On Philosophy, Pronouns, and Stoic Women

Last week in an article in the New York Times, columnist Laura Collins Hughes referred to a recent performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

No, not that performance. The one Hughes spoke of was at an all-girls high school. Not only were all the roles played by girls, the word “man” was changed to “girl” throughout the script.

Hughes wrote:

“Thou art the ruins of the noblest girl that ever lived in the tide of times,” Mark Antony said over the dead body of Caesar, and I thought: When do we ever describe girls as noble? When, in the stories we tell, do we ever take them that seriously?

–from “When Women Won’t Accept Theatrical Manspreading
by Laura Collins-Hughes, the New York Times, July 17, 2017

To which I say, “Right?!”

It started me thinking – or rather, it returned me to thinking, as it’s not my first time – how powerful language can be, especially the words we choose to describe ourselves.

I’ve been doing some reading into Stoicism (because I’m weird like that), partly because it reminds me of my dad. He was a calm, quiet Norwegian. A perfect fit for Stoicism.

But also… well, have you ever read something and thought to yourself, “Yes! This, right here! This is meeee!” (Squealed in a most stoic fashion, I assure you.)

You find out you’re not a weirdo after all. Someone — okay, someone in ancient times, but still, it’s someone — thinks the way you do. Only smarter and with a better vocabulary.

Stoicism is like that for me. But there’s one little problem: it’s a wee bit masculine. Oh hell, it’s all the way masculine. I mean, they were all men.

(Okay, fine. I realize there were some female Stoics, but we know very little about them, and they don’t appear to have written anything. Not so much as a grocery list.)

So after hearing of the plucky girls doing Shakespeare, I started changing the language of what I was reading.

For instance:

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.
― Seneca


The bravest sight in the world is to see a great woman struggling against adversity.  ― Seneca, feminized

Granted, it’s a small change. Just one word. But that one word not only makes it more relevant to me, it’s done something more.

It got me to thinking: Maybe there are other women, maybe lots of women, who would like these Stoic thoughts too.

To tell the truth, I never felt I had much in common with other women. It wasn’t a gender issue, but more a mental one. I wasn’t as interested in the things they were (or what I thought they were – shopping, makeup, diets, fashion), which may explain why I always had more male friends than female.

But what if that was based on misplaced thinking?

Women are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them. — Epictetus, feminized

Consider the basic Stoic principles of humility, self-control, equality, justice — are those strictly masculine ideals? Of course not. Do all women practice them? No, but then neither do all men. That’s why we call them ideals. (Also, did you notice how christian they sound? Again, ideally speaking.)

Okay, so what’s the big deal, you say. Just read “man” as humankind. If these ideas aren’t exclusively male, then neither should they be exclusively female.

To which I say, Geez fella, lighten up! After several centuries of language going your way, you can’t give us a few quotes of our own?

Because just as it is for an all-girl Julius Caesar, changing the pronouns makes the quotes more meaningful to the average female.

She who lives in harmony with herself lives in harmony with the universe.
— Marcus Aurelius, feminized

A nice concept, isn’t it? A woman living in harmony with herself?

Imagine if young women were hearing messages like that, rather than “Jeans that Make Your Butt Look Great!” (from Seventeen)

Of course, I realize we’re not in the habit of quoting philosophy to our kids, either to our daughters or our sons. That’s not my point.

(Though if you do quote philosophy to your kids, I want you to know how much I love you.)

My point is… well, I’m not sure what my point is. Let’s say it’s my wish. I wish we had a Stoic equivalent for women. Because Stoicism is far more than tweetable quotes, it’s a way of life.

I wish there had been a female Marcus Aurelius who wrote down all her thoughts on how to live a good and honorable life. Maybe Marcus had a second cousin, twice removed.

Let’s call her Marcia. Marcia Aurelius.

But what’s the use of wishing? (Wishing is not a Stoic-approved practice.) Maybe we don’t have ancient philosophies to bolster us up. That doesn’t mean we can’t make use of them, or alter them if need be.

Or — hey, how ’bout this? — what if we wrote our own Meditations?

One day, someone will find a wise woman’s diary — your diary — filled with ideas, admonitions, private reflections; Empowering words on how to be a good, noble woman.

I really wish we had something like that. Tell ya what – I’ll work on mine if you work on yours.


Waste no more time arguing about what a good woman should be. Be one. — Marcus Aurelius, feminized

25 thoughts on “On Philosophy, Pronouns, and Stoic Women

  1. Right now I’m that lone person in the audience who leaps to HER feet right after the performance and wildly applauds, refusing to stop until everyone else stands and joins. I say “lone” as I’m obviously the first to comment, but I’m sure there will be others. Look, here they come…

    1. Aw, well thank you for the applause. It’s much appreciated. Though I will try to remain calm, will not allow myself to… OH GOSH, THANKSOMUCH, YOU’RE TOO KIND! kissykissy! 😘

  2. Good thinking 99. As an emotional responsive woman I can’ get into stoicism, BUT I can endorse making our females (and really it should be all variations of gender) realise they are powerful, wonderful, sensitive and strong humans.

    1. Sorry for the late response to your lovely comment — I’ve been without internet. It wasn’t even for a good reason (holed up in an isolated cabin in the woods), but just the whims of technology, now I work, now I don’t. Which is a test on my stoic resolve to be sure.
      I shouldn’t complain. At least I have clean water, a safe home…

      So… yeah… no one’s perfect. 😉

      1. I understand the thing about NOT having the internet – 6+ weeks I was without when switching from phone to NBN – Hope your internet connection may live long and prosper from now on. 🙂

  3. I’m gonna get busy on my philosophy (again) in anticipation of future generations. Maybe if I string together all these starts, it will add up to something coherent. Whether or not it will be Stoic—hard to say, but you have been inspirational.

  4. I’m catching up on peoples’ blogs, post vacation, and I’m so glad I read this. You raise good points on the apparent dearth of ancient feminine philosophy and retained knowledge. Perhaps there is something to be read into that–by the absence? Women’s knowledge was either so unappreciated as to be overlooked or so feared as to be discredited? Who knows if all the words retained by presumed male philosophers originated from men at all? There must have been an equal number of intelligent, thoughtful women in the course of history. Perhaps their stories are interwoven amongst the threads–and the weft cannot be unwound from the cloth? To be sure, keeping track of our own wisdom would be a good thing. Who knows who might benefit in their discovery centuries from now when we are but dust?

    1. I’m certain you’re right — there were plenty of profound thinkers among women and people of color, but they so seldom had a voice. Which makes it all the thrilling when they broke through.

  5. I love this idea! I had a similar experience growing up as you did. I didn’t relate to very many girls. I now have some great female friends, most of which grew up like we did. I’ve also got more in touch with my typical feminine side and have made friends with girls who are into make-up and fashion, but I’m still a renaissance geek through and through.

    1. That might be the best part of growing up, find more people you identify with and broadening your circle to include a few more too! Even better, if we have trouble finding them in person, there’s always virtual friends to fill in the gap. 😉

  6. Reminds me of the comic that shows the statue of The Thinker (captioned “The Thinker”) on one side and on the other side there is a woman in that same thinker’s pose except it is captioned “The Worrier”. Having a baby daughter myself now, it irks me more than ever the way gender dictates behavior and temperament in our society. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with my little girl wearing pink, but I’d be just as happy if she chose to wear any other color.

    1. Not seen that comic, sounds like a good one. Amazing how daughters change your outlook, isn’t it? My daughter is now 22, and she’s challenged a lot of my thinking. In a good way, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. 😉

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