The Forgotten Half of History: Why Women Philosophers Matter
Throughout history, women thinkers and their ideas have been intentionally erased from public memory. There is even a mistaken belief that women’s cultural history doesn’t exist at all. Today it’s more important than ever before to debunk this patriarchal narrative and put women philosophers in the spotlight again.
This blog post is part of a series centered around Women’s History Month.
The history of philosophy has so far been regarded as a male preserve. The voices of women who have shaped the history of ideas and fought to establish the concepts and practice of universal freedom and equality have been downplayed or ignored. In the words of one of these women — Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), who fought to establish civil rights for women and men alike during the French Revolution and was beheaded by Robespierre — “Brother, you needed your sister to break your chains. Now that you are free, you repel us.”
Only half of our cultural and scientific history has been established as general knowledge. But a half-truth is not a truth. What if Newton had based his theory of planetary motion on only half of the planets? How can recorded history be accepted as correct, and how can a culture develop in a positive direction, if the ideas of women, who make up half of the human race, are suppressed?
Where is this history of women’s ideas, and why are we not acquainted with it? Why do we teach Aristotle, Rousseau, Fichte, Kant, and Russell and discuss their ideas but not the teachings of En-hedu-ana from Mesopotamia (ca. 2300 BC), Christine de Pizan (1364 – ca. 1430), Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749), Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati (1858-1922) or E.E. Constance Jones (1848-1922), to name just a few?
Even in the European tradition, the patriarchal narrative of a cultural history in which women play a negligible role continues to be told. According to this narrative, a history of women’s ideas cannot exist, because women have traditionally been excluded from schools and universities. But this weak argument was not convincing even back in 1745, when Jakob Brucker published the modern era’s first comprehensive history of philosophy. In his overview, he included female thinkers and roundly repudiated his critics: “Wise women have always existed in all nations. The Chaldeans, Persians, Indians, Egyptians, Celts, … had no qualms about giving women a place among their sages.”
In recent decades there have been increased efforts to bring these women thinkers back into public awareness. Scholars have argued persuasively that women have helped to develop philosophy and advanced the history of ideas. There were women philosophers in ancient Greece even before the time of Socrates, as well as a legacy of folk wisdom that is typified by the famous maxim “Know thyself”. Du Châtelet’s ideas are echoed in Kant, and Bertrand Russell eventually admitted that he “took” important ideas from E.E. Constance Jones.
This “stolen history” must be brought back into our philosophical and scientific tradition. We need to know the names of these women philosophers. Would this change anything? Yes indeed! It can be argued that the inclusion of women would completely change our moral ideas and everything else from there.
“Contrary to all experience, the patriarchal narrative of the ‘speechless’ woman still seems to be convincing today.”
What exactly would become different? How would philosophy and science be altered? The fact that there is no institutionalized history of the ideas of women, either worldwide or even only in Europe, indicates in itself that the disenfranchisement of women and the idea that women have played no role in the history of ideas are accepted aspects of our culture.
Contrary to all experience, the patriarchal narrative of the “speechless” woman still seems to be convincing today. However, feminist theory shows the effects of male domination in the fields of philosophy, literature, and science that have led to the eradication of the memory of women’s creativity and ideas. These are forms of cultural exclusion and the suppression of women’s heritage. It transcends all cultures, all races, and all classes. It is not a particular invention of the West, and it still lives on in many places.
The Devaluation of Women and the Purpose of Oppression
When Putin began his invasion of Ukraine, he defended this military assault by using an analogy. It is necessary to straighten out a woman who is flirting with the enemy, he explained. There is no question that violence has a sexualized dimension. There are many people who experience sexuality as violence, and everyone knows that sexualized violence is a significant aspect of war. A raped woman is a war trophy. All attempts to eradicate this practice — which factually has nothing to do with war itself — have failed. The violation of women’s bodies is analogous to the conquest of territory. The subjugation of women is celebrated as domination, law and order, and obedience to religion.
But the subjugation of women is only the first violent step toward the subjugation of all those who oppose this ideology. The rule of the mullahs in Iran has made it obvious that this policy starts with women but affects everyone. The death of Mahsa Amini has sparked protests by Iranian women and men. Both of the female journalists who reported her death on social media have been imprisoned. The aim is to suppress public knowledge of the regime’s violence against women. The rights and experiences of women are to be banned from the public record.
“We need records of women’s history as a subject of research and a source of lessons on how to overcome domination and oppression.”
In Europe, there are no institutions in which the injustices experienced by women throughout history are documented and the testimonies of their centuries-long resistance to oppression are recorded and archived. However, this kind of institution needs to exist. We need records of women’s history as a subject of research and a source of lessons on how to overcome domination and oppression.
Here in the center of Europe, the teachings of St. Augustine have been repeated in universities for centuries. Viewed in the present context, his ideas about women are astonishingly similar to those of the theocracy in Iran. Augustine’s opinion about the value of women is hardly any different from the practice of the Iranian theocrats. Woman, he declared, is the cause of evil; she is the embodiment of sin and deserves to live in misery, because by seducing Adam, Eve deprived the human race of Paradise. These teachings were boldly opposed by the Italian humanist Isotta Nogarola (ca. 1460), who argued that “Augustine wants us to believe that Eve dominated the weak and will-less Adam. But what Augustine writes is nonsense. He is contradicting himself and the Bible and all the morals he ever learned. Augustine assumes Adam was without free will; this, however, contradicts the Bible, which claims that God created all human beings free and equal.”
For centuries, women thinkers have pointed out the absurdity of the convoluted arguments that have been advanced to justify the subjugation of women. The proto-feminist nun Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652) was convinced that religion had long since ceased to exist as a basis for faith, but rather served as a screen for patriarchal despotism. The task of religion and its representatives, she wrote, is to dominate women, break their will, and promote male tyranny. Her main work was eventually placed on the Index of Prohibited Books.
Would our world be a different place if the legacy of women thinkers were part of our culture? It certainly would. If we had a European history of women philosophers, if it were studied in our educational institutions and part of our public discourse, we might be better equipped to confront crimes such as those that are now being committed in Iran. But because women’s history is not sufficiently known, in many parts of the world women’s struggle for dignity must be started from the beginning over and over again.
Who would benefit if we finally began to recognize and compile the history of women’s ideas? This would be a significant step toward the enlightenment of humanity and the abolition of patriarchy and misogyny. Access to the tradition of great women thinkers would rejuvenate our culture and instruct younger generations in the spirit of enlightenment and the principle that violence does not create justice. It would be a welcome improvement on the prevailing curriculum.
Ruth Hagengruber is the editor of the upcoming Women Philosophers Heritage Collection, a comprehensive and significant selection of writings from women in the history of philosophy and science since antiquity.
[Title image by Center for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists]