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Women in Philosophy

From medicine to mysticism, existentialism to phenomenology, the lives and work of women thinkers have all too often been marginalised in ways that have erased their contributions from the record.

The weight of this historical exclusion has led and continues to lead to creative theoretical responses to art, sexual difference, and lived experience which remain ripe for study and research today.

Bloomsbury Philosophy Library includes a selection of primary texts, secondary literature and exclusive articles exploring the crucial work of women philosophers. The featured content below opens up our understanding of the role women have played in shaping intellectual thought and philosophy.

Queen of Existentialism

Simone de Beauvoir was one of the twentieth century’s most infamous women. She was half of a controversial intellectual power couple with Jean-Paul Sartre. And, unfortunately, for much of the twentieth century popular perception was that he contributed the intellectual power and she contributed the couple. When she died in Paris in 1986, Le Monde’s obituary headline called her work ‘more popularization than creation’. In the decades since these words were written a series of revelations about Beauvoir have come to light, surprising readers who thought they knew her. But they have also – ironically – obscured Beauvoir the thinker by perpetuating the illusion that her love life was the most interesting thing about her. After all, it was her philosophy that led her to live – and to continuously reflect on and re-evaluate – the life she lived. In her words: ‘there is no divorce between philosophy and life. Every living step is a philosophical choice’. 

Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986)

Simone De Beauvoir (1908-1986). (Credit Getty Images © Keystone / Stringer)

When the public figure Simone de Beauvoir picked up her pen she wrote not only for herself but for her readers. Her best-selling autobiographies have been described as embodying a philosophical ambition to show ‘how one’s self is always shaped by others and related to others’. To read more about Beauvoir’s vast and rich contribution to 20th-century philosophy read the chapter, ‘Queen of Existentialism’, from Kate Kirkpatrick’s critical biography of her life, and for a shorter overview of her life’s work read the encyclopedia article on the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers.

Drawing on existentialism’s relevance to the creation of identity, as well as its ability to challenge “essentialist” conceptions of identity, in terms of both the individual self and categories such as gender, race, and culture, The Bloomsbury Companion to Existentialism provides a fruitful resource for a range of applications. Read more in the chapters Existentialism, Feminism and Sexuality and Existentialism and the Emotions.

Modern European Women Philosophers

On the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers you can access over 400 entries on American and European women in Britain, North America, France and Germany who contributed to modern thought between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. Each entry is accompanied by a bibliography and further reading. These entries cover their life and work, explaining why we might have not already heard about them. 

Read about Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-62) the first women in Germany to become a doctor of Medicine who wrote one of the most significant, and neglected, pieces of Enlightenment feminist theory.

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-62)

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (1715-62). (Credit Alamy © Fine Art Images/Heritage Images)

A great letter writer of her time, Caroline Schlegel-Schelling (1763-1809) (who was married to both August Wilhelm Schlegel and F.W.J. Schelling) was at the centre of literary activities, personal friendships and feuds. Johanna Charlotte Unzer (1725-1982) a poet laureate and one of the few female thinkers allowed to speak publically. Gabrielle Suchon (1632-1703), a precursor to French feminist theory, was also the earliest female philosopher whose work has been preserved in its entirety. Marie de Gournay (1565-1645) is known mainly as the first editor of Montaigne’s Essais, but her ‘feminist’ texts and her status as a woman of letters (she was linked to the creation of the Académie française) make her a true intellectual who was critical of many aspects, both literary and philosophical, of her era.
 Marie le Jars, Lady Gournay (1566-1645)
Marie le Jars, Lady Gournay (1566-1645). Lithograph by Pierre Langlumé. (Credit Bibliothèque de Bordeaux, public domain)

An influential and controversial figure of French mysticism, Jeanne-Marie Guyon (1648-1717) was condemned for the personal sacrifice she made to her work.

Sexual difference 

The theme most frequently associated with Luce Irigaray’s philosophical work is sexual difference, later termed sexuate difference. Her insistence on the need to recognise sexual difference guides her interrogation of the Western philosophical tradition in her early works as well as her issue with what she termed the ‘phallocentrism’ of western philosophy. Questioning how major thinkers in the Western philosophical tradition have written about women, the other and otherness, and the means by which this tradition, embodied in the works of Freud, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, constitutes itself as the province of truth and sense. 

'In the Beginning, She Was', Luce Irigaray

To engage more with Irigaray’s work read this encyclopedia article on Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers, and delve into a selection of her primary works on Bloomsbury 20th-Century French Thought

Anna Jameson and 19th Century Aesthetics and Religion 

Once a household name, Anna Jameson will be unfamiliar to many people today. A successful art critic, Jameson achieved her position of influence in an era when women’s publications on art were still relatively rare. Her writings doubtless contributed to the rise in representations of biblical women and female saints from the 1840s to 1860s, especially in paintings by women. Rossetti read her essays on the early Italian painters and she certainly influenced George Eliot. But why did Jameson fall out of history so swiftly? Why was she so quickly dismissed as old-fashioned? 

Read Anna Jameson’s Legends of the Madonna, as Represented in the Fine Arts 1852 and discover writing by an author who inspired a generation of later women art critics, including Julia Cartwright, Emilia Dilke, and Vernon Lee. 

Women and Critical Phenomenology

Critical phenomenology involves challenging the dominant strands of male phenomenology via Husserl, whilst continuing some of the key questions and debates which arise out of the tradition of transcendental phenomenology.  Inextricably tied up in work of feminist theory, critical phenomenology undertakes a normative task, and seeks to dismantle the very concrete social, historical, political, and economic realities that operate in everyday experience to propel a collection of hostile forces, including white supremacy, settler colonialism, global capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism, to name a few. 

The work of critical phenomenologists elucidates the way lived experience is constitutive of and constituted by these forces, to highlight how these forces confer meaning and undermine the possibility for a meaningful existence at the “level” of embodied subjectivity, and aims to cultivate new sensibilities that allow for ethical transformation. Taking cues from various modes of social critique, critical phenomenology wrestles with and against such realities of power and domination. To read more about the re-invention of transcendental phenomenology through the work of pioneering critical phenomenologists like Linda Martín Alcoff, Alia Al-Saji, Bonnie Mann, and Mariana Ortega, you can read Megan Burke’s full introduction to the subject here.