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.

11 thoughts on “Women’s contributions to philosophy

  1. I am in a rush as well, but let me just leave a few thoughts.

    On point 3: just two examples of women who have made original and *highly* discussed contributions to philosophy are Eleonore Stump and Marilyn McCord Adams. These are just off the top of my head. (See also, obviously, Ansecombe.) True, these are contemporary women, so perhaps this just supports your claim that the tides are changing. But it is nevertheless worth mentioning that these are widely regarded as brilliant and original philosophers (who are women, obviously).

    On point 2: of course women’s work has been appropriated! Both men’s and women’s has. However, it may seem worse for women since there are so much fewer women in philosophy.

  2. I have a lot trouble not just getting read, but getting published at all. I tend to produce work that would count as rivalrous to other theories, and so this may simply be because of the “hostility to original thoughts.” However, I have also sometimes wondered if even in blind review, there are tells in my writing that identify me as female, and whether this has any effect on referees. So, I decided to google this issue. As it turns out, there are studies that show that even in blind review, referees in fact can tell whether writing is male or female. So I think it’s worth thinking about this as well, and not just published female authors. Here is one of the things I found in my google search: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-05-28/features/0305280247_1_interactive-style-writing-anonymous-author

  3. Historically speaking, certainly, but unsurprising, given the heavily patriarchal character of our civilization, especially so prior to the last century.

    But in the last century and beyond? All of the following were an invaluable part of my education, and were never presented or taught with anything but the highest respect and even reverence. They have also had a tremendous influence on my own work:

    Elizabeth Anscombe
    Mary Midgley
    Iris Murdoch (also one of the last century’s best novelists)
    Mary Warnock
    Philippa Foot
    Judith Jarvis Thomson
    Virginia Held
    Susan Haack
    Carol Gilligan (not a philosopher, technically, but still..)
    Christine Korsgaard
    Cora Diamond
    Susan Wolf
    Juliet Floyd (was on my oral exam committee)

    And these are just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m forgetting some. And of course, this completely ignores the Continental tradition, in which I was not trained.

    I think women have done some of the best work in analytic philosophy in the last century, and they certainly were a major part of my education. They also figure quite heavily in the reading lists for my own courses.

  4. For what it’s worth, in the fields I know best (political and legal philosophy) it seems like a golden age for female philosophers, with many of the top, most original, most influential, and most read and discussed contributors to these fields being women, and many really great younger philosophers, just starting to make their names, also being women. So, at least in these areas, it looks to me like women are thriving and making strong contributions that get lots of attention. I know I spend a lot of my own time on their work!

  5. It’s nice to hear that there are some women around, anecdotally, and off the top of our heads, the paradigm of objective investigation, but I digress. Anyone know what topics they might be working on? That is, are they working mainly on topics that would be acceptably feminine? This matters a lot as well. In philosophy, those would be value theory, political and social, applied philosophy, and maybe history.

  6. I’m a little hesitant to name names, only because there are so many examples that I’m afraid to leave out people who should be obvious! But, a few people doing excellent work that I very much admire include Holly Lawford-Smith, Luara Ferracioli, Stephanie Collins, Elizabeth Brake, Amy Reed Sandoval, Renee Bolinger, Annie Stilz, and too many more to mention, just focusing on relatively “younger” people. (No one I didn’t mention should feel left out! The list is meant to be illustrative and not at all exhaustive.)

  7. Despite all the difficulties you rightly mention, annejjacobson, women philosophized even during the middle ages. Apart from my blog on the struggles of contemporary philosophy (https://parallelphilo.wordpress.com) I run this other blog with a feminist friend. In it we research, analyse and comment on the work of European feminist medieval philosophers. I say feminist because these women spoke out about the inequality among men and women between the 5th and 15th centuries and wrote excellent non-related philosophy mostly in the form of dialogue.The blog is ( https://ciudaddelasdamasblog.wordpress.com ) and its in spanish but its easily translated with the google translation tool that appears at the corner. One of the authors, Christine de Pizan also wrote about the causes of misogyny, which poses the question:when did feminism begin?

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