Can a woman be a Stoic? “What a ridiculous question,” I can imagine debaters on both sides saying. I was reading an old book the other day describing a Stoic woman as a contradiction in terms, like “sweet vinegar.” I actually don’t think this particular fusty gentleman was being a chauvinist, but rather that he didn’t understand Stoicism as well as he thought. For instance, he interprets Stoicism as being devoid of the elements of compassion and humanity: “It may be well enough to treat things as indifferent, and work them over into such mental combinations as best serve our rational interests. To treat persons in that way, however, to make them mere pawns in the game which reason plays, is heartless, monstrous.” I don’t understand how anyone can read, for example, Marcus Aurelius for even a minute and not get the sense that the Stoics emphasized caring for other humans.
Not only can a woman be a Stoic, but I would argue that women would particularly benefit from exploring the philosophy. For whatever reasons, men are disproportionately drawn to Stoicism, maybe based on these old, small-s stoic preconceptions described above. When I was at Stoicon in 2016, I noticed the gender balance seemed to be at least 2-to-1 male-to-female. The small-s notion of the emotionless person who forms no attachments conforms better to the over-idealized “strong man” archetype. Since women are the ones who bear children, and accordingly are associated with the nurturer archetype, the idea of an emotionless woman is distasteful. Luckily, capital-S Stoics can and should have compassion for others. We all experience emotions; it is part of being human. We all likewise suffer when our emotions take over our rational faculties. By harnessing our emotions into an expression of arete (virtue or excellence), we purify them and put them to good use.
To return to women in particular and what we especially might gain from exploring practical philosophy in general and Stoicism specifically:
- Stoicism helps to manage anger.
You may have noticed a lot of angry women in the news lately. What are we so angry about all of a sudden? Nothing . . . we’ve been angry for a long time. Women are having “a moment,” but it’s not new.
We are physically weaker–of course there are exceptions, but I’m speaking generally. Men are by and large in charge of things. Oh, and men have the capacity for great violence, often directed at women. Women can be violent too, but I don’t think it is too controversial to say that men can do a lot more damage when they become violent. We are currently being governed by a ridiculous man who is taking the saber-rattling to a terrifying new level. So yes, we have a lot to be angry about. Where does it get us? It can be constructive, but it is destructive more often than not. The dichotomy of control–the idea that there are things we can control, and things we can’t–can help channel the energy of anger into things we can reasonably influence: our thoughts, our actions, our wishes, our aversions. Actions can certainly include taking to the streets, or leaving an abusive partner, and that would be far more healthy than imploding from anger that is unexpressed.
Lest this revive Nietzsche’s criticism of Stoicism as a “slave morality” that merely helps the oppressed come to terms with their shackles, I would emphasize that the dichotomy of control helps us become more proactive in life, not less. By not frittering away our energy on things outside our control, we can focus on actually doing something that is in our purview.
2. Stoicism helps one feel integrated with the rest of humanity.
To say that a woman cannot be a Stoic is to ignore the “circle of Hierocles” which connects everyone to humanity at large via a series of concentric circles, starting small, with the mind, and progressing outward to the immediate family, extended family, local community, and so on until the largest circle encompasses the entire human race. Women, despite all of the changes surrounding gender rights, workplace rights, voting rights, you name it, are still the ones to carry growing humans inside their own bodies. (I have heard of some bizarre exceptions, but let’s just say they are statistically insignificant.) Whether or not you agree that women are hard-wired to nurture the adorable ex-parasites once they emerge, this phenomenon at least insures that women are responsible for nurturing the fetus for ten months, a responsibility that all the pregnant women I have known took rather seriously. Therefore, many women’s alignment with the foundational, small concentric circles of Hierocles is experiential and does not even have to be understood intellectually to be affirmed on a gut level.
As the circles progress outward, however, I suspect many women start to drift from interconnectedness. Many people have commented on the tendency for men to develop many friendships as they go through life–not necessarily deep friendships, but more of a “buddy” relationship. Women tend to make stronger connections with fewer people and do not have as many “buddies.” Moreover, most women would agree that competition among women can be quite fierce. At the same time, relations with men can be fraught. Coupling these two facts means it can feel like a cold world. Stoicism can help (1) eliminate the feeling of competition with other women–after all, we are all behind the eight ball, and (2) reduce feelings of fear with respect to men. It is never too late to join the rest of humanity and abandon the state of isolation in which many of us have found ourselves.
- Stoicism helps women ignore the “beauty myth.”
It has been a while since I read the Naomi Wolf book of the same name, but it had an impact on me. It is common knowledge by now that many women feel societal pressure to be thin and to look perfect. The effort is expensive, time-consuming, and doomed to fail besides, because the concepts of perfect and human are mutually exclusive. I actually overheard a conversation the other day between two women; one complimented the other for having lost weight, and the other woman said she had the flu and was just now getting her appetite back. The first woman did not say she was sorry her friend had the flu, but instead sounded envious. This is how insane things are. Just think how much more free time and money women would have if we didn’t feel we needed to have perfect hair, abs, butt, skin, and nails, as well as the latest fashions. Just think how much happier we would be if we would eat a burger when we were hungry, not iceberg lettuce, and had friends who commiserated when we had the flu . . .
Stoicism is thousands of years old, and immune to fashion trends. It points us in the right direction when societal expectations, our families, our jobs, and our own interests threaten to pull us in many different directions. It is practically free, given the wealth of materials available online, and takes very little time to read up on and practice. It gives one a feeling of impermeability in a world that assaults the senses and offends the sensibilities daily. We can only do so much to change the way things are, but we should take advantage of any tricks to throw off the shackles in our own minds.