Women Don’t Need Stoicism; Stoicism Needs Women by Sharon Lebell

With this post, we continue our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Sharon Lebell, who spoke at the main 2020 Stoicon

Hello my philosophical friends. It is pleasure and privilege to share this precious time with you. I hope each of you has been managing as well as you can across the avalanche of challenges of the past many months, and that you’ve harvested some useful insights from the fascinating preceding speakers which you can put into practice right now in order to access, develop, and express the better parts of your nature.

This is what I love about Modern Stoicism:  it is something we do. Stoicism is not inert words on a page or clever philosophical repartee. It is a summons to our souls to live with dignity,  grace, and style—to elevate our character through beneficial action and through the restraint of ill-considered words or actions. We do not traffic in credos. We focus on honest self-reflection and how our thoughts, words, and deeds might, in their small way, radiate to others and thereby upgrade the social ecology of which we all are a part

Let’s get a few things out of the way.  I won’t be using multimedia, no power points, and the like. In this time of physical separation, I want to speak to each of you as unmediated as possible in the hope that however geographically, ideologically, or culturally distant we are from one another, we can still move in the direction of what Existentialist philosopher Martin Buber called an I/You or I/Thou relationship, instead of an I/It relationship.

I confess I chose the provocative title of this talk, “Women don’t need Stoicism, Stoicism needs Women,” to win your attention. However, this choice is not disingenuous. And, my words are less polemical than the title might suggest. I am not here to say waaah, waaah, waaah:  where are the women Stoics? And, I am not positing a female vs. male binary.  As to the oft-asked question:  why does modern Stoicism continue to attract mostly males over females? That’s a topic for another conversation.

Here’s what I do know:  many of my cherished personal values and a prism through which I view my place in the world and my relationships with others were inspired by the teachings of men, known as the Stoics, who preceded me roughly by two millennia. That they were men, who addressed their spoken and written words to males, and explained their ideas by invoking metaphors, stories, and analogies rooted in male experience is more than noteworthy.  It’s a challenge. And, it’s a modern opportunity. (We will get to the opportunity part of this discussion further on.)

If we speak of wisdom, which implies perennial and universal value and utility of principles and practices arising from one sex only; where is the universality in that? Something, a big something, is missing, right?

While the best ideas for living well may have no intrinsic gender and might potentially be adapted or extended so as to be universally understood and applied, those ideas are nevertheless transmitted through the stories and  life experiences of one’s own sex. The Stoic pantheon, including Zeno of Citium, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, et al., could not have possibly invoked, for example, the transformative emotional and physical tribulations of bearing and giving birth to children and the profound existential wisdom such experience serves up, because those experiences were foreign to them. Today, however, we know more, and can do different.

When we read Stoicism’s origin texts, Epictetus’ Discourses, say, or Marcus’ Meditations, we will always be reinforcing the archetype of the male protagonist and his agon. That’s just the way it is. When these texts were written or transcribed, someone of my sex was a person of no account. In Stoicism’s formative centuries, my voice would not have counted, my experiences would have been of secondary value if considered at all. The Stoic canon, riddled as it is with male athletic and military metaphors, does not elevate, for example, the most basic human exigencies of caring for, teaching, and enculturation of children as a sine qua non of human experience. And we cannot fault those teachers for their doggedly male understanding of the world, because that was their understanding of the world. And, mind you, I hope it goes without saying that female experience, then as now, more than transcends our childbearing capacity.

Still, females spend our lives viz a vis Stoicism and so much else, doing what I call the mutatis mutandis dance. When reading Stoicism or most anything else, we have to “make the necessary changes” to subtextually change the specifically male references that are meant to stand in for the universal human to be relevant to us. We have to insist on our own inclusion in the text or the discussion even if the metaphors don’t fit so well. We project ourselves as best we can into a male set of references for the nonce. And certainly all the, however well-meant, efforts to say “his or hers”, and so on, only underscore the ambiguity, awkwardness, and exclusion male-gendered locutions imply.

In order to belong to the world, females must cherry pick and adapt texts, discussions, and thought systems to include and apply to us. Females are what linguists call “ The marked case,”  which is the state of standing out as unusual or divergent in comparison to a more common or regular form. In a marked–unmarked relation, one term of an opposition is the broader, dominant one, in this case the terms “man” and “men.” But none of this is news. We’ve all been grappling with the limits of and exclusionary effects of gendered language for years. Tell us something we don’t know, right?

Because, the challenge for not only females, but for all of us, who want to, as we modern Stoics say, “rise to the work of a human being,” is not merely linguistic.

Not surprisingly, I have always thought of myself first and foremost as a human being. But, all I have to do is stick out my baby toe into the public sphere where I am immediately reminded by the world that I am first a female and incidentally a human being. Males have the luxury of being considered de facto prototypical human beings. Women have to ontologically fight for that privilege.

Though I feel inside like a human being first, the world and my body remind me otherwise. It is part of female ontology to move through the world far more vigilantly than our male counterparts, because females are potential prey due to male harassment and the menace of male violence, exploitation, or sexual assault. Females live with a continuous scanning of our environments for their degree of safety—out in the world and in our homes. We experience being talked over, ignored, not seen, trivialized, etc. We live with the very real possibility of pregnancy, which can be life threatening, or binds us to the ultimate responsibility for the life and welfare of other human beings.

This is quite different from male experience which permits wandering freely about, not having to worry overmuch about predation or pregnancy and its consequences and responsibilities. (And joys, of course.) Female experience, our heroic journeys, contain largely unmined and unrecorded universal wisdom which modern Stoicism would do well to draw from.

(My own Stoic Journey)

Personally, I was attracted to Stoicism through the teachings of Epictetus. I encountered his Discourses in the early 1990s, when no one was talking about Stoicism or could pronounce Epictetus’ name. Stoicism was not a thing back then. The most powerful catalyst for positive personal change is when people learn what we already know. Have you heard the expression “the unknown known”? That’s what I’m talking about. For me, Epictetus articulated a way of life that is buried within us, and he supplied the right words for expressing what I had known deep down in a pre-verbal way.

I found this former slave with a limp immensely relatable. A slave knows what it’s like to be disvalued, unseen, misunderstood, or used by others to further their interests. He also offered up a prototype of human nobility which transcended sex. This is what led me to write the first modern popular presentation of Stoic thought, The Art of Living:  The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, which I am pleased became a perennial classic, often readers’ first introduction to Stoicism.

One of the challenges I faced writing the book was my commitment to preserving the authenticity and integrity of Epictetus’ teachings while using language in a way that was accessible to non-scholars, and ideally inviting and relatable to all modern readers. What I ran into over and over were the two different socially gender-encoded expectations of and definitions of virtue, which is a central aspiration of Epictetus’ Stoicism and of Stoicism more broadly. The notion of virtue carries different connotations for males and females. When the idea of virtue is applied to males, one might think of valor, bravery, or the ability to endure pain.

Female virtue still carries the historical and cultural onerous residue of sexual purity, chastity with its related implications of altruism, being demure, self-effacing, and gentle. These are indeed some legitimate components of virtue as applied to all people, but they must be tempered. Historically, female notions of virtue are essentially restrictive and male constructions of virtue are expansive.

In writing The Art of Living I chose to rely on the classic notion of male virtue, without specifying it as such. I kept in mind the Greek notion of arete, moral excellence, and the truly universal idea that a virtuous life is the essential prerequisite for a well lived life.

That said, I wanted to amplify an extant aspect of Epictetus’ teachings that frequently gets overshadowed by many of his other teachings. This is a virtue that is arguably, though not exclusively, a female super-power. It is, quite simply, the power to care. Think on that for a second. We always have the power to care:  about each other, to care about doing something to upgrade the condition of the imperfect world we find ourselves in; the power to care about small domestic beautiful things that lift the heart and create a chain of goodness radiating to other people. We have the power to care and be impelled to do something about the large injustices which affect and distort our society daily.  Caring unlocks the meaning that can always be found in this moment, the meaning that can be made in this moment.  The meaning that is always right at hand that can be marshaled for the good. But caring does not happen automatically. It must be actively invoked and applied.

While writing The Art of Living, I was constantly put in mind of the Stoic ideal of equanimity, a value Marcus Aurelius speaks of often. Females do a lot of quietly-in-the-background preserving and promoting equanimity so that families and larger groups can get along and cooperate in service of shared goals.  Our express ticket to equanimity is visiting stillness, or perhaps, settling the mind is a better way to say it. The value of a settled mind cannot be overstated. When a settled mind is our home base, ideally our default, which we win through practice, we have easier access to the answers we need, the best actions to take in the moment, an open channel to inspiration, and a vision for a way through.

There is so much value in this deliberate visit to stillness. Stillness is a tonic for meaninglessness, and it reminds us to slow down and just do one thing at a time. We can find or attend to one beautiful or useful action or word at a time and augment it. We can, for example, turn and say “I love you” to someone.

These days we are traversing low-level but constant trauma, and it’s fatiguing. But we have each other, we have the power to care, and we have the Stoic injunction to make time for stillness to recover our equanimity, which is an ideal foundation for anything. Equanimity helps us maintain an attitude of dignity and repose even in the most trying and desperate of circumstances. To find equanimity we intentionally engage with our inner life, which creates a state of calm that in turn creates more calm. Then we can use our equanimity as a force for peace and clear-sightedness in our families and communities.

The four virtues that are most talked about in classical Stoicism are Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom. Each of these virtues can be embraced as an ideal by anyone, but I’d also encourage us to enlarge our understanding of what contributes to the best possible life by including the virtues or values that are especially salient in female experience, of nurturance of others, caring—as I mentioned earlier, community building, protecting, the transmission of moral values in a non-sanctimonious way.We all benefit from this.

There is one other thing I’d like to mention as we increasingly move into integrating female’s experience and wisdom into the ever developing thing that is modern Stoicism. When considered in the light of modern times, ancient Stoicism has a problem with the passions. Many of the origin texts warn of the dangers of letting our passions reign supreme. This makes sense when you need to keep your head while you are a prisoner of war, for example. Reason, logos, is elevated over our passions as the preferred way of navigating our circumstances. But, I myself would never wish to listen to a gorgeous concert given by Yo Yo Ma stoically. And I will never make love as a stoic, certainly not in the spirit of ancient Stoicism’s skepticism of the value of passion.

A female ontological perspective is one that can easily embrace the values of passion, emotion, and intuition. We need, I believe, to integrate these into our modern Stoicism while being true to the spirit of Stoicism’s essential world view, otherwise, for lack of a better way to say it, Modern Stoicism will be too unilaterally stoic.


This is an amazing time for Modern Stoicism, because I see it, and I know others do, as a fluid, adaptable, permeable, inclusive and ever curious movement. I see modern Stoics reading the origin texts, but most importantly, talking about what they read with other people from all walks of life, Western and Non-Western, female and male, people of color, non-binary individuals. Every day our Stoicism expands in salubrious ways because we are listening to one another, which prevents us from being textual literalists and prevents this ever developing philosophy from ossifying and becoming irrelevant.

I see modern Stoics embracing the wisdom that is especially endemic to the female experience, the realization that life is so much bigger and incomprehensible than us and our puny dramas; that we can’t will circumstance to our preferences or tastes; that we have responsibilities to others; that we, through our choices and consequent actions, are the matrix of civilization.

What we want is a protean, adaptive, and evolving Stoicism. We want a Stoicism that can dovetail with people’s religious lives, if they have them, for example.

In a way, what is going on with Modern Stoicism in this moment reminds me a little of what happened in the 60s and 70s when Buddhism was first widely introduced to Americans post Alan Watts. At that time there was much criticism that Westerners were cherry-picking Buddhism, that it was being culturally eviscerated and reduced to merely mindfulness, uncoupled from the authentic richness of its origins and history. But had people not adapted these valuable Eastern and male-centric teachings to modern Western-style life, vast numbers of us would have been denied the richness of that wisdom tradition.

The strongest and most vital wisdom traditions are those that invite skepticism, decentralized authority, and extensibility. Modern Stoicism admits all three, so we are in good shape.

We need more people to be literate in Stoic principles because so many of us now are viewing the world through the eyes of intractable positions and special interests over a caring for the commonweal. These days our minds and hearts are exhausted from making constant choices of value:  aesthetic, moral, practical, and spiritual.  What is worthy? How easy it is to become dangerously mired in the trivial; it can be hard to wake up from simply managing, but not truly living. Where. does. value. lie.? What is virtue? These are the questions Stoicism returns us to. But in order for modern Stoicism to do its job, it (we) have to be willing to change and to listen. Our very dignity as human beings depends on it. We need to be good, awake, discerning choosers. This is where our freedom lies.

Thank you for listening. I’m so glad you joined us at Stoicon 2020. Thank you especially to Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, Greg Sadler, and Phil Yacov

Sharon Lebell is a speaker, writer, composer and musician.  She is the the author of  The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness., and the co-author of  Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day.

3 thoughts on Women Don’t Need Stoicism; Stoicism Needs Women by Sharon Lebell

  1. Morton Hurt says:

    I am a late arrival to Stoicism, but I am simply fortunate to find it in my later stage in life. This may well be the best article I’ve read on the value of Stoicism. Thank you.

  2. Pat Kennedy says:

    I agree stoicism needs women sans women like Marcus’s wife and sans men like Marcus’s son. It shows that apples can fall far away and be rotten to the core.

  3. Nora Sullivan says:

    Fully agree. Stoicism and society, in general, need women. Really enjoyed reading this.

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