Women in the Tradition

Women in the Tradition

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. . . a little bell makes a great sound,
Which, very often, wakes up the most wise . . .”
—Christine de Pizan, “Prologue to the Letter from Othea”

Patricia Ranft’s book Women in Western Intellectual Culture, 600–1500 begins this way: “In an excellent study of medieval English women writers, literary historian Laurie A. Finke concludes that the evidence she examined proves once and for all that . . . the women she studied ‘deserve to be included in any account of the English language, English history or English literature, alongside of the men who are usually credited with the development of English culture’” (ix).

We have work to do if we want the classics to be relevant and accessible to our culture, and to respond to the perception that liberal arts education is exclusivist. Recovering the lost voices of women is but one way to go about addressing this issue, but it is certainly a worthy one.

The contributions of women to the tradition became an interest of mine during my time in the  Master of Arts in Teaching program (MAT) at Eastern University’s Templeton Honors College. My cohort explored the history and evolution of the liberal arts tradition under the guidance of Dr. Brian A. Williams, who helped draw our attention to a few unknown female contributors. It was there that I realized, like Ranft, that there are many voices lying silent—names that most of my cohort had never heard of, like Christine de Pizan, Anna Julia Cooper, Dhuoda, Hrotsvitha, Julian of Norwich, and Simone Weil.

Why was this the case? As we read their works and discussed their ideas alongside the men we studied, we began to wonder why these women were new to us—why we didn’t teach about them and why we ourselves didn’t know about them.

We came to see that their insights and writings contributed to the tradition over many centuries, either through their work to educate the men who in turn shaped the tradition or through their own writings, which pioneered new genres, engaged the great conversation, and explored and developed the canon. Their works evidenced a commitment to cultivating the life of the mind as it related to a pursuit of truth, goodness, beauty, and, ultimately, wisdom. I began to realize that more of us must take the time to “ring a bell,” even a small one, and see who might take notice.

The canon is not static. Classical educators across the country make space in their curriculum for plenty of writers who didn’t find their way onto Adler’s list of Great Books: C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, James K. A. Smith, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Josef Pieper, to name just a few. If the voices of women continue to be omitted from the canon, it is not simply a matter of provenance or historical influence, but is rather a consequence of their being overlooked.

To be fair to the scholars who came before us, the work of textual recovery is analogous to archaeology. In many cases, the bounty of works produced in the liberal arts tradition may have been lost to time; many remain undiscovered and only alluded to as scant primary sources of more familiar and notable works. However, much outstanding work has been done by editors and translators over the years, and, as Ranft goes on to say, “Now the once forgotten works of women intellectuals are readily available to us all” (ix). This recent progress should give us all hope that the general public may become more aware of the “quality and quantity of women’s participation in intellectual matters throughout the course of Western history” (Ranft x-xi).

This lag in reclaiming these voices has also contributed to a faulty established norm: The longer our canon endures without the addition of female voices, the further its current state is established as normal.

Our culture has formed a collective, unwarranted assumption that goes something like this: “We live in the twenty-first century. Surely if there were additional women of note, someone else would have noticed by now. And since no one has done so, there either aren’t enough women to make the changes worth my time or their works have already been evaluated and declared substandard.” This is the classic is-ought fallacy: assuming that because something is a certain way, it ought to be that way.

We must be willing to challenge these assumptions and do the work required to make ourselves aware of newly recovered voices and consider whether they deserve a place within the canon. I find encouragement in Quintilian’s comments about the doing of hard things. He writes, “It does not follow that because a thing never has been done, it therefore never can be done, and secondly, that all great achievements have required time for their first accomplishment” (Quintilian 126).

1. Quintilian. “The Institutes.” In The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What it Means to be an Educated Human Being. Edited by Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2012.

2. Ranft, Patricia. Women in Western Intellectual Culture, 600–1500. New York: Palgrag Macmillan, 2008.

Joelle Hodge has worked in classical education for more than 20 years and is currently Vice President of Operations, Sales, and Marketing at Classical Academic Press (CAP). She has co-authored two logic books, The Art of Argument: An Introduction to the Informal Fallacies and The Discovery of Deduction: An Introduction to Formal Logic, both published by CAP. Joelle and Dr. Williams are working to build and co-author a joint ClassicalU/MAT course on Women in the Tradition.


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