How to Think Like a Woman
Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Live a Life of the Mind
An alternative history of philosophy told through one woman's own search for beauty and truth.
As a young woman growing up in a small, religious town in Iowa, Regan Penaluna daydreamed about the big questions: who are we and what is this strange world we find ourselves in? In college she discovered philosophy and fell in love with its rationality, its abstractions, its beauty. After graduation, it seemed an obvious choice to enter a philosophy PhD programme – the first step, she believed, to becoming a self-determined woman and living a life of the mind.
What Penaluna didn’t realize was that philosophy, at least the Western philosophical canon that’s taught in American universities, as well as the culture that surrounds it – would slowly grind her down through its misogyny, its sexual harassment, its devaluation of women and their minds. Women were nowhere in her graduate curriculum, and feminist philosophy was dismissed as marginal, unserious. Meanwhile Penaluna realized she had transformed from an energetic, independent seeker of wisdom to a quiet, passive student, complicit in the silencing of her own mind.
Where were the women?
One day, while digging through footnotes in an obscure monograph, Penaluna came across the work of a seventeenth-century woman named Damaris Cudworth Masham. On a whim she pulled up Masham’s work and it was like reaching through time: writing 300 years ago, Masham was speaking directly to her. Masham wrote about knowledge and God, but also the condition of women. Her work eventually led Penaluna to other remarkable women philosophers of the era: Mary Astell, who moved to London at the age of 21 and made a living writing philosophy; Catharine Cockburn, a philosopher, novelist, and playwright who explored women’s humanity; and the better-known Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote extensively and passionately in defence of women’s minds.
Together these women rekindled Penaluna’s love of philosophy and taught her how to live a truly philosophical life. In How to Think Like a Woman, Penaluna tells the stories of these four women as well as of her own personal and intellectual voyage in a moving, beautiful meditation of what a philosophy by women might look like.