The Place of Women Philosophers in History
I recently realized something. Throughout my whole university career I hadn’t read a single female philosopher This fact prompted me to search for some women philosophers. I knew that there were several. Furthermore, I was convinced that they’d made important contributions to the discipline.
I wasn’t wrong. So, in this article, I’m going to mention those women philosophers who’ve somehow become hidden in today’s world. I’ll start from antiquity and finish in current times.
It’ll be an interesting journey if, at times, a little inhospitable.
Women philosophers of antiquity
The great philosophical questions about the origin, composition, and essence of the world were found in this period. The most important philosophers were Plato, Aristotle, Parmenides, and Pythagoras, among others.
However, little is known about the women philosophers who reflected on these great existential issues. In the following section, we’ll get to know them.
Thean of Croton
This philosopher belonged to the school founded by Pythagoras. In fact, she was his wife and, when he died, she took over. She was born around 550 BC in southern Italy, more specifically in Crotona.
Theano became interested in numbers and was considered to be the first mathematician in history. She was credited with creating the concept of the golden ratio, which is closely related to her philosophical thought.
The golden ratio is an ideal relationship or harmony in the field of aesthetics. For this reason, it’s valued as a measure of beauty. It’s found in many objects, forms of nature, and the human being.
The golden ratio was also transferred to Theano’s way of seeing the world. She believed that the universe was governed by harmony and order that couldn’t be disturbed. This was because any disturbance could alter the order of the world. She also believed (like Plato) that the soul was immortal and the body was its prison.
At the Pythagoras Academy, Theano transferred to her students the values that, for her, were prototypically feminine. She believed that women had to be virtuous and honest and should also carry out domestic chores.
She also defended marriage between men and women. Although no treatise was preserved over time, Theano de Crotona’s contribution to the field of mathematics and philosophical thought made her an outstanding figure in this field.
Born in 460 BC in Miletus, Aspasia was a courtesan with great political influence. At that time, these ladies-in-waiting enjoyed intellectual recognition. She imparted her wisdom on the streets and in public spaces. She believed that philosophy shouldn’t only be taught in academia.
Aspasia’s dialogue was basic, like that of Socrates. She was the philosopher’s great oratory teacher. Indeed, she was an expert in oration. This was also known as the art of speaking eloquently. It generated a series of rules for making effective, attractive, and convincing public speeches.
Aspasia and her oratory skills were extremely important. At the time, Athens was experiencing political and cultural splendor. Therefore, the development of techniques for effective and persuasive speech was valuable. In addition, Aspasia’s political participation, together with her beloved Pericles, gave her the kind of intellectual recognition that wasn’t permitted for most women.
“Our fathers, if they are still alive, and our mothers must be exhorted without ceasing to bear the misfortune in the best possible way, if it happens, and not lament with them.”
Diotima lived in 400 B.C. C in Mantinea. We know of her from Plato’s The Symposium, in which she’s mentioned by Socrates. She was considered to be the teacher of two of the most influential philosophers in history.
Her reflections revolved around love. In fact, it’s believed that it was Diotima who gave rise to the concept of Platonic love, which is the main theme of The Symposium. In this work, the philosopher is described as a wise and virtuous woman who teaches Socrates about the mysteries of love and spirituality.
Diotima thought that love created a path to achieving immortality. This was because loved things and people remain in our memory. In effect, only the object of love can last over time.
Although it’s disputed whether Diotima really existed or not, the fact that she was named in one of Plato’s most influential and studied works has motivated various investigations into the subject.
Phyntis was one of the first philosophers who reflected on equality between men and women. Born around 400 B.C., she considered that both sexes can and should philosophize, at a time when this activity was exclusive to men.
Despite this and in accordance with the time, she continued to possess conservative thoughts regarding women. She considered that she should practice self-control and that her role was to have children. Likewise, she saw the privileged virtue of the female gender as moderation and performing wifely duties.
However, it shouldn’t be underestimated that Phyntis was the first philosopher to put on the table a subject that, up until then had neither been discussed nor reflected on: equality between men and women as thinking beings.
Hypatia was a representative of Neoplatonism, the current that revived Platonic ideas long after Plato’s death. She taught classes in philosophy, geometry, astronomy, and mathematics at the University of Alexandria.
Indirect sources provided by Socrates the Scholastic and Philostorgio say that she was a renowned teacher who gave public lectures on Plato and Aristotle. They considered her to be an extremely enlightened philosopher for the time since she was also a woman of science. She was encouraged to further her investigations and reached some extremely deep reflections.
In fact, she believed that there was a world of things to which we don’t have access beyond the world that we see and feel. Only through reflection can we see the truth that’s hidden behind the everyday. Therefore, we can free ourselves from the chains imposed by the sensible world.
Sadly, Hypatia is known for the circumstances surrounding her tragic death. She was cruelly murdered by a horde of Christians. They not only shot her but also dismembered her.
Women philosophers in the Middle Ages
During this time in history, thought revolved around the interpretations that philosophy had to offer about the Christian religion. Consequently, it was at this time that the well-known relationship between faith and reason or God and reason was produced.
In the high Middle Ages, a group of female thinkers called mystics appeared. They sought direct encounters with God and prioritized him over the human being.
Hildegard von Bingen
This German mystic born in the year 1098 was an important figure in the religious and cultural life of the time. She possessed a holistic and symbolic vision of the universe. In fact, she considered that a relationship exists between everyone and everything because human beings are part of the world. In turn, the world is the creative work of God.
Hildegard thought about the importance of knowledge and education for women. She also advocated for gender equality in the church and society. In this sense, she was considered to be a philosopher who had proto-feminist thoughts that surpassed her own time.
She was born in France in 1255. She wrote a single article entitled The Mirror of Simple Souls, for which she was repudiated by the church. Indeed, in 1310, she was burned at the stake for heresy.
In her treatise, Marguerite described how the soul or spirit can be freed. Her response earned the hatred of the church because she stated that to achieve the liberation of the soul, mandates and religious norms should be put aside. Despite this, she didn’t deny God and wasn’t an atheist. As a matter of fact, she was looking for a direct encounter with him with no intermediaries.
Marguerite questioned Christianity. This was revolutionary at a time when the subject of religion wasn’t up for debate.
Catherine of Siena
She lived in Siena between 1347 and 1380. She was an influential figure in politics and religion of the time as she participated in the crusades, as well as promoting the union of the Catholic Church.
As for her philosophy, she focused on human beings and their relationship with others and God. This was at a time when it was thought that God decided between good and evil. However, Catherine considered that people had the freedom to choose to act correctly or incorrectly. From a religious perspective, she thought God had given humans this freedom of choice.
“Whoever loves God truly does so only if he also loves his neighbor.”
-Catherine of Siena-
Christine de Pizan
She was born in Venice in 1365 and was the first woman to make writing her profession. Among her main philosophical works, the most important was The City of Ladies written in 1404. In it, she described the construction of an ideal state, a city of women where good reigned.
She personified Reason, Rectitude, and Justice in the form of three women. They were in charge of ensuring that these virtues reigned in the ideal city. In this utopia, justice, the common good, and respect for others were of the utmost importance.
This philosopher also supported the education and economic independence of women.
Christine de Pizan was an important figure in the history of feminism. Indeed, she was an active defender of women’s rights and gender equality at a time when these issues weren’t up for discussion.
Modern women philosophers
In modern times, the field of philosophy started to center on the reason or intellect of the human being. At this time of great scientific developments, René Descartes was the father of modern philosophy. However, there were also women philosophers.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was born in the year 1623. She was one of the first thinkers to reflect on ecology. She said that the human being didn’t have any rights over nature, and couldn’t dominate it at will. In fact, she was a thinker who was way ahead of the contemporary era in which these issues were the main axis of philosophical reflection.
Her importance in seventeenth-century English society lay in the fact that she was the first author to vindicate the position of women in her country. In addition, she questioned the patriarchal customs of domestic life
Margaret Cavendish was a woman scientist and among her many achievements was having accessed the Royal Society of London. This institution is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the field of science and scientific research. The most important and influential scientists were members, such as Isaac Newton.
Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne between the years 1666 and 1668, Mary Astell reflected on the equality between men and women. She thought that both sexes possessed intelligence and, as such, should make use of it by exercising it through thought.
Astell also wanted everyone to receive an education, particularly women. She based her position on the fact that the female gender deserved to have access to adequate training and was equal to the male sex. As a matter of fact, she believed that, through this, women could become liberated.
Despite the fact that she was so openly in favor of women, she considered that men were better qualified for public or political issues.
Women philosophers in the 20th century
Philosophy in this period was characterized by the consideration of humans in their daily lives. It also reflected on the question of being human after two world wars.
A German philosopher born in 1891, her thinking was a synthesis between German philosophy and the Christian tradition. Her reflections revolved around the human being, society, and the community.
She believed that societies distance individuals from each other since individualism makes us see others as things and not as human beings. On the other hand, in communities, the subjects live with each other and build ties with each other.
She claimed that the reflection and search for the meaning of us, as human beings, begins when it’s accepted that we’re subjects ‘thrown into the world’. In other words, we’re part of the world because we live in it. People can’t live in isolation but need others to not feel uprooted and alone.
A French philosopher and political activist born in 1909, Simone Weil was important in the fight for social justice and equality. She considered that these values were fundamental for society and that they should be promoted so that they become respected.
In addition, she considered that, as humans. we’re beings who’ve been uprooted, due to our daily routine existence. However, if we returned to ourselves, to the essence that differentiates us from other beings, we could take root. But, to free ourselves from all worldly chains, we also have to get away from ourselves and meet God.
With regard to her ethics, she believed that living in solidarity with others constituted the essence of being human.
A German philosopher born in 1906, Hannah Arendt was considered to be one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. She reflected on the human being. In particular, our arrival in the world. She called it natality and it concerned the ability to start over that we, as humans, possess.
Arendt also raised the fact that she understood that humans are different from each other. In that difference, lies a unique singularity that makes us who we are.
She also reflected on human actions and thoughts because she believed that we should think and converse with ourselves to do good. Otherwise, we’d be thoughtless beings who don’t think about our own actions, and we might perform bad actions without even realizing it. These thoughts are found in her book, entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil.
“The questions that arise from our thirst for knowledge arise from curiosity about the world, from the desire to investigate what is offered to the sensory apparatus.”
Simone de Beauvoir
What happens to death if you no longer believe in God? Simone Beauvoir thought that the human being is essentially free and influential. In other words, we depend only on ourselves and on any beings that are beyond space and time. Subjectivity or human individuality are central points in her philosophy.
De Beauvoir believed that human action was fundamental; through it, we’re given existence. After all, how how can we feel alive if there’s no action? She also believed that every act has an objective. In effect, we act for a reason. For example, one of the objectives of university students is to obtain a degree.
Regarding ethics, she considered that human actions and decisions have an impact on the entire species. This is because the freedom enjoyed by the individual belongs to the human race. In this sense, it transcends individual subjectivity and reflects on the individual and their relationships with others. Therefore, the responsibility for their actions corresponds entirely to being human and doesn’t depend on any divine entity.
In her book entitled, The Second Sex, she mainly reflected on women. In fact, she claimed that the feminine gender doesn’t have to be considered in relation to the man. Instead, she argued that women also have the possibility to create their own being through themselves. Therefore, she considered that one isn’t born a woman, but rather becomes one.
The invisibility of female philosophers in history
Why do we know so little or nothing about women philosophers in history? The English philosopher, Miranda Fricker, argues that it’s due to epistemic injustice. For her, harm is done to certain subjects of knowledge, either because their contemporaries don’t understand their message or because their contributions have been directly ignored. Therefore, women suffer from this injustice and it explains why few female characters are known in the history of philosophy.
As you can see, there’ve been many women philosophers throughout history. Moreover, their contributions to philosophy have been important regardless of their status as women. Although they’ve sometimes been ignored, this gives their work even more merit.
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- Fricker, M. (2017). Injusticia epistémica. Herder Editorial.