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Women's History Month 2020

written by Lauren Perry, MA program student - SFU Philosophy

October 18, 2020
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Since 1992, Canadians have celebrated October as Women’s History Month. While most countries celebrate it in March to coincide with International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month in Canada coincides with Persons Day on October 18th and International Day of the Girl Child on October 11th. 

Persons Day is when Edwards v. Canada — better known as the Persons Case — was decided. The Persons Case challenged the Canadian constitution, asking if the word “persons” included women.

It was a long legal battle, and the Canadian Supreme Court actually ruled against the five women, known as the “Famous Five,” who raised the case in 1927. But they appealed to the Privy Council, at the time Canada’s highest court. On October 18th, 1929, the Privy Council determined that women were persons. The decision read: “to those who ask why the word should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not.” 

Women had been making similar points for hundreds of years. SFU Philosophy is celebrating Women’s History Month 2020 by looking at four historical women philosophers who made those points in their own work, laying the groundwork for women’s equality. 

Marie le Jars de Gournay (1568-1645)

Born in Paris to minor aristocrats, Marie le Jars de Gournay was a self-taught woman who made her living as a writer. She became close friends with the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, becoming his fille d’alliance or adoptive daughter. After he died, she edited several editions of Montaigne’s Essays

However, de Gournay is best known for her essay The Equality of Men and Women (1622; second edition 1641). The work is often considered a response to the querelle de femmes, a debate about whether men or women were the superior sex.

De Gournay rejects both these positions, instead arguing they are fundamentally equal. Part of her argument involves demonstrating the equality of men and women by appealing to religious and philosophical assumptions about human nature. But the most interesting parts of her work are her arguments for women’s education. The reason men seem superior to women, de Gournay claims, is the difference in education between them. Women from all social classes routinely received no formal education. Yet we see individual women who have had this education excel, and that education bridges the gaps between men born in different conditions.

De Gournay asks, “why would a genuinely good education not bridge the gap between the intellectual powers of men and women?”

Further Reading: An overview of de Gournay’s life and philosophy

Image credit: By FrontispieceUploaded by User:Epousesquecido (also w:User:Epousesquecido) - Bildarchiv Austria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4022051

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695)

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was born in Mexico and grew up on her maternal grandfather’s hacienda. There, she taught herself logic, literature, and several languages, including Latin and Nahuatl. She briefly served as a lady-in-waiting before entering a convent at 19, where she spent most of her life.

Sor Juana was a prolific writer, best known for her poems and the Response of the Poet to the Very Eminent Sor Filotea de la Cruz (written 1691, published 1700). The Response defends Sor Juana’s study of secular subjects and offers arguments for women’s education. Thus, she is considered one of the first Latin American feminists. She offers various arguments for women’s education in the Response, such as that it would improve their understanding of sermons and that it would allow women to teach women, and thus avoid the potential harms of male teachers.

Some of her most powerful arguments are rejoinders to those who would suggest a woman’s place in the home does not require education. Perhaps all women can have are kitchen philosophies, but there are many secrets about the world to be discovered through cooking: why do eggs fry in butter but dissolve in syrup?. Sor Juana writes, “One can philosophize very well and prepare supper… I say that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more.”

Further Reading: “You Foolish Men,” a poem by Sor Juana 
A Google Doodle in honour of Sor Juana’s 366th birthday

Image Credit: Public Domain By Juan de Miranda Link

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London, and while she received no formal education she was familiar with ancient philosophy and contemporary literature. Her family was quite poor, and to support herself as an adult she worked as a governess and a teacher.

Wollstonecraft also supported herself through writing, making anonymous contributions to the periodical Analytical Review and publishing a book on the education of young women. While Wollstonecraft stressed the importance of women’s education for achieving equality, she also emphasized women’s social roles and political representation.

In Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Wollstonecraft examines how women’s reason is undermined by dependence on authority of men. Reason is weakened by the being subject to the commands of another, morally damaging both parties. And this creates a vicious circle: obeying others decreases the opportunities to cultivate one’s own reason. Wollstonecraft’s solutions to this range from creating a national school system to reimagining marriage.

She says of women: “I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Further Reading:   A podcast with Sandrine Bergès, Eileen Hunt Botting, and Alan Coffee on their book, The Wollstonecraftian Mind

Image Credit: By John Opie - Tate Britain, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2031219

Anna Julia Cooper (1859-1964) 

Anna Julia Cooper was born into slavery in the American South, but ultimately received a classical liberal arts education. She earned a BA and MA from Oberlin College, worked as a college professor and school principal, and in 1925 earned her PhD from the Sorbonne. Beyond this, she published numerous poems and essays, and was part of the women’s and Black liberation movements.

Her best known work, A Voice From the South by a Black Women From the South (1892), examines ethics, politics, and gender and racial injustice. Kathryn Sophia Belle (writing as Kathryn T. Gines) argues that Cooper takes what we would now call an intersectional perspective, examining how racial and gender oppressions interact.

This is especially apparent in her essay “Women Versus the Indian.” Criticizing white women’s tendency to pit the injustices done to women against the injustices done to Black and Indigenous people, Cooper argues that these oppressions are actually linked.

She writes, “woman’s cause is the cause of the weak; and when all the weak shall have received their due consideration, then woman will have her “rights,” and the Indian will have his rights, and the Negro will have his rights.”

This is because for Cooper, freedom is the “birthright of humanity” or human nature. If some people are subjugated, how can anyone truly be free?

Further reading: The philosopher Thomas Meagher explains Cooper’s ethical views, as discussed in her essay “What are we worth?”, and why he includes it in intro-level philosophy classes.

The philosopher Sandrine Bergès on Anna Julia Cooper’s vision of domestic life. 

Image Credit: By Anonymous photographer / engraver - This came from the Archive.org scan of the 1892 book A Voice from the South by Cooper: https://archive.org/details/voicefromsouth00coop/page/n7, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76506523

Going Forward

While Persons Day marks a significant moment in Canadian women’s history, it’s crucial to remember that the Persons Case was a limited victory. Many women were excluded. Only in 1962 were all women, regardless of race, able to vote in federal elections. The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) is starting a speaker series critically engaging with the legacy of the Persons Case

There are also still significant legal and social barriers to women’s equality. As Nellie McClung, a member of the Famous Five, wrote after the victory: “let no one think that a miracle has happened, and that sex-prejudice will away like morning mists at Sunrise”.

These barriers exist in philosophy as well. Women and people of colour are still underrepresented in the discipline, but projects like Extending New Narratives are working to change that. 

Further Reading: Extending New Narratives