The best books by or about women philosophers you should know but probably don't

Sandrine Bergès Author Of Liberty in Their Names: The Women Philosophers of the French Revolution
By Sandrine Bergès

Who am I?

At school I fell in love philosophy. But at university, as I grew older, I started to feel out of place: all the authors we read were men. I loved Plato, but there was something missing. It didn’t occur to me until I was in my thirties to look for women in the history of philosophy! I read Wollstonecraft first, then Olympe de Gouges, and the other women I wrote about in my book, and now I’m looking at women philosophers from the tenth to the nineteenth century. There is a wealth of work by women philosophers out there. Reading their works has made philosophy come alive for me, all over again. 

I wrote...

Liberty in Their Names: The Women Philosophers of the French Revolution

By Sandrine Bergès,

Book cover of Liberty in Their Names: The Women Philosophers of the French Revolution

What is my book about?

Can you name three women who were important in the French Revolution? Were any of them philosophers? We know philosophers dead (Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu) and alive (Condorcet, Thomas Paine) influenced the revolution, so where were the women?

This book presents the life and philosophy of three women who took an active part in the French Revolution through their political writings. They are Olympe de Gouges, Manon Roland and Sophie de Grouchy. They led short but very engaged lives (Gouges and Roland died at the guillotine). All three were impressive feminist thinkers who argued not just about women’s rights, but also slavery, government, and social inequalities, and whose contribution to political thought, like that of many women philosophers, was erased by historians. 

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The books I picked & why

Becoming Beauvoir: A Life

By Kate Kirkpatrick,

Book cover of Becoming Beauvoir: A Life

Why did I love this book?

I’ve read a lot of biographies of Simone de Beauvoir.

But this is the one that best brought out her importance as a philosopher, the many ways in which her thought differed from Sartre’s and the ways in which this has been obscured by a posterity that just wants to see her as his sidekick.

One thing that this book did for me that others on Beauvoir didn’t was to reconcile me with the unpleasant aspects of her life and relationships – she was human, she was flawed, but so were her male peers! 

By Kate Kirkpatrick,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Becoming Beauvoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"One is not born a woman, but becomes one", Simone de Beauvoir A symbol of liberated womanhood, Simone de Beauvoir's unconventional relationships inspired and scandalised her generation. A philosopher, writer, and feminist icon, she won prestigious literary prizes and transformed the way we think about gender with The Second Sex. But despite her successes, she wondered if she had sold herself short. Her liaison with Jean-Paul Sartre has been billed as one of the most legendary love affairs of the twentieth century. But for Beauvoir it came at a cost: for decades she was dismissed as an unoriginal thinker who…

Book cover of Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics

Why did I love this book?

I’ve read and written a lot on Wollstonecraft, so I don’t surprise easily.

But I was surprised when I found out that Mary Wollstonecraft was a theatre buff who knew Shakespeare inside out, and that her favourite opera was Handel’s Judas Maccabeus and she would sometimes sing arias from it, that she loved swimming and horse riding.

The picture of Wollstonecraft that emerges from this book is that of a philosopher whose love and knowledge of humanity fed into her theories of human progress. 

By Sylvana Tomaselli,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Wollstonecraft as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft that shows the intimate connections between her life and work

Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, is a work of enduring relevance in women's rights advocacy. However, as Sylvana Tomaselli shows, a full understanding of Wollstonecraft's thought is possible only through a more comprehensive appreciation of Wollstonecraft herself, as a philosopher and moralist who deftly tackled major social and political issues and the arguments of such figures as Edmund Burke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith. Reading Wollstonecraft through the lens of the politics and culture of her…

The Portable Anna Julia Cooper

By Anna Julia Cooper, Shirley Moody-Turner (editor), Henry Louis Gates, Jr (editor)

Book cover of The Portable Anna Julia Cooper

Why did I love this book?

Anna Julia Cooper is one of the nineteen and twentieth American philosophers I find most exciting.

Her book, A Voice from the South, is the first feminist book to introduce the idea of intersectionality! She spent her very long lifetime writing about education, women’s rights, racism, and she has a fascinating correspondence with the intellectuals of her time, including W.E.B Dubois.

But until recently getting hold of her writings wasn’t terribly easy, unless you were willing to read online, or had access to a good academic library.

This beautiful and cheap edition is a godsend and everyone should buy it. 

By Anna Julia Cooper, Shirley Moody-Turner (editor), Henry Louis Gates, Jr (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Portable Anna Julia Cooper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A collection of essential writings from the iconic foremother of Black intellectual history, feminism and activism

The Portable Anna Julia Cooper will introduce a new generation of readers to an educator, public intellectual and community activist whose prescient insights and eloquent prose underlie some of the most important developments in modern American intellectual thought and African-American social and political activism.

This volume brings together, for the first time, Anna Julia Cooper's major collection of essays, A Voice from the South, along with several previously unpublished poems, plays, journalism and selected correspondences, including over thirty previously unpublished letters between Anna Julia…

Book cover of The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family

Why did I love this book?

This is an exciting biography of the Grimkes, black and white, and the Fortens, as well as a few others who constituted the Black elite (or the coloured elite) of Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and New York.

The way in which the slavery background of the Black Grimkes was obscured by themselves and by the white Grimke sisters is revealing and quite scary. Greenidge shows how this legacy resulted in a failure to engage fully with racism and its awful consequences.

The biography of Angelina Weld Grimke, a lesbian poet whose sexuality was repressed by her relatives adds another layer to this, as she unearthed the truth about her father and uncle's slavery background, and raised awareness of the Black condition through her work. 

By Kerri K. Greenidge,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Grimkes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah and Angelina Grimke-the Grimke sisters-are revered figures in American history, famous for rejecting their privileged lives on a plantation in South Carolina to become firebrand activists in the North. Their antislavery pamphlets, among the most influential of the antebellum era, are still read today. Yet retellings of their epic story have long obscured their Black relatives. In The Grimkes, award-winning historian Kerri Greenidge presents a parallel narrative, indeed a long-overdue corrective, shifting the focus from the white abolitionist sisters to the Black Grimkes and deepening our understanding of the long struggle for racial and gender equality.

That the Grimke…

Book cover of Pythagorean Women Philosophers: Between Belief and Suspicion

Why did I love this book?

We know that there were women in Ancient Greece who did philosophy like Diotima and Aspasia (Socrates’s teachers) or Hypatia (who was murdered by Christians in Alexandria) or Lasthenia and Axiothea (students at Plato’s Academy).

There are also ancient texts signed with women’s names like Perictione (Plato’s mum), or Theano (Pythagoras’s wife). But we can’t always trust that those texts were written by these actual women.

Do we really think that if Plato’s mother had written philosophy, her work would have turned up a century later with a bunch of fake letters in Alexandria? What Dutsch’s book does is much more exciting than trying to prove that Plato’s mum was a philosopher.

It looks at the texts that these women supposedly wrote, and the stories that were told about them, so that we get to find out what it would have been like to be a woman and a philosopher at the time of Plato and Aristotle.

And because some of those texts hadn’t been published or translated before, reading Dutsch’s book feels like reading the work of a feminist philosophical Indiana Jones!

By Dorota M. Dutsch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pythagorean Women Philosophers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Women played an important part in Pythagorean communities, so Greek sources from the Classical era to Byzantium consistently maintain. Pseudonymous philosophical texts by Theano, Pythagoras' disciple or wife, his daughter Myia, and other female Pythagoreans, circulated in Greek and Syriac. Far from being individual creations, these texts rework and revise a standard Pythagorean script.

What can we learn from this network of sayings, philosophical treatises, and letters about gender and knowledge in the Greek intellectual tradition? Can these writings represent the work of historical Pythagorean women? If so, can we find in them a critique of the dominant order or…

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