Online Symposium – Women and Stoicism (part 1)

One set of topics that arises regularly – both in online forums for Stoicism and in face to face settings – can be brought under a broad heading: whether Stoicism is something equally useful for men and women. Concerns get raised – understandably so – whether (at least some) classic and contemporary interpretations of Stoicism don’t assume or reinforce traditional gender roles, relationships, and inequities. It struck me that inviting guest authors to another online symposium, like the one we had earlier on the topic What Is Modern Stoicism?, might be a good way to promote a well-informed, experientially-based, civil and productive conversation within the modern Stoic community.

Last year, I wrote to a number of women authors within the modern Stoic community, inviting them to take part in a second online symposium specifically on Women and Stoicism, proposing that general question “Is Stoicism something equally useful for men and women?” We start our series here with three contributions by Antra Pavlico, Natasha Brown, and Britany Polat, and we are looking forward to publishing additional sets of contributions to this symposium in the coming months!

In my call for contributions, I suggested a set of more specific questions that the authors might consider addressing, which included:

  • Does Stoicism seem to appeal to men more than to women in the present?  If so, why?
  • Are there challenges women face that Stoicism would be particularly apt or helpful with?
  • Does modern Stoicism have a “women problem”, in any sense one would like to give that term?
  • What should we make of the emphasis upon traditional gender roles of some of the Stoic authors (e.g. Epictetus or Seneca)?
  • Can one be equally a feminist and a Stoic?  Are there important tensions that have to be addressed?
  • what should we make of the use of Stoic authors and texts to promote misogynist “red-pill” movements and attitudes (sometimes called “broicism”)?

With no further ado, here are the first three contributions to this new online symposium. Comments are welcome, and a great way of adding to the conversation, but do make sure to give the Comments Policy a read.

Anitra Pavlico

Is Stoicism equally useful for men and women? Can one be both a feminist and a Stoic? Certainly – but this raises questions on what one considers a feminist and what one considers a Stoic.

“Feminist” is the term I had a harder time defining. I have always instinctively considered myself to be one, but I was unsure how the term had evolved. When I came across terminology such as third-wave and fourth-wave feminism I had to confront the fact that maybe I didn’t even know what a feminist was.

There appears to be no “one” feminism, but a myriad of usually complementary but sometimes conflicting sets of beliefs, typically animated by the overarching ethos of equal opportunity for women. A feminist, to me, is someone who supports equal rights – economic, social, political – regardless of gender. My notion of feminism does not disregard natural differences between the sexes, but advocates for the rights of all individuals to explore their full potential.

I have seen a similar variety of beliefs within modern Stoicism, with sometimes heated disagreements belying the emotionless-stoic stereotype. Modern Stoics generally agree that Stoicism is a useful construct, based on the writings of certain ancient thinkers, prescribing ways to live a fulfilling life. It prizes virtue, rationality, temperance of desires, recognition of the humanity of others, and mental toughness.

One potential conflict between Stoicism and feminism may derive from misogynists latching onto Stoicism’s “live in accordance with nature” edict as a rationale for relegating women to lesser social and economic strata because they alone are able to bear children. To me, humans living in accordance with nature instead means taking advantage of what by nature separates us from other animals: the ability to reason. We can rationally see that humanity as a whole suffers when we limit women to a childbearing role, shut them off from economic opportunities, or otherwise forbid them to take part in the full range of human activities.

It is impossible to anticipate the range of other ill-founded viewpoints on why women cannot practice Stoicism successfully, or why Stoicism and feminism are allegedly mutually exclusive. To analyze them too closely gives them much more attention and credence than they merit. Stereotypes of women as irrational or overly emotional, or less intelligent, are just stereotypes, fueled by misogyny. If you follow the news at all, you can hardly say that women have a monopoly on stupid, irrational behavior.

A sanguine, humanist view comes from Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, who points out that women as well as men have received the gift of reason from the gods; they have the same senses of sight, hearing, and smell as men; they likewise have a natural inclination toward virtue, just as men do: So why would philosophy be an appropriate tool for men who wish to lead a good life, but inappropriate for women? (See Musonius’s Lecture III.) Feminism and Stoicism both enable one to live one’s best life, be mentally tough, and get along in a world containing many misguided people who seem bent on sabotaging our peace of mind.

Peter Beinart pointed out recently in The Atlantic that greater political power for women is more common in countries where the genders share more equally in household chores. He writes that “the new authoritarianism [of leaders such as Trump and the Philippines’ Duterte] underscores the importance of an old feminist mantra: The personal is political. Foster women’s equality in the home, and you may save democracy itself.” Before women can even reach the point of advocating for justice in their homes, however, much less their countries, we need to master the fear and tension inside our own souls. Stoicism is extremely helpful for that, and for handling the anger that naturally comes from seeing injustice in the world.

Feminist activist Rebecca Walker wrote in Ms. magazine after Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court:

So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power.

This was 27 years ago. She was right when she wrote the fight was far from over, as history continues to repeat itself.

It is not fruitful for women to say “I can’t be a Stoic, because I’m a feminist.” The issues we face in life are exceedingly complex, and we would all benefit from an emotional and intellectual toolbox that contains more than one tool.

Natasha Brown

Challenging the narrow paradigms that limit self-worth is a part of many women’s lived experiences.  Evidence shows barriers to women entering fields such as; science, mathematics, engineering and technology – at least in part due to gender bias.  As a black woman, I have both experienced and heard others describe how they have encountered limitations.

This has often manifested as stereotypes such as black women being angry, aggressive, unintelligent and hyper-sexual.  There is a long-standing notion amongst those descending from the diaspora communities of the Caribbean and Africa that we have to work twice as hard to be seen and heard, and also importantly, to achieve. Regardless of the truth and validity in these statements, they reflect the archetypes in which people exist.  

So, how can an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy be relevant for women and in particular women of colour?  Stoicism can help us to gain the confidence of our convictions by not letting our self-worth and confidence to aspire depend on other people’s opinions.  The latter perspectives would come under the Stoic notion of externals which are not under our control. Externals are outside of our direct influence, and as a consequence we do not have dominion over the way other people treat us.  It does not mean we should be apathetic to mistreatment; however we can choose how to challenge the situation without it defining our mood, self-worth and being. There are of course preferred externals which the Stoics identify, such as having good relationships and fulfilling work.  

Stoicism contributes towards the development of a good moral character, which ultimately can transcend limitations imposed by others.  It does this by concentrating our efforts towards the four virtues of practical wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Many have encountered terrible experiences such as Viktor Frankl – Austrian psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz – and held tightly to the fibre of his moral character by a focus on creating meaning and purpose in life.  That is not to say that there aren’t structural inequalities that need to be confronted; however by approaching our own experiences in a way that maintains our integrity, surely we can better contribute towards alleviating oppression overall. In developing our moral character we all boost our esteem which will enable us to better move forward towards our aspirations.

Instead of taking to heart the stereotypes and limiting beliefs in our skills, value and worth Stoicism can assist us to define our own story.  In doing so we can use obstacles to bolster our path whilst also acknowledging areas in which we can develop. Therefore, this philosophy can provide vital empowerment and motivation for women, who all too often face a glass-ceiling.  This can be done by a focus on what is in our control such as our opinions, desires and aversions. We cannot guarantee getting that deserved promotion in a tech company or not being judged as aggressive when we are communicating an opinion, but we can focus on being the best version of ourselves and doing our best with whatever is within our control.  Seneca describes the following in letter 23.2;

Reaching the heights means knowing what to rejoice in – finding prosperity in that which no one else can control.

Without care, the pursuits of women trying to break down barriers and overcome negative assumptions could be blown hither and tither by the whims of those who have more power.  Ambitions set aside because they don’t seem achievable and the judgements of others accepted unchallenged because it is thought that an alternative would be disbelieved. There is scope for reflecting on our capabilities in a rational way.

Cicero describes this in On Duties in terms of the four personae, which include:

  • common human rationality (ability to use reason)
  • the strengths assigned to individuals (your talents)
  • your character by chance (based on the times in which we live and what is accessible and realistic)
  • and your character assumed by your will (our own free choices).  

It is worth taking a look at these personae and contemplating the rationality of our choices. Stoics would certainly not advocate defining our worth based solely on the opinions of others. Epictetus who himself had been a slave, considered volition as the part of us that can be truly free. He describes in Discourses 2.2.25;

If you gape after externals, you will inevitably be forced up and down according to the will of your master.  And who is your master? Whoever has power over the things you are trying to gain or avoid.  

If others judge us harshly or make negative assumptions about us then we may wish to consider what can be learnt from the situation but we don’t have to take on the burden of their perspective.  Consider also the words of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations 8.49;

Say nothing more to yourself than what first appearances report.  Suppose it is reported that a certain person is saying terrible things about you.  This much is reported; but it is not reported that you have been hurt.

A Stoic may suggest shifting the focus to our character and acting in the best way possible using reason.  This could include being a role model for other black women who have experienced hardships by courageously continuing to show up – in whatever challenging encounter comes our way – this doesn’t mean acting as a doormat though.  We don’t have to let understandable upset due to mistreatment manifest as bitterness which will ultimately have more of a corrosive effect on us. Seneca letter 88. 29-30 reminds us about courage;

Bravery is a scorner of things which inspire fear; it looks down upon, challenges, and crushes the powers of terror and all that would drive our freedom under the yoke.

Courage in one’s convictions is a desired attribute when dealing with barriers such as stereotypes.  It takes a lot of will power to keep going in the chosen direction despite the vicissitudes of life. A part of the Stoic approach to courageous action would be an indifference to outward circumstances.  Indifference here does not mean laziness but rather not attaching happiness to a desired outcome, albeit that some outcomes will be preferred over others.

To conclude, Stoicism can assist women and others to gain resilience when navigating challenging aspects of life and whilst doing so maintain a dignity in character.  Take heed of Maya Angelou’s words in the poem Phenomenal Woman;

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Brittany Polat

Stoicism is a philosophy of life for everyone: men, women, and even children. The lessons it teaches apply to all of us, but because of the unique position women occupy in society, some of its lessons are particularly apt for women. One of these is how to properly approach social relationships. As any serious student of Stoicism knows, this is a philosophy that is built upon us fulfilling our social obligations with kindness and sincerity. At the same time, it teaches us how to be free of the guilt and anxiety that come with worrying about other people’s opinions of us. These are incredibly valuable tools for women, who are disproportionately expected to do the emotional labor in society.

Emotional labor is many things, but I like this definition of it:

Free, invisible work women do to keep track of the little things in life that, taken together, amount to the big things in life: the glue that holds households, and by extension, proper society, together.

It’s not just about writing thank-you notes and scheduling play dates for the kids. It’s about being everything to everyone and taking on other people’s emotions, burdens, and expectations. Many girls learn early on that they should be polished, accomplished, pleasing to others, and, above all, “nice.” No matter what else we do—cure cancer, pilot an aircraft, or run for president—we still have to be “nice.” (Oh, and we need to look great, too.) All this emotional labor is exhausting, sometimes unfulfilling, and for some women anxiety-inducing. It’s no wonder that women are consistently more stressed and anxious than men.

Enter Stoicism. Stoic philosophy teaches us what is truly important in life and inoculates us against the anxiety of superficial expectations. We learn to walk our own path toward virtue, to stay focused on what actually matters, and to relate to others with openness, kindness, and understanding. We learn that other people’s flaws are not a reflection of our own, and that we can stand up for what we believe in without getting upset or angry. It’s a powerful and liberating message. For some women, this means gaining the strength to leave abusive relationships. For others, it means fulfilling social obligations with contentment rather than dread. For all of us, it means applying practical wisdom to become brave, just, and self-controlled in our interactions with others. Instead of being trapped by our relationships, we become better and stronger through them.

If Stoic philosophy has such potential appeal for women, why does it seem like there are so few women Stoics? I think it comes down to a crucial distinction: seeing Stoicism as not just a philosophy, but as a philosophical way of life. There are people (mostly men, it seems) who love to debate Stoicism as an external system, without wanting to undergo the personal transformation that is required of a true prokopton. These are the men Epictetus scolded in his classroom 2,000 years ago, and these are the men who probably hang out in the darker corners of the Stoic internet today.

I can’t speak for all women, but I would venture to guess that most of us have little interest in this type of aggressive or inane pseudo-Stoic posturing. (We don’t have time for that—we’re out there doing all the emotional labor, remember?) What appeals to me is the confidence and contentment that result from a sincere effort to apply Stoic principles in real life. I think this what appeals to all Stoics—men and women—who are willing to transform their understanding of the world. There are many women out there right now trying to apply the teachings of Epictetus and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. But you may never hear from them, because they are too “nice” to argue with you.

One further point that may seem off-putting to women: the occasional unflattering reference in the ancient literature to women’s inferior abilities or disposition. Personally, I have no problem overlooking these references, because that’s what I’ve always done with texts written before the 21st century. It’s not surprising that the ancients held some unfavorable views of women, because that’s the way the world was at that time. But it is certainly disturbing that some men today would fixate on these passages. Contemporary readers who focus on unfavorable remarks about women in Stoic writings are adhering to the letter rather than the spirit of Stoic texts—which is definitely un-Stoic!

What is enduring about the Stoics is not their specific cultural beliefs (because cultural beliefs come and go), but rather their amazing insights into the universals of human nature. It is these insights—our rational and social nature, and our quest for meaning and happiness—that continue to inspire both men and women today.

Anitra Pavlico is a writer and attorney based in New York. She writes for 3 Quarks Daily and blogs about Stoicism at A Stoic Remedy

Natasha Brown is a Senior Social Worker with adults in North West England.  She has a keen interest in emotional health and Stoicism and how philosophy can be used to support wellbeing and emotional resilience.  

Brittany Polat holds a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics. She blogs about Stoicism, with a focus on personal improvement and family life, at Apparent Stoic. Her book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged is coming out in March.

10 thoughts on Online Symposium – Women and Stoicism (part 1)

  1. Helen donnelly says:

    Absolutely delighted to read the aforementioned and see the connections to women..well written and felt a part of it
    Love to readore on this subject
    Thank you Helen

  2. Kim Wade says:

    Thanks for providing women the opportunity to present articles on stoicism and thanks so much to the authors for their time and efforts to produce these articles. As a woman, I found these articles insightful and enjoyable. I am looking forward to more in the future.

  3. Thais Munk says:

    Wow! These three essays were great and really interesting takes on Stoicism. Thank you to everyone involved, I’ll make sure to follow Anitra Pavlico and Brittany Polat.
    I in particular enjoyed Natasha Brown’s thoughts. So if you’re reading this Natasha, an extra thanks from me to you from your excellent essay! 😀

  4. Nikki says:

    Perhaps women are just better at quietly getting on with the study and practice of Stoicism. Better at following Seneca’s advice to “Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others”.
    (Ps. I doubt many women who are interested in Stoicism would take offence to the casual misogyny of the ancient Stoic thinkers, given its prevalence in anything we study that dates from an earlier era. I’d like to think that, given their dedication to rationality, they’d have a different attitude if they’d been born in the last century or so.)

  5. Christopher Yoder says:

    In regards to ensure that we teach that the history of STEM includes many influential women from Marie Curie (the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to win a Nobel prize in two different sciences) to Ada Lovelace (the first computer programmer) to Katherine Johnson (featured in the biopic Hidden Figures) to Grace Hopper.

  6. Excellent wisdom from women engaged in practicing Stoic life philosophy.
    Anitra, Natasha, and Brittany: each of you is an inspiration and a role model to others who strive to live by these ideas!
    Thank you for these thoughtful pieces!

  7. Thomas McFadden, Ph.D says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspectives and insights. I was surprised by the topic as I have never thought that stoicism was the domain of any one particular gender. I was dismayed though by the snarky comment in Dr. Polat’s piece. While woman may do more emotional labor, men do more of the labor that gets them prematurely killed. Many of whom do it stoically.

  8. I enjoyed all three of these pieces. Thank you to the authors for contributing to an under-explored area of Stoicism.

  9. […] Stoicism Today, the topic being “Women and Stoicism”. Today, to the excellent responses provided in that first post, contributed by Anitra Pavlico, Natasha Brown, and Brittany Polat, we are happy to add two new […]

  10. […] are numerous excellent posts and articles on this issue–some occurring in this very post and in the post that preceded it earlier this year. However, there are other people writing with a self-proclaimed authority on the […]

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