Women or Philosophers?

Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting consider how gender shapes inclusion in philosophy

This history of philosophy is a history of men. Or at least, that’s how it has been told over the past several hundred years. But, over the last few decades, we’ve begun to see more and more recognition of women philosophers and the huge impact that they have had on the course of our discipline. There have always been philosophers who happened to be women. Hypatia of Alexandria was known by her contemporaries simply as The Philosopher, and hundreds of young men travelled from throughout the region to attend her public lectures. Philosophers who happen to be women, then, are nothing new. But our failure to recognise them as full contributors to the subject makes them appear to us as something of a surprise. A result of this is that women are often remembered as women first: they are seen more as women than they’re seen as philosophers.

We have played a very small role in highlighting the work of women philosophers, following on from many great projects that also do this vital work in the academy and beyond. For the last two years, the two of us have been working on a book about women philosophers, The Philosopher Queens. It began with a trip to the local bookshop to find a book on woman philosophers. If you’ve ever done the same, you’ll know that there are very few of them. Mary Warnock published Women Philosophers, an anthology of selections from some greatest hits, over twenty years ago. It’s been out of print for some time. In your average bookshop you might find books written by women philosophers of course, such as The Second Sex or Origins of Totalitarianism or A Vindication on the Rights of Women. But you will find very little about women philosophers at all.

On this particular trip, there were a number of books on the history of philosophy that featured chronological chapters on different thinkers, almost all of them men. One book, The Greatest Philosophers, was edited by two men. Each chapter was written by a man, and each chapter highlighted the work of a philosopher, all men. You’re beginning to sense a theme. And so, after two years of work with our wonderful writers we’ve published The Philosopher Queens: a book edited by two women, written entirely by women, highlighting the work of philosophers, all of them women.

So in late 2020 when our book was finally out in the world, we went back to the same book shop to find that our book on great philosophers throughout history had been put in the section on women and gender studies. This happened across bookshops throughout the UK, with most large highstreet bookshops putting The Philosopher Queens with other books apparently about, by and for, women. Our book on some of history’s greatest philosophers was seen first through the lens of women’s issues, rather than philosophical ones. This might seem like a petty point, but it speaks to a broader problem. That women philosophers are often seen as women first and philosophers second. Any deviation from the standard understanding of philosophy and who counts as a philosopher can often cause this kind of positioning outside of disciplinary boundaries. Our book even has the word philosopher in the title, and yet it was placed where the women are kept.

This kind of stereotyping whereby women are considered to be speaking for, and to, exclusively other women happens elsewhere as well. We’ve heard many stories of women philosophers being asked to teach on feminism and gender even when it has nothing to do with their research interests. A well-known metaphysician was giving a talk at a university philosophy society and found that the programme said she was giving a talk on “feminist philosophy” when she was actually hoping to speak about the concept of time. We’ve been asked many times about our own work on feminism: we actually work on migration and date ethics. Such a pattern points to a broader problem with our discussions of and with women philosophers -- that we forget that they are principally philosophers. Instead, many are immediately associated with their gender rather than the object of her study or attention.

This is not to say that many women philosophers don’t engage in these topics that specifically concern women and feminism, or would mind discussing them. Of course, women are particularly well-placed to do feminist philosophy because of their personal experience. But, the presumption that women philosophers always do this work traps them in areas of the discipline that are often ignored by the mainstream, and robs them of the opportunity to be known and recognised for their other important academic contributions.

This is a challenge that is not unique to women philosophers. Many other philosophers and philosophies are miscategorised because they do not fit the normalised idea of what counts as philosophy and who counts as a philosopher. We have heard accounts of books on Indian philosophy being placed in sections ranging from religion to occult to astrology. Again, this is merely a visible symptom of a more significant underlying problem -- that those who do not fit the stereotypical notion of the Western philosopher are categorised by their identity first, and their academic genre second.

You might think then, that a different tactic is required than the one we’ve pursued in The Philosopher Queens. Much of our work, and indeed other projects, have highlighted the contributions of women philosophers as women philosophers. That is, their gender takes a central role in the projects precisely because they’ve excluded. The same can be seen in two other recent books, Philosophy for Girls and Philosophy by Women. Like ours, these books pick out philosophers on the basis of their gender in order to highlight and fill the historical blind spot.

This work, we hope and believe, is still valuable. It clearly shows that the commonly held assumption that women have only begun doing philosophy seriously relatively recently is simply mistaken. It prompts us to re-evaluate the ways that we think about the history of philosophy and to develop a canon that is both more accurate and inclusive. Their gender is relevant insofar as it is almost always part of the reason for their historical exclusion, but regardless of their gender, we believe many are great philosophers in and of themselves, for their wide-ranging work that stretches beyond topics that are only of relevance to women.

Therefore, we should still also be wary of the risks of placing such emphasis on one aspect of these women’s identities. This approach can often lead to tokenistic inclusion, with women philosophers being included primarily or only because they’re women. This can be seen in the way that women are often added to reading lists in philosophy at universities. Anecdotally, from our own work in universities, when women do appear on the reading list, they appear in the supplementary material as opposed to the core texts. Overwhelmingly women philosophers only take centre stage on topics that are associated with gender and femininity. They often only become essential then, when their womanhood is centred.

Another significant risk of this approach is that other types of representation, such as race, disability, LGBT+ identities, are marginalised. Without an intersectional approach to these matters, any progress in relation to women’s representation will be superficial and incomplete. It is often the easiest option to include the women who appear to be the most similar to those traditionally considered the philosophical greats, but the white Western women often chosen through this approach represent only a small subsection of the varied and rich philosophical work of women from around the world and throughout history.

The political theorist Judith Shklar warns of these risks in her lecture A Life of Learning. She writes:

“There is a lot of cynical feminism about that is very damaging, especially to young women scholars. The chairman who calls for hiring more women, any women, for after all, any skirt will do to make his numbers look good, and to reinforce his own liberal credentials. The self-styled male-feminist who wildly over-praises every newly appointed young woman as ‘just brilliant and superb’, when she is in fact no better or worse than her male contemporaries, is not doing her a favour, just expressing his own inability to accept the fact that a reasonably capable woman is not a miracle. … They are more likely to be around for a long, long time proclaiming their good intentions without changing what really has to change most of all: they themselves.”

As Shklar rightly points out, it is not because they are women that philosophers should be valued, but they should be valued because of the work they have done, and the excellence they have demonstrated in their field. It also happens to be that they are women, and women face a history of exclusion that means they experience certain barriers that means prominence within philosophy is often harder. We wrote The Philosopher Queens not so that people would admire the subjects of our chapters primarily for the fact that they are women, but precisely because in the same way that “a reasonably capable woman is not a miracle”, the many great philosophers who are women shouldn’t be seen as such either.

Despite the challenge philosophy faces in grappling with these issues, we have some reasons to be optimistic. Students and academics have been generating reading lists, for instance like the one proposed for the “General Philosophy” course at Oxford University by People for Womxn in Philosophy. These exciting reading lists are diverse in both their breadth and depth, going beyond the superficial inclusion of one lucky woman who would typically make the cut. There are an increasing number of books being published to highlight the important intellectual contributions of philosophers who have been neglected or undervalued. And networks are springing up, from reading groups to funded collaborations, providing opportunities for these discussions to take place. All this comes with a growing recognition that diverse intellectual contributions and perspectives on traditional topics are an essential part of good philosophical teaching.

The lesson from these initiatives, and we hope our own, is to show that the marginalisation of certain groups of thinkers from traditional philosophy is a problem that impacts all of philosophy. It is a problem for a metaphysics course that misses out on great work by a philosopher, who is also a woman, in the same way that it is a problem for a history of philosophy course that presents itself as comprehensive but looks exclusively at Western philosophers. It is also a problem that will not be solved by putting books about women philosophers in the gender studies section of the bookshop. We need to remove these silos or philosophy's history risks repeating itself.


Rebecca Buxton is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford working on political theory and migration. Lisa Whiting is a researcher working in public policy on issues related to equality, ethics and data. Lisa and Rebecca co-edited The Philosopher Queens, which was published in September 2020.