How to Think like a Woman: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind 
by Regan Penaluna.
Grove, 296 pp., £9.99, March, 978 1 80471 002 9
Show More
The Routledge Handbook of Women and Early Modern European Philosophy 
edited by Karen Detlefsen and Lisa Shapiro.
Routledge, 638 pp., £215, June 2023, 978 1 138 21275 6
Show More
Show More

Women in philosophy​ have always needed a special stroke of luck. Like men, they have usually had to be well-born, well-off, talented and – in the European tradition at least – white. But most women philosophers before the late 20th century needed something more: access to a man who held the uncommon view that women – or at least certain women – could be serious thinkers too. The odds were long. For centuries, philosophers hammered prejudice into reason. Aristotle’s claim that in women reason was ‘not sovereign’ travelled across the universities of medieval Europe, even though he and other ancient male authorities lived and wrote alongside women who were evidence to the contrary. The Pythagoreans, Cynics, Cyrenaics, Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics are all thought to have had female participants. Plato admitted at least two women into his academy, Lasthenia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius (Axiothea is said by Diogenes to have worn men’s clothes); his Symposium is our only source for the philosopher and priestess Diotima, who, with Aspasia, is one of two women we are told taught Socrates. In his Republic, Plato said that women could be philosopher-rulers (a fact that earned the dialogue a place on many women’s studies syllabuses in the 1970s), though in his late dialogue Timaeus, he suggests that the fate of cowardly and unrighteous men is to be reborn as women. This ambivalence towards women didn’t trouble Erasmus. Plato’s aim, he wrote in The Praise of Folly (1511), was ‘to show how flagrant is the folly of the sex’. To which he added his own gloss: ‘If by chance some woman wishes to be thought of as wise, she does nothing but show herself twice a fool … a woman is always a woman – that is, a fool, whatever part she may have chosen to play.’

In medieval and early modern Europe, philosophers – with help from learned lawyers, medics and theologians – developed what became the dominant view in Western philosophy: that women were neither made for, nor capable of, reasoned thought. As the scholar Bathsua Makin put it in 1673, ‘it is verily believed … that Women are not endued with such Reason, as Men; nor capable of improvement by Education, as they are. It is lookt upon as a monstrous thing, to pretend the contrary. A Learned Woman is thought to be a Comet, that bodes Mischief, when ever it appears.’ Combining with ideas about the function and virtues of Christian women, this view ensured the near total exclusion of women from the burgeoning educational institutions, from schools, universities, societies and libraries, and from the pursuits for which higher education was necessary. (It is easy to forget how recently this was still the case. When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge sixteen years ago, one don was said to wear a black armband on the anniversary of the day in 1978 when women were first admitted to the college.)

Behind nearly every woman philosopher in the period before the widespread admission of women to academic institutions was a man willing to provide access to an education otherwise denied. In many cases this was her father: we might think of Christine de Pizan, whose father was astrologer to Charles V of France, or Damaris Masham, whose father was Ralph Cudworth, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge from 1645. Anna Maria Van Schurman began her Latin tract on Women’s Aptitude for Knowledge and Higher Learning (or, as the English translation subtitled it ‘Whether a Maid may be a Scholar?’) of 1641 by acknowledging that ‘few are fortunate to have parents who either want or are able to educate them themselves.’ On his deathbed, Van Schurman’s father, her first tutor, begged her to avoid ‘the inextricable, extremely iniquitous worldly shackles of marriage’.

An intellectually ambitious woman without an enlightened father might adopt what the historian Sarah Gwyneth Ross calls a ‘filial persona’ to secure support without scandal – and it required all the genuflection one might expect. ‘I commit myself to your boundless dignity, wisdom and authority,’ Isotta Nogarola wrote to the celebrated humanist pedagogue Guarino Veronese in 1436. ‘I esteem you even in the place of my own father … whatever is honourable and praiseworthy in me, I profess that it has come from you.’ After reading his Essais at eighteen, Marie Le Jars de Gournay befriended Montaigne, who made her his fille d’alliance and then his editor (which makes one wonder about this line from the Essais: ‘When I see [well-born women] intent on rhetoric, astrology, logic and similar drugs, so vain and useless for their needs, I begin to fear that the men who advise them to do this, do so as a means of gaining authority over them under this pretext.’)

After she had exhausted her tutors, Elisabeth of Bohemia – nicknamed ‘La Grecque’ by her family for her love of philosophy – found a willing interlocutor in René Descartes. In his Principia Philosophiae (1644), Descartes wrote that Elisabeth was the ‘only person I have so far found who has completely understood all my previously published works’. In one letter he set her the problem of the three circles – to find a circle that touches three given circles on a plane – and then worried it was too hard. But she replied with a solution, one which he recognised as more elegant than his own and which taught him something about algebraic geometry. Elisabeth was the first to offer what is now considered a standard objection to Descartes’s dualism (how can the material body and the immaterial mind interact?). Her letters to him quickly gained a reputation among contemporaries as the key to understanding his notoriously complicated method. But she also developed philosophical views of her own, as Lisa Shapiro has argued.

The late 17th-century English philosopher Mary Astell benefited from a series of amenable gatekeepers: her father, who allowed her to study with a Cambridge-educated uncle; her uncle, who saw her potential and decided to nurture it, and who left his large library to her; the archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, who acceded to her request for charity and put her in touch with the publisher Richard Wilkin, who printed almost all of her works; and the one-time Oxford philosopher and theologian John Norris, who encouraged her thinking and who in 1695 published their Letters Concerning the Love of God, thus saving Astell’s letters to him from the abyss into which much of her correspondence fell. Her opening letter, written on 21 September 1693 when she was 26 and unpublished, acknowledges that ‘some morose Gentlemen wou’d perhaps remit me to the Distaff or the Kitchin,’ but she expected ‘better things’ from Norris, ‘who is not so narrow-Soul’d as to confine Learning to his own Sex, or to envy it in ours’. He in return praised Astell’s ‘clearness and Strength of reasoning’, but admitted that after receiving her letter he needed ‘some time to recover my self out of that wonder I was cast into, to see such a Letter from a Woman’.

These women philosophers required a good deal of grit. As the historian Carol Pal has shown, many 17th-century women scholars went out of their way to forge intergenerational networks of sorority, recognising that while men were needed to access a life of letters, they could not be relied on to sustain women in that life (Astell would eventually be patronised by a group of unmarried aristocratic women). Neither of Marie de Gournay’s parents showed much interest in educating their daughter; her autobiography says that in ‘stolen moments she learned her letters alone’. In 1588, she wrote for support to the Flemish neostoic philosopher Justus Lipsius, who replied:

Who are you, who writes to me thus? A maiden? I can scarcely credit that fact. Is it possible that these things – I will not even mention the reading and the talents, but the prudence and judgment – fall to the lot of that sex, in an age such as ours? Maiden, you have unsettled me.

The two corresponded for several years and after Montaigne’s death in 1593 Lipsius offered to be her frère d’alliance. But just under a decade later, he discouraged Jan Moretus, a printer friend, from publishing a book of poetry by a woman: ‘I once praised that French girl and now neither I nor (perhaps) others are very happy with my judgment. It is a deceitful sex, more shine than substance.’

Even when men recognised their intelligence, learned women were usually cast as exceptions to a rule – ‘a miracle or a monster of nature’, as one of Van Schurman’s (male) eulogisers put it. Astell observed how often men described successful women as ‘acting above their sex’. ‘By which one must suppose,’ she went on, ‘that they were not Women who did those Great Actions, but that they were Men in Petticoats!’ Some men, in trying to police boundaries, came close to deconstructing them. In his reply to Nogarola, Veronese gave her a bit of advice: ‘You must create a man within the woman.’

From at least the 15th century, some of these women philosophers insisted that they were not exceptions to the rule of female inferiority, but evidence that the rule was nothing more than a popular fiction. Bathsua Makin’s Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673) includes chapters dedicated to showing that women had ‘understood logick’ and ‘been profound Philosophers’. Another strategy involved, as Van Schurman put it, ‘the guilty men [having] their own weapons turned against them’. Sometimes this was by other men. A lovely, little-known example sits in the Bodleian Library. In a manuscript written around 1630, William Page, a fellow of All Souls, flipped on its head the prelapsarian hierarchy that Aquinas and other theologians used Aristotle to defend, according to which Eve was naturally subject to Adam. Page agreed that in Eden some order of ruler and ruled would have been necessary, and similarly endorsed Aristotle’s principle that in every pair there is a pre-eminent part. But if, as the theologians also claimed, women’s punishment for the Fall was subjection to her husband then it must follow that ‘woman in the state of innocency had the sovereignty over the man.’ Gotcha.

Women philosophers regularly charged men with the fallacy of confusing custom for nature. When asked, in The Book of the City of Ladies (1405), whether women have ‘a clever enough mind’ for ‘great learning’ given ‘men maintain that the mind of women can learn only a little,’ de Pizan’s Lady Reason responds that ‘the opposite of their opinion is true … if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and if they were then taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and sciences as well as sons.’ For Moderata Fonte, writing in the late 16th century, notions of women’s inferiority were ‘an abuse that has been introduced into the world and that men have gradually translated into law and custom, so entrenched that they claim (and actually believe) that the status they have gained by bullying is theirs by right’. Her solution was armed conflict.

By the late 17th century, the techniques men used to maintain their supremacy had come under intense scrutiny. Astell was withering about the coercion and absurdity involved in men’s pursuit of epistemic control: their insistence, for example, that claims vulnerable to counter-evidence were ‘self-evident and fundamental truth’ and the punishment of reasonable dissent ‘like Sedition at least, if not Treason’. In 1705, Masham observed that ‘laws and edicts’ were not necessary to ‘restrain’ a woman from learning: ‘It is sufficient for this that no body assists them in it; and that they are made to see betimes that it would be disadvantageous to them to have it’ – disadvantageous in part because female intelligence provoked such derision.

If asked for the origins of the view that patriarchy is not a natural state but a system organised by men, for men, that philosophy has been its handmaiden, that invocations of intellectual objectivity are often dubious, that sexist ‘necessities’ are contingent, most people would tell you to look to the 1970s. But here is the philosopher Poulain de la Barre writing three hundred years earlier:

All laws seem to have been passed simply to maintain men’s possession of what they currently have. Almost all those who were considered learned and who addressed questions about women said nothing favourable about them. Indeed, one finds that men’s conduct in this respect is so uniform, in every century and throughout the whole world, that it seems as if they conspired … On what basis, then, could one be certain that women are less gifted than us and that it is not luck, but some insurmountable necessity, that prevents them from participating as equals in society?

Poulain’s De l’égalité des deux sexes was published in 1673. He was inspired in part by the Cartesian distinction between mind and body (‘the mind has no sex’) but also by trips he made to various towns and cities to speak to women ‘of every social class’.

Poulain described the way in which male society would ‘assign’ women certain tasks, which, once institutionalised, create the belief that women were ‘incapable of doing anything else’. This artifice gripped and limited the imagination, producing a worldly pessimism: ‘People find it very difficult to imagine that things could easily have been different, and it even seems as if we could never change the current situation no matter how hard we tried.’ In 1739, the pseudonymous ‘Sophia’ (some speculate Mary Wortley Montagu or Sophia Fermor, though there is little evidence) built on Poulain’s work to argue that those who inferred an ‘ought’ from the ‘is’ of women’s exclusion from public life were committing a fallacy. As Desmond Clarke points out in the preface to his edition of Poulain, Hume published The Treatise of Human Nature, famous among contemporary philosophers for introducing the ‘is-ought’ problem, just a year later. Did he know Sophia’s essay? It’s not impossible. If Sophia was a woman then philosophers have for centuries attributed to a man the discovery of a problem already identified by a woman who was herself trying to expose philosophy’s sexism. That seems unbearable, but maybe it’s glorious.

Early modern women philosophers saw the solution to their situation in education: if men made women a certain way then they might be unmade, made different. But they only went so far. Early modern women philosophers spoke of their metaphorical chains, without having much to say about the yoke of poverty or the shackles of chattel slavery. For all her talk of fetters, Astell never mentions the branks – an iron head cage with a sharp spike that sliced the tongue should its wearer try to speak, which was used as a punishment for ‘scolds and shrews’ (almost always poor women) in Newcastle, where she grew up. In 1789, Olaudah Equiano recorded a similar device being used on an enslaved woman in Virginia.

In an enduring dynamic, some early modern women philosophers policed the boundaries of sex more ferociously than their male peers. Making an argument for the education of women, or the equality of minds, was consistent with supporting a range of social, political, economic and ecclesiastical hierarchies, including the subordination of wives to husbands, and the exclusion of women from politics and preaching. In practice, women’s education was often more concerned with increasing godliness than developing talent. Nonetheless, the education for which several early modern women thinkers called – Makin, Van Schurman and Astell among them – was not limited to needlework and dancing or Church dogma. Women were to be taught philosophy; and, moreover, to learn that women’s thinking itself had a history. With that, old prejudice might transform into new custom.

Were​ they right? Regan Penaluna has written a book about her experiences in philosophy which suggests that it remains ‘a subject dominated by white men’ who create a climate ‘unfriendly, sometimes even hostile, to women’. The teachers she encountered as a graduate student in the early 2000s dismissed philosophy’s history of prejudice, refused to include women on their syllabuses and oversaw classrooms that transformed young women from confident, enthusiastic pupils into nervous, self-doubting shadows. Despite securing a tenure track job, she eventually left academia.

Penaluna’s book started life as an essay which, when excerpted on the popular philosophy blog ‘Daily Nous’, led some men in the comments to question the representativeness of her experience. They’d been taught the work of Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot in the 1980s! Could things be as bad as all that? ‘Probably not,’ someone called Brian replied.

To suggest that a culture of sexism might be disproved by the presence of a few women who are granted exceptional status is, among other things, to show an ignorance of the discipline’s history. (Wittgenstein, Anscombe’s beloved teacher, was notorious for making life hard for female students; when he had seen off all from his lectures except Anscombe, the exception he had nicknamed ‘old man’, he turned to her and said: ‘Thank God we’ve got rid of the women!’) It is also to dismiss the testimony of women who made their way through the discipline in the 1980s. The philosopher Sally Haslanger, a professor at MIT, got her PhD in philosophy in 1985, the only woman in her cohort at Berkeley. After she received a distinction in her preliminary exams, her fellow students called for her to take ‘a blood test to determine if I was really a woman’. In a recent interview, Anita Allen, one of the first black women in the US to get a PhD in philosophy, recalled an encounter with her white dissertation chairman, the moral philosopher Richard Brandt, in 1980: ‘He stood over me, lifted my chin towards him and remarked that I looked like a maid his family had once employed.’

Have things changed? When I told my undergraduate supervisor I wanted to study feminist political philosophy he rolled his eyes and asked why I would opt for something ‘so relentlessly unserious’. At the end of a tutorial on Rosa Luxemburg, the only woman thinker on our course, another professor, some 45 years my senior, blocked my exit and went in for the kiss. (An error of judgment in more ways than one: I was also lusting after girls my age.) During one lecture, on Hegel I think, Raymond Geuss paused and launched into a poem he later published on Hannah Arendt: ‘She lived as a hausfrau/thought as a hausfrau/and died/as a hausfrau/doing the shopping.’ I find Arendt as intellectually exciting as cold toast. But hausfrau? Really? When I think of it now, I’m reminded of Poulain’s response to Aristotle’s claim that women are monstrous: ‘If a woman, no matter how learned, had written the same about men, she would lose all credibility.’

I expected some resistance to Penaluna’s account from my women friends in philosophy, since they have all by any measure succeeded in the discipline. But one told me that at a welcome drinks on her first day in graduate school a famous philosopher grabbed her arm and made her sit on his lap. In the seminar room, the young men would talk over her, assuming she knew nothing by comparison. Another described a now defunct online message board where anonymous peers (and, who knows, perhaps also faculty) would speculate about whose dicks women had sucked to get where they were. One of the men alleged to have run the board is still in the discipline. And the women? ‘It’s often your cohort that want to destroy you,’ one woman I spoke to said.

These women pointed me to the stories collected on the blog ‘What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?’ Alongside the accounts of sexual harassment and gaslighting is an unsettling post which asks whether feelings of inadequacy are the product of an undoubtedly prejudicial culture or an accurate perception of one’s capacities. A problem with some invocations of ‘imposter syndrome’ is that they don’t take seriously the value of healthy intellectual humility: sometimes the issue really is you. Thinking can be painful and alienating and lonely and hard. If you’re doing it well, you will come up against your limits. The trick is to work out when to persevere and when to admit defeat, to see progress even in failure. This is tough for anyone. The bias, sexualisation and contempt faced by women in philosophy doesn’t just complicate judgments about their abilities, it can lead them into spirals of self-doubt. Is it me or is it them?

In the US and the UK, women are less well represented than men at all levels in philosophy. A pyramid effect is visible across institutions in which the proportion of women decreases with each increase in seniority. When race is brought into consideration too, the situation is even worse. Of an estimated 10,000 people with PhDs in philosophy in the US in 2018, 38 were black women. Some philosophers will tell you that the problem is the pipeline, that the disparities are explained by a process of socialisation which takes place before university and over which academics have no control. But this doesn’t explain why philosophy has a worse gender ratio of PhD recipients than many STEM subjects. Could the problem lie with philosophy itself? Mathematicians are presumably as sexist as anyone else; but the discipline’s canonical texts do not assert the intellectual inferiority of anyone who isn’t a man of European descent.

Consider the relative percentages of women choosing to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy in the US and UK. In the US, from the mid-1980s to 2016, women received around a third of all philosophy BAs. In the same period, they made up around 25 per cent of philosophy PhDs. The percentage drop from undergraduate to graduate was around 8 per cent. (The latest study suggests the drop is decreasing, with 39 per cent women at BA level and 34 per cent at PhD.) In the UK, by contrast, a 2021 study showed near parity at the undergraduate level: 48 per cent of philosophy BAs were taken by women. But women made up only a third (32 per cent) of completed PhDs: a drop of 16 per cent.

American universities allow you to decide on your major after taking at least a couple of courses in the subject; in Britain, you choose a degree subject while still at school and, in the case of philosophy, often before you’ve ever been taught it. Could the ratio of women to men in undergraduate philosophy in the US, and the greater percentage drop in women philosophers from BA to PhD in the UK, have the same cause: women’s experience in the philosophy classroom?

Penaluna’s memoir is structured around her extramural discovery of four early modern women philosophers: three near contemporaries – Masham, Astell and Catharine Trotter Cockburn – and Mary Wollstonecraft, born almost a century later. Together they offered an ‘intellectual community’ at a time when she was ‘struggling without one’. Her reason for focusing on these four thinkers, contrary to an uncharitable New York Times review, isn’t ‘simply that each is female’; Penaluna is drawn to these women, she says, because they all diagnosed and resisted male attempts to diminish their intellects. Here her title – How to Think Like a Woman – might mislead. Her point is not to endorse essentialist nonsense about women’s minds, but to ask how these philosophers came to think at all, in spite of a culture that said that they, as women, couldn’t.

Penaluna takes succour from history, but in so doing she sometimes flattens out its complications, and interest. At one point, she asks whether philosophy’s canonical figures have endured only because they have been sanitised: ‘I sometimes wonder what Aristotle was like in bed. Did gold chains hit his chest? Did he like to tongue ass?’ But sanitisation hasn’t always been a precondition of canonisation. Indeed, at the height of his philosophical reputation, a lot of people imagined Aristotle having sex. In medieval Europe a popular literary topos involved the representation of men dominated by women. One example saw Aristotle seduced by his pupil Alexander’s consort, Phyllis. Up to mischief, she insisted that Aristotle attend their tryst on his hands and knees and let her ride him about like a horse, which he did. Medieval artists took to this with gusto. Phyllis riding Aristotle was cast in brass and sculpted in stone and ivory, depicted on carpets, tapestries and stained-glass windows, and in multiple woodcuts and engravings. My favourite is Hans Baldung’s from 1515. A smirking, corpulent Phyllis sits side-saddle, naked save her hat, whip in one hand, reins in the other, a bit in the mouth of her buff steed. The story is meant as a cautionary tale, but it was also about titillation, and bringing intellectuals down to earth. It was entirely consistent with Aristotle’s place on the curriculum of almost every European university.

There are excellent reasons to return to thinkers such as Astell, many of which have nothing to do with their views on women. Are there good feminist reasons? Penaluna assumes so, though she tends to focus on the way studying these figures makes her feel. We might say they are a salutary reminder that the case against misogyny has existed for a very long time. If so, they are also evidence against excessive faith in persuasion: several centuries of debunking patriarchy’s fallacies didn’t prevent the rise of Andrew Tate. They also serve as a reminder of feminism’s own internal tensions. The history of pro-women causes is littered with privileged women kicking down on those with fewer advantages. Perhaps the real feminist value in returning to these early modern women is to see more clearly the deep roots of what Susan Watkins calls ‘anti-discrimination feminism’ – the kind of feminism that looks at the status quo and asks only how the best-off women can get a foot in the door.

Penaluna is aware that not everyone will identify as she did with the four women she describes as ‘heroic voices’. She handles this old issue in feminist recovery as many have before her: acknowledge the problem – sure, Astell didn’t mean all women when she wrote ‘to the ladies’ – but offer little more than tokenism in response. She gives just a handful of paragraphs to women of colour, in a chapter titled ‘Bedtime Stories’.

In​ 1983, the intellectual historian Dale Spender wrote that ‘while men proceed on their developmental way, building on inherited traditions, women are confined to cycles of lost and found.’ Spender’s point was not only that women are often written out of history – a complaint that dates back to at least the 14th century and which became, by the mid-20th century, a resounding chorus – but that histories of women’s ideas are repeatedly effaced, leaving each generation to discover women thinkers anew.

This issue proves to be a source of tension for Penaluna, as it has been for others seeking to do this work of recovery. She admits that her four protagonists have not been ‘completely lost to history’. Yet, she also describes them as ‘lost feminist philosophers’ and presents herself as wanting to ‘shake up intellectual history’. This leads her to make claims that are themselves unwitting acts of erasure. We are told that de Pizan wasn’t recovered until the late 20th century, which would be news to, say, Charity Cannon Willard, whose 1936 MA thesis at Smith College was the start of a lifetime dedicated to de Pizan’s thought. And in her choice of Astell and Wollstonecraft, Penaluna opts for two women philosophers who have been the subjects of much important scholarship; her chapter on Astell, for instance, closely follows Ruth Perry’s magisterial biography.

Indeed, Penaluna’s invocation of the ‘forgotten women’ trope masks a major development: since the 1980s there has been a flourishing of scholarship, produced overwhelmingly by women, on historical women philosophers. The US arm of this movement gained force in 1981 when the philosopher Mary Ellen Waithe launched the Project on the History of Women in Philosophy; by 1995, she had produced four multi-authored volumes whose subjects were described as ‘not women on the fringes of philosophy, but philosophers on the fringes of history’. Since then, and alongside scholars in literature, history and women’s studies, conferences have been run, essays and monographs published, specialist journals started and series founded for scholarly editions of out-of-print primary texts. ‘The Other Voice’ series, edited by Margaret King and Albert Rabil in 1996 and originally published by Chicago, now runs to more than 150 volumes, primarily of texts by early modern women, several of whom are philosophers. Since 2017, the Oxford New Histories of Philosophy has expanded its focus beyond Europe, to include the works of Maria Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Im Yunjidang and Gang Jeongildang. In February, Waithe and Therese Boose Dykeman brought out a new edited collection, Women Philosophers from Non-Western Traditions: The First Four Thousand Years. (By comparison, Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy, published in 2010, doesn’t discuss the ideas of any woman writing before the 20th century, and then only Anscombe and Foot.)

Published​ a few months after Penaluna’s book, Karen Detlefsen and Lisa Shapiro’s Handbook of Women and Early Modern European Philosophy is a monument to this scholarly sea change and to the decades of quiet determination required to bring it about. Over 46 essays, the volume displays the breadth of philosophical themes tackled by women writing, mainly in Europe, from c.1560 until 1780, as well as the range of methods and genres they used to do it. In an essay on gender and canonisation, Lisa Shapiro emphasises that the story of women’s intellectual history is not one of linear progress. In 18th-century Germany, women were included in several mainstream histories of philosophy, only to vanish in those written a century later – a result, Sabrina Ebbersmeyer recently argued in the British Journal of the History of Philosophy, of attempts by 19th-century German philosophers to resist women’s increasingly vocal demands for access to university education. But when it comes to the last 150 or so years, the picture offered by the Routledge volume is not dissimilar to Penaluna’s. Histories of philosophy since the middle of the 19th century, Shapiro and Detlefsen write, have ‘effectively made the contributions of women disappear’. The thinkers on whom the volume focuses are described in one essay as ‘largely forgotten’ until thirty years ago, ‘their work overlooked’.

Whenever I read claims about ‘forgotten women’, I want to ask: ‘By whom?’ Feminists? Society? The ‘culture’? And why ‘forgotten’? Forgetting presupposes something once known, but the general ‘we’ who have ‘forgotten’ these women are also the ‘we’ who were not taught them in the first place. Such generalisations risk shifting the focus, and the responsibility, away from the agents of our ignorance: the historians and philosophers who made a world in which certain texts were deemed unworthy of preservation and the history of women’s thought was kept to the margins.

While it is true that the last forty years have given historical women philosophers a quality of attention never previously seen, such work was not without precedent. Caroline Dall’s Historical Pictures Retouched (1860) was framed as a corrective against the tendency of some 19th-century men to ignore women thinkers. Though Dall is unmentioned in the Routledge volume, she was concerned with several of the same figures: Astell and Wollstonecraft, yes, but also Maria Gaetana Agnesi and the natural philosopher Laura Bassi, who in 1732 became the second woman to receive a PhD and the first to teach in a European university. Dall gives a chapter to Cassandra Fedele, whom she reports as being ‘so skilled in philosophy … as to untie the Gordian knot when all other hands have failed’; Fedele appears only once, in a footnote, in the Routledge volume.

Women (and some men) have been trying to write women back into the history of philosophy for as long as men have been writing them out. If these histories are still little known, it must in part be due to the fact that over the last century and a half, as the discipline of intellectual history developed in both the US and Europe, the books and essays that charted its course – which give the field and its students a sense of what matters – have treated work on women’s ideas as unworthy of comment. This is not a complaint consigned to the past. In 2016, Richard Whatmore, a professor of modern history at St Andrews, published a book called What Is Intellectual History? which managed to stay silent on centuries of attempts to recover and reflect on women’s thinking. In answering the question of his title, Whatmore used the word ‘women’ only once, in relation to Rousseau, and ‘woman’ not at all. Some men, Judith Drake wrote in 1696, are reluctant to transmit ‘to Posterity, any thing that might shew the Weakness and Illegality of their Title to a Power they still exercise so arbitrarily, and are so fond of’.

The first woman in the US to discuss ‘intellectual history’ explicitly in print (at least as far as I can tell) was Gertrude Bustill Mossell in The Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894), a robust historical defence of black women’s intellectualism. Mossell had read Moses Coit Tyler, who is sometimes described as ‘inaugurating’ US intellectual history, but she implicitly criticised his restrictive – white and male – understanding of its sources: ‘The race has built up a literature of its own that must be studied by the future historian of the life of the American nation.’ She defended Phillis Wheatley, subject of an essay in the Routledge volume, from the racist disdain of Thomas Jefferson (‘Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry’), repeated by Tyler. And she drew attention to figures, such as Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells, who are increasingly read today for their contributions to political philosophy. Mossell’s book has never been discussed in any survey of intellectual history’s past.

‘Forgetting’ is a useful – and exculpatory – frame for patriarchy. But it is also a boon to capitalism. Books that participate in what we might call the ‘women’s recovery industry’ sell the lie that the only thing standing in the way of ‘equality’ is a lack of historical awareness (while often borrowing the hard-won scholarship of academics). The Women Who Made Modern Economics (2023) by the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, promised to ‘rediscover the stories of those whose contributions to economics have been overlooked for too long’. It was later revealed that she had lifted more than twenty of its passages from unacknowledged sources. None of the contributors to the Routledge volume is guilty of such cynicism – quite the opposite. But the same incentives to simplify the historiography exist in the academy, where ‘innovation’ and ‘impact’ determine the way scarce resources are distributed and some powerful male scholars prefer not to be reminded of the women they chose to ignore.

I have spent much of my adult life thinking about thinkers who wouldn’t think much of me. Sometimes the irony pleases me. Occasionally, it’s infuriating. ‘Do you know,’ I want to say, while reading that I’m weak-willed, garrulous and good only for babies, ‘who it is sitting here, engaging with your views, trying to get you right?’ Critics of an exclusively white male philosophical canon are sometimes accused of wanting to ‘erase the past’ in the service of contemporary agendas. This obscures how often those maligned by ‘the canon’ have called on their readers to study it. W.E.B. Du Bois summoned Aristotle and Aurelius; Martin Luther King called for American Socrateses. Toni Morrison saw that ‘canon building is empire building’, but did not ‘intend to live without Aeschylus or William Shakespeare’. Frances Beal, a founder of the Third World Women’s Alliance, argued that women of colour should study the ‘tradition’ in order to understand the ‘philosophical foundations’ of sexism and racism. Even Audre Lorde, who wrote that the master’s tools, at best, ‘may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game’, called for communication across ideological and experiential divides: ‘It is not difference which immobilises us, but silence.’ These are not calls to stop reading, but to read more.

One thing I can do is to teach my own students to read women thinkers – Christine de Pizan and Mary Astell but also Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Angela Davis – with the same care I was taught to read and love Thomas Hobbes. What happens when we take this author seriously, and afford her the attention and the generosity men have always received? As anyone who has read Machiavelli or Locke or Rousseau or Rawls knows, ‘great men’ have their share of false premises and shaky inferences. We assume her claims are choices. We trace the way she engages the past. We discuss the phenomena she names. We ask what future she hoped to bring into being.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 9 · 9 May 2024

In her review of the Routledge Handbook of Women and Early Modern European Philosophy, edited by Karen Detlefsen and Lisa Shapiro, Sophie Smith takes exception to the idea that ‘the thinkers on whom the volume focuses are described in one essay as “largely forgotten” … “their work overlooked”’ (LRB, 25 April). Smith uses this unacknowledged quotation of my own words to develop a theme: that women historians of philosophy are complicit in silencing their predecessors since use of the amnesia metaphor risks exonerating those responsible for marginalising women thinkers – the historians and philosophers and patriarchy in general. What I actually said was that women’s ‘contribution to philosophy was largely forgotten’, not that the philosophers in question were forgotten. Smith also ignores that I go on to criticise the standard accounts of the history of philosophy written by those she calls the ‘agents of our ignorance’.

It was not the purpose of my essay in the volume to review histories of philosophy. I am well aware that the fortunes of women thinkers have varied over time and that interest in them has historical precedents. The example that Smith cites (Caroline Dall’s Historical Pictures Retouched) had a few worthy predecessors, not least in Mary Hays’s Female Biography. But while such biographers of women helped to remind their readers that women had distinguished themselves intellectually, they didn’t actually have much to say about their contribution to philosophy.

Detlefsen and Shapiro rightly acknowledge that their volume is part of the recovery project dedicated to restoring knowledge of philosophy by women. It is disheartening that Smith, who is so clearly a beneficiary of that project, should characterise it as the ‘women’s recovery industry’, as if the contributors to the Routledge volume were jumping on a bandwagon of some kind. It is certainly the case that publishers are now eager to publish works by and on women philosophers – a far cry from the situation when Shapiro was trying to find a publisher for her translation of Elisabeth of Bohemia’s correspondence with Descartes. But it is a misrepresentation of the endeavours of those who work on the recovery of women philosophers to suggest that we are out to sell a lie, never mind ‘sell the lie that the only thing standing in the way of “equality” is a lack of historical awareness’.

Well and good that it is now possible to teach students about women thinkers even in elite universities, as Smith does, and that students are now able not only to study women philosophers, but to do so with the aid of secondary literature like the essays in the Routledge volume. Resources of this kind were not readily available to students sixteen years ago when, as Smith reports, she was a Cambridge undergraduate. They simply didn’t exist forty years previously when I studied there (at a time when women were excluded from 85 per cent of Cambridge colleges), something worth mentioning lest we forget what the recovery project has been up against.

Sarah Hutton
University of York

Sophie Smith writes: In my five years as a graduate student, I remember only two talks at our weekly seminar that addressed the ideas of a woman. One was by Sarah Hutton. It was the first time I recall hearing someone take an early modern woman philosophically seriously. Hutton has been a tireless advocate for the importance of early modern women thinkers and is among the scholars whose ‘determination’ I describe in my essay as having produced a ‘scholarly sea change’ over the last forty years. Indeed, I could not have written the first part of that essay without the work of such scholars, some of whom I mention (Carol Pal, Lisa Shapiro, Karen Detlefsen, Ruth Perry, Sabrina Ebbersmeyer, Sarah Gwyneth Ross) and some of whom I could not (Jacqueline Broad, Karen Green, Marguerite Deslauriers, Eileen O’Neill, Christia Mercer). As I point out, their important work has not stopped male intellectual historians from continuing to efface women philosophers, and their historians, from the history of ideas.

It is striking that scholars like Hutton reach, as she does again in this letter, for the notion of ‘forgetting’ when describing the absence, past and present, of women philosophers from syllabuses and histories of the field. Did the men who excluded women from their histories of philosophy simply ‘forget’ about them? What about the students who read those books and who do not, as a consequence, know anything about women philosophers – have they also forgotten? Are there not better terms than ‘forgetting’, terms which might bring us closer to the psychic and political dynamics that result in the absence of women philosophers from the mainstream record – terms, moreover, that do not encourage us to ‘forget’ the writers, usually women themselves, who have fought to correct that record?

Here Hutton’s distinction between historical work on women philosophers and work on their philosophical contributions is not, I think, especially helpful. I’m not sure I agree with her suggestion that it is only recently that anyone has taken seriously the ‘contributions’ of women philosophers. But even if we concede the point – I myself say that the ‘last forty years have given historical women philosophers a quality of attention never previously seen’ – why, again, is ‘forgetting’ the apt notion? What is gained and what is lost by picturing history as an agent, out of whose head women philosophers – and their contributions – have conveniently dropped? Perhaps Hutton and others use ‘forgotten’ as a synonym for ‘not widely written about until now’. But the term means, and does, more than that.

Hutton and I can disagree productively on these points. But the remainder of her letter rests on a misreading. She says that I include the Routledge volume as part of what I call the ‘women’s recovery industry’, and suggests that I think its contributors are ‘jumping on a bandwagon of some kind’ and are ‘out to sell a lie’. In fact, I say the opposite: that ‘none of the contributors to the Routledge volume is guilty’ of the ‘cynicism’ that often characterises the women’s recovery industry. I also point out how often the offending works borrow from the ‘hard-won scholarship’ of academics: the very academics whose scholarship is well represented in the Routledge volume.

Terry Eagleton says the origin of culture is labour; labour provides the material base for the products of the mind (LRB, 25 April). ‘Labour’ is also the word for childbirth. To go from Eagleton’s stimulating reflections to Sophie Smith on the way women’s thinking has historically been excluded from histories of thinking was instructive. Smith puzzles over the ‘forgotten woman’ trope – commercially still so appealing after almost half a century of ‘recovery’ work in literature, history and philosophy. Me too. What is it about women that the culture doesn’t want to keep in mind? Is it at least in part reproductive labour? Conceiving, bearing and raising children didn’t stop women pursuing the life of the mind: the ‘forgotten’ prolific poet Felicia Hemans had five children and a husband who deserted her, yet she became the poster girl for Victorian domesticity and empire. But there’s obviously an important difference. The life of the mind goes on in time alongside multiple relationships and bodily changes. The anecdotes Smith recounts are grisly reminders of the way men – and I know it’s not all men, but historically it might as well have been – have preferred not to think about things actual women make them think of.

Norma Clarke
London N15

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences