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date: 18 April 2024

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women in philosophyfree

  • Sophia Connell


Many philosophical schools included female followers, such as Pythagoreans, Cynics, Cyrenaics, Platonists, Epicureans, and Stoics. The most extensive fragmentary writings by female philosophers are those of Neopythagorean women, particularly Theano, Perictione, Phintys, and Ptolemaïs. The most well-attested women philosophers in antiquity include Aspasia, Diotima, Arete, Hipparchia, Sosipatra, and Hypatia. These women appear to have held many different positions and views. There is no distinct feminine philosophy in antiquity, although some fragments from Pythagorean women are an attempt to apply philosophical principles to the everyday lives of women.


  • Gender Studies
  • Philosophy

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Women who learnt, practised, and taught philosophy were numerous throughout antiquity. Our knowledge about women philosophers in this period has been hampered by a lack of direct source material. However, given that the same holds for other philosophers in antiquity, for example Pythagoras and Socrates, there is no good reason not to explore their probable activities and views. The main evidence comes from second-hand accounts and Neopythagorean fragments. Whether they were written by women or not, that these writings were attributed to women indicates the type of philosophical expertise that certain women would have exercised. As for second-hand accounts of women’s philosophical activities, this can be found in both historical and fictional narratives. In the latter case, the fictionalization of women philosophers indicates their presence in the community, to be laughed at, disapproved of, or admired by the men whose writings survive.1

One fictional example is the character Melanippe, found in the fragments of a tragedy by Euripides, Melanippe the Wise. In arguing to save her twin children, whom her father sees as monsters that must be destroyed, she is shown to use abstract knowledge of the cosmos: “wishing to save the children [she] philosophizes (philosophei) that there is no such thing as a monstrosity” (Dion. Hal. Rhet. 9.11). Her reasoning is reminiscent of Presocratic philosophy: “the sky and the earth were once of one shape and after they were separated from each other into two, they engender all and have brought to light trees, birds, beasts, and those the salty sea sustains, and humankind” (Eur. Mel. Steph. fr. 484).2 Aristotle disapproved of the character of Melanippe on the grounds that it was not fitting for a woman to be depicted as wise (Poet. 15.1454a21–31).3 This makes it clear that it was considered possible at the time for women to be wise; otherwise there would be no point in discouraging their depiction.

The so-called Presocratic philosophers occasionally mention women, such as when Empedocles says that he is followed and revered by both men and women (fr. 112.l.7). Parmenides’ poem features a goddess and her daughters as the purveyors of truth, indicating an association of women with mystical religious revelation (Pl. Prm. fr. 1). Pythagoreanism, which held a doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, developed at Croton in the late 6th century. It is suggested that Pythagoras learnt his ethical doctrines from the priestess Themistoclea (Aristox. fr. 15: Diog. Laert. 8.8, 21; Porph. Plot. 41). Pythagoras is said to have had many female students, including his own wife, Theano, and daughters Myia and Arignote (Porph. Plot. 4). Seventeen female students are listed by Iamblichus (Porph. Plot. 267). Other sources such as Hermesianax (in Ath. 13), Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 4. 19), Diogenes Laertius (8.42–3), Porphyry (Plot. 4), and the Suda also cite Pythagorean women by name. There is every indication that as well as instruction in the way of life of the cult, they also learnt the so-called secret doctrines. A later story of Timycha, wife of Myllias of Croton, explains that when captured by a tyrant and under the strain of heavy pregnancy, she bit off her own tongue rather than reveal these secrets (Neanthes FGrH 84 fr. 31a–b).

Actual women philosophers can be broadly grouped (although there are outliers) into Pythagoreans, Socratics, Cyrenaics, Cynics and early Stoics, Epicureans, Roman Stoics, and Neoplatonists. While it may seem that all these schools viewed the intellect and virtue as genderless, thus allowing for the participation of women, there is ongoing debate about whether this was in fact the case. Some hold that Platonists in particular had the view that some souls are female and inferior.4 Even so, Socratic dialogues by Plato and Xenophon feature various female interlocuters, most notably Aspasia and Diotima. Aspasia is an attested historical figure, partner, and advisor of the politician Pericles (Pl. Menex. 235e; see also Aeschines’ Aspasia (SSR VIA.70 = de Inventione 1.31.51–53)). In Plato’s Menexenus, Socrates recites a lengthy funeral oration, expressive of nationalistic pride, which he claims to have learnt from Aspasia. In Xenophon, her expertise is often given as domestic, for example she is said to have knowledge of the female province of matchmaking (Xen. Mem. 2.6.36) and marriage more generally, particularly the training of a wife (Xen. Oec. 3.14–15). Both areas of expertise are ironic as she was neither Athenian nor a wife herself.

Whether Diotima is a historical figure remains controversial, but Plato was not in the habit of using fictional characters, and the fact that he gives a location for and the deeds achieved by Diotima serves to place her as an older contemporary of Socrates, a priestess from Mantinea.5 Plato introduces Diotima as skilled on the subject of love “and many others too” and also as using a question-and-answer method (Symp. 201d–e), more famously employed by Socrates. Diotima’s idea is that desire for beautiful bodies must be transcended in favour of the true objects of admiration, the forms and, in particular, the form of the Beautiful itself (Symp. 211a–212b). While it is impossible to say whether this was a view actually held by Diotima, it indicates that women in positions of religious authority would have been knowledgeable about spiritual matters of this kind and the theories behind them.6 Socrates declares that he has “learnt many things … from priests and priestesses who have studied so as to be able to give a reasoned account of their ministry” (Meno 81a8–b1).

Two women are listed as students of Plato, Axiothea of Phlius, and Lasthenia of Mantinea (Them. Or. 23.295C, Diog. Laert. 3.46, 4.2) and Plato argues that women should be philosopher rulers of the ideal polis (Resp. 451c–456e). Turning to the Cyrenaics, the most noteworthy woman is Arete (c. 4th century bce), apparently the daughter of the school’s founder Aristippus. She was said to have taken over as the head of the school after his death (Diog. Laert. 2. 72, 83, 86; Euseb. Praep. evang. 14.18; Strabo 17.3.22; Ael. NA 3.40; Them. Or. 21.244). The school’s successor, her son, Aristippus the Younger (Diog. Laert. II.72, 83), was deemed “mētrodidaktos” (mother-taught) (Strabo Geography 17.3.22; Euseb. Praep. evang. 14.18.32 = SSR 4b.5). The activities of female students and teachers in philosophical schools will continue within Neoplatonism and later Stoicism.

For the Socratics, Cyrenaics, Platonists, Stoics, and Epicureans, one possible rationale for the inclusion of female students was a variously held anti-conventionalism. This is most pronounced in the Cynic school, which was able to nurture one of the most famous female philosophers from antiquity, Hipparchia, the only woman to appear in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. The Cynics advocated living according to nature, that is, austerity, poverty, and rejection of corrupt convention. Having been introduced to the Cynic philosopher Crates by her brother, Hipparchia determines to marry him and live as a Cynic. Certain anecdotes about the unconventional marriage of Crates and Hipparchia are still extant, for example their supposed propensity to make love in public (Diog. Laert. 6.69, 6.97; Apul. Flor. 14).7 Later writers also sometimes emphasize Hipparchia’s sexual passion for Crates and the fact that she threatens suicide if they do not marry. While this appears to show her more “feminine” side, we must keep in mind that women had very little control over their lives. This gesture may have been the only way for her to assert her will against her parents’ opposition. It is often difficult to access ancient views about the gendering of attitudes, which signals a need for caution about making any such assumptions.8 Diogenes Laertius does not note her feminine passion but her love of Crates’ “way of life” (bios) and “argument” (logos; Diog. Laert. 6.96). Many of the anecdotes emphasize how the marriage was an equal partnership with Hipparchia participating in philosophical discussions and travelling nomadically with her husband. When challenged about abandoning the task of weaving by Theodorus, she is said to have stood firm: “do you suppose that I have been ill advised about myself, if instead of wasting further time upon the loom I spent it in education?” (Diog. Laert. 6.98). In debate with another opponent who tries to remove her clothes in anger, she remains unaffected, usually seen to be a sign of her adherence to Cynic shamelessness but also indicative of imperturbability. Her philosophical character and unconventional partnership with Crates became a centre point for Stoic debates around the consistency of marriage and philosophy, with Musonius Rufus opting for marriage by referring to them as the paradigm (14.4), while his student Epictetus deciding against (but making an exception for Crates and Hipparchia; Arr. Epict. diss. 3.2). It is thought that their union influenced Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, and particularly his views on love and sex.9 While there is no record of any early Stoic writings by women, both Zeno and Cleanthes thought women equally capable of philosophical wisdom and virtue. In the ideal community they would be trained to gain both.10 An early Stoic logician, Diodorus Cronus, taught his five daughters the craft: Menexene, Argeia, Theognis, Artemisia, and Pancleia (Clem. Al. Strom. 4.19).11

One Epicurean woman, Leontion, is said to have written a work in beautiful prose refuting the Peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus (Diog. Laert. 10.23; Cic. Nat. D. 1.33/93; Plin. HN 29). Some assumed the female followers of Epicurus were prostitutes, Diogenes Laertius even giving them crude nicknames (Ath. Deipnosophistae 13.588, 593; Diog. Laert. 10.5–7). However, if they did engage in sexual intercourse this was much more likely to have been freely chosen rather than for money since Epicurus does not countenance luxury (Diog. Laert. 10.130–132). Their presence indicates philosophical engagement since we know the garden was a place of intellectual pursuits and not a pleasure garden as its detractors attempted to maintain.

Neopythagorean fragments attributed to women appear in this period. If they were not written by women, as some have supposed, then women would have at least been thought capable of understanding and teaching this philosophy.12 There are ten letters, eight attributed to Theano, one to Myia, and one to Melissa, and five fragments—Theano’s On Piety, Peritione’s On Wisdom and On the Harmony of Women, Phintys’s On the Moderation of Women, and Aesara’s On Human Nature.13 These works, written in archaic Doric and estimated to be 3rd–2nd century bce, divide into the ethical and the metaphysics. The ethical tend to focus on women’s concerns, particularly marriage and household matters. The metaphysical fragments give an account of the structure and harmony of systems, from individual to cosmos, and incorporate elements of mathematical and musical theory.14

The ethical writings show a serious engagement with theoretical and philosophical thinking tailored to the particular challenges that women faced in their daily lives. Knowledge of harmony, moderation, and virtue, which counts as “intelligence,” is crucial to living a good life. While some argue that these fragments of women’s thoughts merely parrot oppressive expectations, they also show a regard for rational self-determination in situations of limited freedom.15 One text suggests that female wisdom can benefit cities if the rulers were women:

We must think that the harmonious woman is full of both intelligence and moderation, for the soul must be truly full of virtue so that she will be just, courageous, intelligent, and beautified with self-sufficiency and despising empty opinion. For from these virtues good deeds happen to a woman for herself, her husband, children, house, and perhaps also city, if such women were to govern cities or people, as we see in the case of monarchies. (Perictione I, On the Harmony of Women)16

The advice about how to bear a husband’s infidelity paints the wife’s virtue as superior to her husband’s character, which is a sort of “madness” (Theano to Nicostrate).17 Principles of harmony and moderation are applied to child-rearing (Theano to Euboule; Myia to Phyllis) and household management more generally (Theano to Callisto).18 A fragment attributed to Aesera argues that the harmony of the soul is the structural basis of law and justice in the household and city (On Human Nature; Stob. 1.49.27).19 There is some speculation about whether this is in fact by a man, Aesaron.20 The contents overlap in part with a fragment attributed to Archytas of Tarentum. In one of the most powerful and original fragments, Phintys defends the appropriateness of women engaging in philosophy, which, unlike horse-riding and speaking in public, is deemed to be a gender-neutral activity (Phintys On the Moderation of Women, fr. 1; Stob. 4.23.61).21 In a more personal letter, Theano lends her copy of Plato’s Parmenides to another woman, Rhodope.22 The most abstract work is that attributed to Perictione (the name of Plato’s mother). Entitled On Wisdom, it argues that wisdom is the contemplation of all existing things, making philosophy superior to all other sciences.23

Ptolemaïs, who wrote a work entitled The Pythagorean Principles of Music, is often considered to be a Pythagorean woman.24 Her work, which is referred to and quoted in Porphyry’s Commentary on the Harmonics of Ptolemy, presses on the difficulty Pythagorean harmonics has in dismissing perception:

Concerning these matters Ptolemaïs writes as follows in the introductory treatise mentioned above: “Pythagoras and his successors want to adopt perception as a guide for reason at the beginning, as if to provide a spark for it, but to treat reason, when it has started off from such a beginning, as separating from perception and working by itself. So if the composite whole is found in the study by reason to be no longer in accord with perception, they do not turn back, but make their own accusations, saying that perception is mistaken, and that reason by itself finds what is correct and refutes perception. Some of the musicians who follow Aristoxenus hold a contrary position. They adopt theory based upon thought, but advance through expertise on musical instruments. For they regarded perception as authoritative.”25

This seems an intriguing summary of the debate. Sadly exactly what Ptolemaïs thought on the matter is not preserved.26

In the Roman period, girls in the elite class began to receive much more stringent intellectual education. Although philosophical subjects often came later at a time when many would have left the family home to be married, there is evidence that certain women were taught them, sometimes by their husbands.27 Seneca (1st century ce) praises his mother for her profound intellectual influence on him and laments that his father (her husband) did not give her more thorough training in the subject matter (Helv. 17.3–4). Musonius Rufus (1st century ce) strongly advocated philosophy for girls and women, although this was couched in terms of the domestic virtues of daughters and wives, directed as it was to male readers.28 The philosophy encouraged in his writings tended to be of the practical variety—living a simple and hard-working life alongside the husband, in a manner not dissimilar to depictions of the Cynic Hipparchia.

Since Roman Stoicism was primarily a way of life, there are several examples of Stoic women, usually closely associated with support for their husbands or fathers. Porcia Catonis (70–43 bce), Brutus’s wife, was reported by Plutarch to have been “addicted to philosophy” and “full of an understanding of courage” (Plut. Brut. 13). In some accounts she followed him in committing suicide to preserve the family honour (Plut. Brut. 23.53; Dio Cassius. 44.13; 47.49.3).29 Also notable is Fannia (1st century ce), the daughter of Thrasea, leader of the Stoic opposition to Nero, who is said to have shown great fortitude in exile and to have strived to preserve the memory of her husband and father, against fierce threats (Plin. Ep. 7.19; 9.13).30 Seneca writes a philosophical consolation to Marcia in which he urges that women “have the same intellectual power as men, and the capacity for honourable and generous action” (Cons. Marc. 12).

Plutarch (46–119 ce), the middle Platonist philosopher, celebrated many women for their intellectual and character virtues (De mul. vir.). His friend, Clea (c. 1st2nd centuries ce) , was the leader of a group of women devotees of Dionysus at Delphi. Plutarch uses Clea as his main interlocutor in Isis and Osiris and dedicated two works to her, obviously regarding her as a worthy philosopher (De Is. et Os. 364e).31 Plutarch also praises Pompey’s young wife Cornelia who was “accustomed to listen to philosophical discourses with profit” (Plut. Pomp. 55). Later, the Roman empress Julia Domna (170–217 ce) is noted for her lively circle of philosophers and sophists (see second sophistic). Philostratus (V S; see philostrati) calls her “the philosopher Julia.” Dio Cassius remarks that “she held public receptions for all the most prominent men” and “devoted herself more and more to the study of philosophy with these men” (75.15.6–7; 77.18.3).32 The engagement of women with Platonism became particularly strong in later Antiquity. In Rome, the chief patron of Plotinus (205–270 ce), founder of Neoplatonism, was a woman named Gemina. This salon included female students (Plotinus, Enn. 1). Certain women, often family members of Platonist men, were students and teachers of philosophy. Plotinus’s student Porphyry, who composed and preserved his philosophy, had a philosophical wife, Marcella, to whom he composed instructive letters (Plut. Marc.).

Sosipatra was head of the Neoplatonic school at Pergamon (4th century ce). Her influence is reported by Eunapius, who writes of her husband, “Eustathius married Sosipatra, who by her surpassing wisdom made her own husband seem inferior and insignificant. So far did the fame of this woman travel that it is fitting for me to speak of her at greater length, even in this catalogue of wise men” (Eunap. VS 6.6.5–6). She is noted as an “inspired” teacher who “gradually by her proofs disposed” of her rivals’ arguments (VS–12). Along with the specialized teaching of Sosipatra, Asclepigenia was also reported to have provided expertise in theurgic subjects and to have taught the philosopher Proclus (Marinus’s Life of Proclus). It seems that women were regarded as particularly suited to such transcendental subject matter.33 From the same time period, a nameless female philosopher is praised by Eunapius: “so profound was her knowledge of philosophy that she made [her husband] Maximus [of Ephesus] seem not to know how to swim or even know his alphabet” (VS 477). Another noteworthy philosophical voice is that of Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s sister (4th century ce), who argued for emotions as alienating forces, separate from the self (Vita Macrinae.).34

Philosophical training focused in the early 4th century (ce) on theoretical mathematics. We know of one successful mentor of a high-profile male student in this subject matter, Pandrosion, through a critique of her methodology by Pappus in his Collection Book 3.35 The most famous Neoplatonist woman philosopher was undoubtedly Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of the philosopher, Theon. Philosophy was the final stage of elite education in Alexandria, after astronomy and arithmetic geometry. By the time of Hypatia, this would have been text-based learning.36 Hypatia was “fully trained in the mathematical sciences” and “other sorts of philosophy” by her father, of whom it is said she surpassed (Philostorgius HE 8.9; Dam. Isid. fr. 43A). She authored several commentaries, one on Diophantus of Alexandria’s Arithmatica and another on Apollonius’s Conic Sections. A commentary by Theon on Book 3 of Ptolemy’s Almagest has this preface by the author: “revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher.”37 Although none of her writings survives, we can glean from letters written to her by her student Synesius, and extensive comment on her influence, that Hypatia pushed for the integration of mathematical and philosophical topics in a traditional Plotinian strain of Neoplatonism (Ep. 143; Porph. Plot.), focused on communion with the divine and pure living.38 A popular teacher, she attracted “people from everywhere who wished to philosophize” (Socrates, Hist. eccl. 7.15). She seems to have had two types of students the general public (she “wrapped herself in the philosopher’s cloak and advanced through the middle of the city, explaining in public … the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle” (Dam. Isid. 43A)) and an inner circle of students who were held together by the bonds of philosophical love.39

Stories of her life and thought include comment on her as a woman and particularly on her chaste character. Being “extremely beautiful,” she attracted enamoured students, one of whom she is said to have repelled by producing her sanitary napkin, stating, “It is this that you love, not something beautiful” (Dam. Isid. 43C). She became a well-connected and high-profile advisor, which led to her execution by a mob of Christian monks in 415 ce (Dam. Isid. 43D; Socrates, Hist. eccl. 7.15).


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