Though it might sometimes seem like only men ever had anything to say about philosophy (the world has a history of patriarchy to blame for that), a few brave, brilliant, inspiring women have made sure some sort of balance was maintained. From Ancient Greece to post-war America (and passing through Nazi Germany), here are ten philosophers you won’t want to forget.
Historians know very little about Diotima, but her words and ideas were preserved in Plato’s Symposium, his great treatise on the nature of love. According to her, people can express love through reproduction both literally and metaphorically — through reproducing to have children, or by sharing their ideas and making themselves immortal that way. Essentially, love is part of the drive to be immortal, in body and in mind.
While Hypatia undoubtedly existed, her exact philosophies were lost in the millennia since she lived. We are thus forced to rely purely on her achievements and her position in society to recognize her. The daughter of another philosopher, Theon Alexandricus, she grew up to become not just a respected philosopher in her own right, but actually the head of the Neoplatonic school in the ancient city of Alexandria. There she taught philosophy and astronomy, and also studied mathematics. She was universally respected for both her ideas and her ability to explain them, especially by the men who studied under her. Her death at the hands of a Christian mob was one of the markers of the end of Classical antiquity.
Heloise, a philosopher who eventually became a nun, is probably most well known for her tragic love affair with Peter Abelard, but she was famous in her own time for her intellect, and was a very early believer in a fairly radical feminist philosophy. Abelard and Heloise carried out an illicit affair for many years before getting married, something Heloise never wanted. Their relationship eventually became problematic enough for him to become a monk, and she a nun. Her ideas about marriage — that it is essentially contractual prostitution — and her complete rejection of traditional femininity would make her stand out even today. Although she eventually ended up in a confined, convent life, in her own words she ‘preferred love to wedlock, freedom to a bond.’ How’s that for inspiring?
Tullia d’Aragona, the illegitimate daughter of a cardinal and a courtesan, was known across Italy for her beauty and her skill with words, both in literary and philosophical writing, as well as in social settings. Her main philosophical text is Dialogues on the Infinity of Love, a Neo-Platonist work that discusses the necessity of female sexual and emotional freedom in romantic love. This came at a time when women generally had little autonomy, although the Renaissance had begun to provide a bit more space. She truly practiced as she preached, taking lovers everywhere she went in Italy and driving multiple men to write odes and sonnets to her. She also wrote poetry throughout her life, primarily sonnets, along with one epic poem.
Bassi was a true trailblazer both for natural philosophy and for women in academia as a whole. In 1732, when she was only 21, she received her doctorate from the University of Bologna — at the time the second woman ever to receive a doctorate from a European university. She became a professor of anatomy upon graduating, and then a year later received the chair of philosophy. She primarily occupied herself with physics, and she was on the cutting edge of science at the time, dealing with Newtonian physics and Franklinian electricity before the Italian universities even taught them. She wrote much more than she published, but in her teachings played a key role in importing Newton’s ideas about natural philosophy and expanding on them in her own ways.
Mary Ann Evans, the woman behind the pen name George Eliot, is most famous for the seven novels that she wrote, including Silas Marner and Middlemarch. However, much of her work and focus contained a heavy moral bent. Early in her life, her family invested in her education because they assumed that she would be too ugly to marry well; later on, she became infamous for a scandalous public affair conducted with a married man, even as she was one of the most well-respected writers of her time. She was influenced by various philosophies that she worked with closely, including Rationalism and Baruch Spinoza’s work on ethics.
Arendt categorized herself as a political theorist instead of a philosopher, and in that capacity she is a very influential thinker on such subjects as totalitarianism and the nature of evil. Growing up in the first half of the 20th century in what is now Kaliningrad and Berlin, she was in a good position to witness totalitarianism in two forms at opposite ends of the political spectrum — Stalinism and Nazism. She escaped from Germany before the war and eventually became a naturalized American citizen. One of her most famous works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, angered many of her fellow Jews because of its depiction of Adolf Eichmann as a bureaucrat following orders rather than a malicious actor himself.
Rand’s work and ideas are deeply ingrained into the American political landscape. She wrote two very famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the latter of which espouses her defining philosophy, Objectivism. This set of ideas embraces reason and philosophical realism, completely denying any form of the supernatural. It also includes the idea of rational self-interest: people should act selfishly in order to further their goals. Rand’s political philosophy is largely centered around the idea of individual rights and limited government, which the American conservative and libertarian movements claim as their base — despite the fact that she refused to classify herself in those terms.
As only the ninth woman to receive a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, Simone de Beauvoir had a good start intellectually speaking. While she was there, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, the well-known existentialist who she would enter into a life-long relationship with; both left lasting and deep impressions on the other’s work. De Beauvoir is most famous for her book The Second Sex, which lays out the groundwork for the theory of feminist existentialism — basically, that a person is not born a woman, she becomes one by being compared to men (hence the title of the work). She believed that men crafted women into ‘the other’ as a way of putting themselves higher in a created hierarchy and that women should not have to act in the ways expected by society.
Iris Murdoch is most well known for her work as a novelist and playwright, but she also has a substantial body of philosophical writing. Her greatest influences were Plato and French philosopher Simone Weil, and some of her most highly respected works in philosophy were her critiques of Wittgenstein, whom she met while she was at Cambridge, and Sartre. Like Plato, she focused heavily on morality and goodness, stating that recognizing one’s inner self and life is important to living morally and that goodness does in fact exist in the world. She also carried these and other themes into her fiction, where she could explore them through the lives of her characters.