Women Philosophers: The Hidden Heroes of Philosophy

Women Philosophers: The Hidden Heroes of PhilosophyPhilosophy may not be the most fashionable or even useful branch of Humanities—as a college major, it’s a running joke. But on closer inspection, philosophy is the basis for all the principles and values that sustain a healthy society. It contains and reflects concepts like democracy, justice and human rights.

In fact, philosophy is the door from which new concepts emerge as a result of critical thinking to solve—or try to solve—humanity’s unanswered questions. Philosophy is the natural response of human beings to the mystery, wonder and uncertainty of life.

Did you know that if you look on the Internet for famous or otherwise noted women philosophers you can find more than 100 names? Still, these women have not received the same notoriety as their male colleagues. Although women have engaged in philosophy since ancient times, philosophy as a profession was closed to us by law and tradition. Even today, there are far fewer women than men teaching in university philosophy departments.

According to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education, among others, studies indicate that philosophy is probably the least proportionate area in the Humanities with respect to gender equity, as women represent only about 30% of academically-employed philosophers.

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Yet women are, and have always been, philosophers, even when they didn’t get credit for it. The earliest-known women philosophers were those in Pythagoras’ era (6th C B.C.), like Aspasia of Miletus, Hipatia of Alexandria, and Diotima of Mantinea. The latter was Socrates’ teacher, and without a doubt, is one of the unsung heroes of Western philosophy.

Diotima is a central figure at the end of Plato’s Symposium—the famous dialogue where all participants examine the concept of love. No women allowed. Socrates, as the figure of  “the philosopher,” introduces his teacher’s ideas about “love”… and that teacher is a female philosopher! Yes, Diotima of Mantinea is actually the source of “Platonic love”. Her theories have been widely used by religious and spiritual authors throughout history to discuss the “rising of the human soul”.

There are women throughout history who have been inspiring and decisive in the development of human thinking. Hypatia of Alexandria was the first woman astronomer, mathematician, inventor and a philosopher right alongside Plato and Aristotle. Simone de Beauvoir, the feminist French writer, intellectual and existentialist philosopher, wrote that: “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” Susan Sontag was a 20th century American writer and cultural icon, and an internationally and widely-read political activist.

Today, women philosophers still represent a low percentage. But try the website Women-philosophers.com or similar ones to find our more about female philosophers. With their great capacity, sensibility and critical thinking, they are shaping the future of American philosophy.