Feminism and Canons


or, How Feminism Rewrites the History of "Great Men"

Originally a Lecture at San Jacinto Community College, South Campus, April 11, 1996

This page revised January 1999

Cynthia Freeland

University of Houston (713-743-3205)



  • A. Introduction

    Canon: from the ancient Greek kanon = straight rod, bar, ruler, model, standard

    Canon = exemplary model.

    What canons do: They provide the measure of what counts as "good" and important in a field. Canons instruct and represent high quality. They have moral and ethical force. They are ex clusive, entrenched, enduring, and self-perpetuating.

    How canons get entrenched: They appear everywhere, in courses, textbooks, bookstores, methodologies, belief systems, institutions. They reinforce the public1s view about what counts as "quality" in a field.

    Why feminists criticize canons: They enshrine traditional ideas about what makes for "greatness"" in art, literature, music, etc; and this "greatness" almost always seens to exclude women.


  • B. Two Types of Feminist Critique of Canons:

    Option 1. Moderate Revision (Add Women and Stir) Include women in the canon (more conservative) Search for the lost or forgotten great Women in a field; seek Foremothers.

    Option 2. Radical Revision (Down with the Patriarchy) Re-examination of standards and values of the canon. What does the omission, or the unusual inclusion, of women tell us about problems with the values in a field?


  • C. Examples of Feminist Canon Critique:

  • Art History

    Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (1990 ).

    Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, in Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (1988).

    Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology (1981).


  • Music

    Marcia Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon (1993)

    Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (1991)


  • Literature

    Dale Spender, Women and Literary History, in The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (1989)


  • Economics

    Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson, Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics (1993)


  • Biology

    Bonnie B. Spanier, Im/Partial Science: Gender Ideology in Molecular Biology (1995)


  • Philosophy

    Sandra Harding and Merrill Hintikka, Editors, Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Science (1983)

    Mary Ellen Waithe, A History of Women Philosophers (3 vols. )

    Charlotte Witt, "How Feminism is Rewriting the Philosophical Canon"

    Eileen O'Neill, editing project underway on women philosophers of the early modern period

    Cynthia Freeland, "Feminism and Ancient Philosophy: Plato and Aristotle at the Millennium," paper delivered at 1998 meetings of APA

    Re-Reading the Canon, a series of books from Penn State Press

    See also A Bibliography on Feminism and the History of Philosophy," at the SWIP Web Page


  • D. My Own Involvement

    I am a philosophy professor who is interested in feminism. I work on Aristotle, a great philosopher who has an attitude problem he is a notorious sexist. He says things like this:

  • Women have fewer teeth than men.
  • Women contribute nothing but matter to their offspring.
  • The virtue of men lies in commanding, that of women in obeying.
  • Women are often not great characters in tragedy because they are shown as 3"too brave or too clever."

    I have just published a book, Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle, in the new series Re-Reading the Canon. This is a series of 25 volumes devoted to feminist reading of canonical philosophers, edited by Nancy Tuana. The series so far includes books about Plato, Hegel, Hannah Arendt, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Simone de Beauvoir.



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  • cfreeland@uh.edu

    January 19, 1998