In his first work, published in 1747, Immanuel Kant cites the ideas of another philosopher: a scholar of Newton, religion, science, and mathematics. The philosopher, whose work had been translated into several languages, is Émilie Du Châtelet.
Yet despite her powerhouse accomplishments—and the shout-out from no less a luminary than Kant—her work won’t be found in the 1,000-plus pages of the new edition of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. In the anthology, which claims to trace 2,400 years of philosophy, the first female philosopher doesn’t appear until the section on writing from the mid-20th century. Or in any of the other leading anthologies used in university classrooms, scholars say.
Also absent are these 17th-century English thinkers: Margaret Cavendish, a prolific writer and natural philosopher; Anne Conway, who discusses the philosophy of Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza in The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (which is influenced by the Kabbalah); and “Lady” Damaris Masham—the daughter of a Cambridge Platonist and a close friend of John Locke who published several works and debated ideas in letters she exchanged with the German mathematician and philosopher G.W. Leibniz.
Despite the spread of feminism and multiculturalism, and their impact on fields from literature to anthropology, it is possible to major in philosophy without hearing anything about the historical contributions of women philosophers. The canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that some say still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender.
Andrew Janiak, an associate professor of philosophy at Duke University, was a graduate student in the 1990s when he came across Kant’s startling reference to Madame Du Châtelet. “I remember thinking: Did he really mean Madame?” Janiak said. “It was the only time I’d seen a philosopher refer to the ideas of a woman.”
Now, Janiak and a team of Duke students and researchers, along with colleagues at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have launched a site that features the forgotten voices of women philosophers, giving academics and students a rare opportunity to study and promote their work.