Digging Into Philosophy and Coming Up Short On Women
I remember quite clearly the first time I started to question why there were so few women in philosophy – both in the canon (a collection of texts viewed as authoritative in a subject) and in the field itself. I was a junior in my undergraduate program reading Aristotle’s Politics when I came across a little passage on the differences between men and women.
“As between the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” –Aristotle
The professor with whom I was reading the text, good-hearted and reflective, informed us that this was hardly the only misogynistic passage in Aristotle’s work. Elsewhere, he would call us incomplete men. He often referred to us as passive. He even tried to use the fact that women have fewer teeth than men as evidence of his claims. My professor gave us the space to reflect on why it might be that Aristotle believed such things. We asked what effect this would have on his system of thought.
Why Weren’t Women Included In Philosophy?
Of course, it was already painfully apparent that there weren’t many women in philosophy or female philosophers. A couple slipped through the academic cracks, but they were few and far between. I had previously assumed the reason for this was because the ‘powers that be’ denied women the chance to become philosophers. Society as a whole prevented women from entering academia, of course. I had not considered that philosophy itself had much to do with this exclusion. Would the field of philosophy purposefully close its doors to women? I certainly didn’t think that philosophy might be a large part of the reason why women were viewed as subordinate in the first place. But, believe it or not, reading Aristotle ironically set off the curious philosopher in me. I began to wonder just how deep the philosophical rabbit hole of misogyny was.
It does not take much digging to find thought in the canon in the same vein as Aristotle. In fact, some of the most explicitly misogynistic thought in history can be found in philosophy. Augustine, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche – all philosophers still widely read in philosophy classes today – express deeply problematic views about women. What is so nefarious about thought in this tradition is that it undermines the very belief in women as fully human, and it is still profoundly influential. And philosophy, unlike other forms of thought, is in the very business of justifying what it believes. As such, the canon offers up arguments for why it is the case that women are inferior to men. For example, many arguments state that we cannot think as well as men.
Hegel proclaims that, “Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production… women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.”
Women In Philosophy: Just a Bunch of Bodies
Additionally, women are understood as tied to nature and incapable of transcending the body into a higher realm of thought. This crumb of Cartesian and Christian thought maintains that the body is inferior, a prison that leads only to temptation and living poorly. Women are seductresses who tempt men with their bodies and trap them into a less virtuous way of living.
“What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother,’ asks Augustine, “it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman. . . I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”
Ouch. The classic “women are useless except as baby-making vessels” belief.
Such harmful thought exists everywhere in my academic home. Obviously, however, I never believed such nonsense. The women I know and love prove that we are deeply rational, capable of anything and more than what male philosophers describe as our limits.
But I cannot help but wonder what philosophy would be if men – and women – had not believed about us for so long.
Where Are We Now?
Philosophy plays such a strong role in what we believe about the world. We all have ideas about what the world is like and how it should be. We find different answers to these questions all over the place–in the media, from our religious leaders, our politicians, and our friends. Whether we realize it or not in our modern-day, technologically saturated existence, many of our answers come directly from the philosophical tradition.
Countless Christian philosophers still influence the Church today. Politicians read philosophy. Our movies, music, and books often reflect thinkers or traditions. And sadly, when misogynistic philosophers influence modern thinkers, we continue to find traces of that problematic perspective in the different views of the world. We must recognize this prevailing theme in philosophical thought, lest we find ourselves also believing that women cannot think the deepest of thoughts and see the world as it is.
These days, thanks to graduate school and a steady devotion to escaping misogynistic conditioning, I am lucky to know of many female philosophers. These women challenge the views of the world put forth by men – especially any that might call women incapable of philosophical thought.
I leave you here with a list of female thinkers worth exploring.
- Judith Butler
- Martha Nussbaum
- Elizabeth Anscombe
- Angela Davis
- bell hooks
- Katherine Gines
- Hannah Arendt
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Iris Murdoch
- Hypatia of Alexandria
- Simone Weil
- Maria Lugones
- Sally Haslanger
- Phillipa Foot
- Judith Jarvis Thomson
- Hortense Spillers
- Luce Irigaray
You may not consider yourself a philosopher, but we have a strong suspicion that you are. If you’ve got some deep thoughts to share with the world–you can start by sharing them with us. We can help polish your work so it can shine for the world. The world is ready for your deepest thoughts!
Melissa Bradley is a young professional in Charlotte, North Carolina. She holds an MA in Philosophy and a BA in Philosophy and History. She likes to write, loves to read, and spends most of her time thinking about how the world should be. You can usually find her wandering around outside with her dog.
Medusa Media Collective thanks Melissa for this amazing article. What do you think about the topic? Comment below.
1 Aristotle, Politics, 1254b 13-14.
2 Hegel, Philosophy of Right, 263 (1973)
3 St. Augustine, De genesi ad litteram
4 One book that lists countless of examples of misogyny is Beverly Clack’s Misogyny in the Western Philosophical Tradition