Fighting to be seen: The stories of early modern women philosophers  

Waist up portrait of Allauren Forbes

Researcher Allauren Forbes’ work focuses on women philosophers from the 16th to the 19th centuries, when they had to resort to unusual measures to be heard. Not much has changed. 

Aristotle. Plato. Descartes. Rousseau. Nietzsche. Kirkegaard. Kant. Hume.

Notice a pattern?

“Most of the people we read in philosophy classes are men,” says Allauren Forbes (she/they), an assistant professor of Philosophy and Gender & Social Justice.

In fact, students in her classes are sometimes shocked to learn that there have been women writing and participating in philosophy for hundreds of years — but due to the barriers that many of these women faced, it can be challenging to get a clear picture of who they were and what they thought.

Forbes’ research, which explores the intersection of early modern and feminist philosophies, seeks to highlight the stories of women philosophers of the 19th century and the early modern period, which stretched from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

These women are particularly interesting, says Forbes, because many developed creative ways for their ideas to be recognized in a world that wasn’t interested in hearing what they had to say — from publishing anonymously to cross-dressing in public.

“My research concerns women who have been left out of history,” says Forbes.

“Women who were left out of history precisely because they were women, and also because the things that they were interested in or concerned with did not fit into the standard narratives that we have about what history looks like and what philosophy is.”

Women were not recognized alongside their male counterparts partly because of misogyny, Forbes says, but also because the topics that women were interested in exploring at the time — the politics of women’s bodies, marriage and even friendship — were seen either as the exclusive purview of men, or simply not worth philosophical exploration at all.

“Marriage had a disproportionate shape on the trajectory of things that were possible for women,” they explain.

“Lots of women philosophers were thinking about marriage and theorizing about it in ways we don’t see in the works of their male contemporaries, even in the ones they were in conversation with.”

Mary Astell, who was active around the turn of the 18th century, is sometimes referred to as the first English feminist. She wrote about the topic of marriage often — even though she herself never married, which enabled her to pursue her work more freely.

Given the climate of their times, women sometimes published their works anonymously and those who chose to write under their own names did so at great personal risk to their financial stability and social standing.

“The things they could say were shaped by the people who were supporting them and it was very politically dangerous to antagonize the people who were paying your bills,” says Forbes.

They also tended to express their philosophical ideas in genres that were more accessible to women writers at the time — but that didn’t help enhance their credibility as philosophers.

Madeleine de Scudéry, who was active in the early 17th century, was able to pursue a career as a writer where she used non-traditional genres such as novels, speeches and dialogues to share her philosophical musings — but her ideas were dismissed as not being properly philosophical, precisely because they were expressed in unconventional formats.

The French playwright Molière even wrote a play making fun of Scudéry and women like her, with the intent of showcasing how ridiculous it was that women thought they could partake in philosophy.

Seventeenth-century English philosopher Margaret Cavendish pushed boundaries even further in order to be seen, writing in every genre imaginable — including traditional philosophical treatises, poetry, plays, letters and speeches. She’s also considered the “godmother of science fiction” for her 1666 book, The Blazing World.

By writing fiction, Cavendish was able to circumvent some of the barriers she faced in sharing her ideas.

“By writing in literal fiction, she was not bound by rules, she was able to imagine things, and therefore other women can imagine things as well,” says Forbes.

Married to a playwright — who also happened to be the first Duke of Newcastle — who supported her work, Cavendish was in a rare position for a woman philosopher of that time, but even though she had the support of her husband, she still struggled to be recognized in a field dominated by men.

As a way of forcing people to see her in the intellectual sense, Cavendish experimented with her appearance. She would cross dress and even attended a performance of one of her husband’s plays topless with her chest painted.

“She believed you have to get people’s attention so that you can get your foot in the door and even have a shot,” Forbes says.

Cavendish’s forward-looking work and fearless behaviour got her labelled “Mad Madge.”

“People would say she’s crazy, look at how she behaves, look who she thinks she is, even though her philosophical commitments that she was writing in the 17th century were actually very modern and fit into the ways we think about science now,” Forbes says.

While the “Mad Madge” label caused Cavendish’s work to be ignored, Astell was openly mocked. There is evidence that some of her male colleagues actually stole her work and called it their own.

Women then and women now

Not that much has changed, says Forbes.

“A lot of the problems that women and other marginalized genders face now are things that we have always faced in different kinds of ways,” she says.

“We can see how people fought these battles and what kinds of ground they were able to capture so that we can figure out how to translate those insights into our time now, given that there are important structural similarities.”

Misogyny, misogynoir — misogyny specifically targeting Black women — and trans misogyny are ongoing issues that find ways of punishing women and other marginalized genders for not conforming.

If we can understand the stories of the past and understand the work of the women who came before us, maybe we can improve things for future generations, Forbes says.

By centring early women philosophers in her teaching and research, Forbes hopes to enable women today to see themselves reflected in those who were able to insert themselves into history and imagine futures that weren’t viewed as real possibilities at the time.

“By these women fighting for the ability to have their voices heard and their work seen, they opened up the imaginations of other women who were able to imagine new possibilities for themselves.”

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