Nautilus

Sexism Killed My Love for Philosophy Then Mary Astell Brought It Back

In 2004, I spent many hours walking the dirt paths of the Driftless Area, an undulating region in the Midwest left untouched by glaciers from Earth’s ice ages. In some parts the cracked earth exhales a cool air generated by underground ice. It’s a reminder of history easy to forget—until the frigid air wends its way through subterranean rock and wraps around a wanderer’s ankles.

I’d recently moved over 1,000 miles away from my East Coast university, returning to Iowa, my home state, where my then-partner was teaching. I had just finished my coursework and exams, and I was moving on to my dissertation. When I’d started my program years before, I’d imagined spending my final years as a graduate student at a world-class library, sharing ideas and coffee with brilliant colleagues, working at the peak of my knowledge and confidence at some epicenter of higher education. Yet here I was instead, borrowing books from distant libraries, and roaming limestone bluffs with a rescue dog from Baraboo, Wisconsin. Technically I was searching for a dissertation topic. But privately I roamed those hills searching for something more—a reason to stay in philosophy.

A professor trying to woo me into his program leaned over and in a whisper propositioned me.

Rochelle Hartman / Flickr

Early in my academic career I had started to find the climate of academic philosophy unwelcoming to women. No one in my department taught works by women philosophers; a mentor had openly doubted women’s ability to do philosophy. As one of the few women in the program, I was lonely. I believed women could make significant contributions to philosophy, but even so, I questioned whether philosophy was a place where they could thrive.

This began to change the year I arrived in Iowa. One afternoon I was reading an obscure monograph when a footnote led me to A Serious Proposal to the Ladies by Mary Astell, who lived from 1666 to 1731. I’d never read works by women philosophers who lived before the 20th century, assuming that since they didn’t show up in textbooks or in class discussions that they didn’t have anything unique or profound to say. Yet I was captivated by the title of Astell’s work. Here was a book personally addressed to women.

Reading , I was surprised to find that Astell

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