Unsung female philosophers stake a claim in a book of their own

Editor of new collection showcases neglected major female thinkers going all the way back to ancient Greece and ancient China

September 20, 2020
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Women have taken on the role of philosopher alongside men right back to ancient times

Frustration over the marginalisation of female philosophers was the impetus for The Philosopher Queens, a book that sets out to restore women to their rightful place in the history of philosophy.

Co-editor Rebecca Buxton is now a DPhil student at the University of Oxford working on political philosophy and forced migration – a field in which women were making a central and roughly equal contribution to men, she said.

Yet she told Times Higher Education that when she was studying philosophy as an undergraduate, she had only one female lecturer and “no woman was paid explicit attention to” on the syllabus. A recent book called simply The Great Philosophers consisted of “12 chapters, all by men, about men, plus two male editors”.

At best, Ms Buxton went on, “the only time you are taught women in philosophy is when you do the feminism week at the end of Political Philosophy 101. Women are often siloed into the area of philosophy about women.”

She also recalled being “very disappointed” in her final term when she discovered that Hilary Putnam, “one of the really big figures in contemporary philosophy”, was a man and not a woman.

Yet the almost complete exclusion of women from standard accounts of philosophy, according to Ms Buxton, was in no way “an accurate representation”.

She acknowledged that “women have done less philosophy” over the course of history, a result of factors such as lack of educational opportunities. And she accepted that there was an element of truth in the “generalisation that men tend to do more abstract, pure philosophy and women tend to do more problem-centred, social justice-type philosophy”. Yet there were now many examples of women “engaging across the entire spectrum of philosophy”, she said.

Although Ms Buxton loves Plato and other canonical figures, she also claimed that “there are some thinkers who don’t potentially offer the kind of rich philosophical thought that women do, and yet we read them instead of a lot of interesting women. I am not necessarily advocating eliminating anybody, but if we have a bar of inclusion, women routinely surpass the bar.” (She refused to be drawn, however, when asked to name any overrated male philosophers.)

To help start setting the record straight, Ms Buxton teamed up with Lisa Whiting, a policy researcher who is also completing a master’s in government, policy and politics at Birkbeck, University of London to create the anthology titled The Philosopher Queens: The lives and legacies of philosophy’s unsung women (Unbound).

In it, 20 female thinkers of today pay tribute to their great predecessors, each illustrated by Emmy Smith. The historical names include Diotima, a central figure in one of Plato’s dialogues; Ban Zhao, “perhaps the greatest intellectual woman in ancient Chinese history”; Hannah Arendt, whose 1951 study, The Origins of Totalitarianism, became a surprise best-seller in the wake of Donald Trump’s election; Simone de Beauvoir; Iris Murdoch; Sophie Oluwole, a pioneer in bringing African philosophy into dialogue with the Western tradition; and black activist Angela Davis.

Some of these thinkers, Ms Buxton conceded, might not normally be described as “philosophers”. However, she continued, “Angela Davis and Immanuel Kant are not doing similar kinds of philosophy, but they are both fundamentally questioning the human experience.

“In the most basic sense, they are doing the same sort of thing and would be well suited to being on a philosophy syllabus, even if the Kantian abstract stuff has traditionally been considered ‘proper philosophy’.”

The sheer variety of the “philosopher queens” also meant that “it wouldn’t make sense to have a separate undergraduate course on women philosophers. Women should just be integrated into the main philosophy courses − and not in a tokenistic way…For most philosophy departments, having even 10 per cent women philosophers on their syllabus would be revolutionary.”

It is sometimes suggested that the “gladiatorial” style of much philosophical debate can alienate female students and potential students. Did Ms Buxton see room for improvement here, too?

While describing herself personally as “quite outspoken and up for an argument”, she agreed that “the aggressive, macho stuff is off-putting to a lot of women…Philosophy has become a fierce competition to out-argue each other, and the academic structure of the discipline hasn’t helped that.

“You have to have journals and publications which rip to pieces somebody’s arguments. There are almost no papers which say: ‘I basically agree with this person, with a couple of alterations.’…If all your colleagues are trying to tear you to pieces in order to get publications out of it, it doesn’t become any kind of collaborative exercise.”

So it was very much to be welcomed, Ms Buxton added, that we are now developing other styles of philosophy that “do involve unpacking and critiquing other people’s arguments, but which charitably help them to reconstruct their views in a more comprehensive way”.

Such developments were not only “much more welcoming” for women (or men) “who don’t like that Oxford Union style of debate” but were likely to “lead to much better philosophy”.


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