8 Great Female Thinkers from Oxford

From its foundation (lost in the mists of time) all the way until 1879, no women were allowed to study at the University of Oxford.

Even then, it took until 1920 for women to be permitted to become full members of the university, and until 1948 for a woman to be appointed to a full professorship. One long-lasting consequence of this historical sexism is that lists of notable Oxonians tend to be dominated by men. English kings studied at Oxford, but no English queens. Ten Poets Laureate studied at Oxford, but all of them men; the first and so far only female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, went to Liverpool. That’s not to say that there weren’t highly educated women before 1879 – one example is Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, after whom Lady Margaret Hall is named. But women were not permitted to study at university until several centuries after her death.
One area where notable women are particularly hard to find are female thinkers, in disciplines such as philosophy and related subjects. In times when women faced great difficulty in accessing education and gaining credit because of their gender, it was even harder to succeed in disciplines that are so subjective. In this article, we take a look at some of the women of Oxford who beat the odds and became notable thinkers of their time.

1. Vera Brittain (1893-1970) – Somerville College

Vera Brittain’s life was tragically defined by her experiences of the First World War. She managed to persuade her father to allow her to go to Oxford to study English Literature, beginning her degree at Somerville in 1914, but after a year put her studies on hold to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse on the battlefields of France. Around this time, in August 1915, she got engaged to Roland Leighton, who was a lieutenant in the  Worcestershire Regiment.

Actor Colin Morgan on the set of Testament of Youth (2014)
Actor Colin Morgan on the set of Testament of Youth (2014)

Over the course of the war, not only was Leighton killed, but so were Brittain’s brother and two of her closest friends. In 1933, she published a memoir of her experience of war and tragedy, Testament of Youth, for which she became famous; it has since been turned into a film. Two subsequent memoirs were Testament of Friendship and Testament of Experience, which not only followed her journey through grief and recovery, particularly her sense of disconnection from the post-war generation when she returned to Oxford, but also explored her intellectual conversion to pacifism. She became a regular speaker at peace rallies, and following the Second World War began to campaign against apartheid, colonialism, and nuclear disarmament.

2. Barbara Castle (1910-2002) – St Hugh’s College

Barbara Castle was a remarkable politician; elected in 1945 as one of a handful of female MPs in Clement Attlee’s Labour government, she held her seat for 34 years and became a prominent Cabinet minister. Long before Margaret Thatcher was elected, she was tipped as a possible Prime Minister, though this was something that she never quite achieved.  

Castle in 1965

Like many future politicians, she had studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, though she found the attitudes that she encountered there both sexist and elitist. When she entered Cabinet as the first Minister for Overseas Development, she became only the fourth woman ever to hold a Cabinet role. As Minister for Transport from 1965 to 1968, she introduced a slew of measures to make roads safer, including breathalyser tests to combat drink-driving and compulsory seatbelts in all new cars. In 1970, following the strike at the Dagenham Ford Plant in which female workers demanded the same pay as their male counterparts, she put through the Equal Pay Act – the issue for which she is now most remembered.


3. Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) – Somerville College and St Anne’s College

Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch won the Booker prize in 1978 for her novel The Sea, The Sea. She had studied Classics at Somerville College, having switched from English, then studied Philosophy as a postgraduate at Newnham College, Cambridge. She then returned to Oxford in 1948 to become a fellow of St Anne’s College, where she taught Philosophy for 15 years. From this point on her focus moved from teaching, which she then did for only one day a week, then not at all, to concentrate entirely on her writing.

Like many of the women on this list, Murdoch attended Somerville College
Like many of the women on this list, Murdoch attended Somerville College

Her writing included works of philosophy, works of fiction, and works that seemed to cross both; many critics have considered how her fiction reflects her philosophical belief in Platonism. She focused on characters from her own upper-middle-class background, their lives sent astray by unexpected twists and ethical dilemmas, narrated with dark humour. She believed – broadly – that love should not be personal or particular, and that love focused on any one individual was a recipe for jealousy and obsession, a consequence that then falls upon her characters. Love in Murdoch’s novels is frequently enslaving to all involved, and it’s this unusual view of human relationships that for many readers makes her writing so unique and interesting.

4. Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001) – St Hugh’s College

It has been suggested that the absence of contemporary male prejudice allowed the thinkers of 19/20 to thrive.
It has been suggested that the absence of contemporary male prejudice allowed the thinkers of 1919/1920 to thrive

Analytical philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe was another member of the influential 1919/1920 generation of Oxford philosophers, of whom no fewer than four are featured in this list. No other cohort has produced as many notable female philosophers; UCL philosopher Jonathan Wolff suggests that this might be because they were at Oxford during wartime, when the university was female-dominated as a result of the vast majority of male undergraduates having gone to war. With their voices not being drowned out by their male contemporaries, these female philosophers gained an opportunity to shine that was not granted to their predecessors or successors in peacetime. However, that’s not to say that they failed to stand up to their male colleagues; it’s been suggested (though disputed by Anscombe herself) that her criticism of the theological writing of CS Lewis was so vigorous and persuasive that it resulted in his decision to abandon it in favour of devotional writing and children’s literature.
Anscombe’s views are too complex to summarise in any detail here. Despite how wide-ranging her work was, she is now best known for her work on action theory, bringing the word ‘consequentialism’ into general use, and raising the profile of Wittgenstein, her teacher and close friend, in her role as his literary executor where she edited and translated many of his books. Her Catholic beliefs led her into controversy on occasion, notably her opposition to the availability and use of contraception.

5. Mary Midgley (1919-) – Somerville College

Triptych depicting Midgley alongside scientist James Lovelock and author Richard Mabey.
2008 triptych depicting Midgley alongside scientist James Lovelock and author Richard Mabey.

Remaining in the influential 1919-1920 cohort of philosophers, Mary Midgley is relatively unusual among philosophers in her determination to make her thoughts and writing comprehensible to a general readership, rather than solely her fellow philosophers. She studied ‘Mods and Greats’ (or Classics and Philosophy) at Oxford, and after a stint in the civil service on graduation, returned to become an academic at Reading and then Newcastle University.
Midgley sees common sense as valuable to philosophy, and has been described as objecting to “the orthodoxy of scientism” – she is opposed to reductionism and the idea that science can be an adequate replacement for the humanities. Similarly, she has been highly critical of the tendency for popular science writers such as Richard Dawkins to include philosophical ideas in their books, confusing their scientific conclusions with broader philosophical or even political ideas. She believes that both science and the humanities have their role to play in answering questions such as “what makes us human?”, and that it is arrogant for science writers to presume to draw philosophical conclusions from scientific enquiry. As a consequence, she has been described as the scourge of ‘science as religion’ – a topical question that makes her writing relevant and enjoyable to read.

6. Philippa Foot (1920-2010) – Somerville College

The final philosopher in that influential 1919-1920 cohort was Philippa Foot, who studied PPE and then, like Midgley, did a stint in the civil service before returning to academia; in Foot’s case, to her undergraduate college, Somerville. She is also noteworthy as one of the founders of Oxfam.

Detail illustrating the 'trolley problem'
Detail illustrating the ‘trolley problem’

However, Foot is best known as a pioneer of virtue ethics and the inventor of the ‘trolley problem’ thought experiment. That goes as follows: an out-of-control trolley is hurtling down a railway track towards a group of five people. On another track, there stands a single person. You are standing next to the points that can send the trolley away from the five people so that it will hit just one person instead. Is it morally right to change the points? Most people would say yes – saving five lives at a cost of one.
But the sequel to the problem is this: imagine you are a surgeon who has five patients who will all die if they don’t get organ transplants. No organs are available, but you do have a healthy patient in front of you. Is it right to kill that person in order to harvest their organs and distribute them to the five patients, thereby saving their lives? Most people would say no, so why is saving five lives at a cost of one acceptable in the first scenario but not in the second?

7. Dame Mary Warnock (1924-) – Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s College

After many years in Oxford, Warnock took on a post at Girton College Cambridge.
After many years in Oxford, Warnock took on a post at Girton College Cambridge.

Mary Warnock is often counted among the 1919-1920 generation of philosophers, though she actually came to Oxford a few years later, at the very end of the Second World War. She completed her undergraduate degree at Lady Margaret Hall and from 1949 to 1984 shuttled backwards and forwards between that college and St Hugh’s in different academic posts, while also being Headmistress of the Oxford High School for Girls for six years. She then moved to Cambridge, where she was Mistress of Girton College.
Though her work is chiefly in philosophy, Warnock is perhaps best known for her role in public policy, where she was thought to be a good fit because of her experience both as a moral philosopher and in education. In 1974, she chaired an enquiry into the education of pupils with special needs, where she recommended the current policy of integrating such pupils into mainstream schools where possible, and creating the practice of ‘statementing’, where a pupil with special educational needs is given a statement of those needs that enables the school to seek additional support where necessary. Subsequently, she chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, which resulted in legislation for fertility treatments and for the use of human embryos in medical research; legislation which has stood the test of time and been influential in similar contexts around the world.

8. Shirley Williams (1930-) – Somerville College

Williams speaking at the NHS Confederation Annual Conference in 2011
Williams speaking at the NHS Confederation Annual Conference in 2011

Shirley Williams could have been known her whole life solely as Vera Brittain’s daughter (see #1), but instead she has made a considerable mark of her own. She followed her mother’s footsteps and studied at Somerville College, where she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Upon graduation, she worked as a journalist, and then became General Secretary of the democratic socialist Fabian Society. In 1964, she was elected to parliament as the Labour MP for Hitchin, served as a junior minister and then as Shadow Home Secretary from 1971 to 1974. In 1976, she became Secretary of State for Education, advocating the abolition of grammar schools.
In the 1979 general election, she lost her seat along with many other notable Labour MPs, and began to voice her fears that the Labour Party’s increasingly left-wing direction was off-putting to moderate voters (a point of view that is being echoed today). In 1981, she became a member of the ‘Gang of Four’ senior Labour figures who resigned their party membership to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which in 1988 merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats, a move which Williams supported. From 1988 to 1993 she became a professor at Harvard University, then entered the House of Lords where she was an active member, including advising Gordon Brown on nuclear proliferation, until her retirement this year.
Which female thinkers do you believe deserve more attention? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: bicycles; radcliffe camera; colin morgan; barbara castle; somerville; empty dining hall; triptych; trolley problem; girton; shirley williams;