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Through her book HOW TO THINK LIKE A WOMAN : FOUR WOMEN PHILOSOPHERS WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO LOVE THE LIFE OF THE MIND. Regan Penaluna interweaves her personal and professional experiences with the life stories and works of a range of female philosophers who were largely ignored or forgotten within their own context and over time. By doing so, she creates an interesting critique of sexism within the patriarchal realm of academia, extending her work beyond the biographical to consider deeper the social ramifications that have resulted from this conspicuous exclusion.

Penaluna’s writing has a clear, conversational tone, and by blending writing styles to create work that is part memoir, part analysis, she presents an interesting and illuminating read with a spotlight focused on asking why the contribution that women have made to the world of philosophy has been largely ignored. She minces no words when identifying the resentment and hostility faced by women attempting to make their mark in a field resistant to the contributions made by women. And by framing these historic works within her own experience, it makes the subject matter engaging and accessible.

As a philosopher herself, Penaluna connects with these lost female philosophers from the past, to awaken her own feminist consciousness. The four philosophers she focuses on are Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Catharine Cockburn, with the most familiar of the quartet being Mary Wollstonecraft.  As we read about these inspirational women, it is frustrating to read about how they were dismissed, undermined and limited to taking a back seat. Perhaps it is more frustrating to consider that not all that much has changed in the field of philosophy despite the inroads that feminism has made across other domains, as reflected through the anecdotes and research that Penaluna offers as she creates a thread between past and present attitudes and assumptions towards women and feminist-informed philosophy. It’s a journey of rediscovery for both Penaluna and the reader, as female audiences in particular can relate their own experiences and perspectives to those of the women who, with little acknowledgement, helped to shape an alternate path for future generations, only to be historically forgotten.

As she traverses her own experiences through university, punctured by one professor who asked students to “to consider the possibility that women weren’t as smart as men,” the insidiousness of this claim lays the foundation for reflection on the ways that women through time have faced, and continue to face, the challenge of being disregarded as lesser than their male counterparts and the institutions that support such ways of thinking that cause the erosion in confidence that women experience as they come up against these barriers that stall or prevent further achievement. While the subject matter is infuriating, Penaluna manages to shift the tone of her work, balancing outrage with wit and humour, and maintains a focus on the achievements of these inspirational women despite the obstacles they faced.   

Overall, the book is appealing because of the way that it reframes our perception of some of philosophy’s greatest thinkers. While at times, it would have been interesting if the exploration of thought was deeper, Penaluna ultimately achieves her purpose in reigniting our interest in the life and works of these amazing women, whose contributions have been largely ignored or forgotten.


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