Woman in Stoicism - Where are the female Stoics?

Let's begin this lecture with an activity, think of five philosophers. Any philosophers, Stoic or not… Have you got them in mind? Now how many from that five were women? When discussing philosophy and philosophical history, society tends to leave out women. Well, women’s history is still history, whether or not the generalisation history often makes is that we should focus on men. The absence of women’s voices in philosophy is paradoxically deafening. The silence could be down to many factors, perhaps due to the inherent belief of female inferiority, or maybe it comes down to the various invisible and totally visible biases that consume male dominated areas of study. This results in women’s opinions shut off from influence. Even today, 70% of philosophers in UK universities are men. So today, it's important that we let some voices be heard, and open the lecture to the question, where are the Stoic women?


Ironically, the story begins with a man. The philosophical discussions that took place in ancient Athens were typically on the grounds of a gymnasia, a place in which women were forbidden. The tradition remained that philosophy would be taught by wealthy young men. Socrates, however, an ancient philosopher, taught differently. He lived modestly and simply. He became his own teacher, instead of lecturing and charging a fee, he lived and taught on his own accord. This change in teaching opened up a spiderweb for the teaching of philosophy, it branched away from exclusivity and introduced a culture that welcomed philosophy to all. Rich and poor, men and women. Socrates explains how his approaches were welcome to women, not only that, he explained that many of his ideologies were inspired by women. His mother, a midwife, taught him disciplines of connections and matchmaking, and the Delphic Oracle, the priestess of Apollo, that inspired his entire philosophical mission. 


Socrates, therefore laid a firm and secure foundation that ultimately welcomed all, he believed that despite unpopular opinion, women were welcome to live just like men, and equally commit themselves to virtue, “Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason,” argues Rufus. So how does this link to the Stoics? It all narrows down to influence, Socrates and his radical thinking acted as a precursor for what would become Stoicism. Musionus Rufus, teacher of Epictetus, evidences this. He, himself, wrote a lecture explaining ‘That Women too Should Study Philosophy’, “certainly it is to be expected that the educated woman will be more courageous than the uneducated” writes Rufus, advocating for the benefits of Stoicism upon women’s lives. Alongside this, there is some evidence about women who seemed to have practised Stoicism in the ancient world, here’s a summary of four of these women.  


Firstly, Hipparchia of Maroneia. She was the wife of Crates of Thebes, one of the most influential Cynic philosophers at the time. She was also a Cynic philosopher like her husband. She therefore led a life of a Cynic, her influence is prominent, she chose a way of life that was not considered to be the social norm. Ultimately, she rejected convention. Her influence on Stoicism is debated and speculated, since Crates influenced Zeno, father of Stoic philosophy. You could argue that she and Crates inspired Zeno’s radical views of gender and sex, laid out in his version of Plato’s Republic. 


Following up on that. Porcia Catonus also was an influential figure. Daughter of Cato, she was a proud and intelligent woman, not frightened by judgement or disapproval from others. Porcia was considered to be a hero in Stoic customs. She was the wife of Brutus who is famous as he was one of Caesar's assassins. She was involved and intrigued by philosophy. In a recount Plutarch describes her as “being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage...” In Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ she is portrayed as a  “young Lady being excellently well seen in Philosophy, loving her husband well, and being of a noble courage, as she was also wise.” She was a strong woman, committed and sacrificial, willing to prove her commitment to Brutus. Similarly is the story of Fannia. She was a part of the Stoic opposition against Nero’s autocratic rule. The knowledge of Fannia is sourced from letters to Pliny the Younger. Her commitment can be seen when she followed her husband to exile. It is also evidenced that she stood up for herself in court against the request of the writing of her biographical book. “Not a word did she utter to show that she shrank from the perils which threatened her,” shows evidence of fortitude, strength, and confidence. 


Finally, Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor. The daughter of Aurelius. When emperor Commodus succeeded her father he ordered political executions, cornificia survived the political executions... When her death finally came around in her fifties, she honoured her father with her last words ‘My poor, unhappy soul, trapped in an unworthy body, go forth, be free, show them that you are the daughter of Marcus Aurelius!'. From this we could infer that she was inspired by her father’s stoic teachings and was proud of her history. 


However, despite the stories of these incredible women and thoughts of Stoic philosophy, there’s still room for criticism. Yes these women are amazing, but why don’t we know enough about them? Why are their stories restricted to a certain extent? More importantly why are these women only important in relation to men, daughters of, wives of… Are these stories really just a reach for inclusivity. I mean out of a big population of male Stoics, I can only find four limited stories of women’s involvement in ancient Stoic philosophy. When “men write about classic Stoic women, where they fail by simply talking about the women and their accomplishments only in relation to their benefit to the men around them.” writes Gray Miller. I think this sums up my point exactly, we never see an individual, we only see the women in the shadow of her counterpart. 


Of course, in our modern landscape there’s more and more modern stoics. Women like Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington post, advocate for Stoic philosophy. Infamous sociologist Beatrice Web, listing Goethe, Plato and Aurelius as her life’s influences. Martha Nussbaum, renowned philosopher, author and scholar of Stoicism, calling on the philosophy’s importance, “The most fertile idea of the Stoics, in my view, is their analysis of emotions as containing evaluative thoughts about what is most important for one’s well-being.”, she explains. 

The development of women in philosophy is indicative of a more liberal and open environment for women that is developed in the 21st century. However there’s still room for improvement, especially in the choices of dialogue that are adopted by those who write about Stoicism and Philosophy today. They avoid talking about the women and what they’ve done for themselves and Stoicism, instead there’s a trend of ignorance or undermining. This can be seen, not only in the ancient sense, but also in a contemporary context. Therefore, we have the right to ask, where are the Stoic women?

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