• September 1, 2015

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

Wanted: Female Philosophers, in the Classroom and in the Canon 1

Marta Antelo

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Marta Antelo

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.


1. 11214722 - October 12, 2009 at 10:38 am

I find the same issues (only more so!) in philosophy's sister discipline: theology.

2. caring - October 12, 2009 at 03:31 pm

While women are still not entirely respected in such disciplines as Philosophy, we must realize that now is well-nigh the time to be careful; we do not want to credit ourselves because we are women as much as we want to be acknowledged and understood as wise and significant as men--not at least or at best--but simply because Locke is not Wittgenstein and Nietzsche is not Kierkegaard. See? So, as soon as the day comes when we can say Gillian is not "whatshername?" then sooner we will be able to say, "Pearson is a far cry from Gillian." Midley? I'm sorry, I know Descartes, Hume, Flew, and many other men in philosophy and related fields but I'm sure I'm messing up Midge's (?) name, and I have one of her books on ethics! Well, there's the proof:
Premise: People say that they may have heard of a woman philosopher.
Premise: People may have even read something she wrote.
Premise: Just because we have heard of read something from someone, does not mean we remember them unless they are important enough to remember.
Conclusion: Women in philosophy are still not realized as important enough to remember. Why??? Could it be because we shoot ourselves in the foot when we feel compelled to be "women" philosophers instead of philosophers? If we continue to blame men for our suppression, oppression, and victimization, how much longer will it take us to become philosophers and recognized as philosophers? Instead of dwelling on the socio-politico-economic discrimination against whom, let us analyze it in order to 1. understand it, 2. understand it with more insight. 3. work in a cooperative effort with men and women in philosophy in order to achieve a more enlightened philosophy about wisdom, intellect, and intuition as not man or woman, but as human.


3. caring - October 12, 2009 at 03:39 pm

I agree that theology is over-dominated by men, but whose fault it that? The men? I weary philosophically and theologically as well as spiritually and humanly at victimhood. We will continue to stay stuck, suppressed, and unrealized as theologians, spiritual guides, philosophers and so on and on as long as we cling like the dickens to victimhood. Yes, many people have been victimized, but I remember something Maya Angelou wrote, "Still I rise. I rise, I rise, I rise!" Hallejulah! I mean, well, I believe readers know what I mean.


4. kjnorlock - October 14, 2009 at 04:17 pm

I wish to add that we know what works in the anthropology of gender equity: Recognizing difference, talking about it, and noting that it matters helps minority students acclimate to an extraordinary degree. Insisting that gender does not matter, that it isn't there, and that you don't even notice your students have colors or genders has been proven to be a recipe for disengagement. The best way to get someone to give up and quit is to tell them you don't see them.

I stress this because I think it is an American habit to insist that one is color blind or gender blind. I suspect that this is exactly why Stephen Colbert successfully gets laughs when he milks his insistence of his "blindness" on his television show. We laugh because we recognize it as an American cultural expectation, that gender/race/difference shouldn't matter, and that (well-intentioned) people affect not to notice it.

Therefore, I briefly criticized a commentator on Leiter's blog who stated that chauvinist comments are obviously irrelevant to philosophers' works. This is demonstrably untrue on notable occasions (Kant, in particular, reveals a great deal of fascinating metaphysical commitments in the course of detailing the scarce rational capacities of women). More importantly, to persist in insisting that we "read around" such comments in the canon is to continue to deny recognition to, or to misrecognize, those students in the room on the losing side of a gendered comment. I realize that to insist it is irrelevant is well-intentioned. However, it is not the way to proceed. It is also a partial answer as to why women and minorities do not get the impression that they are, as Margaret Walker has so eloquently said, "welcome to enter and expected to enter."

5. bdlerner - October 20, 2009 at 07:26 am

So - 69% of BAs in English went to women. In other words - only 31% of BAs in English went to men - the same percentage as that of women receiving BAs in philosophy. When will we see the headline "Wanted: Male Literary Scholars"?

6. snwiedmann - October 20, 2009 at 08:04 am

Thirteen (13) years ago, while a student in a Philosophy graduate program (I'm female), a male fellow-student was gently advised by his hoped-for dissertation supervisor to consider leaving with an M.A. and teaching in a community college. This advice was not a negative reflection on his perceived ability. Rather, the professor pointed out that, even with a Ph.D. in Philosophy in hand, he would still be "a white male in Philosophy with a degree from a program not in the top 20." In other words, he would be unlikely to find a tenure-track position. Another of my male fellow-students (at least as intelligent and talented as myself) had to adjunct for 6 or 7 years before securing a tenure-track position. I adjuncted for only two years before being hired into a tenure-track job at a comparable institution in the same state. Frankly, my own experience is that, when it comes to hiring decisions, women in Philosophy have an edge over their male counterparts. (And, yes, the foregoing is purely anecdotal. But it is still a part of a larger reality.)

I wonder, then, to what extent the gender imbalance in philosophy faculty is due to a reduction in philosophy faculty overall. We have nearly twice as many Philosophy Ph.D.'s looking for tenure-track positions as there are open positions. More and more institutions are either closing down their Philosophy Departments or scaling them down in size (the retirement of a professor in Philosophy results in the line going to a different department).

Finally, as an undergraduate female (when future Ph.D.'s get the bug) I never felt diminished or ignored by the (male-dominated) canon. I was smart enough to recognize the effects of culture in action. Does it really matter what was said about women hundreds of years ago? When it came to gender issues, Aristotle was wrong, obviuosly, now let's move on. To place all the blame on the canon seems a bit simplistic. Surely, there must be more to it than that.

7. pengland - October 23, 2009 at 09:07 am

Yep, English departments attract more women, and in fact my guess is that they attract a more overall diverse population than most other departments. Then they teach these students the critical stances you mention, and then they go about re-discovering important contributions of overlooked authors. Valuable work, to be sure.

And then the English departments pay their diverse grad student populations less than any other department on campus, assign them more classes with more students, and offer them less hope of a tenured position than any other disciplines.

So--have English departments targeted women and minorities so that they can have a cheap labor pool, continuing the subjugation against which they so ardently argue?


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