An excerpt from

The Philosopher Queens

Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting


Most people probably wouldn’t think of Plato’s Republic as a work of feminist philosophy. But when Plato proposed that women, as well as men, were capable of leading his ideal city-state, he was thinking far ahead of his time. He argued that women who were as competent as men should be chosen “to serve with them as guardians since they are capable of it and akin by nature.” These ‘Philosopher Kings’, as Plato named them, would rule over the Republic, providing perfect philosophical enlightenment.

Over two thousand years later, you would forgive people for assuming that men have been doing most of the thinking since then. Women have not seemed to fulfill Plato’s great prediction that they were able to become great philosophers. Or, at least, that is how the books and philosophy lectures today make it look. Books about the history of philosophy have not done women justice. In Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers only two women feature, with Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir taking the seats of honour. The same two share the limelight in Philosophy: The World’s Greatest Thinkers, which has space for fifty eight men. You’re beginning to sense a theme.

It is important to note that this gap is not due to a lack of books being published about philosophy. On the contrary, texts are being written on incredibly broad topics, such as Golf and Philosophy: Lessons from the Links, Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington, and last but certainly not least, Surfing with Sartre. And yet, very little has been written for a general audience to celebrate the work of great women, despite the amazing work being done in universities to better understand the lives and works of these women. One notable exception was a book written by a great philosopher herself, Baroness Mary Warnock (Chapter 15), who wrote Women in Philosophy over 20 years ago.

It is of course true that women have been underrepresented in philosophy, and indeed most of academia, because they were historically excluded from education. The first four women in the UK to receive degrees in any subject graduated in 1880 from University College London. Cambridge University was the last institution to allow women to take full degrees in the late year of 1947. This institutional exclusion meant that women were prescribed roles in society that kept their thinking, and their freedom, to a minimum.

But this is 2018 and things have certainly improved over the past century. More women are taking degrees in philosophy than ever before, with most universities seeing more women than men in their undergraduate classes in recent years. In spite of this progress, there is still a huge gender disparity higher up. There are very few philosophy departments where women make up anywhere near fifty percent of faculty staff. In 2015, women made up only twenty two percent of Professors at the twenty top US universities. In some fields of philosophy, there has been almost no increase in the number of women since the 1970s. So, even though more young women are taking their first dive into the man’s world of philosophy, this is not quickly translating into more women at the top. Likewise, whereas some women have secured lectureships and professorships, an overwhelming number of them are white. Non-white women are still hugely underrepresented in philosophy, with very few senior positions filled by people from minority backgrounds. In her New York Times Interview, The Pain and Promise of Black Women in Philosophy, Professor Anita L Allen (Chapter 20) noted only one percent of full-time philosophy professors are black, whilst around seventeen percent are women.

Studying philosophy at university, we knew that women were underrepresented in our discipline. Both of us had only a handful of female lecturers, and our classes were dominated by men from hundreds of years ago, as well as the men standing before us. A typical philosophy syllabus features almost no women whatsoever, with the focus being on the “Philosophical canon”. That is: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Rawls, to name only a few. Women are instead only mentioned briefly, perhaps in reference to a male counterpart with whom they worked or had a relationship, or (if you’re lucky) as part of a ‘Gender and Philosophy’ module. When attempts are made to diversify the curriculum to include different important philosophical voices, this is often accompanied by media outcry over “snowflake” students and lecturers.

Despite these frustrations, there is much cause for hope. Outstanding work is going on in academic philosophy to reclaim the history of women philosophers and ensure that their voices and perspectives are preserved for the next generation of thinkers. The Centre for New Narratives in the History of Philosophy and Project Vox showcase the work of women philosophers from the early modern period. The Society for Women in Philosophy runs events and mentoring programmes aimed at promoting women in philosophy, past, present, and future. The Centre for the History of Women Philosophers and Scientists at Paderborn University, Germany, runs an annual summer school, teaching students about the great contribution that women have made to the history of thought. The In Parenthesis project at Durham University explores and archives the work of the Oxford four: Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Philippa Foot. All of this work is helping to break down barriers for women in philosophy, by showing that women in this field are far from new. We have, in fact, been philosophers all along.

Unfortunately, there is a long way to go to change popular perceptions of philosophy. When creating our promotional video for this book, we asked members of the public to name as many philosophers as they could. When they all listed off the usual male suspects, we asked whether they could name any women philosophers. No one that we surveyed could name a single one.

This book is an attempt to combat these perceptions. Here we intentionally adopt a broad definition of ‘philosopher’. We believe that part of the reason that women have been excluded from our subject is because many of these thinkers have instead been considered activists at best and ‘learned ladies’ at worst. This has led to a conception of the white, male philosopher thinking from his arm chair. Instead, it’s time to recognise the clear intellectual rigour that make these women worthy of the ‘philosopher’ title.

The authors and subjects in this book come from many different disciplines and backgrounds with their own unique ideas, experiences, and histories. The philosophers written about here are complex, challenging, often inspiring and sometimes deeply problematic, but they all contribute an important element to our understanding of philosophy. Some of them you will have heard of, and perhaps studied. Others you might encounter for the first time in the pages that follow. You can enjoy this book by simply selecting chapters that pique your interest or following along chronologically, the choice is yours. There have, of course, been many women that we have not been able to include. You can find a list of more Philosopher Queens at the back of this book. We encourage you to look them up and explore for yourself.

So if you’re considering studying philosophy at university, or just interested in women and their ideas, we hope this book will serve as a reminder that many Philosopher Queens have come before you and that their ideas have shaped the world - women’s as well as men’s.

Rebecca and Lisa