Despite the spread of feminism and multiculturalism, and their impact on fields from literature to anthropology, it is possible to major in philosophy without hearing anything about the historical contributions of women philosophers. The canon remains dominated by white males—the discipline that some say still hews to the myth that genius is tied to gender.
Andrew Janiak, an associate professor of philosophy at Duke University, was a graduate student in the 1990s when he came across Kant’s startling reference to Madame Du Châtelet. “I remember thinking: Did he really mean Madame?” Janiak said. “It was the only time I’d seen a philosopher refer to the ideas of a woman.”
Now, Janiak and a team of Duke students and researchers, along with colleagues at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have launched a site that features the forgotten voices of women philosophers, giving academics and students a rare opportunity to study and promote their work. Project Vox, as the site is called, posts texts and translations of 17th-century women philosophers' work, as well as suggested syllabi for college courses featuring that work. The site is open-source, meaning that faculty and students from around the world can contribute and use materials, and has a 10-member international advisory board. According to Janiak, “a long list of folks” has already contributed or requested syllabi from the project, which went live in March.
Project Vox aims to address the lack of easy-to-find resources for faculty and students who have been eager to add women to their courses but have had few sources on which to draw. While Margaret Atherton’s 1994 collection, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, does focus on these women, it only features essays about the work of several individuals. A comprehensive critical edition or anthology of women’s contributions to that era doesn’t appear to exist. (Janiak is now co-editing a series with Christia Mercer of Columbia and Eileen O’Neill of the University of Massachusetts.)
Adela Deanova, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke, joined the initiative last year, taking on the often-challenging task of tracking down women’s writings. Few of their works are in mainstream journals, Deanova said; most appear as chapters in history or literature books or in private letters. Translating works written in other languages into English, she added, also makes them more accessible. “A lot of the information is obscure, so we want to present it in ways that are helpful to researchers and instructors,” she said. Deanova, who is writing a dissertation that in part focuses on Cavendish's critique of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, is now translating 12 letters that Leibniz wrote in French to Masham.
Funded by a humanities grant to Duke, Project Vox launched with the work of the four aforementioned women, who Janiak said made historic contributions to science and philosophy but whose writing had been relatively neglected. Their ideas were published and debated in their day, influencing some of the male canonical heavyweights: Henry More, Francis Mercury Van Helmont, and Leibniz, for example, praised Conway’s works. And while being a women kept Du Châtelet out of university life and membership in the Royal Academy of Science, she turned her home, the Chateau de Cirey, into a salon for European scholars across disciplines. She published Foundations of Physics, which was hotly debated and included passages that were featured—without attribution—in one of the most influential publications of the French Enlightenment: Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédia.