus is named after her.

By the late 1800s we begin to have a number of women gaining more recognition in astrological circles. Evangeline Adams (1868-1932) is probably the most well known of these women. She became instantly famous when she is said to have predicted the fire of a hotel she was staying in. When the hotel did burn to the ground, the owner told the newspapers that Evangeline had predicted it. The news was headlined the next day and she became an instant celebrity. However, some people, including biographer of Adams, Karen Christino dispute this story for lack of evidence.

Another story for which Evangeline is famous is the time she was required to appear in court on charges of 'fortune-telling'. When she explained that astrology had nothing to do with magic or fortune telling, she offered to demonstrate her abilities. The judge gave her the birth data of an anonymous person, who turned out to be the judge's son, and when she described him so accurately, all charges were dropped. She recounts this event in her interesting autobiography The Bowl of Heaven first published in 1926. She is also said to have predicted US involvement in WWII in about 1923. She predicted that the US would enter into this war in 1942, but of course, she did not live to see her prediction come true, having died in 1932.


Evangeline Adams

Evangeline Adams

Elsbeth Ebertin (1880-1944) was around to see the prediction of Adams come true and, unfortunately, died as a result of this war. She was born in 1880 in Germany and was a professional astrologer who specialised in areas such as mundane astrology, fixed stars, and psychological astrology. Between the years 1917-1938 she was editor of German astrology magazine Blick in die Zukunft. She is the mother of astrologer Reinhold Ebertin and grandmother of Baldur Ebertin, also a well-known astrologer. She was killed tragically in 1944 at the age of 64 from a bomb blast during the Second World War.


Elsbeth Ebertin

Elsbeth Ebertin appearing
in the publication Kosmobiologie

Ivy Goldstein Jacobson (1893-1990) lived a long life as a prominent astrologer, dying at the grand age of ninety-seven. Born in Brisbane, Australia, she settled in the United States where she built up a successful practice. She wrote several books, which were all self-published from type-written pages. She was a popular teacher and practitioner and is best remembered for her work in the field of horary astrology.


Ivy Goldstein Jacobson

Ivy Goldstein Jacobson

One woman who was heavily instrumental in the revival of horary astrology in the late 20th century was English astrologer Olivia Barclay (1919-2001). She was, by all accounts, a feisty woman who never gave up and never took no for an answer. While that may have made things difficult for her colleagues and students at times, it was these qualities that underpinned her determination to see horary astrology restored to a position of respect. By the 1970s horary had become a derided art by many 'serious' astrologers as the popular drift in astrology rejected the art of 'prediction' in favour of psychological principles. When Barclay obtained an original copy of William Lilly's 1647 classic horary text, Christian Astrology in 1980, she helped to arrange for its reproduction, and commenced teaching the art of horary to others. She fought long and hard to bring horary to the forefront once again and as a result helped establish a renewal of interest in many other traditional techniques. While there are others who contributed to the revival of horary astrology, Olivia Barclay deserves to be remembered for her pioneering efforts in this field.


Oliva Barclay

Olivia Barclay

Lois Rodden (1928-2004) is another modern woman who should be remembered for a unique contribution to astrology. She developed the best and most respected databank of astrology charts available today. Not only that, she brought consistency to birth data by giving astrologers a system whereby birth data is rated according to its accuracy, from AA (birth certificate in hand) to DD (dirty data - conflicting times). Most professional astrologers use this method today.


Lois Rodden

Lois Rodden



This article only includes women who have completed their lives. There are several women of note who are not mentioned here and who deserve to be recognised. There are women in these pages who deserve a more thorough biography. Unfortunately, space is limited and often information is scarce. Sometimes we have nothing but a name. Many of these details have disappeared forever but, with careful searching, many are yet to be recovered. We can't do a lot about the past but we can do something about the future and ensure that women (as well as men) are recognised and their stories told so that the history of astrology continues to be recorded accurately.



Notes & References:
  1 ] For more on Hypatia see Sue Toohey's biographical account of her life at http://skyscript.co.uk/hypatia.html.
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  2 ] Margaret Alic, Hypatia's Heritage, (Beacon Press, Boston, 1986), p73
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  3 ] Ibid. p.75.
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  4 ] Alan S. Weber in The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimilie Library of Essential Works, Series II, Printed Writings, 1641 - 1700, Part 1, Vol 6, Almanacs, (Ashgate, London, 2002), px.

Details of Culpeper's writings on midwifery are described in more detail in Dylan Warren-Davis's biographical account of his life at http://skyscript.co.uk/culpeper.html.
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  5 ] Much of the world had shifted to the use of the Gregorian calendar by this time but England would continue to use the Julian calendar for almost another 100 years. This was purely for political reasons rather than any sense of belief in the Julian calendar.
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  6 ] Alan Weber, p.xv.
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  7 ] Mary Holden in 'The Early Modern Englishwoman' op. cit. p151. Some of the biblical associations quoted by Holden seem to be a bit tenuous. However, there is no doubt that one is able to find many references in the Bible that relate to astrology.
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  8 ] Margaret Wertheim, Pythagoras' Trousers - God, Physics, and the Gender Wars, (Fourth Estate, London, 1997), p79.
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  9 ] Ibid, p. 121.
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Sue TooheySue Toohey is an Australian astrologer with a degree in history and philosophy. She is currently enrolled in a Masters degree, researching the history of astrology and religious thought. Sue also has a Homoeopathy degree, using awareness of all these areas to further her understanding of astrology. Her main areas of interest lie in traditional astrology and philosophy, seeking to understand how they contribute to our current appreciation of these disciplines.
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© Sue Toohey, January 2005


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