Why don’t women philosophers count as philosophers?

Plato’s dialogues tell us a great deal about what the Greek language was like in the 5th century BC and are a large part of Ancient Greek culture. This is why they are studied by philologists and classicists. Thucydides tells us a lot about the history and political theory of that period. Some of his writings also contribute to understanding the political philosophy of his time – which is probably why the Peloponesian Wars features on so many political philosophy reading lists. I have taught it myself – and there are a few bits which can serve the purpose of introducing argument, such as the Melian debate.


Wollstonecraft is also a philosopher who is read in other disciplines. She wrote two novels, so it makes a lot of sense to read her in English literature. And she was a pioneering feminist, so gender and women studies will of course claim her. This is great. Some philosophy is only of interest to (a small subset of) academic philosophers – this is a natural consequence of specilization. But we need some of the work we do to be considered generally relevant if we want our desire to be specialised to be taken seriously. When we educate undergraduates, we need to help them read texts that matter, not just to academic philosophers, but to humanity in general. And we should expect a lot of cross overs with other disciplines.


So that’s to say that I hold no beef against people from outside philosophy departments who study Wollstonecraft. Or Christine de Pizan. Or Heloise. Or Catherine Macaulay. Or Simone de Beauvoir. Or, to cut a long story short, any historical female philosopher. I’m happy to share. I don’t think that only philosophers should read and discuss these authors.


Indeed, when I was in London a few weeks ago, for a conference on Wollstonecraft, I was glad to see that as well as philosophers, there were people from many other disciplines. And when I walked into a large bookshop in Bloomsbury, and climbed all the way up to the philosophy section, I though I might bump into a few of them. Except I didn’t, because the books I was looking for – any thing on Wollstonecraft (ok, I was there to see if they stocked my book on Wollstonecraft) – weren’t there. I asked, and I was taken to the Gender Studies section. This, despite the fact that the preface of my book states specifically that one of its purposes is to re-instate the Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a philosophy text!


This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Female authors are not part of the philosophical canon to the extent that they should be. Yet they are taught and read in other departments. So who are we to demand that the books be moved from their shelves onto ours? Should we behave like spoiled children, who having discarded a toy, want it back just because another child is playing with it? Should we ask bookshops to stock it twice? This doesn’t sound right either – presumably they don’t have more space than they can use.

Coming out of the bookshop, I felt slighty cheated. The absence of women philosophers from philosophy bookshelves is symptomatic of a sad state of affairs. But it also re-inforces that very state of affairs. Even if we do buy most of our books online, a student browsing bookshelves will get an idea of what counts and what doesn’t count as philosophy, and what might of might not be worth reading. I had genuinely thought that the work I put into my book would contribute to re-instating Wollstonecraft as a philosopher, that it would seem more reasonable to add her name to reading lists if there was a guidebook available. But I was seeing larger than I could bite. Of course, this isn’t a one person’s job. It’s a job for a community of philosophers working together to promote her work, to show the world of academic philosophy that it’s worth spending time thinking about Wollstonecraft, and this is what has been happening in London last month, and in Lund last year, and hopefully again next year.


When I got home I wrote to the publishers, and they assured me that the decision to put a book in one section or another rests with individual bookstores. This, of course, makes it very difficult to address the issue. One cannot petition every single bookshop about every single female author.


I would like to swallow my pride and accept that the field I work in is simply marginal – history is no longer a big deal amongst philosophers, and feminist history of philosophy is a small sub-section of that. But then, I would agree to my field being marginalised because it deals with women, as male historical figures are still snugly ensconced in the philosophy shelves.


But maybe we should prioritise getting living, not dead, female philosophers in the spotlight, making sure that they get the publicity and recognition they deserve when they do write books, and that they have the same encouragement and opportunities to write them as their male counterparts.


This strikes me as unnecessarily compromising – no one is going to suggest that we should only move Wollstonecraft to the philosophy shelves if we move out another woman author to make space ! (at least I hope they wouldn’t). But more than that, I feel that this attitude is self-undermining. Surely part of the reason why women don’t do as well as men in philosophy departments is that they don’t correspond to the image we have of what a philosopher should be like. Generally, trying to change a cultural image that we hold responsible for a bias is hard to the point of being fruitless – where do we start ? But I suppose that in philosophy we are lucky, as very few people derive their perceptions of what a philosopher should be like outside of studying philosophy. There are no other points of reference. What this means is that it should in principle not be too hard to change these perceptions : all that needs to be done is re-introduce women philosophers to the curricula of philosophy departments. If that were to happen, if Wollstonecraft was taught in, say, London, alongside Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant, there would be no question but that she should be shelved in philosophy in the Gower street bookshop. Bookshops don’t go by prejudice, they go by demand.


If it is that simple one really has to ask why it’s not done, and why there is so much resistance to the introduction of female authors in history of philosophy curricula (and I won’t even address the possibility that it is because they are not as good : any one who has read the Vindication will know that it is a rich text, well worth teaching at undergraduate and graduate level). That women authors have been excluded from the philosophical canon is well documented. There’s a whole special issue on this in Hypatia, and many other papers including those by Eileen O’Neill and Jonathan Ree.

Of course, this recovery project only addresses part of the issue : bias in philosophy is complex, and not just about philosophical preconceptions, but cultural, professional, academic, and intellectual too, so introducing more women in the history of philosophy curricula won’t get all as far as we need to get, but it will be a non-negligeable progress.



(Check out the syllabi for University of London colleges and in particular the history of philosophy courses in which Wollstonecraft – or some other early modern woman writer, could feature: UCL  KCL  Birkbeck  Heythrop)

This post was written for the Philosophy Carnaval, hosted by Brandon on Siris.


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2 Responses to Why don’t women philosophers count as philosophers?

  1. Anca Gheaus says:

    Maybe petitioning lots of libraries about lots of female philosophers *is* the way to go in this case…

  2. Pingback: Lees vrouwen: hoe je je blikveld kunt verruimen en de stilte verbreken | De Zesde Clan

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