In the history of philosophy there are the big names – Plato, Locke and dozens of others that it is possible to name. The glaring omissions are a bit more tricky to name; Hypatia, Eliot, De Beauvoir and Warnock are women who were philosophers and writers, but who even specific histories of philosophy ignore. Not because their writings were unimportant or not influential, but simply because they were women. This brilliant book tries to address this by presenting twenty portraits of women who through the ages and across the world have been effectively philosophers, attempting to transform the world with their views, and often their protests.
The reader does not need to have heard of these twenty brave women before to enjoy this book, as each writer who has written a portrait gives the basic biographical details in a colourful and lively way. As each of the twenty writers have a background themselves in philosophy and academic studies, their portraits give a fair idea of who each woman was, their importance in their own context and their lasting effect on the history of ideas. Some have excelled in linked fields to philosophy such as literature or mathematics, while their demands and protests for fair treatment on the basis of their identity as women, race or other differences. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read, enjoy and review this book.
The twenty portraits are designed collectively to assist in the process of changing “the popular perceptions of philosophy” by adopting “a broad definition of ‘philosopher’”. So this book begins with a woman, Diotima, who featured in Plato’s “Symposium” but who has never achieved the fame of the other star of Plato’s writing, Socrates. Hypatia was a mathematician first, but used her fame to question the current political status quo. Women from China, Ban Zhao, and Kashmir, Lalla also feature as early thinkers and influencers of thought. Mary Wollstonecraft is well known in Britain as author of the powerful “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792, but less well known is her predecessor in many ways, Mary Astell, writer of a feminist philosophical treatise “A Serious Proposal to the Ladies” in 1694. George Eliot – real name Mary Anne Evans – is primarily known as a fiction writer, but Clare Carlisle shows how her female characters were portraits of women under pressure from society in various ways. Mary Warnock, who died in 2019, introduced many to the study of ethics in her book “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics” (1998), as well as doing ground breaking work in the field of reproductive policies. American “structural injustice” and difficult racial situations have been criticised by several women here, while Islamic jurisprudence has been a contentious subject tackled by Azizah Y. al – Hibri who is the final subject of this book.
This is a book which also includes a list of further reading about and by the subjects of the portraits, which will be of great interest to those who wish to discover more about specific women. The list of other philosopher queens also means that those who did not make the list of twenty are recognised briefly and named to allow further investigation. The individual authors are identified and given due credit for the contributions. This is a very impressive book which is very readable for the non specialist or academic as a book of women who have made a difference. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of philosophical thought and action, and everyone who is fascinated by important feminist thinkers and beyond.