How Female Thinkers Were Written Out of Philosophical History and What You Can Do About It

Male theorists and their perspectives pervade not only the methods by which we teach philosophy but also the foundations by which we approach rationality, virtue, and justice. This is not coincidental or a natural occurrence by any means, but one which has been cultivated throughout the history of western philosophy. Through near systematic disregard of female thinkers, some of the most profoundly impactful philosophers have been, in effect, written out of history. In this extremely brief essay, I will endeavor to explain the major means by which this exclusion has occurred and advocate for a complete, unprejudiced review of how we conceptualize western philosophy. 

Before one’s foot hits the floor through the door of one’s first philosophy lecture, it is extremely likely that they have heard of at least a few thinkers upon which many philosophical pedagogies are structured. Such thinkers being astute individuals like Locke, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and perhaps even Nietzsche. These individuals are locked into the common perspective of how philosophy should be done, which is tethered to the world’s idea of western thought in a gordian knot. These quintessential thinkers teach many a new student of how it is that one should characterize interactions, interpret the world, reason morally, and think rationally. The ideal male philosopher teaches us what is good and how to obtain it and yet it seems there is something missing. Perhaps in the times during which most of the aforementioned authors took up the pen, it was a rather ponderous issue; however, from the perspective of thinkers today, it seems rather obvious. The missing component is the inclusion of not just one type of perspective, but those of everyone. Every person, every perspective, has something to contribute to the understanding of the conditions in which humanity exists. Without inclusion, the ability for humanity will always be handicapped, skewed towards understanding but one population of individuals and their experiences. 

In developing the present means of educating those who wish to study philosophy, generations of professors have relied heavily on the pedagogies of their predecessors. This chain of deferral in curriculum structure leads effortlessly back to those times in which women were treated as second class citizens and reflects such origins with gusto. Not only does this reflexive default to male authors promote the conception that philosophical thought was driven forward by men alone throughout history, but it also erases the traces of the places where women made their mark on western theories. Indeed, most students could study philosophy without ever hearing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s fiery critiques of Rousseau’s social contract or reading the works of Astell on the relationality between men and women. These were women who were widely known in their times as articulate critiques of theory and people who challenged the inequality society imposed on the basis of sex. Yet it is more often than not the case where an examination of historically impactful theory can go an entire course without encountering one author who didn’t also happen to be a white male. I would not put forward the claim that male theorists are dispensable or less valuable on the basis of their sex, but I would advise that courses be structured with a similar value for everyone else. 

Ultimately, change in the academic sphere regarding the very bedrock on which we educate people is not apt to change quickly on its own. Uprooting injustices of even a smaller caliber has never been something that is just easy to do. This lack of ease, however, is immaterial when there is an unjust bias being perpetuated systematically regardless of its location in social or societal settings. What would then be necessary for the inclusion of women in the conceptualization of western thought is for more engagement with these authors to be had across the board. Not just in classes specified to feminist theory, but every area in which the conception of theory could be improved by the inclusion of more diverse thinking. Ultimately it comes down to students, faculty, and administrators to realize where the error has been made and to rectify it for the good of the education of everyone. Surely, it would represent a greater degree of justice for those authors who have been excluded for so long to be finally heard and debated widely yet again.