“The history of philosophy has not done women justice,” wrote Buxton and Whiting in this inspiring and highly readable introduction to some of the world’s formidable thinkers, philosophers and scholar-activists. As a graduate in Philosophy, I can testify that women philosophers were glossed over in much of the curriculum of inquiry into the subject. Apart from Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir – that, too, by virtue of them writing on feminism – no other women philosophers were given fair treatment. Not even Hypatia, the polymath of the Ancient World, who got my interest through the 2009 movie, Agora.
Western philosophy aside, the standard curriculum in the history of Muslim philosophy does not fare any better. The purportedly comprehensive university text, Majid Fakhry’s A History of Islamic Philosophy (1970) and M.M. Sharif’s 2-volume A History of Muslim Philosophy (1963) contain no individual chapters on female philosophers alongside chapters on the likes of al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd. Not even a dedicated chapter on the famed Sufi mystic, Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, whose theory of divine love continues to inspire many today.
The neglect of women in telling the history of philosophical thinking is indeed glaring. Even after Mary Warnock’s seminal Women Philosophers published in 1989, new works continue to omit the contributions of women, save cursory mentions here and there. The recent 2019 publication of The History of Philosophy by one of U.K.’s top philosophers, A.C. Grayling (of Birkbeck College where I received my Philosophy degree from), has a short chapter on “Feminist philosophy” but with measly mention of only 1 name, Martha Nussbaum.
This introductory book, therefore, is very much welcomed. Each of the short chapters is written by a woman scholar about a woman philosopher whose place in history deserves mention. They were written in an accessible manner for lay readers; with a bibliography for further readings. Interestingly, this is a book project that goes beyond the academia and the publication itself was entirely crowdfunded – perhaps the only way now to reclaim public discourse.
I like the fact that the editors chose an inclusive range of women philosophers. They include 1st century Chinese, Ban Zhao; 14th century Kashmiri, Lalla; the Jew, Edith Stein who died in Auschwitz under the Nazis; contemporary African professor of philosophy, Sophie Bosede Oluwole; the American Black Power theorist, Angela Davies; and Arab-American professor, jurist and proponent of gender equality in Islam, Azizah Y. Al-Hibri.
If you are interested in the history of ideas in biographical style, and in particular, on women’s contributions to the intellectual world, this book – The Philosopher Queens – is a good start. My own hope is that this will be widely read and used in schools so that we will have a new awareness on women’s contributions beyond typically women’s issues and for history to be properly told without omissions.