This International Women's Day, Remember the Great Female Thinkers

03/08/2015 10:23 EDT | Updated 05/08/2015 05:59 EDT

Like many people who studied philosophy, most of the great historical thinkers I was introduced to at school to were male. Entire courses went by without any mention of women in philosophy, and female thinkers didn't occupy a lot of pages in our text books either. I mean no disrespect to the great men we studied. Their ideas were revolutionary, innovative, sometimes world-changing, and I'm glad I had the chance to explore them. However, there's something empowering about seeing yourself represented in the philosophical cannon, and outside of feminist philosophy classes, female thinkers were few and far between.

When I started writing philosophy books for kids, one of my mandates (and something parents requested) was to include thinkers of both sexes. I really wanted little girls to see themselves in these great minds, and to realize that they too could be part of the history of big questions. Women philosophers of the past may not have had the same opportunities to study, to publish, and to teach, but when I went digging for them, they were there, and their ideas were inspiring.

In celebration of International Women's Day and Women's History Month, I wanted to share a handful of female thinkers who are sometimes overlooked, but who contributed in meaningful ways.

• Ban Zhao (45-116) was the first female Chinese historian on record. She was also an astronomer, mathematician, poet, and Confucian philosopher who aimed to guide women in achieving domestic harmony.

• Hypatia of Alexandria (350 - 370) was not only the keeper of the legendary Library of Alexandria, but also a renowned teacher of philosophy, a mathematician, a logician, and a cosmologist.

• Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) excelled in botany, music, poetry, and medicine, and also wrote volumes on ethics.

• Tulia D'Arragona (1510-1556) wrote epic poetry, and sought to understand the nature of love.

• Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) wrote on extensively on mysticism, and the virtues of love.

• Lady Anne Conway (1631-1679) constructed a theory of reality that challenged those of her male predecessors, and influenced thinkers like Leibniz.

• Sor Juana (1648-1695) wrote poetry, but also argued for the importance of giving women a place in academia and the arts.

• Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) was one of the first renowned female mathematicians in western society. She delivered her first philosophical talk at age nine, defending the rights of girls to be educated, followed by a volume of 191 theses at the age of 20.

• Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) encouraged her young female students to stand on their own, and went on write one of the best known works on women's rights.

• Anna J. Cooper (1858-1964) was not only one of the first African-American women to earn a doctoral degree, but was also a pioneering voice in civil and women's rights.

• Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was a controversial speaker, a political activist, and a pivotal part of the development of anarchist philosophy.

This, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg (hey, it barely touches on the 20th century). These women influenced math, science, literature, politics, and art in all corners of the world. Here's the cool thing about digging for famous women philosophers in history: you start finding more than just female thinkers. You find thinkers from around the world, who spoke different languages, came from different faith traditions, and represented different social classes. Looking for famous women in history broadens one's understanding of many subjects.

Here's to the trailblazers, the ones who made it into our common consciousness, and the ones who are still waiting for us to rediscover them. Here's to the many little girls who will find them and take up the torch to become the next generation of great thinkers.

Happy International Women's Day, everyone!


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