Author Regan Penaluna Explains How to Think Like a Woman

In her debut book, Penaluna deftly tells the stories of four 17th and 18th century female philosophers, skillfully weaving their narratives into a rich exploration of her own experiences of patriarchy and sexism in academia.

The cover of Regan Penaluna's book How to Think Like a Woman
Regan Penaluna’s debut non-fiction book. Grove Press

How does one think like a woman? That’s the central question of Regan Penaluna’s debut book examining the works of four forgotten women philosophers: Damaris Cudworth Masham, Mary Astell, Catharine Cockburn and Mary Wollstonecraft. “I feel funny saying [Wollstonecraft]’s forgotten,” Penaluna tells Observer. “She’s not a forgotten figure, she’s a forgotten philosopher.”

Penaluna, who grew up in Iowa and completed much of her postgraduate education there, left academia following a stint as a professor at St John’s University in Queens, New York, after which time she worked at Nautilus and Guernica literary magazines. Penaluna says she “made so many ridiculous mistakes” learning how to metabolize women in philosophy for a general audience. It was only at a Women of Letters event, for which Penaluna was asked to write and read aloud a letter to her muse (“Who is my freaking muse?” she wondered), that her long-percolating book idea really crystallized.

Damaris Cudworth Masham was the muse Penaluna ultimately chose, and she spoke about how Masham’s experiences as a woman in the male-dominated field of philosophy resonated with her own. Afterward, Penaluna was approached by gala-goers who said her letter sounded like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild for the intellectual set”—not that Wild isn’t already for the intellectual set—and so Penaluna went about using her own experiences as a “framing narrative into the lives of these forgotten women philosophers.” The rest is herstory–an intriguing slice of which Penaluna shares below in a Q&A edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to philosophy, and why did you decide to move away from it as an academic practice?

I wouldn’t have called it philosophy when I first started asking philosophical questions; it felt so natural. The most general questions that anyone asks themselves are: Is there a god? What’s really out there? What is all this stuff that we seem to be in contact with? What is reality? Is there a difference between the way I understand these things and the way that they are?

I left a tenure-track job in Iowa because I was changing my life. I had divorced, so I needed—I wanted—to start a new life. I moved to New York City and found a job as an adjunct and then as a full-time assistant contract professor for four years. I knew at the end of that, I would have to start my search over, so I had that in the back of my head.

In the meantime, I fell in love, I got married, and I had a baby. I also had this wish to write about these female philosophers that I had studied as an academic for a general audience and to introduce them to the larger world. To make people aware that these women existed.

What was it about the work of these four women in particular that spoke to you?

It was this despairing moment in my graduate student career. I had finished all my coursework, I had passed my exams and I was burnt out. My fiance at the time was teaching at a small liberal arts school in Iowa, where I’m from. [I went there] to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my graduate career and whether I wanted to continue in philosophy, which I found pretty frustrating.

I was tired of the sexist comments I was finding in the great works that originally drew me to a field I loved so much and still do. It was tearing me up that I didn’t really have a response to it. Feminist philosophy was not taught in my program, so I didn’t have the tools to deal with it theoretically, emotionally or psychologically. I needed to figure out whether I wanted to continue to pursue this degree, and if so, what was I going to write my dissertation on?

Then I found this monograph, and at the bottom of the page was a footnote that said this philosopher, Ralph Cudworth, has a daughter who’s a philosopher, Damaris Cudworth Masham. I had no idea there were women doing philosophy at that time.

When I read Masham, I was like, woah, she’s talking about women in this text. Her personal story and relationship with John Locke were interesting to me as a woman. When you’re in a male-dominated environment and heterosexually-leaning, that can take the form of falling for your [male] mentor–which is what I did and what Masham did.

There was another woman philosopher around the time who Masham may or may not have had contact with called Mary Astell, who is also in the book. She’s such an independent, incredible person. She wrote in poems that she was going to be single by choice and make a living writing philosophical tracts and pamphlets, which had never happened [for a woman in the field]. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies is my favorite work of hers. In a way, it’s a book about how to live the good life as a woman by building a community of sisterhood and not being bothered by patriarchy.

It made me think about my choices in academia when I was feeling incredibly lonely and lost. My instinct wasn’t to turn to the two other women in my program or the one female professor and say we need to stick together or let’s build something. I should have. I didn’t. My instinct was to turn to a man and get validation that way. Astell is an alternative to the stereotypical, heterosexual relationship as a way for a woman to get through the world.

A woman after my own heart! And what about the others?

Catharine Cockburn. What a firecracker. She wrote a novella [as a teen] and went on to write plays in her 20s, joining a couple of other women playwrights putting on productions on the London stage. It went well until it didn’t, when they were mocked very harshly and she left. She turned to philosophy and wanted to be taken more seriously. She always wanted to make the point that women were valid and should have the freedom to think for themselves. She wrote a defense of John Locke and was accused of not actually writing it–that it was John Locke just defending himself! She stopped publishing for seventeen years while she became a mother and then started back up again once her children were self-sufficient.

I came to her around the time that I became a mother and was confronting this maternal—really parental, because it’s not just for mothers—ambiguity about my own desire to think and write and this newfound responsibility and love for my child. All the while, she was writing these letters filled with philosophical and feminist thought and fiction. She was really busy and using her brain the whole time. I identified with this pull between the duty to yourself and this duty to others that was born during the enlightenment period [of philosophy]. She thought that women could afford to be more selfish and men could afford to be more compassionate; to be a good person you have to be both.

And then there’s Mary Wollstonecraft. Everybody knows Mary Wollstonecraft, so I feel funny saying she’s forgotten. She’s not a forgotten figure, she’s a forgotten philosopher. In philosophy, she’s rarely discussed… I think that happened in part because of William Godwin, her husband and the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, whom she died while giving birth to. After her death, he wrote these memoirs about her… I think the reason that he didn’t see her [as a philosopher] was because she was a woman. That has always stuck with me: what is it about a woman doing philosophy that is so difficult to appreciate?

You also include a brief timeline of other female philosophers and their contributions to the field–who’s your favorite out of all of them? Is it Masham?

How can I choose between my babies? It’s interesting that you say Damaris Masham is my favorite, because other people who’ve read the book have said that, too. She was the first one I came across, but I didn’t love her as much [as Astell] for a while. Astell is so easy to love as a modern feminist in a lot of ways—but not always, because of her insistence that women shouldn’t get divorced and the current of classism and racism in her work.

There’s a chapter, “Bedtime Stories,” where I’m imagining being a girl and telling myself these stories about women in history. There’s one woman, Christine de Pizan, who wrote this book, The Book of the City of Ladies, that’s almost like autofiction, it’s so strikingly modern. It’s this amazing book written in 1405!

Do you think philosophers discriminated against women because they were working within the patriarchy, or do you think the patriarchy was informed by these early philosophers’ ideas about women?

They mutually benefit one another. Take the ideas of some of the earliest philosophers, like Aristotle, for example, who says that women are degenerate and physically and intellectually inferior to men. You could say that women are striving enough or present enough in these circles, which validates that. But somebody has to be providing the material for Aristotle to live a leisurely life thinking about these things: he had a wife, he had mistresses, he [enslaved people]. It starts to create this picture in which women have been in this subservient role for these philosophers, and they show up in their texts as incompetent and subordinate, which is codified. You could read these texts and say, why do I treat women this way? Because these great minds are [telling me to]. I see it as this vicious circle.

Early philosophers thought that women were inferior, while more modern ones thought we were naturally more curious than men and needed to be educated so as not to be distracted from our natural roles as wives and mothers. This dichotomy is one you struggle with, deferring to men both in your personal life and in the male-dominated field of philosophy. How does it relate to your life now and also culture more broadly?

I’ve been so surprised by the message that I got from spending so much time with these four women who lived very different lives from one another. They all ultimately believed that we are responsible for each other. Yes, women should be free, but we should also care for one another. When I think about who I am today and becoming my own person, I do feel that community matters, and care for others is so crucial to individual well-being and a sense of well-being in the world. I’ve been so surprised by the message that I got from all four of these women who lived such different lives–it was a consistent idea.

The short answer is that there isn’t one way to think like a woman. I often use the phrase to describe a phenomenon of thought that is forced upon me or a woman by patriarchy. I’m very skeptical about any essentialism of what it means to think like a woman, and there’s historical reasoning for that, too, given that any time there have been claims about how it is that women think, it’s subordinate to men and presented as inevitable, biological and natural. That data is biased. My title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I think it would be great to be liberated from that.

How to Think Like a Woman is out now through Grove Press.

Author Regan Penaluna Explains How to Think Like a Woman