Diversity in Academe 2013

Wanted: Female Philosophers, in the Classroom and in the Canon

Marta Antelo

October 11, 2009

The study of philosophy is a pillar of a liberal education. It is an opportunity for students to examine their lives and deepen their knowledge of existence. It would be hard to find a philosophy student who has escaped the very definition of the term itself, which translates from the Greek to mean the love of wisdom. Yet, for a field so profoundly shaped by understanding human experience, it is surprising that its students are hardly representative of humankind.

Recent national statistics show that women earned 31 percent of bachelor's degrees in philosophy in 2006-7, compared with 41 percent in history, 45 percent in mathematics, 60 percent in biology, and 69 percent in English, to name several other fields. Moreover, women earned just 27 percent of philosophy doctorates in 2006, and they currently make up only 21 percent of professional philosophers. These low figures have left some wondering: What is the cause, and is there anything we can do about it?

Scholars have offered many explanations for the numbers, some of which include the tendency that some professors may have for favoring their male students, or the small number of female mentors. But if the number of women in philosophy is ever to approximate the number of men, then it is also necessary to recognize the difficulties raised by the canon of philosophy. That the canon as it stands is almost entirely composed of men—including many who have little good to say about women—cannot but contribute to an unwelcoming environment. In fact, there is reason to believe that most of the gender disparity in philosophy stems from the canon itself.

Ask a student to name philosophers from history, and she will probably rattle off Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, and Kant. The cliché that philosophy is the study of dead white men persists for a reason. If women have trouble finding a female role model in their departments, then they will have even more trouble searching for one in the canon.

The predicament is more acute when we turn to what great philosophers have to say about women. Take, for instance, Aristotle's claim that women exist to do household work so that men can participate in political life. Locke, who was considered radical in his day for arguing that parents ought to share authority, nonetheless undercuts this when he says that a wife should subordinate her judgment to her husband, who is "abler and stronger." Rousseau insists on natural equality, yet claims that women are to be dependent upon men. He also tells us that women are simply not that interesting: "Women in general do not love any art, are not knowledgeable in any, and have no genius." Nietzsche praises Napoleon's statement that women ought to stay out of politics. As if that were not enough, he also complains that women are bad cooks who have "delayed human development."

How is that for a welcome mat?

Nonetheless, maybe there is still reason to doubt whether the canon is to blame. Other disciplines, such as history, English, and the sciences, also have male-dominated canons, but they attract comparatively more women than philosophy does. For that reason, one might conclude that the cause of gender disparity in philosophy is not the canon.

However, that would be wrong. For starters, one explanation for why there are more women in history and English is that researchers and teachers in those fields have taken steps to offset the negative consequences of a male-dominated canon. Numerous English scholars, for instance, bring a critical approach to the interpretation of patriarchal texts, while also raising awareness of the literary works by women. Similarly, many historians reframe the annals by attending to the historical contributions of all members of society—including women.

It is also important to keep in mind that sexism in the canon has the potential to affect philosophy students to a far greater degree than those of other disciplines. That is because unlike the canonical figures in English and history, those in philosophy are models for philosophy students. Consider that the virtue of a philosophy student is how well she is able to think through the arguments of a given philosopher; we would say that a student who is able to follow the logic of Aristotle has gone far in developing as a philosopher. Conversely, it would be odd to say that the virtue of a history major is how well she acts like the great Athenian general Pericles, or that the virtue of an English major is how well she writes like Shakespeare. Philosophy demands that its students identify more closely with its canonical figures. If the disciplines were Kabuki actors, then philosophy would be the guy who tattooed his makeup on. This helps explain why there are so few women in philosophy: Where is the pleasure in identifying with a thinker who has exceptionally low expectations for you?

Science students are like philosophy students insofar as they are also evaluated on the basis of how closely they hew to the methods of other scientists. However, the ideas of great scientists are more abstracted from the original texts than they are in philosophy. Many students will have read Aristotle's Politics. But how many will have studied Darwin's The Descent of Man? Comparatively few. Both texts defend women's inferiority, but it is Aristotle's work that will find a shelf in numerous undergraduates' dorms.

To reiterate the problem, I would argue that there are few women in philosophy because the canon is sexist and there is little being done about it. Put in this light, the solution is obvious: Philosophers need to consider the misogynist passages of great philosophers in a critical manner. That is, they must mainstream feminist philosophy. Such an approach would allow students to appreciate the virtues of great philosophical texts while also providing them with the tools to rigorously address the morally questionable passages. It will also have another excellent outcome: It will reintroduce many women philosophers into the canon.

Philosophers such as Christine de Pisan (1364-1430), Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708), Mary Astell (1668-1731), and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) devoted most of their careers to defending women. Never heard of most of them? Neither have most philosophers, which is unfortunate because of the wonderful objections these women raise against the sexist comments of male philosophers.

Take, for instance, Pisan, who says that despite Aristotle's ability to do metaphysics and logic, he did not have the strength of mind to deal rationally with issues of gender. Or consider Astell, who attacks Locke's double standards and says, "If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?"

Furthermore, these women philosophers each develop theories that provide positive visions of women and their place in the world. Masham, for example, sees mothers' love for their children as key to an orderly society. Astell goes a step further and argues that maternal insight need not be restricted to the care for children, but that it is also a powerful political tool that can be used to usher in an age of peace.

To summarize, the benefit of taking feminist philosophy seriously is great: It would weaken the male bias in the field, which would go a long way toward boosting the numbers of women in philosophy. However, making this change may prove to be a Sisyphean effort. Top departments rarely offer a course in feminist philosophy, let alone have a specialist in the field. In addition, feminist issues appear in only 2.36 percent of articles in leading philosophy journals, according to an article by Sally Haslanger, a professor in the department of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Why such little interest in feminist philosophy? One possibility is that many philosophers do not think feminist issues are genuine philosophical issues; that is, pure thought has no gender. Yet many feminist scholars counter that even the most abstract philosophical concepts can be influenced by our thoughts on gender. Even if some professional philosophers do not agree with that view, doesn't being a responsible philosopher require that students be exposed to that line of thought?

Moreover, it cannot be denied that the consequences of abstract thought often have implications for the lives of women. We need only keep in mind that most philosophers of the Western tradition conclude that women are men's inferiors and destined for a life of the home.

Another possible reason that philosophers are reluctant to take on a feminist critique of the canon is that it would require taking seriously the misogynous comments of great philosophers, an activity that is not politically correct. Imagine how a professor might go about doing this: "Today, class, we will discuss Aristotle's reasons for why the best life is a political life, after which we will turn to his arguments for why women are degenerates." According to this view, even pointing to the sexist passages of great thinkers would be like condoning them; it is more socially responsible to ignore them.

Yet that argument does not hold up. For one thing, students may very well come across misogynous texts on their own, outside of class. It is also not realistic to think we can simply pass over these sections in class, because in most cases it is impossible to remove misogynous comments without doing overall damage to the meaning of the work itself.

And so, social responsibility demands that professors discuss these passages and provide students with the tools to deal with them in a rigorous manner.

The effort to get philosophers to seriously consider gender issues is not new. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill argued in his essay "The Subjection of Women" that there were few women in philosophy because philosophers who devoted their lives to investigating human experience were simply unconcerned with the condition of women. Mill is one of the greatest philosophers in the canon, whose ideas still dominate discussions of ethics and political philosophy today. Nevertheless, of all his texts, "The Subjection of Women" is rarely required reading.

Regan Penaluna teaches philosophy at St. John's University in New York and is writing a book on early women philosophers.