The Philosopher Queens: why we’re writing a book about women in philosophy

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When we began looking for a book on women in philosophy we were not prepared for what we found, or rather didn’t find. An afternoon in Waterstones, followed by a trip to Kensington Library, followed by an evening of angrily searching online for something, anything on women in philosophy had generated almost nothing. The only book that we found (and immediately ordered) was written by an incredible woman in philosophy herself, Mary Warnock, who wrote a book on women in philosophy over 20 years ago.

Of course, we should have known that books on women in philosophy would be scarce. A cursory glance at any Philosophy syllabus will show you a number of modules focusing on the work on men like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls, and Russell (to name only a few). We are not saying these modules are not important, of course they are. Part of learning philosophy means engaging with ideas from history. However, these modules and reading lists would have you believe that no women feature in the history of philosophy whatsoever. That is simply not true.

While the rest of academia has been embracing and supporting the work of women, philosophy still seems sadly behind the game. Just under 30% of academics in philosophy in the UK are women, putting our subject behind english, law, anthropology, classics, history, politics and economics. Whilst we have some of a greatest women in academia working in philosophy, our progress seems alarmingly slow. Things look even worse for people of colour in philosophy. In a New York Times interview, Anita L Allen (who is writing a chapter on Angela Davis for The Philosopher Queens) said “Only about 1 percent of full-time philosophy professors are black, whereas about 17 percent are women. A higher percentage of black men than black women Ph.D students go on to tenure-track positions.” Our efforts need to extend not only to supporting women in philosophy, but also people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community.

There is some amazing work being done to highlight women in philosophy within academia. New Narratives in the History of Philosophy and Project Vox showcase the work of women philosophers from the early modern period. The Society for Women in Philosophy runs events and mentoring programmes aimed at promoting women in philosophy, past, present, and future. The In Parenthesis at Durham University explores and archives the work of the Oxford four: Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Philippa Foot.

Unfortunately, not much of this has translated into popular perceptions of philosophy. When creating our promotional video for The Philosopher Queens we asked members of the public to name as many philosophers as they could. When they all listed off the usual male canon, we asked whether they could name any women philosophers. No one that we surveyed could name a single women in philosophy. Something needed to be done.

The Philosopher Queens was borne out of this frustration. Frustration that philosophy books don’t reflect the work of women in philosophy, both today or throughout history. That’s why we’ve asked 21 women to write a chapter on a woman in philosophy and their impact on the world. Whilst working on this book, we have tried to highlight the work of women philosophers from across the world in attempt to break away from the white, male, european canon that we are taught in philosophy here in the UK. There were (obviously) too many women to squeeze into this one book, but we hope that The Philosopher Queens will be an important step in the right direction.

You can pledge to support The Philosopher Queens at the Unbound website. If you do you’ll receive a special edition hardback and your name in the book as a supporter. There are also lots of other philosophy goodies on the page as well.

Rebecca Buxton is a DPhil student at Oxford University, specialising in philosophy and forced migration studies. 

Lisa Whiting works in public policy research, specialising in areas related to practical ethics.

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