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A Brief History of Women in Philosophy

Updated on October 17, 2011

For most of human history, women have been largely excluded from Western Philosophy. Even as academic pursuits have become less exclusive to men, philosophy remains one of the fields that has attracted fewer women to take it up as a career. The list of contemporary philosophers of significance, in both the analytic and continental schools of thought, have been mostly a boy's club. Still, there have been, even from the beginning, a small number of women who have made significant contributions to the development of Western philosophy and have influenced the conversation in a number of key ways. This history is not an exhaustive one, that could not be accomplished in a short article, but it does give a good overview of how women have been overlooked while presenting the history of philosophy in the Western world.

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen


Female philosophers appear in the work of Plato alongside male philosophers though they do not take as significant a role. Diotma of Mantinea appears in Plato's Symposium and has a dialogue where she puts forth the ideas of Platonic love. Though some of the writings of Plato and Aristotle seem brutally sexist by today's standards, writings such as this suggest that there was at least some minor participation by women in intellectual pursuits in Ancient Greece. However, it is not known whether Diotma was a real person or a fictional character or whether she was a stand-in for a real person in Plato's work.

The earliest known historical female philosopher is Themistoclea from the 6th Century BC. She was both a mathematician and a priestess as well as being refereed to in surviving texts as a philosopher. She was the teacher of Pythagoras, and it has also been suggested that she was his sister, though no definitive answer one way or the other has ever been reached.

Arete of Cyrene may be the most prominent female in Greek philosophy. Her father was a student of Socrates and in turn taught her. She is said to have founded the Cyrenaic school, that taught an ultra-hedonistic form of Greek philosophy. Some historical texts suggest the school was not founded by her but by her son, but either way there is no doubt that she had a profound influence on this Greek philosophical school of thought.

Hipparchia or Maronia was also a major philosopher in the Cynic school of philosophy, which later became the school of Stoicism.

With the collapse of Greek civilization and then the Roman Empire there is little historical progression in Western Philosophy until the 9th century, when the works of Plato and Aristotle were rediscovered. At this time philosophy became dominated by the religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Hildegard of Bingen was a major theologian, writer, philosopher and composer at this time. She was eventually canonized as a saint for her work and has been rediscovered by historians of Medieval philosophy. Some have argued that her work is of equal historical significance as male contemporaries St. Anslem and St. Augustine.

St. Theresa is also considered to be a major philosopher in the mystic tradition but because her work comes after St. Thomas Aquinas, whose work had major implications beyond theological concerns, her work is often to be considered theology and not philosophy, as the two disciplines had been considered separate following the work of Aquinas and the early modern philosophers.

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft


While the major male philosophers were arguing between the two schools of empiricism and rationalism, you would think that women had stayed out of the discussion entirely. Not so, Gottfried Leibniz and John Locke were both influenced by and stayed in correspondence with, a number of female philosophers.

Lady Anne Finch Conroy, was a Platonist at Cambridge university, who was a major influence on Leibniz and therefore helped shape early rationalist thought. Damaris Cudworth Masham, was an English empiricist philosopher who participated in the discussions and had correspondence with both Locke and Leibniz, discussing both of their work. One of the first defenses of Locke's empiricism was also written by a woman. The novelist and philosopher Catherine Cockburn was one of the first to acknowledge that Locke's empiricism might be significant.

As the modern period wore on, there became more of a concern with women's rights. Mary Wollstonecraft led the charge. Her Vindication of the Rights of Women was belittled by many male philosophers during her lifetime but now stands as a definitive text on civil rights and feminism. Wollstencraft would become the most important female philosopher of thiseperiod in history for the simple reason that she inspired so many other women to assert their rights.

One of the philosophers that Wollstonecraft most influenced was the civil libertarian and anarchist Emma Goldman. Drawing influence from Henry David Thoreau, Friedrich Nietzsche and Wollstencraft, Goldman was one of the most significant voices in early twentieth century anarchist thought.


In the twentieth century philosophy split off into the continental and analytic schools of thought. While women were still a minority in philosophy, they had an influence on both. In the Continental tradition, two of the most famous female philosophers have strong associations with famous male philosophers.

Hannah Arendt was a student and lover of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Having been disgusted by the ease the the Nazis were able to take over Germany and being influenced by Heidegger's work, she became on of the most influential political theorists of the 20th century, by examining the nature of authority and totalitarianism.

Simone de Beauvoir was a lifelong friend and sometimes lover of Jean-Paul Sartre. While most of the credit for Existentialism was given to Sartre, many theorize that Beauvoir may have been just as important to the development of these ideas and that Sartre's work should be viewed as a collaboration between them. Even so, Beauvoir's individual writing did not always agree with Sartre's and her version of Existentialism has key differences to be considered.

In the analytic school of philosophy there were many women who contributed to its early development. The Vienna Circle, an early collection of analytic philosophers in Austria, included two female members, the mathematician Olga-Hahn-Neurath and the Logician Rose Rand. While early analytic philosophers rejected ethics and political philosophy as a proper subject for their scientific take on philosophy, it is here that most female analytic philosophers have excelled.

British philosopher Philippa Foot wrote one of the most important philosophy papers of the twentieth century with The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect. She would later become one of the major voices in the re-emergence of Virtue Ethics in the twentieth century.

Philosophers Onora O'neil and Christine Kosgaard have done significant work with Kantian ethics. O'neil has been influenced by philosopher John Rawls to apply Kantian solutions to political problems. Kosgaard has combined her interest in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics to try to find relations to moral philosophy and these other problems.

One of the most prominent living female philosopher is Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum is a schloar of early Greek philosophy but has also done much work on re-examining political and moral philosophy from a post-feminist perspective.


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      5 years ago

      It would be good to mention some facts about pihlosophy in Iran:1-The current chairman of the parliament is philosopher.The former chairman of the Parliament was philosopher(Both of them teach the pihlosophy of Kant in Tehran University).The current President of the Juditiary system is philosopher(he is expert in ethics and pihlosophy of language)The former president of Iran,Mohammad Khatami,has BA in Western pihlosophy.The brother of the supreme leader of iran,is one of the renown experts in the pihlosophy of Avicenna and Masha'.I think ,it is the effect of Platonic tradition here.2-In Iran,there are especial interpretaions of western philosophers which are completely different with their real philosophies.For example two major groups of philosophers are Heideggerians and Popperians.There is hot debate between these groups about different subjects:Philosophy of science,philosophy of religion and political pihlosophy.In fact,just in Iran,the pihlosophy of Heidegger can conflict with the pihlosophy of Sir Karl Popper!!


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