Recently we have included a number of articles about women, written by women. I believe that most men have women they admire but that we seldom see elucidated. Like many other people I too have ‘heroes’. For me they are just that, making no distinction based on gender, nationality or other characteristics. I have three particular heroes among many from whom I have learned a great deal about political thought, philosophy and social ideologies especially. Here are some brief sketches of women about whom and whose work I would highly recommend reading.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) known as a pioneer, if not founder, of feminism, was ignored in her time because of extramarital affairs and an illegitimate daughter. It was a century and a half after her death before she was finally recognised for her moral and political writing, gaining a place beside her second daughter, Mary Shelley, as a female literary great. Her first book, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’ (1790), was her response to the French Revolution. She denounced monarchy, demanding a republic. She challenged descriptions of women as passive subjects of a male dominated world in her second book, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792), her best known work that is considered one of the most important works of the Enlightenment. Her husband was the philosopher William Godwin, advocate of utilitarianism and a forerunner of the anarchist movement, both of which she supported and wrote about anonymously in ‘Analytical Review’, then a platform for radical political and religious ideas. She died eleven days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary, who married revolutionary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, eventually writing ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ (1818). Wollstonecraft was only 38 when she died; had she lived longer her radicalism may have brought forward by many years the ‘liberation’ of women as chattels of men.
Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was born Rozalia Luksenburg in Russian controlled Poland.
Her importance in the development of theories of Marxist humanist thought, the role of democracy and mass action to achieve international socialism and as a martyr to her cause, made her an iconic figure, celebrated by references in popular culture. She was fascinated by the French revolution, intrigued by the polarity personified by Robespierre and Danton which shaped her view of the conflicting ideologies entrenched in revolutions.
Her criticism of Marxism as dogma and her stress on consciousness was to be influential in the development of the women’s liberation movement that emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s. Her analysis in ‘The Accumulation of Capital’ (1913) of capital’s greedy quest for non-capitalist markets was adapted as a metaphor for the commoditisation of sexual relations and the body. The truth is that Luxemburg never identified herself with the feminist movement of her day. Moreover, she maintained a semidetached relationship with the socialist women organised by her friend Clara Zetkin, one of the leaders of the Marxist Social Democratic party in Germany.
Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, joint leaders of the recently formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD), were captured in Berlin in January 1919, tortured then summarily executed; her body was thrown into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, but only recovered about four months later. She criticised the suppression of democracy in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and Lenin as one of its leaders. Had she still been alive throughout the revolution that started in 1917 and lasted until 1923, she might have persuaded Lenin to favour a more open, democratic socialist ideology over the authoritarianism that became tyranny under Stalin, under whom her letters to Lenin and other leaders of the revolution, archived in Moscow, were cautiously controlled.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was born into a German Jewish family in Hanover. She was forced to leave Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power. She lived in Paris for eight years until Germany invaded France in 1940 when she was as an alien, although stripped of her German citizenship in 1937. She escaped then immigrated to the USA via Portugal in 1941. There she became one of the twentieth century’s prominent political thinkers; her articles and books still have a significant influence on philosophy and political theory.
She studied with Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a brief love affair, at Marburg University, moved to Freiburg University where she spent a semester attending Edmund Husserl’s lectures then Heidelberg University to study with Karl Jaspers. All three were exceptional philosophers, but Heidegger had the most lasting influence on her.
She held a number of posts at American universities until her death in 1975. She is best known for two works that had a major impact within and outside the academic community. ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ (1951), was a study of Nazi and Stalinist regimes that generated a wide-ranging debate on the nature and history of the totalitarian phenomenon. ‘The Human Condition’ (1958) investigated the fundamental categories of the vita activa (active life). Additionally, she wrote highly influential essays on authority, freedom, the modern age, the nature of revolution and tradition. When she died in 1975, she had completed the first two volumes of her last philosophical work, ‘The Life of the Mind’ that examined three fundamental facilities of the vita contemplativa (contemplative life). Her philosophical and political work subsequently remains some of the most important of the contemporary world.
Mary Wollstonecraft is as significant as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Paine and her husband William Godwin during that epoch, but was generally overlooked until relatively recently. Rosa Luxemburg was equal to her male contemporaries, for instance her colleague Karl Liebknecht with whom she was captured, and many other thinkers and activists seeking to make the world a more democratic and equal place for everybody. Hannah Arendt ranks alongside Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein or her teacher Martin Heidegger. They take their place alongside other ‘heroes’, neither superior nor inferior to their male contemporaries with other, often forgotten, women such as Luxemburg’s friend Clara Zetkin. No history is ever complete without the entire narrative that includes all main characters in making that history, irrespective of their gender.
Feature image by Dennis Magati on Pexels.