Female philosophers, anyone?

Here’s a quick story. A glance at the history of many things tends to reveal a long list of men’s names, and very few women’s. Does that mean that no women were involved in that history? Or that their involvement was less important, their contributions less grand? No, folks. In many cases all it reveals is who became famous. And in many cases that’s not the women. No doubt there are many explanations for this phenomenon. But it’s easy to see that once the thing gets going, the ball keeps rolling. The men who get noticed are the ones who get mentioned in books, whose works are studied, about whom documentaries are made, and so on. They are then the people most likely to be noticed. It will be no surprise to readers of this blog, at least, to hear that this is not just a historical phenomenon. It seems, e.g., to be happening in our profession right now. You want to organise a conference on x? For some reason, it’s the names of men working on x that spring most readily to mind. Those men get invited to speak at the conference. People attending the conference will then think of those men as the people working on x. They will get invited to write books on x, to contribute to encyclopedias about x, and so on. The women working on x thus get sidelined. One of our concerns over at FP is to try and raise the profile of women working in the profession. One way to do that is to persuade conference organisers, encyclopedia writers, and so on to take just a minute and consider whether there are some female philosophers who should be included. I’m not talking about substituting a mediocre woman for a great man. I’m talking about asking yourself whether there are women who work in the area whose work is as deserving of praise and discussion as the perhaps more famous men. The answer will inevitably be ‘yes’.

Given the above, you can perhaps see why we were a bit disappointed with Brian Leiter’s recent poll (now closed), which asked readers to vote for the greatest twentieth century philosopher, and contained not a single woman. Yes, we know it was just a bit of fun. But it still gives the impression that there were no women philosophers of note throughout the whole of the twentieth century. So just for fun, here’s a chance to vote for your favourite twentieth century female philosophers. (I’m writing this in a hurry when I should be making porridge, so if you want me to include someone else on the poll, just drop me a comment.)

Edited to add: the poll has grown and grown throughout the last couple of days and is now an inspiring list of twentieth century female philosophers. I will keep adding further names to it as they are suggested. In recognition of the fact that many feminists (including a lot of us here at FP) dislike the selectivity and hierarchy involved in ranking people, you can now vote for as many people as you want as many times as you want. And no results will be published ;) Follow the link to see the poll…

One might also note that both Leiter and I are guilty of focusing wholly on ‘Western’ philosophy. I’ve no doubt there are great twentieth century philosophers working in other traditions. One might also observe that non-whites tend to get sidelined in a similar way to women. Cheers to Amy!

46 thoughts on “Female philosophers, anyone?

  1. Non-white and non-Western are not necessarily synonymous, even within that execrable discipline called philosophy. Perhaps folks will disagree, but…

    1. bell hooks
    2. Audre Lorde
    3. Angela Davis
    4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
    5. Patricia Hill-Collins
    6. Gloria Anzaldúa
    7. Sylvia Molloy
    8. Saidiya Hartman
    9. Barbara Smith
    10. Norma Alarcón
    10. Helene Cixous
    11. Susan Sontag

    And there are others. Seriously! The only way to exclude the above names, as limited and biased as they are as a group, is to consider philosophy (by definition, without critical examination, a priori) white. To conflate that with Western is an even greater an indignity.

    Well, I think so, anyway. Though, that last part about “conflation” may need more rigorous treatment.

  2. Hi Dee Dee, thanks for your list!

    Just to clarify: I don’t think Monkey was conflating ‘western’ with ‘non-white’. Rather I took her to be noting two separate points – 1 wrt the project: to list great ‘Western’ philosophers, by which I took her to be referring more to a way of doing philosophy, than any geographical location.

    The second point was to do with the fact that nonwhite philosophers (who may or may not be doing ‘western’ philosophy) are also often sidelined, so I took her to be noting the virtue in raising recognition of those philosophers also…

  3. Thanks Dee Dee for your suggestions, I’ll get them up. Thanks – Stoat for your clarification – that was what I was trying to say, although I realise I didn’t explain myself very well!

  4. I’m having some trouble adding names to the poll and I’m also supposed to be working not blogging. So I”ll fix stuff a bit later…

  5. oh yay, i thought of you when i saw that poll. all these males i’d never heard of and no mention of even hanna. completely depressing. and the one woman i though was in the list turns out to be an old guy named hilary. bah.

    i was thinking about julia kristeva, and others and thought ‘oh they’d probably not be counted because they’re feminists’, meaning they may be philosophers but the write on feminism or queer stuff. not serious philosophy.

    anyway these days i pretty much ignore male philosophers i haven’t read (with some exceptions to do with research) simply because of this erasing, or prejudice, or laziness.

    oh and i’d vote for st uncle judith butler but she’s not there

  6. Here are a few more:
    Judith Jarvis Thomson
    Barbara Herman
    Annette Baier
    Ruth Millikan
    Onora O’Neill
    Jennifer Hornsby
    Rae Langton
    Louise Antony
    Elizabeth Anderson
    Iris Marion Young
    Virginia Held
    Alison Jagger
    Eva Kittay
    Helen Longino

  7. Perhaps the following might qualify for your list as well?
    Luce Irigaray
    Margaret Walker
    Bettina Bergo
    Miranda Fricker,
    Karen Jones,
    Tina Chanter

  8. Thanks for posting this great list, Monkey!

    When I first saw the Leiter survey I was annoyed just about the lack of women on it. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it and realized there’s another source of annoyance: I don’t like this “who’s the best?” game at all. Why do we need to rank people? What makes us think there is any such thing as “the best philosopher,” “the second best philosopher,” etc.? There are so many different kinds of contributions a philosopher can make, and there’s no reason to think all these values are commensurable. I think Leiter’s survey doesn’t show us who is best; it shows us who is more popular or has had the most influence on the people who read Leiter’s blog. The fact that no women made the cut is disturbing.

  9. When the idea of looking at a women philosophers in the Leiter style first arose, I thought it would be great fun. And I hope it has been. Still, I have to say that the exercise is making me a bit uncomfortable because, as others have certainly said, this kind of selectivity, with its suggestion of hierarchy within the community of female philosophers, reflects values that not all of us share. And which we are glad not all of us share.

    For example, there are two philosophers on this list who taught in the same place for some years. I was among the last set of students they both taught there, and I don’t think we ever talked about which was better or the more favorite. I also notice that there are some wonderful historians of philosophy, who have also contributed to philosophical thought, that haven’t yet made it on the list – or at least weren’t there when I last looked. That might reflect another problematic evaluation.

    I really don’t want to criticize the project and I’m glad Monkey saw the opportunity to do it, but I think we should keep it just fun and not – heaven forbid! – take any offense at its lack of thoroughness.

    Have Margaret Wilson, Christine Korsgaard and the amazing Jenny Lloyd shown up yet?

    I’d like to add the wonderful Elisabeth Reid, who took her classical philosophical training at Oxford to head up the first UN development program’s effort on AIDS in developing countries, and developed the conceptualization that informs much of current practice. Mostly unacknowledged today, of course. Her conviction, derived from Aristotle, that one who lacks a virtue cannot teach it informed much of her encounters with African heads of state, I understand. I suppose, though, we are looking only at people who wrote about academic philosophy.

  10. You know, I think there’s something wonderful about feminist philosophers trying this list thing out and then deciding to reject the endeavour. Hurrah for the attempt to make a list! But also hurrah for the rejection of list-making!

  11. Hello all – thanks for your comments. I’ll update the list with your suggestions later on this eve when I have more time.

    JJ and Amy – I completely agree with you – I had the poll being ‘favourite’ rather than ‘greatest’ for that reason. But you’re right, even having a poll at all is problematic. I’ve started to think, though, that this is a pretty good resource for people who want to know who the twentieth century female philosophers are. Later on – either this eve or tomorrow – I’m going to edit this post to remove the poll, but keep the list, and explain why we’ve done it. People can then keep adding philosophers to it – not to vote on, but just as a resource. What do you think?

  12. hurrah – i love how this list has grown and grown through the day! As in other comments – I think the voting part is beside the point. It’s just great to see the recogition of so many women philosophers! Thanks so much Monkey for getting this ball rolling!

  13. I like this post. One nice thing about this exercise, silly fun though it may be in the greater scheme of things, is that it makes you suddenly realize that the number of top-notch female philosophers in the twentieth century is huge. I mean, one knows abstractly that there were quite a few, and could roll of a list of names off the top of one’s head, but nothing makes you realize just how many there have been like trying to come up with a list of all the excellent philosophers who have been women. (And it also is a sort of proof of something that seems to be difficult to get across to people, that you could have a slightly different canon of twentieth century philosophers, much more female in composition, without sacrificing quality.)

  14. Yes, the list itself is very valuable, and inspiring! It also shows what a difference it makes if one just sets the goal of trying to come up with names of female philosophers. It’s easy to come up with names once one tries. It makes me think that women are invisible (or nearly so) in some venues because people don’t explicitly think to include them. Perhaps we have these categories in our heads: “Philosophers,” “Female philosophers,” “Non-white philosophers,” etc. When one tries to think of some “philosophers” to invite to a conference, only those who are grouped under that heading occur to one. Only if someone says, “Hey, how about including some women?” does one switch tracks and start thinking of names of “female philosophers.” Anyone with feminist training or sympathies may do this automatically in their own mind, but others may simply not recognize the need to do this.

    This means that identity politics is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it alerts us to these biases and makes marginalized groups more visible. On the other hand, it can increase the tendency to see certain people as “Female philosophers” instead of just “Philosophers,” and that categorization itself leads to inequities.

  15. We might find it easy to double the list. I don’t see Hide Ishiguro, Annette Baier or Mary Mothersill. Patricia Kitcher, Lynn Rudder Baker, and Cora Diamond have all done important and original work.

    Margaret Wilson had a great deal of influence on how early modern philosophy is read, and she educated many in a whole generation of historians of philosophy.

    This really must not be my day, since I am getting sadder and sadder at the realization of how easily women’s names are lost, and how difficult it has been for so many. Voices not silenced may still be muted. Some women, such as Gabriele Taylor, have done really fine work on, e.g., emotions and it simply doesn’t get picked up much.

  16. If you put Rae Langton down I would definately have listed her. I note there is a difference between ‘favourite’ and ‘greatest’; for the latter I consider Anscombe, who, while I don’t agree with most of her work, I recognise her work as very powerful and influential. Her work on Kantian Humility is excellent and has brought fine kudos from the Kant scholar world.

    I think being aware of the work of females in philosophy is important, especially in those areas which are not often associated with women; philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics, philosophy of language etc.

    The 20thC has brought a great deal of very excellent female philosophers. I must admit that I know almost no philosophers from previous centuries.

  17. I haven’t read all the comments yet, somaybe these have already been suggested, but how about Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Elizabeth Grosz?

  18. For Voting, I chose bell hooks, because she is my favorite for the paragraph soundbites. As for who I think is most influential? Probably De Beauvoir. The Second Sex was a landmark. Again, though, I agree that there are similar problems between the lists in terms of the complicity of knowledge/power and discourse regarding who we choose and why.

    Aside from Judith Butler, who has been mentioned already for addition, I would add:
    Julia Kristeva (though I wonder if she’d be anyone’s favorite)
    Uma Narayan
    Marjorie Garber (top 5 favorites for me)
    Susan Faludi

  19. You’ve covered lots already. I think we might add Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Spelman, Maria Lugones, Christine Delphy, and Monique Wittig, if they’re not already on there somewhere. I know they’re not all exclusively philosophers, but many on the list fall into more than one professional category (law, rhetoric, poetry, sociology, etc.).

    I wonder if the fact that many of the “favorite woman philosophers” are not exclusively philosophers ends up being more of an advantage or disadvantage. Is this what it took/takes for them to be able to write/publish/work? Does it contribute to the marginalization of women in the profession? Are there other professions that marginalize woman philosophers less?

  20. Maybe these women are on the list and I just didn’t spot them, but:

    Claudia Card
    Allison Jaggar
    Maria Lugones
    Sandra Harding

    It’s quite invigorating just to join in trying to name as many women philosophers as we can who have been important to us and/or have made a splash in a bigger pond, whether they are favorites or “great,” or whatever.

    Sandra Bartky
    Sarah Hoagland
    Chris Cuomo

    could go on for many minutes, but I have a paper to write

  21. *shuffles feet*
    Of Simone de Beauvoir, I only read her love letters to Algren, which endeared me to the core. I love the woman who wrote those letters. Such a pity that the Algren descendants didn’t agree to put his letters in too.

    Anyway, I voted Iris Marion Young, bless her soul. I read an article of hers and thought, this woman is great! only to discover that she had just passed away.

  22. Great idea for a post! For me, definitely Julia Kristeva. I see that she’s mentioned, but with the caveat that she might not be anyone’s favorite philosopher. She’s mine. Can I ask what gives?

  23. Hi Dashaway – Judith Butler’s on there.

    Mel – I think the person suggesting that I add Julia Kristeva was just expressing the thought that not so many people know her work, and so perhaps not so many people would vote for her. But I’ve added her to the poll.

    Thanks to everyone for your suggestions – I’ve been adding all the names to the poll. Remember, this isn’t a definitive list, so if someone’s not on there yet, it’s purely because she hasn’t yet been added – not because we don’t think she should be there. So keep the suggestions coming.

    (You may have to refresh your browser to see the latest additions in case an old version of this page is being stored?)

  24. Mel – I only tongue in cheek mentioned that Julia Kristeva might not be anyone’s favorite because of how many students and others find her writing so opaque as to dislike her. From my experience, it’s like the same trope about Derrida and his opacity. I do like Kristeva myself. I was just being tongue in cheek about my experiences regarding how she is perceived. Another figure I think many have an antagonistic relationship is Naomi Wolf. Regardless, if she isn’t already, I think she might merit inclusion.

  25. I add Simone DeBeauvoir.
    A brilliant contemporary female philosopher.

    I would include: Hypatia, one of the earliest recorded female philosphers.

    I think the main reasons women have not been inlcuded in history texts, and mass history doesn’t serve anyone well; is
    because of the “leisure to pursue” intellectual participation was once predominantly male, and because they had females, and slaves, doing the emotinally and physical exhausting work, due to the misguided notion women and slaves were equal, and subservient to the men.

  26. It’s very nice that this list was made.
    I found it because I was looking for a list of feminist theory books to read, so yes, it is useful !
    Just like most of the people who commented, I thought “it’s impossible and useless to vote for a favourite”.

    Some of the names that were suggested were never included to the list ! Naomi Wolf, Merlin Stone, or Mary Daly, for example, were suggested in the comments but are not in the list. Is it a choice ? I mean, I understand you could say Naomi Wolf or Merlin Stone are not really philosophers, but Mary Daly is most definatey. I mean, not that I am a huge fan of Mary Daly – she held extremely transphobic views – but still, she should be in this list, shouldn’t she ?

    Are also missing such very important names as Ayn Rand, Nancy Hartsock, Donna Haraway, Gayle Rubin, Germaine Greer, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Smith, Camille Paglia…

    There are so many that are not in this list, even major major ones. Actually, some are missing in your list that even wikipedia include in their tiny list of “feminist philosophers” and/or in their relatively small list of “female philosophers” !



  27. Such a great response! I’m encouraged. Ms. Arendt has my vote. I hope that your porridge turned out, you made a decent list off the cuff like that.

  28. @I. – no it wasn’t the result of a decision – just the result of being too busy to update the post.

  29. I wonder who would be considered the most influential female philosopher of the 20th century as measured by book sales, Internet hits, etc? My guess is Ayn Rand (b. 1905)

  30. By the way, speaking of documentaries about female philosophers, in 2015 a documentary on Hannah Arendt was released: Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt (dir. Ada Ushpiz).
    IMDB https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5358370/
    New York Times review https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/06/movies/vita-activa-the-spirit-of-hannah-arendt-review.html
    Hannah Arendt Center review https://medium.com/amor-mundi/the-cynicism-of-paraphrasing-a-review-of-vita-activa-the-spirit-of-hannah-arendt-43b319826128
    Amazon stream https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074VGZXL6
    Google stream https://play.google.com/store/movies/details/Vita_Activa_The_Spirit_of_Hannah_Arendt?id=62B0nUjEF60

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