From Maitreyi and Hypatia of Alexandria to bell hooks and Judith Butler, female philosophers have existed since antiquity. They lived and wrote alongside their male contemporaries about a variety of subjects, from logic and ethics to feminism and race. After all, ideas, beliefs, and original thinking are not the province of men alone. A woman is just as capable of speculating on the nature of life and humanity. Alas, these women have remained largely invisible to the lay audience, who may not even be aware of their names, let alone what they wrote about.
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Women Philosophers in Antiquity
From ancient times, whether that be in Greece or India, or China, women were writing texts and treatises on wider philosophical questions. Given the general position of women in ancient Greece, Rome, or any other ancient civilization, it is remarkable that these women managed to break out of the constraints imposed on them.
Their work is doubly important because they were questioning gender norms and the established ways of life just by speculating on the matters that interested them.
Maitreyi lived during the later Vedic period (around the 8th century BCE) in ancient India and was considered a philosopher. She was one of the wives of a Vedic era sage and is mentioned in the Upanishads and the epic Mahabharata.
Several dialogues between Maitreyi and her husband in the old Vedic texts have her exploring the nature of the human soul and of love. The dialogue discusses some of the core tenets of Hindu Advaita philosophy about wealth and power, renunciation, the immortality of the soul, god, and how love drives the human soul.
The nature of love in these dialogues is a very interesting question. Maitreyi posits that all kinds of love reflect one’s inner soul, whether this is romantic love or platonic love or even love for all living creatures. This is important because in the Advaita tradition, every living creature is part of the energy that is god. Thus, care and compassion for all things are a true devotion to god.
Scholars have different opinions on this text. Some have cited this as evidence that in the early days, it was acceptable for Indian women to participate in complex philosophical debates. Maitreyi challenges her husband’s opinions and asks leading questions that guide the direction of the dialogue. Other scholars have, however, asserted that Maitreyi takes the position of the pupil to her husband’s teachings, which does not denote equality.
Hypatia of Alexandria
Hypatia was probably born around 350 CE in Alexandria in Egypt, which was a part of the Roman Empire at the time. She was one of the foremost female philosophers of the time and probably the best-known of them all.
The daughter of a famous philosopher and mathematician, Theon, Hypatia was exposed to a wide number of subjects at a very young age. Although it was unusual for Roman women to be highly educated, with the encouragement of Theon, Hypatia grew up to be a beloved and respected scholar. She even went on to teach mathematics and astronomy at the University of Alexandria and eventually became the head there.
She never got married and devoted her life to acquiring scientific and mathematical knowledge. She was greatly interested in the question of magic, in the stars, and in science. Hypatia was a Neoplatonist.
Tragically, Hypatia died an extremely brutal death at the hands of a Christian mob. She was asserted to have beguiled men away from religion and Christianity by her magic and wiles. The Archbishop had grown extremely powerful in those days and spread fear throughout the city, in an attempt to hang on to his authority. After her death, the university was burned down, along with most of her writings.
Hipparchia of Maroneia
One of the few women philosophers from the ancient world, Hipparchia was also born around 350 CE in the Greek region of Thrace. She was a Cynic philosopher, like her husband Crates of Thebes, whom she met in Athens. They fell in love and lived a life of Cynic poverty on the streets of Athens, despite the disapproval of her parents.
Hipparchia donned the same male clothes as her husband. They are said to have lived on the public walkways and porticos of Athens and indulged in public sex. They had at least two children. All of this was enough to shock the conservative Athenian society, which considered the Cynics quite shameless.
None of Hipparchia’s own writings have survived. There are some accounts of things she might have said at symposiums. Most of these accounts were comments on her lack of embarrassment or shame. She is said to have publicly renounced the loom, spinning, and other traditionally feminine activities for philosophy.
Her fame – or rather infamy – mostly rests on the fact that she lived on equal terms with her husband and was a woman pursuing philosophy. She is the only female Cynic whose name is known.
Medieval Era and Early Modernity
The medieval period in Europe is the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE and the emergence of the Renaissance in the 16th century. Dominated by the Church and orthodox Christian beliefs, this period has spawned perhaps even fewer female philosophers than earlier antiquity.
Christine de Pizan
Christine de Pizan was the court writer for King Charles VI of France in the later 14th century and early 15th century CE. She was an Italian-born French poet and wrote extensively on a variety of topics. Several of her writings were about the French court and how the monarchy adhered to Aristotelian ideals. Given that she was patronized by the royal family, it is no surprise that she was writing in a complimentary manner about them.
However, one of her most interesting books is ‘The Book of the City of Ladies.’ It was published in 1405 and presented several royal and intellectual warrior women from the past, such as Queen Zenobia.
The book was a critique of the way male writers over the centuries had disparaged and ignored women. It featured short and often quite fun biographies of women, both real and imagined, from the past. It even features Pizan’s contemporary, Joan of Arc. The book was dedicated to women of the present and future, who would read it and have their spirits uplifted.
A very different kind of writer was Tullia d’Aragona. Born in the first decade of the 16th century, she traveled a great deal and became a courtesan at the age of 18. Rumored to be the daughter of Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, the illegitimate grandson of the King of Naples, Tullia was one of the most famous Renaissance-era courtesans.
Having traveled and observed a great deal, Tullia composed ‘Dialogues on the Infinity of Love’ in 1547. It was a Neoplatonic treatise on women’s sexual and mental autonomy within a relationship. She argued that both men and women should be equally satisfied in a relationship, both sexually and intellectually. The relationship should be mutually beneficial and equal.
Women having any kind of views on sex and love were unthinkable in those days. Tullia was making extreme claims about the expression of sexual desires instead of repressing them. Even more, she was talking about the rights and power of a woman in a relationship where they were traditionally viewed as lesser. She could possibly make this bold claim exactly because of her profession and the fact that she was not attached to any man. She was not dependent on an individual man financially.
Female Philosophers from the 17th and 18th Centuries
‘Modern’ is a debatable term. However, with the Renaissance comes the period that is generally referred to as early modernity. At this time, there was suddenly a much larger number of women writers expressing their thoughts and ideas about the human experience.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Margaret Cavendish was a polymath – a philosopher, fiction writer, poet, scientist, and playwright. She published several works on natural philosophy and early modern science in the mid-1600s. She is also one of the first women to have written a science fiction novel and to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London, alongside philosophers like Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Robert Boyle. Cavendish was one of the first opponents of animal testing.
Her science fiction novel, ‘The Blazing World,’ is both funny and informative. It is a fictional work that nevertheless features her thoughts on natural philosophy and the vitalism model. She developed these arguments in opposition to the arguments of Hobbes, who completely ignored her contributions.
It is also a tongue-in-cheek critique of the male opposition to a woman in power. The protagonist has to travel to a different planet to be crowned Empress over all the living creatures there. The author states in the dedication that to be an Empress is a dear wish of hers, which would never be fulfilled in the real world. Cavendish used her works to advocate women’s education since she always said that her writings would have been even better if she could have attended school like her brothers.
Mary Wollstonecraft has written several texts on various matters. Many scholars see her as a forerunner to the feminist movement since she was advocating for women’s voices to be heard by the wider world in the 18th century CE. However, even before she wrote her acclaimed ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), she wrote ‘Vindication of the Rights of Men’ (1790).
She wrote the latter in opposition to Edmund Burke’s political critique of the French Revolution. It was initially published anonymously and she used the opportunity to criticize generations of hereditary wealth and power that the aristocracy used to lord over the common people.
Wollstonecraft was certainly considered promiscuous and scandalous by her contemporaries. The author-activist’s multiple lovers, illegitimate children, and suicide attempts made her a controversial figure. For a century, Wollstonecraft’s reputation lay in tatters, before she was rediscovered during the rise of the women’s suffrage movement in England. Her works gradually came to be seen as foundational feminist texts.
There is a large number of women who have done groundbreaking work in philosophy in recent history, but we can only study a few of them. All of them were pioneers in their own way.
Anna Julia Cooper
Anna Julia Cooper was a Black American woman who was born in 1858. An educator, sociologist, activist, and author, Cooper was born into slavery. Regardless of this, she went on to receive an excellent education and got her PhD from Sorbonne University. An underrated feminist, it is a wonder that her works are not studied alongside Wollstonecraft and Beauvoir’s.
Cooper’s most seminal work was ‘A Voice from the South from a Black Woman from the South.’ This collection of essays was published in 1892 and is considered one of the pioneering pieces in Black Feminism.
She spoke about the education of black women so they could get financial and intellectual emancipation. She also critiqued the narrow views of white feminists, who rarely had all women in mind in their writings and speeches. Cooper was well ahead of her time. She spoke about the fact that one’s class, race, and politics all have a role in shaping the way one thinks. She also believed that we are morally responsible for others, however philosophical or scientific our thoughts may be.
Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher and historian, born in 1906. A Jewish woman, Arendt fled Germany in 1933 after the Gestapo briefly imprisoned her for conducting research on antisemitism. She had previously studied under Martin Heidegger in her university days and even had a prolonged affair with him.
Arendt eventually settled in the United States. Her experiences with two World Wars and Nazi Germany had a heavy influence on her work. One of the most well-known political philosophers in history, Arendt’s reflections on totalitarian regimes, evil, and the nature of power have been very influential.
Some of her most famous books include ‘The Human Condition’ and ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism.’ She became widely known when she commented on the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. She spoke about how ordinary people became involved in totalitarian regimes and coined the phrase “the banality of evil.” For these views, some people condemned and dismissed her as an apologist.
Simone De Beauvoir
Born in 1908, Simone De Beauvoir was a French feminist, social theorist, and existential philosopher. She did not consider herself a philosopher and neither was she considered one during her lifetime. But Beauvoir has become one of the biggest influences on existential philosophy and existential feminism.
She led an unusual life as a true example of her ideas. She believed that to live authentically, one must choose for themselves what one wants to do and how one wants to lead their life. People, especially women, face a lot of outside pressure about the progression of their lives. Her book, ‘The Second Sex,’ reflected on how women were not born the way they were but were made that way by social conventions. There was no intrinsic way to be a woman.
Beauvoir met Jean-Paul Sartre in college, although their relationship only turned romantic later. They never married but had a lifelong relationship, which was open and non-exclusive, hugely scandalous at the time. She was also involved with the French Resistance during World War II and helped found a political, leftist journal along with several intellectuals at the time.
An Irish novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch was born in 1919 in Dublin. Her reflections in philosophy centered around questions of morality, human relations and human experience, and behavior. Her novels explored themes of good and evil, the power of the unconscious, and sexual relationships.
One of her essays, ‘The Idea of Perfection,’ explores how through self-criticism and self-exploration we can alter our ideas of a person or situation. Such altered perceptions can lead to changes in our moral behavior. While she was better known as a novelist than a philosopher, her contributions to the field have been substantial. Martha Nussbaum argued that Murdoch changed the way moral philosophy worked when she shifted the emphasis from questions of will and choice to how people see and conceive of one another.
Murdoch was part of the Communist Party of Great Britain, although she later left and condemned contemporary Marxism. Interestingly enough, though fully Irish by heritage, Murdoch did not seem to share the sentiments that would be expected of an Irish woman of those times. She was made a Dame by Queen Elisabeth II.
Angela Davis is not typically known as a philosopher. An American Marxist, political activist, author, and academic, she was born in 1944 and wrote mostly on questions of gender, race, class, and the American prison system. A retired professor and grassroots organizer for human rights, Davis’ research into intersecting identities and oppression in America positions her as a philosopher.
Davis has done a lot of work in the context of social justice movements and feminist studies. Her socialist leanings inform her understanding of racial struggles and the struggles faced by black women. She is a major figure in the prison abolition movement in the United States, which she has called a new system of slavery, pointing out the disproportionate number of black Americans in prison.
Although Davis was married for a short period in the 80s, she came out as a lesbian in 1997. She now lives openly with her partner, Gina Dent, with whom she shares many scholarly pursuits and academic interests.
Born in 1947, Martha Nussbaum is one of the foremost moral philosophers in the world today. The world-renowned American philosopher is also a teacher and writer, who has made a lot of contributions to the field of human rights, virtue ethics, and economic development.
She is well known for her advocacy of religious tolerance and the importance of emotions. Nussbaum posited that emotions are essential to politics and stated that there could be no democracy without love and compassion. She is famous for her belief that leading an ethical life involves allowing vulnerabilities and embracing uncertain things that are beyond our own control.
Nussbaum, in several essays, stated that an individual is more than an economic factor for the country that they live in and that the GDP is not an adequate qualification of the measure of life. Critiquing the education system, she said we should concentrate on producing good human beings who are compassionate and imaginative, not economically productive citizens.
No, you read that right. It is not an error. bell hooks purposely kept her pseudonym in lowercase. It was seen as a sign that she wanted attention paid to what she was writing about instead of her identity.
Born in 1952 in Kentucky, Gloria Jean Watkins personally experienced segregation. She learned firsthand what it was like to be part of a society that neglected you simply because of who you were. At a very young age, she began to question the way society was structured and why certain things were the way they were.
The works of bell hooks posed questions on gender, class, and race. She became a professor, activist, writer, and cultural critic. Her book ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism’ shows her progressive feminist beliefs, arguing that the status of black women in the modern world could be linked back to the exploitation and sexism faced by black female slaves during America’s history of slavery.
hooks was also a leftist and postmodernist political thinker. She published a number of books on a vast number of topics, from patriarchy and masculinity to self-help and sexuality. She argued that literacy and the ability to write and think critically were essential to the feminist movement. Without that, people might not even realize the gender inequalities in the world. She also stated that patriarchy is extremely harmful to men themselves, putting them in a position where they are not allowed to express vulnerabilities.
And finally, there is Judith Butler, a person who would probably have a problem with being placed in such a gendered list. The American academic was born in 1956. A nonbinary person, Butler uses she/they pronouns, although they prefer the latter. They stated that they were not comfortable with being assigned female at birth.
One of the key thinkers in the fields of third-wave feminism, queer theory, and literary theory, Butler has had a great influence on ethics and political philosophy.
One of their most seminal ideas was on the performative nature of gender. They stated that gender was more about what a person was doing and less about what they were innately. Butler first began ethics classes in Hebrew school as a child, as a punishment for being too talkative in class. However, they were thrilled at the idea of special classes.
Butler has written several books on gender and sex. Their works are considered some of the most influential in gender and queer theory. They have also contributed to other disciplines like psychoanalysis, visual arts, performance studies, literary theory, and film. Their theory of gender performativity is not just academically important but has shaped and influenced queer activism all around the world.
Philosophy: A Field for Men Alone?
Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke, and Nietzsche, these names are all very familiar to us. We may have not read their treatises or be familiar with what they spoke about. But we have heard of them. This is rarely the case with women philosophers who were working and writing at roughly the same time.
Even where modern philosophy does admit the contributions of women, it is largely in the fields of feminism and gender studies. It is as if their identity as women plays the greatest role in what they think and theorize about. This is certainly not the case with men. When we think of Marx or Voltaire or Rousseau, their gender plays no role in our impressions of them. This double standard is sadly common even in the modern world.
It is time to start thinking of these women philosophers not solely as women but also as philosophers. They have much to contribute to the world in various spheres. Their ideas and beliefs hold merit on an individual basis, not because they belong to a particular gender. We can only wait for the day when we do not have to make a list like this and women will be automatically admitted into the lists of most important philosophers of all time.
The Underrated Impact of Women on Philosophy
The women philosophers listed here are only a handful of the ones who have made incredible discoveries throughout history. In some cases, we do not even have books of their contributions, only letters that they may have written to their friends or to other philosophers. They were challenging the status quo just by existing and speaking out in a society that expected them to be silent.
As far back as ancient Greece, we have had women thinking about and commenting on the meaning of the world, religion, politics, and philosophy. The 20th century was full of female philosophers hypothesizing about the nature of power and the human condition. What makes a good human being? Can we reflect upon and change our own moral behavior? How far can we put our trust in uncertain things beyond our own control?
It is not as if names like Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Arendt, or Judith Butler are completely unknown to us. But it would be reasonable to say that these women have not been given their due, especially in comparison to male philosophers.
Not Just Gender Studies
Some male scholars have argued that there are gendered differences in the way men and women think which has made female philosophers rare. However, there is no evidence of intrinsic differences in the way male and female brains function. What we can say is that the lives they lead and the narrow lanes that women were put into had an effect on their interests or directions of thought.
The straitjacketed circumstances of women due to patriarchal societies led to them pursuing different schools of thought than men did. This marginalization could have led to women confining themselves to certain topics more than others. This explains why the feminist study is an area where there is more female contribution in it. Even there, the thoughts of the women philosophers can vary widely from each other. And yet, they are categorized in a rather narrow bracket.
Apart from that, it is not only gender studies that female philosophers have contributed to. Academic philosophy by women is diverse. They worked in various fields and areas.
In 1690, Lady Anne Conway’s ‘Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy’ was published anonymously after her death. In other cases, like with Elisabeth, the Princess Palatine of Bohemia, women communicated their thoughts through letters with contemporary male philosophers. Elisabeth was writing to René Descartes and all we know of her ideologies comes from these letters.
In many cases, even when women were writing extensively, a lot of this work never made it into the philosophical canon. The reasons for this can be many. Perhaps they were writing on topics that were considered inconsequential or insignificant in philosophy. Perhaps they were threatening the status quo and thus needed to be silenced and their work removed from public knowledge.