Despite the ancient Oracle’s advice to ‘Know Thyself’, it’s only relatively recently that we philosophers have started wondering why so few of us are women. In fact, gender disparity among professional academic philosophers has now become something of a scandal. Various explanations are offered. Some blame pervasive sexism and the macho posturing that is typical of philosophical debate. Others suggest that the overly technical culture of modern analytic philosophy may drive away women, who are far too sensible to engage in such time-wasting. One way to test these hypotheses might be to find out whether the lack of female representation is consistent across all sub-areas of philosophy. I haven’t been able to find statistics on that, but my superficial impression is that the proportion of women may be somewhat higher among historians of philosophy than among analytic philosophers. This may seem ironic, given that in the earlier ages studied by those historians, women were even more shut out of the discipline than they are today.
Yet their exclusion was not total. The early modern period especially featured numerous prominent female thinkers, such as Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway. They were active in the mid-1600s, more than a century before Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1790 work Vindication of the Rights of Women (I’m guessing that this is the earliest philosophical treatise by a woman that most philosophers would be able to name).
If we look further back, we find that the history of women in philosophy is as old as the history of philosophy itself. In the time of the Pre-Socratics (6th C. BCE) there was Theano, an associate of and possibly the wife of Pythagoras. Plato famously argues in his Republic that women would be philosophers in his ideal city. He also puts philosophical speeches into the mouths of women in his dialogues, notably Diotima in the Symposium.
Aristotle is less open-minded on this score, to put it mildly. But some philosophical movements that emerged after him included women in their ranks – such as Hipparchia, a Cynic who helped cause some scandals of her own, with the help of her partner Crates. Then there was Hypatia, the pagan martyr who is perhaps the one really famous female philosopher of classical times.
Nor do we lack for women philosophers in the Middle Ages. Again, there is one particularly well-known female thinker in the period, namely Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). But she is not the sole woman in an otherwise all-male period of thought. In the Thirteenth Century, Hadewijch and Mechthild of Magdeburg followed Hildegard’s example by describing mystical encounters with God; and the Fourteenth Century was something of a highpoint for women intellectuals, such as Marguerite Porete, Catherine of Siena, and Christine de Pisan.
By the way, non-European traditions have also featured women. We find several female disputants in the Upanisads (6th C. BCE onwards), for example.
Of course, it is not enough to acknowledge the existence of these women thinkers and then turn back to studying only their more famous male contemporaries. All of the figures I’ve mentioned, and many more besides, deserve careful attention from historians of philosophy. However, that attention should not focus solely on their gender. After all, when we study Aristotle or Kant, we don’t usually start with the observation that they were men; so why should we see Hipparchia or Hildegard as women first and philosophers second? Of course, gender was a lens through which they were invariably seen by the contemporaries who recounted their stories and preserved their works. When we learn something of the ideas of ancient female thinkers, it is usually because they were quoted on ‘women’s topics’ such as marriage and child-rearing. Hildegard herself drew attention to her position as a ‘mere woman’, chosen as a mouthpiece for God precisely because of her humble status. Yet we will understand Hildegard better if we compare her to male mystical authors of the same time, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, rather than by simply putting her in the company of women from other periods. Indeed, even other female medieval mystics, such as Hadewijch and Mechthild, make for a striking contrast with Hildegard. Writing only a few generations later, their works are very different from hers, being composed in vernacular languages and shot through with the tropes of courtly love literature.
If female philosophers are to be rescued from their undeserved obscurity, it will be by using the same tools that can illuminate male historical figures. We should discern the influences on which they drew; we should pay heed to the historical context that produced them; and we should take their ideas seriously. Of course the social position of women in late antique Alexandria is relevant to understanding Hypatia; but it’s less important to understanding her than contemporary developments in mathematics (her primary intellectual interest), or the confrontation between paganism and Christianity. Understanding each woman philosopher in her own terms as well as in her own time is not just about gender balance; it’s good history. And if this richer historical picture gives encouragement to women who are considering whether to devote their lives to philosophy, then an improvement in our understanding of philosophy’s past might just help improve philosophy’s future.
Adapted from https://philosophynow.org/issues/111/Womens_Works