Women in philosophy

This article is about the state of the discipline. For a list of women philosophers, see List of women philosophers.
American philosopher of mind and philosopher of art Susanne Langer (1895–1985) was the first woman to be popularly and professionally recognized as an American philosopher. Langer is best known for her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key.

Women have engaged in philosophy throughout the field's history. While there were women philosophers since ancient times, and a relatively small number were accepted as philosophers during the ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary eras, particularly during the 20th and 21st century, almost no woman philosophers have entered the philosophical Western canon.[1][2]

In ancient philosophy in the West, while academic philosophy was typically the domain of male philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, female philosophers such as Hipparchia of Maroneia (active ca. 325 BC), Arete of Cyrene (active 5th–4th century BC) and Aspasia of Miletus (470–400 BC) were active during this period. A notable medieval philosopher was Hypatia (5th century). Notable modern philosophers included Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850). Influential contemporary philosophers include Susanne Langer (1895–1985), Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Mary Midgley (born 1919), Mary Warnock (born 1924), Julia Kristeva (born 1941), Patricia Churchland (born 1943) and Susan Haack (born 1945).

In the early 1800s, some colleges and universities in the UK and US began admitting women, giving rise to new generations of female academics. Nevertheless, U.S. Department of Education reports from the 1990s indicate that philosophy is one of the least proportionate fields in the humanities with respect to gender.[3] Women make up as little as 17% of philosophy faculty in some studies.[4] In 2014, Inside Higher Education described the philosophy "...discipline’s own long history of misogyny and sexual harassment" of women students and professors.[5] Jennifer Saul, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, stated in 2015 that women are "...leaving philosophy after being harassed, assaulted, or retaliated against."[6]

In the early 1990s, the Canadian Philosophical Association claimed that there is gender imbalance and gender bias in the academic field of philosophy.[7] In June 2013, a US sociology professor stated that "out of all recent citations in four prestigious philosophy journals, female authors comprise just 3.6 percent of the total." The editors of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have raised concerns about the underrepresentation of women philosophers, and they require editors and writers to ensure they represent the contributions of women philosophers.[7] According to Eugene Sun Park, "[p]hilosophy is predominantly white and predominantly male. This homogeneity exists in almost all aspects and at all levels of the discipline."[2] Susan Price argues that the philosophical "...canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that...still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender."[8] According to Saul, "[p]hilosophy, the oldest of the humanities, is also the malest (and the whitest). While other areas of the humanities are at or near gender parity, philosophy is actually more overwhelmingly male than even mathematics."[9]

Representation and working climate

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who completed a PhD in philosophy at Harvard University in 1975, alleges that she encountered a tremendous amount of discrimination at Harvard, including sexual harassment and problems getting childcare.[10]

In the early 1990s, the Canadian Philosophical Association claimed that "...there is compelling evidence" of "...philosophy’s gender imbalance" and "bias and partiality in many of its theoretical products." In 1992, the association recommended that "fifty percent of [philosophy]...positions should be filled by women.”[7] In a 2008 article “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone),” MIT philosophy professor Sally Haslanger stated that the top twenty graduate programs in philosophy in the US have from 4 percent to 36 percent women faculty.[7] In June 2013, Duke University professor of sociology Kieran Healy stated that "out of all recent citations in four prestigious philosophy journals, female authors comprise just 3.6 percent of the total." The editors of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have raised concerns about the underrepresentation of women philosophers; as such, the encyclopedia “encourage[s] [their] authors, subject editors, and referees to help ensure that SEP entries do not overlook the work of women or indeed of members of underrepresented groups more generally.”[7]

In 2014, philosophy professors Neven Sesardic and Rafael De Clercq published an article entitiled "Women in Philosophy: Problems with the Discrimination Hypothesis." The article states that a "...number of philosophers attribute the underrepresentation of women in philosophy largely to bias against women or some kind of wrongful discrimination". Evidence cited includes "gender disparities that increase along the path from undergraduate student to full-time faculty member"; "anecdotal accounts of discrimination in philosophy"; "research on gender bias in the evaluation of manuscripts, grants, and curricula vitae in other academic disciplines"; "psychological research on implicit bias"; "psychological research on stereotype threat" and the "...relatively small number of articles written from a feminist perspective in leading philosophy journals".[7] Sesardic and De Clercq argue that "proponents of the discrimination hypothesis, who include distinguished philosophers ...have tended to present evidence selectively."[7]

American philosopher Sally Haslanger stated in 2008 that "...it is very hard to find a place in philosophy that isn’t actively hostile towards women and minorities, or at least assumes that a successful philosopher should look and act like a (traditional, white) man.”[11] Haslanger states that she experienced “occasions when a woman’s status in graduate school was questioned because she was married, or had a child (or had taken time off to have a child so was returning to philosophy as a ‘mature’ student), or was in a long-distance relationship". American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who completed a PhD in philosophy at Harvard University in 1975, alleges that she encountered a tremendous amount of discrimination during her studies at Harvard, including sexual harassment and problems getting childcare for her daughter.[10]

In July 2015, British philosopher Mary Warnock addressed the issue of the representation of women in British university philosophy departments, where 25% of faculty are women. Warnock stated she is "... against intervention, by quotas or otherwise, to increase women’s chances of employment" in philosophy.[11] She also argues that "... there is nothing intrinsically harmful about this imbalance" and she states that she does not "...believe it shows a conscious bias against women." [11] Philosopher Julian Baggini states that he believes that there is "...little or no conscious discrimination against women in philosophy". At the same time, Baggini states that there may be a "...great deal of unconscious bias" against women in philosophy, because philosophy generally does not address issues of gender or ethnicity.[11]

Allegations of sexual harassment

In 2014, Inside Higher Education described the philosophy "...discipline’s own long history of misogyny and sexual harassment."[5] On March 28, 2011, the blog New APPS published a post examining the allegations of persistent sexual harassment faced by women professors in philosophy, due largely to "serial harassers" continuing to work in the field despite widespread knowledge of their actions. The post proposed that, since institutional procedures seemed to have been ineffective at removing or punishing harassers, philosophers should socially shun known offenders.[12] The story was subsequently featured at Inside Higher Ed[13] and several blogs, including Gawker[14] and Jezebel.[15] In 2013, a series of posts on the blog "What's it like to be a woman in philosophy?" instigated a spate of mainstream media articles on the continued dominance of men in philosophy.[16][17][18][19] Eric Schliesser, a professor of philosophy at Ghent University, said he believes that the "...systematic pattern of exclusion of women in philosophy is, in part, due to the fact that my profession has allowed a culture of harassment, sexual predating, and bullying to be reproduced from one generation to the next."[5] According to Heidi Lockwood, an associate professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University, there is a "...power “asymmetry” between professors and students – even graduate students"; as well, she noted that "...even when colleges and universities have blanket prohibitions against professor-student sexual relationships, as does Yale,...institution-specific policies leave students vulnerable [to sexual advances from faculty] at conferences."[5]

According to an August 2013 article in Salon, a tenured male University of Miami philosopher resigned after allegedly "...sending emails to a [female] student in which he suggested that they have sex three times."[9] Jennifer Saul, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, set up a blog for women philosophers in 2010. She received numerous allegations of sexual harassment by male philosophy faculty, including a "job candidate who said she was sexually assaulted at the annual APA meeting where job interviews take place", an "undergraduate whose professor joked publicly about dripping hot wax on her nipples" and a "... lesbian who found herself suddenly invited, after she came out, to join in the sexualizing of her female colleagues." Saul states that philosophy departments failed to deal with the allegations.[9] In 2013, the American Philosophical Association formed a committee to study the allegations of sexual harassment of women students and professors by male philosophy faculty.[5] Saul states that one of the allegations was regarding a "...distinguished visiting speaker whose first words are: “Show me a grad student I can fuck”." [6] Saul states that women are "...leaving philosophy after being harassed, assaulted, or retaliated against." [6] In 2014, Inside Higher Education reported allegations that a Yale University philosophy professor had sexually harassed a woman; the "alleged victim says she reported the professor to Yale, with no real result".[5] In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, the alleged victim stated that she "...suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that impedes everyday life, not only from the alleged attack but also from the “browbeating” she endured as she attempted to report the professor, again and again, to Yale officials."[5]

In 1993, the American Philosophical Association's sexual harassment committee set out guidelines for addressing this issue in philosophy departments. The APA guidelines, which were revised in 2013, stated that:[20]

Black women

Angela Davis (born 1944) is an American political activist, philosopher and author. Her research interests include African-American studies and the philosophy of punishment and prisons.

There are few black women philosophers, which includes women of African and Caribbean ancestry, African-Americans and other individuals from the African diaspora. According to philosopher Sally Haslanger, the "numbers of philosophers of color, especially women of color, is even more appalling"; in a 2003 study, there "...was insufficient data for any racial group of women other than white women to report." [21] In the United States, the "...representation of scholars of color is plausibly worse than in any other field in the academy, including not only physics, but also engineering."[21] According to professor L.K. McPherson, there is a "gross underrepresentation of blacks in philosophy."[22] McPherson states that there is a "...willful, not necessarily a conscious, preference among many members of the philosophy profession largely to maintain the status quo in terms of: the social group profiles of members; the dynamics of prestige and influence; and the areas and questions deemed properly or deeply 'philosophical.' None of this is good for black folk."[22]

The first black woman in the US to do a PhD in philosophy was Joyce Mitchell Cook, who obtained her degree in 1965 from Yale University. LaVerne Shelton was also one of the earliest black women to receive a PhD in philosophy. Other notable women include Angela Davis, a political activist who specializes in writing about feminism, critical theory, Marxism, popular music, social consciousness, and the philosophy of punishment and prisons; Kathryn Gines, the founding director of the Collegium of Black Woman Philosophers, who specializes in continental philosophy, Africana philosophy, philosophy of race and Black feminist philosophy; Anita L. Allen, the first African-American woman to complete both a JD and a PhD in philosophy, who focuses on political and legal philosophy, and who in 2010 was appointed by President Obama to sit on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues; and Adrian Piper, an analytical philosopher who received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard; Jaqueline Scott, who received a PhD in philosophy from Stanford University, and who specializes in Nietzsche, nineteenth-century philosophy, race theory and African-American philosophy.

Reports from the US

U.S. Department of Education reports indicate that philosophy is one of the least proportionate fields in the humanities with respect to gender.[3] Although reports indicate that philosophy as a professional field is disproportionately male, no clear, unequivocal data exists on the number of women currently in philosophy, or indeed, on the number of men in philosophy, and it is debatable how to define what it means to be ‘in philosophy.’ This can variously be defined as the current number of Ph.D. holders in philosophy, the current number of women teaching philosophy in two- and four- year institutions of higher learning either/both full-time and/or part-time (no one data set exists which measures these), or the current number of living women with publications in philosophy. The lack of clear data makes it difficult to establish gender proportions, but the consensus among those who have tried to arrive at an estimate is that women make up between 17% and 30% of academically employed philosophers.[4]

The National Center for Education Statistics' 2000 report, "Salary, Promotion, and Tenure Status of Minority and Women Faculty in U.S. Colleges and Universities," estimates in Table 23 that the total number of "History and Philosophy" U.S. citizens and full-time faculty who primarily taught in 1992 was 19,000, of which 79% were men (i.e. 15,010 men in history and philosophy), 21% were women (3,990). They add, "In fact, men were at least twice as likely as women to teach history and philosophy."[23]

Anita L. Allen (born 1953) is a professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In their 1997 report, "Characteristics and Attitudes of Instructional Faculty and Staff in the Humanities," NCES notes, that about "one-half of full-time instructional faculty and staff in 4-year institutions in English and literature (47 percent) and foreign languages (50 percent) were female in the fall of 1992, compared with less than one-half of instructional faculty and staff in history (24 percent) and philosophy and religion (13 percent) (table 4)." In this report they measure Philosophy and Religion in the same data set, and estimate the total number of full-time instructional Philosophy and Religion faculty and staff in 4-yr institutions to be 7,646. Of these, 87.3% are male (6675 men), 12.7 are female (971 women).[24] The 1997 report measures History Full-time instructional faculty and staff in 4-yr institutions to be 11,383; male:76.3 (8,686 men); female: 23.7 (2,697 women). The numbers of women in philosophy from the two studies are not easily comparable, but one rough method may be to subtract the number of women in history in the 1997 report from the number of women estimated to be in 'history and philosophy' in the 2000 report. Doing so suggests that as a rough estimate, 1,293 women are employed as instructors of philosophy.

The 1997 report indicates that a large portion of all humanities instructors are part-time.[25] Part-time employees are disproportionately female but not majority female.[26] Therefore, considerations of full-time employees only necessarily leave out data on many women working part-time to remain active in their field. In 2004, the percentage of Ph.D.s in philosophy, within the U.S., going to women reached a record high percentage: 33.3%, or 121 of the 363 doctorates awarded.[27]

Organizations and campaigns

APA committee on the status of women in philosophy

The Committee on the Status of Women is a committee of the American Philosophical Association devoted to the assessment and reporting on the status of women in philosophy.[28] It is currently chaired by Hilde Lindemann.[29] In April 2007, the Committee on the Status of Women co-sponsored a session on the central question "Why Are Women Only 21% of Philosophy".[30] At this session, Sharon Crasnow suggested that the low numbers of women in philosophy may be due to:

Society for Women in Philosophy

The Society for Women in Philosophy is a group created in 1972 that seeks to support and promote women in philosophy. It has a number of branches around the world, including in New York, the American Pacific, the United Kingdom and Canada.[31] Each year, the society names one philosopher the distinguished woman philosopher of the year.[32]

Honorees include:

Gendered conference campaign

The blog Feminist Philosophers hosts the Gendered Conference Campaign, which works toward increasing the representation of women at philosophy conferences and in edited volumes. The blog states that "all-male events and volumes help to perpetuate the stereotyping of philosophy as male. This in turn to contributes to implicit bias against women in philosophy...."[33]


While there were women philosophers since the earliest times, and some were accepted as philosophers during their lives, almost no woman philosophers have entered the philosophical Western canon.[1] Historians of philosophy are faced with two main problems. The first being the exclusion of women philosophers from history and philosophy texts, which leads to a lack of knowledge about women philosophers among philosophy students. The second problem deals with what the canonical philosophers had to say about philosophy and women's place in it. In the past twenty-five years there has been an exponential increase in feminist writing about the history of philosophy and what has been considered the philosophical canon.[34] According to Eugene Sun Park, "[p]hilosophy is predominantly white and predominantly male. This homogeneity exists in almost all aspects and at all levels of the discipline." [2] According to Jennifer Saul, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, "[p]hilosophy, the oldest of the humanities, is also the malest (and the whitest). While other areas of the humanities are at or near gender parity, philosophy is actually more overwhelmingly male than even mathematics."[9]

In the May 13, 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Susan Price notes that even though Kant's first work in 1747 cites Émilie Du Châtelet, a philosopher who was a "...scholar of Newton, religion, science, and mathematics", "her work won’t be found in the 1,000-plus pages of the new edition of The Norton Introduction to Philosophy." [8] The Norton Introduction does not name a female philosopher until the book begins to cover the mid-20th century. Scholars argue that women philosophers are also absent from the "...other leading anthologies used in university classrooms." [8] Price states that university philosophy anthologies do not usually mention 17th century women philosophers such as Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, and Lady Damaris Masham.[8] Price argues that the philosophical "...canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that some say still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender."[8] Amy Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, states that “...women have been systematically left out of the canon, and that women coming in have not been able to see how much influence women have had in the field."[8] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which as published in 1967, had "...articles on over 900 philosophers, [but it] did not include an entry for Wollstonecraft, Arendt or de Beauvoir. "[T]hese women philosophers were scarcely even marginal" to the canon set out at the time.[35]

Explaining the very small number of women philosophers, American academic and social critic Camille Paglia (born 1947) argues that "...women in general are less comfortable than men in inhabiting a highly austere, cold, analytical space, such as the one which philosophy involves. Women as a whole ...are more drawn to practical, personal matters. It is not that they inherently lack a talent or aptitude for philosophy or higher mathematics, but rather that they are more unwilling than men to devote their lives to a frigid space from which the natural and the human have been eliminated."[36] Paglia claims that "[t]oday's lack of major female philosophers is not due to lack of talent but to the collapse of philosophy", because, in her view, philosophy "... as traditionally practised may be a dead genre" that "belongs to a vanished age of much slower and rhetorically formal inquiry."[36]

Ancient philosophy

Hipparchia of Maroneia. Detail from a Roman wall painting in the Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Some of the earliest philosophers were women, such as Hipparchia of Maroneia (active ca. 325 BC), Arete of Cyrene (active 5th–4th century BC) and Aspasia of Miletus (470–400 BC). Aspasia appears in the philosophical writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes. Some scholars argue that Plato was impressed by her intelligence and wit and based his character Diotima in the Symposium on her.[37][38] Socrates attributes to the (possibly fictional) Diotima of Mantinea his lessons in the art of Eros (or philosophical searching). Plato's final views on women are highly contested, but the Republic suggests that women are equally capable of education, intellectual vision, and rule of the city.[39][40]

Other notable philosophers include:

Medieval philosophy

"Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria" (she was killed by an angry mob) - artwork by Louis Figuier (1866).

Medieval philosophy dates from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E. to the Renaissance in the 16th century. Hypatia (AD 350 – 370 to 415) was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in Egypt, then a part of the Eastern Roman Empire.[41] She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy.[42][43][44][45]

Other notable woman philosophers include:

Modern philosophy

The 17th century marks the beginning of the modern philosophy era, which ended in the early 20th century. During the 17th century, various women philosophers argued for the importance of education for women and two women philosophers influenced René Descartes and during the early part of the 18th century, two women philosophers commented on John Locke’s philosophy. Laura Bassi (1711–1778) was the first woman to earn a university chair in a scientific field. Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793) demanded that French women be given the same rights as men, a position also taken by Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) in her essay "On the Equality of the Sexes" and Mary Wollstonecraft in her essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). During the 19th century, Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) criticized the state of women's education and Harriet Taylor Mill (1807–1858), Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825–1921) called for women's rights. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) argued that women were oppressed by an androcentric culture. Near the start of the 20th century, Mary Whiton Calkins (1863–1930) was the first woman to become president of the American Philosophical Association. Women thinkers such as Emma Goldman (1869–1940), an anarchist, and Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), a Marxist theorist, are known for their political views.

17th century

18th century

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was an English writer and philosopher.
The only known daguerreotype of Margaret Fuller (by John Plumbe, 1846).

19th century

Early 20th century

Contemporary philosophy

Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) considered herself a political theorist, but she is often described as a philosopher.

Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the end of the 19th century with the professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy. Some influential women philosophers from this period include:

Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-born American novelist, playwright and screenwriter. While some critics consider her an ideologue, several sources consider her a philosopher[81] She is known for the novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism.

Other notable philosophers include:

See also


  1. 1 2 Duran, Jane. Eight women philosophers: theory, politics, and feminism. University of Illinois Press, 2005.
  2. 1 2 3 http://read.hipporeads.com/why-i-left-academia-philosophys-homogeneity-needs-rethinking/#
  3. 1 2 "Salary, Promotion, and Tenure Status of Minority and Women Faculty in U.S. Colleges and Universities."National Center for Education Statistics, Statistical Analysis Report, March 2000; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement, Report # NCES 2000–173;1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:93). See also "Characteristics and Attitudes of Instructional Faculty and Staff in the Humanities." National Center For Education Statistics, E.D. Tabs, July 1997. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement, Report # NCES 97-973;1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF-93).
  4. 1 2 U.S. Department of Education statistics in above-cited reports seem to put the number closer to 17%, but these numbers are based on data from the mid-1990s. Margaret Urban Walker's more recent article (2005) discusses the data problem and describes more recent estimates as an "(optimistically projected) 25–30 percent."
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/05/19/unofficial-internet-campaign-outs-professor-alleged-sexual-harassment-attempted
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  22. 1 2 L.K. McPherson. On Black Underrepresentation and Progress in the Profession. December 12, 2011. http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/12/new-apps-on-black-underrepresentation-and-progress-in-the-profession.html
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  24. NCES (1997), previously cited.
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  26. NCES (1997): "Part-time faculty members were more likely to be female (45 percent) than full-time faculty (33 percent), although the majority of both part- and full-time faculty were male (55 percent and 67 percent, respectively."
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