9 Women Philosophers To Inspire You In 2024
Philosophy, for me, evokes imagery of the ancients lecturing vast venues full of men: Aristotle, Plato, Socrates — the names listed as “required reading” for many of my college courses. This, ultimately, has me feeling removed from the concept of philosophy as a whole, like it’s for someone much older and much more distant. Where are the people that look like me? Where are the thinkers that embody more than a singular, masculine-centric view of the world?
But it’s here. It’s right now. And there are so many women thinkers contributing to it. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick test: did you see the Trolley Problem floating around on the internet in regards to the 2020 pandemic, lockdowns, and vaccine distribution discussions? The concept, which explores moral decision-making and the ethics of sacrifices, was developed and coined by two women philosophers, Judith Jarvis Thompson and Philippa Foot, in the 1960s and ‘70s. Philosophy driven by women is relevant today — and proves how necessary it is for navigating life in the 21st century.
“If you’ve got big questions, you’re not alone. Someone, somewhere, is dedicating their work to finding the answers for themselves — and for all of us.”
Below, you’ll find inspiring, quotable, and prolific philosophers to add to your reading list, but the list goes on. There are women exploring so many subgenres!
If there’s a topic you want to learn more about, start with PhilPeople’s “Find A Philosopher” tool to help expand your thinking. Consider Eva Kittay and Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, who work in the field of disability philosophy and bioethics, or Anne (Schulherr) Waters, who specializes in American Indian philosophy, or Talia Mae Bettcher who explores transgender philosophy. By viewing on the world through these lenses, we can learn more about who we are, what we are doing, and perhaps most importantly, why we are.
If you’ve got big questions, you’re not alone. Someone, somewhere, is dedicating their work to finding the answers for themselves — and for all of us. If philosophy isn’t for you right now, head here for some of our favorite substack newsletters that’ll help ignite your inspiration.
1. Hypatia of Alexandria
Areas Of Focus | Mathematics and astronomy
Featured Work | The Wisdom of Hypatia
Hypatia is an early female philosopher who worked in spaces of mathematics and astronomy, and broke traditional norms as a female public speaker and academic. Her teachings were considered “pagan” and contradicted early Christian teachings emerging in Alexandria (formerly Rhacotis, a village in Egypt, before it was overtaken by Greek leader Alexander the Great). She ultimately was murdered for her teachings, which encouraged critical inquiry into religion. Read Hypatia if you’re ready to take a critical lens to your own belief systems.
“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”– Hypatia
2. Susanne Langer
Areas Of Focus | Art, philosophy of mind, linguistic analysis
Featured Work | Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art
The first woman to be considered an American philosopher, Susanne Langer explored music, creativity, and the ways art transcends language. She proposed an inherent need in humans to find, identify, and ascribe meaning in the world around us. Read Langer if you’re a writer, musician, or artist who wants to learn more about how your art connects to the human experience.
“Art is the articulation, not the stimulation or catharsis, of feeling; and the height of technique is simply the highest power of this sensuous revelation and wordless abstraction.”– Susanne Langer
3. Iris Murdoch
Areas Of Focus | Morality, human relations and behavior
Featured Work | The Sovereignty of Good
Dame Jean Iris Murdoch rose to fame as a British and Irish novelist, and her skills as a writer allow her to portray moral and philosophical questions within accessible storylines. You can see this style clearly in Murdoch’s famous example of “M” and “D” in her essay, The Idea of Perfection. In the example, Murdoch explores how, through self-criticism and -exploration, altering our perception of a person or situation can change our moral behavior. Read Murdoch if you’re feeling called to challenge your attitudes towards things that are confronting you.
“One should go easy on smashing other people’s lies. Better to concentrate on one’s own.”– Iris Murdoch
4. Mary Midgely
Areas Of Focus | Ethics, human and animal relations, myth
Featured Work | What Is Philosophy For?
Mary Midgely was a British moral philosopher who wrote across topics such as the importance of myth, animal rights, and how philosophy is still relevant today. Midgely proposed that science was not antithetical to religion, and vice versa, which infuses her inquiries with deep meaning, although she does not ascribe to a specific religion. Read Midgely if you’re an advocate for animal rights or if you feel that in a world full of technological and scientific advances, we still need philosophy.
“The trouble with human beings is not really that they love themselves too much; they ought to love themselves more. The trouble is simply that they don’t love others enough.”– Mary Midgely
5. Angela Davis
Areas Of Focus | Race, social justice, prison abolition
Featured Work | Women, Race, & Class
Angela Davis is most well-known as an activist and grassroots organizer for civil rights, but her deep body of research and writing on the topics of race, feminism, and politics position her as an American philosopher as well. A now-retired professor of the History of Consciousness, Davis connects the dots between intersecting identities and explores oppression in America and beyond. Read Davis if you’re questioning the ethics of the prison industrial complex or if you want further context behind social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter.
“Whenever you conceptualize social justice struggles, you will always defeat your own purposes if you cannot imagine the people around whom you are struggling as equal partners.”– Angela Davis
6. Martha Nussbaum
Areas Of Focus | Politics, justice, and economics
Featured Work | The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal
American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, a widely celebrated teacher and writer, contributes greatly to discussions around human rights and economic development. Nussbaum proposes the Capabilities Approach, which challenges GDP as a measure of the quality of life — deeply researching the idea that individuals are more than the economic factors of the country they live in. Read Nussbaum if you see yourself as a citizen of the world, not just your country or region, and believe in securing equitable human rights for all.
“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame […] more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”– Martha Nussbaum
7. Judith Butler
Areas Of Focus | Gender, sex, and identity
Featured Work | Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
The American academic Judith Butler is non-binary and uses she/they pronouns. They’ve made significant contributions to thought on the performative aspects of gender and even the performance of sex. They propose that gender is a “doing” rather than something that exists innately. Read Butler if gender reveal parties frustrate you endlessly or if you’re interested in learning more about why we exist in the visible and performative ways we do.
“Love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.”– Judith Butler
8. Ruth Chang
Areas Of Focus | Choice and decision-making, the nature of value
Featured Work | How To Make Hard Choices on TED Radio Hour
Are you at a crossroads and don’t know which path to choose? Ruth Chang has studied and consulted on decision-making in her career as a philosopher, following a career in law (her own “hard decision”). Chang, who lives in New York, has also consulted with large companies around the world on the aspects of choice and likewise offers individuals thought on comparing the factors of a decision. Read Chang if you’ve written all the pros and cons list you can—and still don’t have an answer for yourself.
“Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are.”– Ruth Chang
9. Sara Ahmed
Areas Of Focus | Feminism, race, queer studies
Featured Work | Living A Feminist Life
British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed explores “how bodies and worlds take shape; and how power is secured and challenged in everyday life worlds as well as institutional cultures.” Ahmed’s interests span a wide range of topics, with books on cultural connections of emotion and happiness to her writings at feministkilljoys, a companion blog for her book, “Living A Feminist Life.” Read Ahmed if you’re seeking to deepen the intersectionality of your feminism—and if you’re ready to face the tactical ways of making systemic and institutional change.
“Indeed so often just talking about sexism as well as racism is heard as damaging the institution. If talking about sexism and racism is heard as damaging institutions, we need to damage institutions.”– Sara Ahmed
Emily McGowan is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits and cat, or gaming. Say hi on Instagram!