By: Rieneke Helder | March 13, 2023
The story of the history of philosophy is one historically told by male voices. Although there has been significant growth in the ratio of women to men in the field of study as a whole, there is even less representation when you decrease the scope to only Christian women in philosophy. In fact, only 2% of the members of the Society for Christian Philosophy are women. One of them, Redeemer’s very own Dr. Amber Bowen, is about to embark on a new research project on philosopher Edith Stein. After uncovering her story in recent years, it became apparent to Bowen that Edith Stein has been written out of much of the story of how some of the most significant ideas in philosophy have come to be.
“Edith Stein was the PhD student of the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserel,” Bowen shared as she dug into Stein’s story. “[Not only was she a woman in philosophy, but] she was ethnically Jewish in Germany in the 1930s; you can’t get more marginalized than that. Her study of philosophy eventually led her in the pursuit of truth all the way to eventually converting to catholicism. When I found out that there was a female phenomenologist way back in the 1920s, I was completely stunned. I found out afterwards that as his research student, Edith Stein had earned his respect to the point of winning the highest award for her level of dissertation. She compiled and highly revised his most significant later works, which basically means a lot of it really comes from her.
“To get a professorship [in Germany] you have to write a second dissertation, so she did. The university denied it, however, on the official grounds of, ‘Because she was a woman.’ She tried again and wrote a whole new major study, resubmitting it years later. [This time,] an old classmate blocked her [from receiving approval]; in this instance, the reason was not only because she was a woman but also because her classmate was a Nazi.
“[In response], she actually joined a convent and became a nun. That allowed her to continue writing and giving some lectures—she was actually one of the earliest feminists, particularly in education. However, when the German Nazis started rounding up all Jews, even those who were professing Christians, she eventually died in Auschwitz.
“She’s incredibly well known for her beautiful devotional writings, and was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1998. St. Theresa of the Cross is the name she was canonized as, but today, Edith Stein the phenomenologist is completely unknown. She has not been given credit even for the ideas we have today that are hers! She exhibited incredible intellectual humility along with intellectual prowess but above all maintained her faithfulness to God. She understood that a life worth living is in service to him above everything else. Stein single-handedly debunks this idea that femininity and rigor don’t go together because she sacrifices neither.
“Edith Stein has absolutely gripped me. Not to say that I identify with her, but she is such a model to me, someone who I would strive to be like. Because of that, I can’t let her go; I want to bring her out into the light. That might have something to do with my own lived experience as a woman.”
While pursuing her own undergraduate degree in philosophy, Dr. Bowen was the only woman in the vast majority of the courses for her major. Even more, she was the only woman to graduate from that program in her year. Her experience continued on a similar trajectory during her doctoral studies.
“There were a lot of women in my institution,” Bowen shared, “but they never did more of the hardcore academic degrees. Once again, I was in classes with only men—which was fine, they were all nice! But I had a mixed experience. Some of them really disagreed with a woman becoming a professor for theological reasons, especially if you are teaching anything related to theology or philosophy. One man asked me if my sense of calling to get a PhD was actually a temptation. And I said, ‘I don’t know, is yours?’
“The most important model for me has not been those who talk about [the place for our gender identity in philosophy] directly but more people who do it. I do phenomenology, which has nothing to do with gender per se, even though I am always bringing myself to it.”
There has, historically, been an imbalance in gender representation in the field of philosophy, but how is that reflected in the Christian student’s experience while pursuing a degree in philosophy at Redeemer? Most, if not all, of the philosophers included in required core course PHL-210’s curriculum are men, but does that translate to the lived experience for women in our philosophy program?
For Abigail Bergel, a third year English major with minors in philosophy and theatre, the statistics mentioned at the beginning of this article have been reflected in the demographics of her philosophy classrooms and have pushed her to consider her place as a woman. Most significantly, she has learned to perceive the discomfort she may experience in Redeemer’s philosophy program as not a result of her gender but as a necessary byproduct of her uncomfortable pursuit of truth alongside all of her peers.
“We expect that you have to be assertive to be heard, to really be loud about your ideas,” Abigail explained. “But the setting of philosophy classes can sometimes be mistaken as a masculine thing, where in reality that’s just how we [all] sharpen our minds. It can be interpreted as a masculine environment, but I’ve come to realize in my experience at Redeemer that the tension or difficulty that pushes me outside of my comfort zone has nothing to do with my gender or hostility towards my gender but has everything to do with pursuing truth. Fighting to find the truth of the matter is an inherently difficult process.
“There’s certainly an awareness that there are always less girls in the classroom, but I don’t think we can read any discomfort [we feel] in the classroom to be hostility. If you’re looking for offences in a certain environment you will find them easily. [On the other hand], if you’re there to learn what you can from those who have come before you, you realize that there isn’t hostility there, just discomfort. That discomfort comes from pursuing truth, not from being targeted. It’s about learning to navigate the tedious process of being shaped by truth and wisdom.”
Not all female philosophy students redirect their attention away from that perceived hostility as intentionally as Abigail does, however. One student shared with me, “Sometimes you feel like you need to fight to be heard, as though people don’t consider your opinion until you point out that you also have one.”
“It doesn’t surprise me to hear that there are more cynical experiences at Redeemer,” Abigail responded, “because I’ve definitely wrestled myself with thoughts like, It’s only ever the guys who talk. To a degree, that is definitely valid. But the more I’ve studied philosophy, I have learned that the point of [it] is to just seek truth and to love it. That is what has pushed me personally to really stick with it. The more I’ve […] stuck it out and kept learning the [essential] skills and tools, the more I’ve realized that it’s not actually about gender. [Instead, I may just be] looking for reasons to avoid doing that hard work that philosophy demands. But ultimately truth is worth sitting in those difficult moments for, and truth warrants giving the benefit of the doubt and extending grace.
“Specifically in Redeemer’s philosophy department, there is a really unique structure that allows it to genuinely be a discourse about truth. I’ve only really had experience with Dr. Adam Barkman, but he facilitates his classes very well and takes a very practical approach to philosophy. He doesn’t tolerate a stereotypically pretentious attitude. To him, philosophy is [simply] the pursuit of truth. Additionally, a Christian worldview in studying philosophy grounds it and gives it a foundation; we don’t start by thinking that we will never have answers. We know what we believe and now we explain why we believe it. It’s all about graciously being able to articulate and engage with people who disagree with our worldview.”
Philosophy is a pursuit of truth, which does not change based on the contexts we find ourselves in. It requires a hunger to be told where we are wrong at present so that we are able to set it aside and walk in truth all the more. A refining process like this warrants discomfort; in fact, feeling tension may be indicative that we are doing it correctly. That doesn’t dismiss injustice or inequality, but it is encouraging to see how the heart of philosophy as a discipline is being revealed all the more simply by the presence of women like Bergel, Bowen, and Edith Stein.