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Cambridge Women Philosophers

women philosophers2 smallBefore the end of the 19th century, Cambridge University, like all institutions of higher education, was closed to women. The few women who were introduced to philosophy were usually aristocrats who were privately or self-educated. They corresponded with, or met and discussed their ideas with well known male philosophers through their family connections. Some of these women contributed to philosophy through their correspondence, essays and books (often published anonymously).

By the turn of the 20th century, women still had limited access to a formal education in philosophy. Even those admitted to the University of Cambridge  to women's colleges such as Girton, and who completed the requirements for the BA were denied a degree. It was not until 1948 that Girton became a full member of Cambridge University and its women students finally became eligible to receive degrees.

Professional philosophical associations such as the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association; as well as the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge, started to admit women as members in the early 20th century.

From the 1930s women began to represent all schools and fields of philosophy.  The work of some of them has survived the test of time, but the work of many faded into obscurity. Even today, women are under-represented in philosophy.

Here is a selection of women who studied, taught or were active in philosophy in Cambridge over the years: 

Lady Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway (1631-1679) unusually for a 17th century woman, studied French, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Mathematics and Philosophy. Through her brother, she became acquainted with Henry More and the other Cambridge Platonists, and More instructed her in philosophy by correspondence. She was an influence on Leibniz who studied her writings nearly 20 years after her death (he acknowledges her work in correspondence). Her only (anonymously and posthumously) published work was The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (1690).

Lady Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708) was the daughter of Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth. Through her father, and her friend, the philosopher John Locke, she developed an interest in philosophy. Her two books, A Discourse Concerning the Love of God (1696) and Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705), were printed anonymously.

Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones (1848–1922) was a prolific and very visible member of the English philosophical community. After publishing Elements of Logic as a Science of Propositions (1890) she was regarded by many as an authority on philosophical logic. In 1896, she was the first woman to present a paper at the Moral Sciences Club, in a discussion of James Ward’s Naturalism and Agnosticism. She was Mistress of Girton College from 1903 to 1916.
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Constance Maynard (1849-1935) was the first woman to study Moral Sciences at Cambridge. She completed her studies in 1875, but had to wait until 1933 (58 years later!) to formally receive her degree from Girton College. Constance established a woman's college, Westfield which is now part of the University of London.

L. Susan Stebbing (1885-1943) studied Moral Sciences at Girton College. She lectured at Bedford College, University of London and became the first British woman Professor of Philosophy in 1933.

Dorothy Wrinch (1894-1976) was a Girton Mathematics student who studied Moral Sciences under Bertrand Russell. She worked on Philosophy of Science.

Helen Knight (1899-1984) studied Moral Sciences at Newnham College. She was one of few women active in the early days of analytic aesthetics and her work continues to be included in modern anthologies.

Alice Ambrose (1906-2001) came to England in 1932 to do post-doctoral research at Cambridge University, studying under Ludwig Wittgenstein. She became his close disciple. It is thanks to her and a few select others including Margaret MacDonald, Helen Knight and Margaret Masterman that his Blue Book (1933-1934) and Brown Book (1934-1935), were published.

Margaret MacDonald (1907-1956) was a Fellow at Girton College from 1934-37. She was very active in academic philosophy, publishing, lecturing, and participating in conferences. She was a founder of the philosophical journal Analysis and was its editor for a number of years. Macdonald Margaret thumb
Dorothy Emmet (1904-2000) was a British philosopher and head of Manchester University's philosophy department for over twenty years. In 1966, having retired from her professorship, she moved to Cambridge. During these years she became a regular member of the Moral Sciences Club and was also elected an emeritus Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. Emmet Dorothy 1996 089 thumb

Margaret Masterman Braithwaite (1910-1986) was a student at Newnham College in the 1930s. In 1955 she founded and directed the Cambridge Language Research Unit (CLRU), which grew from an informal discussion group to a major research centre in computational linguistics in its time.

Photo courtesy of Lucy Cavendish College Archive, The Papers of Margaret Braithwaite, LP1


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G. E. M. Anscombe (1919 – 2001) Elizabeth Anscombe made significant contributions to many areas of philosophy, though most importantly in ethics, mind and action theory. She was greatly influenced by Wittgenstein, whose student she was, and was an important translator and interpreter of his work. She produced the definitive (and still unrevised) translation of his Philosophical Investigations in 1953, as well as the Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus in 1959. She was Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty from 1970-1986. anscombe painting2 thumb

Margaret Boden (born 1936) was a student at Newnham in the 1950s. She studied philosophy at the Cambridge Language Research Unit run by Margaret Braithwaite.

She was the founding-Dean of Sussex University's School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences. Boden was awarded an OBE in 2001 for services to cognitive science.

Maggie Boden

Onora O’Neill (born 1941) is an emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. She writes on ethics and bioethics, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, political philosophy and international justice.  She is also a crossbench peer who addresses issues including freedom of speech, euthanasia and stem-cell research.

She was appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in the 2014 New Year Honours for her services to philosophy and public policy.

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Jane Heal (born 1946) is an emeritus Professor having worked for over 25 years in the Faculty. She has written extensively on the philosophy of mind and language. Her pioneering work in the philosophy of mind became known as “Simulation Theory”. She was also the first woman president of St John’s College (from 1999 to 2003). Heal Jane colour thumb
Current women philosophers in the Faculty include: Rae Langton, Clare Chambers, Angela Breitenbach, Paulina Sliwa, Sophia Connell, Louise Hanson, and Emily Caddick Bourne.


Further reading

Broad, Jacqueline, Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Hutchinson, Katrina, and Fiona Jenkins, Women In Philosophy: What Needs To Change? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

O'Neill, Eileen, 'Disappearing Ink: Early Modern Women Philosophers and Their Fate in History', in J. Kourany, ed., Philosophy in a Feminist Voice: Critiques and Reconstructions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 17-62.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, A History of Women Philosophers. 4 Vol.,(Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991).

Warnock, Mary,ed.,  Women Philosophers (London: Dent, 1996).