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Women Philosophers

Therese Dykeman on a case for a Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy Sayers.

American women philosophers supposedly did not exist until the mid twentieth century. Of course, that wasn’t true, for it is no more possible for a mind conducive to philosophic thought to cease being so, than for a season to arrive out of order. But for a philosophic mind to be trained, that is another matter. With higher education denied to them, training was hard won for women in America, as Judith Sargent Murray pointed out in the eighteenth century.

A native of Gloucester, Massachusetts, not far from Boston, Judith wrote to her brother, Governor of the Mississippi Territory, that she lamented all her life the fact that he was allowed to attend Harvard University while she, simply because she was of the female sex, was not. She explored the consequences of such deprivation in her essay ‘On the Equality of the Sexes’. Here she distinguished four powers of the mind: imagination, memory, judgment, and reason. The first three she proved to be held equally by the male and female mind. Equality in the fourth, reason, she claimed could not be proved or disproved, for it demands rigorous training, a training denied to women.

Because male philosophers have always been the educated, they have been spared having to prove their need for education. But women philosophers writing on the nature of knowledge have had the time-consuming task of first proving their right to do so. This was Judith Sargent Murray’s task in her ‘Equality’ essay, an essay she claimed was written long before Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of Women. Judith’s epistemology was published under the name of ‘Constantia’, for propriety precluded her signing her name. When her first publication, a Universalist catechism, came to his attention, her brother had chastised her inappropriate behavior for having, as a woman, published at all.

Judith expounded her philosophical ideas in many genres: poetry, letters, treatises, dramas and a novella. From Empedocles onward, men have at times written philosophy in poetry, but when a woman has done so, it has often not been considered philosophy. When theaters were closed during the Revolutionary War, Murray argued that dramas were a way of disseminating intellectual and moral virtues.

Her ethics as well as her epistemology reveals Judith as both a Platonic idealist and an American pragmatist who champions feminist freedoms. In a series of four essays entitled ‘Observations on Female Abilities’ published in her three volume 1798 work The Gleaner, Murray enumerates the practical moral virtues deemed necessary for political leadership and domestic character. She demonstrates with examples proof of women’s virtuous abilities. With a clear understanding of the ‘narrow bounds’ prescribed her sex, Judith makes use of every rhetorical device to both clearly argue and cleverly withhold the conclusion of the argument. She convenes a court trial, and following the classic oratorical framework within the trial, proceeds to prove that women have over the centuries led intellectual communities, led armies to victory and led nations to prosperity, as well as honoring their family loyalties and domestic duties. She implores the ‘careful reader’ to discover the implied argument: women have held leadership positions in the public sphere in the past, so why not the present? Hence, she argues for women’s civic participation in the forming of her new nation.

Intellectual and moral virtue are closely linked to political philosophy and civic responsibility. For Judith, moral virtue urges philanthropy in all social institutions beginning with the family and going on from there to the community and government, while ‘leadership’ extends to domestic agriculture and business. Throughout, Judith gives over seventy examples to support her case; the examples build into a history of women leaders, thinkers and activists. Mainly women writers, themselves, have promoted this historical legacy, repeating and adding to it within their own philosophical works – for example, Marie de Gournay, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Simone de Beauvoir, although de Beauvoir’s list in her Deuxieme Sex was excluded from the English translation.

Not long ago the term ‘woman philosopher’ was an oxymoron. Women’s existence as philosophers was simply denied. Excluded from the canon, as any library book shelf will reveal, in full view they went unrecognized. It was as though the curtain certain women were forced to sit behind to attend university lectures (Anna Maria van Schurman and Elizabeth of Bohemia, for instance) was permanently drawn on all women thinkers.

The first woman in America to call herself a philosopher, Frances Wright (1795-1852), was born in Scotland and raised in England. Giving a lecture on the nature of knowledge and inquiry, she admonished her New York City audience to note that it was a woman before them who was sharing her knowledge with them. A Utilitarian, Wright’s principle of ‘human improvement’ differed from the principles of Jeremy Bentham who admired her and of John Stuart Mill who called her “brilliant.”

Plato named several women he admired as philosophers, including Diotima and Aspasia. Yet, for centuries thereafter the argument was that they didn’t really exist. The Pythagorean women who wrote on the virtues of moderation and harmony were deemed too minor to be counted. Hypatia, whose commentaries on Ptolemy were studied for eleven centuries, was considered an exception.

Laura Cerreta in the fifteenth century, through letters written to fictitious men, pointed out that the notion that women thinkers were exceptions was a myth. But that Christine de Pisan managed to earn a living in the fourteenth century by writing, and wrote feminist philosophy from her own need, is nothing short of astonshing. Already on occasion, the University of Bologna had granted a few women doctorates in philosophy and offered them positions, but the Western tradition was slow in following that example.

In Judith’s lists, many of the above are mentioned, but Judith Sargent Murray also networked with her contemporaries – the American political philosopher Mercy Otis Warren and the English historian Catharine Macaulay. Judith also wrote essays on political philosophy, on Liberty, Justice, and Federalism. But she questions a Justice that does not see that women exist and that women need the means to earn a living. Under the law women were chattel, the possessions of their fathers and husbands. For most women in the eighteenth century, ownership and the means for economic security were denied them.

Some critics of Judith Sargent Murray have expressed their disappointment that she boldly articulated her own desire for fame. But they have missed the point. Without it, she was consigned to oblivion like so many other women thinkers. She understood the need for future women to have knowledge of women like herself for their own self knowledge and self esteem. “Reverence thyself” was her admonition to women. In the nineteenth century she was acclaimed as a poet; in the late twentieth century she was discovered by historians as a ‘Republican Mother’, one who championed social justice; and finally she is being contemplated by philosophers. Without her fame the long list of women from her past and present were also consigned to oblivion. Few women today know this history. Fewer philosophers know about the influence of Elizabeth of Bohemia on Descartes, of the difference between the philosophies of Heloise and Abelard, of the evidence from Simone de Beauvoir’s early diaries of ideas later attributed to Sartre.

No longer are women, because they are women, consigned to classes as solitary students, as happened at the turn of the century to Mary Whiton Calkins at Harvard when her male fellow-students withdrew from classes with William James in protest at her presence. Nor are they denied a PhD degree for work completed, as happened to the logician Christine Ladd-Franklin. But is the encouragement there in the philosophical community for women? Women philosophers have struggled along a dangerous road of neglect and ridicule – the worry is that the progress they’ve made could one day be lost.

For Judith Sargent Murray, a modicum of fame has belatedly arrived. Her home in Gloucester has become a museum. The town has commissioned a mural celebrating her. Youngsters come to research her for history classes. Scholars, now that twenty-four volumes of handwritten letters, essays, poetry have been recently discovered and her The Gleaner reissued, are giving serious study to her as a philosopher as well as an early American writer.

© Dr Therese B. Dykeman 2001

Therese Dykeman is the author of American Women Philosophers: 1750-1930: Six Exemplary Thinkers (Edwin Mellen, 1993) and The Neglected Canon: Nine Women Philosophers: 1st to the 20th Century (Kluwer, 1999).

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