Stoicism, Feminism, and Autonomy: An Interview With Emily McGill and Scott Aikin

Emily McGill received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Vanderbilt University in 2015. Her research areas are social/political philosophy, feminist philosophy, and ethics. Scott Aikin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. He earned his B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, his M.A. from the University of Montana, and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt. His work spans four areas of research: theory of knowledge, ancient philosophy, informal logic and philosophy of religion.

In 2014, McGill And Aikin co-authored a wonderful paper on Stoic feminist theory, titled Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy. The general thesis is what Mcgill and Aikin call “Stoicism’s uneven track record” — while the Ancient Stoic’s principles and views were progressive, their actions didn’t always match those. They do also separate the philosophy from the specific times and people that practiced it in the ancient world, saying that Stoicism as a philosophy does have all the tools required to support feminism in modern times. In our interview below, McGill and Aikin delve deep into the Stoic feminist theory, feminism in other schools of ancient philosophy, how we can best apply principles to practice in the 21st century, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Emily McGill and Scott Aikin!

Can you each tell the Daily Stoic community a little about your backgrounds—how you originally got started down the path of philosophy and how you came to collaborate on a paper about the relationship between Stoicism and Feminism?

[Emily McGill = EM]: I stumbled into philosophy accidentally. I was randomly placed into a philosophy class during my first semester at DePauw University, and having never heard of philosophy I had no idea what to expect. The first thing we read was Plato’s Apology and I was hooked. My professor, Girard Brenneman, painted Socrates as an anti-authority, anti-conformity, hardcore lover of truth, and I thought, “I want to do that!” I ended up double-majoring in philosophy and Latin, and thanks to some awesome professors had many opportunities to combine the two disciplines. Pedar Foss, Rebecca Schindler, and Dave Guinee patiently allowed me to ask philosophical questions in Latin language courses; Dr. Schindler even helped me find sources to connect my senior thesis on John Rawls to Aeschylus’ Persae. My experience on DePauw’s Ethics Bowl team is what led me to graduate school. Our coach, Marcia McKelligan, put in countless hours with us; looking back now, as a faculty member, I have no idea how she devoted so much time to the team. She inspired me to go to graduate school so that I could impact students the way she had impacted me. The fact that professional philosophers get to be anti-authority, anti-conformity, hardcore lovers of truth for a living is pretty great, too.

[Scott Aikin = SA]: I, like Emily, came to philosophy through Classics. I grew up obsessed with the Greeks and Romans. At Washington in St. Louis, I got to study with excellent classicists – Carl Conrad, George Pepe, Elizabeth Scharffenberger, and Merrill Sale, in particular. But my classes had a number of funny moments in them when we’d read philosophy. I’d want to argue with Seneca or say that Epicurus was just plain wrong about something. That hardly ever happened when we read Thucydides or Sophocles. In those cases, we’d do grammar work, talk about influences or interpretations. But with the philosophy texts, I kept arguing back. The classicists finally suggested I take a class in the Philosophy Department. When I got into Jerome Schiller’s class on Plato and Platonism, I knew I was in my element – the question was whether Plato was right, wrong, or onto something. It was a philosophical argument from bell to bell, and I was hooked. The funny thing was that when I went to graduate school, all I knew really was ancient philosophy, and so I had to do a lot of catching up with the other graduate students.

One of the things that had been a background worry for me was the casual sexism of the ancients. This was the case even with the ones that, by the standards of the day, were pretty progressive. Plato, I think, is exemplary – women could be guardians in the city of the Republic, but in the midst of it all, he’d still say that those who failed to exemplify courage were ‘womanly.’ It bothered me, and I had even asked a few times if there were criticisms of sexism in the ancient world. I got pointed toward Aspasia, a member of Pericles’ circle of intellectuals, and to Hipparchia, a practicing Cynic in the Hellenistic period. But there was so little to find about anti-sexist thought and women thinking for themselves. And with Hipparchia, most of her story is about how she’s the wife and student of Crates, and he’s always teaching her things. She doesn’t get to play that role of teacher, however. So, even in the stories with progress, the same tropes come back. It’s a disappointment, really. Emily and I got to talking about this troubling pattern, and we agreed that it was in particularly stark contrast with the Stoics. Once we resolved to look hard at the Stoic tradition on that matter, things fell into place pretty quickly for us writing-wise.

You talk about how contemporary scholars consider the Stoics feminists or quasi-feminists, but you believe the contrary. Can you talk about where the ancient Stoics fell short and whether you think there were ancient schools of philosophy that didn’t have these problems?

[EM]: The standard argument for considering the Stoics feminists rests on two claims: first, that the Stoics thought women were equal to men in their rational capacities, and second, that women and men were equal citizens of the cosmopolis. We recognize that these are progressive elements of Stoic theory, but we hesitate to call them feminists on these grounds since we don’t see the same progressive elements in Stoic practice. Rather, in practice, we find what we call Stoic misogyny. Think of men who leave clerical jobs to their female colleagues because “women are just better at that sort of thing,” or the guy at the water cooler who can’t stop cracking blonde jokes. The Stoics engage in this sort of casual sexism, too. Epictetus, for all of his forward-thinking, dismisses Epicureanism by saying it’s not even fit for women. And Seneca, even while addressing some of his philosophical work directly to women, still praises Stoics by saying they think like men. We don’t hang our whole argument on these sorts of cases; our point is that since it might seem inappropriate to call our paperwork-avoiding, blonde joke-making colleagues feminists, the Stoics’ casual sexism should also give us pause.

We are more troubled by cases in which the Stoics’ views are substantively non-feminist. For example, some of the folks who argue that the Stoics are feminists do so by pointing out that the Stoics attribute rational capacities to women and therefore think that women should be educated. What we point out is that, for the Stoics, educating women is primarily good for making them better housewives. So although Stoic women may be rational and educated, they are still socially subordinate to men. This is because, according to the Stoics, women’s proper roles are in the home; while women do share in rationality, which is a good of the soul, they do not share in equal social standing. It is this separation between goods of the soul and social standing that we find most problematic.

A brief look at contemporary feminism can help explain why. Second wave feminists have a famous slogan, “the personal is political,” which is meant to break down the sharp divide between public and private spheres. Relationships of power and domination exist across this divide, so that political unfreedom in the public sphere is mirrored by personal unfreedom at home, and vice versa. The Stoics treat goods of the soul and social standing as if they were separate spheres, but this violates a core feminist insight.

Moreover, we argue that any acceptable definition of feminism has to allow for individual women’s autonomy. The Stoics fall short here, as well. This is because, again, while women have the capacity for rationality as a good of the soul, they do not have a choice about where and how this capacity is exercised—they don’t have any say in their social standing. Women’s proper roles are held to be in the home and their primary duties are familial; they do not have a choice about these matters. Our contention is that without respect for women’s autonomy, Stoic theory cannot count as feminist despite its progressive elements. In short, respect for autonomy grows out of a respect for persons as free and equal, and thus a denial of women’s autonomy constitutes a denial of their equality. Simply put, if the Stoics deny women’s equality, they aren’t feminists.

[SA]: This problem of saying progressive things about women and then turning around and being misogynists is a recurrent issue not just for the Stoics. Plato’s dialogues, as I mentioned earlier, have a pretty consistent set of commitments that virtue isn’t gendered and wisdom can be shared by all, so women can not only be excellent, but they can be philosophers. Again, he’s clear that women should be allowed to participate fully in the perfect city of the Republic and that continues into his other dialogues like the Lawshe even argues that women should be encouraged to participate in the military, since there’s a cultural norm that military service is a good means to political office. But, again, it’s all washed away with the fact that pregnancy is something in the service of the state—women’s bodies, not just as soldiers for war, but for making new citizens, are tools of politics. Plato’s a feminist in the sense that women have equal status with men, but nobody gets much control over their own lives. Emily and I have argued that this autonomy requirement should be part of a genuine feminism—we call it the liberal core of feminism. Plato’s politics pretty clearly fails that criterion.

Other schools that do any better? The Cynics, again, were committed to the sexes being equal by nature, but the challenge with Cynic feminism here is that there’s not much to be gained by Cynic equality—you’re wearing rags, begging for food, and making yourself a nuisance to those participating in civilization.   Sure, women can be just as good as men at that, but, hey, if feminism is about searching out equal social standing, let’s not make it a race to the bottom. The Epicureans allowed women in their schools, but I’m not aware of women taking leadership roles in them or any explicit anti-sexist philosophical programs in the schools. For sure, a good deal of the Epicurean literature is explicitly aimed at educating men only, as any reading of the end of book 4 Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura will attest. (It’s advice for how to manage one’s time with a prostitute.) So, I’d say, no, there weren’t schools of philosophy in the ancient Greek and Roman world that didn’t have these problems.

The general feminist position is what you call “Stoicism’s uneven track record” — while their principles and views were progressive, their actions didn’t always match those — what do you think is the biggest contradiction between principle and practice?

[SA]: It’s not hard with any revisionary philosophical or social program to find hypocrisy. It’s the case with justice movements, environmental awareness programs, and so on these days. When you’ve got folks saying that there’s a core element to a society that’s wrong or needs significant change, it’s hard for those folks also to play robust roles in that society and still be consistent with their principles. Just ask Al Gore about that issue, right? It’s a favorite talking point of critics of climate change science to point to Al Gore flying in airplanes. But Gore’s hypocrisy isn’t relevant to whether he’s right about the urgency of the climate problem. In fact, in Gore’s case, I think his hypocrisy shows just how hard it is to be someone of conscience about these matters and still be a participant in the society that needs to be changed.

But back to the ancients. The Stoics thought that slavery was an abomination, but most of the Stoics owned slaves. (Seneca, in one of his letters, even jokes about how he, someone who has argued against slavery, makes his poor old manservant get up and run with him in the morning.) The Stoics thought that women deserved equal treatment, but they nevertheless participated in and sometimes even endorsed sexist practices.  And the line that most of the revisionary arguments would take is that Amazons were the best model for what women’s equality would look like. Musonius Rufus thinks that Amazonian culture is what we should look to in order to see that women are capable of running a state and being full participants in a society—but, the problem, by my lights, is that Musonius’s model is upside down, since the equality of women is bought by eliminating all the men. Otherwise, as Emily noted earlier, the education of women is just to make them better housewives. Surely, the question is how women could have standing while sharing the society with men (and men sharing it with women). Musonius’s answer then was that we (men) should teach philosophy to our daughters. That’s a start—but the second half of that program is that we’ll also need to send our sons to learn philosophy from women. (And, heck!, maybe we grownup men, could learn philosophy from women.) That thought never gets thought all the way through, but it was very close to the surface.

Your most significant concern is the “Social standing problem” – that women were denied choice and social support, particularly in the political sphere. One of the well-known female Stoics was Cato’s daughter Porcia, who was famously involved in the Senate’s conspiracy against Caesar. Were women denied choice or were most simply contented with their roles and didn’t aspire to be politically involved?

[EM]: This is a complicated question, in part because it is difficult to know what people’s real motivations are—how can we tell for certain if women were contented with their roles and didn’t aspire to be politically involved? I think there are a couple of things to say. First, it is Plutarch who tells us that Porcia knows of Brutus’ conspiracy to kill Caesar, and his writing is full of the same sort of trends we see in the Stoics’ writings on women. Porcia cuts her thigh to prove to Brutus that she can keep a secret because, as she says (in the words of Plutarch): “I know that woman’s nature is thought too weak to endure a secret, but good rearing and excellent companionship go far towards strengthening the character, and it is my happy lot to be both the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus” (Life of Brutus 13.9). This quote is notable not just because we see Porcia addressing the belief that women are weak; we also see Porcia defining herself by her relationships to men, and crediting men with the strengthening of her character. This aligns with the Stoic belief that women’s education is beneficial to their husbands and the Stoic argument that women’s roles are fundamentally familial. Later, Plutarch places the Stoic separation of goods of the soul from social standing in the mouth of Brutus, who says of Porcia: “Though her body is not strong enough to perform such heroic tasks as men do, in spirit she is valiant in defense of her country, just as we are” (Life of Brutus 23.6). This is just to acknowledge that Porcia possesses goods of the soul, but it does not yet say anything about her social standing. So, in my opinion, the story of Porcia reiterates one of the central reasons why we don’t accept the Stoics as feminists.

But I take it that your point is meant to generalize. Here, I think Porcia may be the exception that proves the rule. The reason Porcia stands out in history is that she breaks social molds; if it were the case that women were commonly involved in politics, then Porcia’s story would not be remarkable. So, why shouldn’t we think that women were simply uninterested in becoming involved in the public sphere? Just like we can’t easily separate the public and private spheres, we can’t easily separate what individuals want from what their society allows them; what we desire is influenced by the societies we live in. In this case, the absence of different opportunities constrained women’s options, and thus limited their ability to choose. So even if women ostensibly opted to remain out of politics, this should not lead us to conclude that there was nothing wrong, structurally, with denying them this opportunity. Just because women regularly (and rationally) choose one option from among a severely constrained set of options does not mean that it is just to constrain their options in this way.

You do say that Stoicism as a philosophy has all the tools required to endorse full-fledged feminism in modern times. How can we best apply principles to practice in the 21st century? 

[EM] This is the cool thing about Stoicism. Even if the Stoics, themselves, failed to be feminists, Stoicism as a philosophical program provides lessons for fighting injustice. The Stoics need credit for acknowledging that our social relationships are often given to us; contemporary feminists call this the fact of social construction. Noting that we are socially constructed beings, rather than isolated individuals, highlights the importance of structuring relationships so that they are just and fair. At the same time, even if our current social world is not entirely just, Stoicism maintains that the virtue of those who suffer injustice is not harmed. Note that this isn’t the same as saying that there is nothing wrong with injustice; rather, it is to say that the dignity of the oppressed persists through their oppression. I find this empowering.

[SA] I agree with Emily that a core view of Stoicism is that one’s dignity can be preserved in the midst of suffering and injustice. That’s a key insight, and one to be developed. One worry I, among others, have about this thought is that Stoicism can be weaponized by the powerful and unscrupulous—for example, when workers complain about being underpaid, a company may prescribe a regimen of developing Stoic endurance instead of raising their pay. It takes the guise of inculcating virtue, but it really is something that papers over injustice. I think the crucial element to the Stoic program is that it must not be a means of covering over the injustices in the world, making those who suffer them inured to them. For sure, the history of Stoicism has that element at times—that one accepts one’s role that Fate has made, regardless of whether it is that of a general or of a slave. My worry, as a practicing Stoic, is that in the practice, I make myself insensitive to mistreatment, and the same goes in teaching it, that I make others insensitive, too. That would be a tragedy, as the Stoic movement is more about making oneself invincible so as to be one who fights for justice, not someone who no longer cares about it.

Any book or article recommendations for continued learning of the relationship between Stoicism and Feminism?

[EM] My two favorites are Lisa Hill’s The First Wave of Feminism: Were the Stoics Feminists? and David M. Engel’s Women’s Role in the Home and the State: Stoic Theory Reconsidered.

[SA] I think that the best place to start is with the Stoics themselves. So, Musonius Rufus’s lectures on educating women are illuminating. (Cynthia King’s new translation, Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, is very good.) Martha Nussbaum’s essay, The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus, makes a case for what we’d called the uneven track record thesis with Musonius in particular. And finally, Lisa Hill’s essay in the upcoming Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy, “Feminist Interpretations of the Stoic Sage,” is a thoughtful overview of the recent work on the question.

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