Women’s contributions to philosophy

The following should be read as more like questions than it may seem. Are women’s theories really seen like this? Are these factors really at play? And so on.

And I am doing this in a rush.


In my earliest days in philosophy, as one scanned the history of the subject, there seemed to be a near complete absence of women. This was scary, actually, because one seemed to be proposing that one could be one of the first to do something. And the idea that women couldn’t do philosophy did seem to have some evidence, however puzzling the idea was.

Thanks to many philosophers’ work, it has become clear that this picture of the absence of women in philosophy is simply wrong. But I wonder whether women’s work in general is brought into mainstream thought, despite wonderful efforts by some outstanding people. This does seem to be changing a bit for contemporary women, but much, much less so for historical women.

If it is true that women’s work largely remains footnotes to male philosophy, it is worth asking why. If we understand why, we might be able to mitigate it. I have three remarks to make about this. Then I have one depressing worry that there is an underlying cause that is very powerful.

1. For much of history, women’s entry into philosophy (and music, the arts) was through an advocacy by their fathers that they be let into the otherwise male activity.

2. Women’s work has been appropriated. I just recently saw work that claimed that Babylonian laments – most definitely the project of women – shows up finally in the choruses of male Greek playwrights’ plays.

3. There is in philosophy – at least today when we are evaluating historical texts – quite a lot of hostility to original thoughts. And women’s original thought may be particularly suspect. This leaves women with one alternative: accept as basic the framing of the problems in male philosophy. Otherwise, you are pretty much out on a limb which many will saw off.

If these are causes, then they point to something we can do in working with women’s texts, and that have been done already. One is to try not to introduce the women’s work through describing their fathers’ supports. It is with just about any woman until very recently remarkable that she learned to read and that she had any contact with topics taught in men’s schools. Still, this might not be the place to begin.

Since I am running out of time, let me cut to the chase. From one point of view, the facts I’ve mentioned may pale in comparison to another, which to some extent might be a separate cause and also something holding some of the factors in place.

This overriding cause may be: misogyny. As understood by Mann (Down Girl) one strong facet of misogyny is the deep expectation that women are supposed to serve men. So sure they can comment – maybe very well – on men’s texts, but they aren’t supposed to produce rivals.

In a rush, let me suggest that this would account for the remarkable appropriation of women’s work that occurs. I think nearly every women I know has seen this.