Monday, July 28, 2014

Women and Stoicism

Once again, the perennial question of "[Why there are] so few women in the stoic community" has reared it's head. Despite blogs, books and comments to the contrary, this perception seems to continue unabated throughout online communities. The responses from men on the topic range from ingenuous to the crass, sometimes even falling basely to 'mansplaining' how women's brains are just not built that way.

Sigh. We still have so much work to do.

The question itself is based on an invalid assumption. The question is not, you will note, "Why are there so few plumbers in the Stoic community?" or "Why are there so few Malagasy in the Stoic community?" or even "Why are there so few Hindu in the Stoic community?" As one of my favourite Stoics (Pamela Daw) has said to me, "Stoicism is about being human and transcends gender." And I would add, religion, country or occupation. And yet, here we are, again.

It is assumed that because a) membership in online groups and lists seems to lean towards men, or b) men start more topics and posts in the aforementioned groups and lists, or c) more men tend to get into longer comment strings, discussions and details, again on these aforementioned groups and lists, that it is because of GENDER.

Repeat after me, correlation does not imply causation!

The question itself, restated in order to bring to the surface the underlying assumption would sound appalling.

There are fewer women in the Stoic community, because they are WOMEN.

No. There is so much wrong with the above statement that a single blog post would be insufficient to plumb its putrid depths. But let's take a look at a few of the limiting factors.

  1. First of all, the equation of the ONLINE Stoic community with Stoicism at large is a false one. In my experience, and through questions and impromptu surveys the reverse is actually the case. In live groups, where people actually meet to work on learning and living and Stoics, the majority seems to favour women. 
  2. When invited to join, one gentleman replied that he wouldn't be interested in all of that 'sharing' stuff. But that is only one guy. 
  3. And though our groups have dealt with nearly 100 local participants over our 5 years, most of whom have been women, that doesn't actually mean anything. Perhaps I simply know more women than men, so that is who I invite. Perhaps more women are inviting their friends to attend.

Before someone brings up the whole "Stoics were always pro-women!" fallacy, let's be clear. The early Stoics were, with one likely exception, as misogynistic as the societies in which they lived. Seneca, throughout all of his writings, tends to favour the 'masculine virtues' over the 'feminine emotional frailty.' Marcus, Epictetus, Hierocles and the rest tend to be fairly equivocal on the subject, but often use similar language.

The one exception was Musonius Rufus, Epictetus' teacher and mentor. His two essays (III & IV) speak briefly but forcefully in favour of women learning philosophy, though he too is careful not to presume that they should abandon their culturally imposed roles.

But we are not ancient Romans or Greeks. We are modern Stoics. And since Stoicism is not a fixed set of Dogma, it is open to, and in fact requires change and modification. We need not be tied to the past. We need not be tied to the present, either, though we must acknowledge its reality and its complexity. We are tied to that which is best in us, our Virtue as defined by the larger community in which we participate. We define what the best of us looks like, even if it is beyond our currently reality. This is as true for gender issues as any other. We are not yet as good as we can be.

So when it comes to the question of "[Why there are] so few women in the stoic community," this should trigger in us an examination of why we would assume that it is gender that is the defining factor. The question reveals something about the asker.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the question of gender is completely irrelevant when it comes to Stoic practice. The fact that we would even assume that it is must lead us to a much deeper set of questions as to our own attitudes toward gender equality, justice, and community.