America’s First Academic Women Philosophers, 1880-1920

Submitted to SAAP for consideration as a Traditional Paper, March 2007 annual meeting



The lack of previous historical research on women philosophers has led to their exclusion from the canon.  Yet a look at the significance and influence of several key figures in American philosophy demonstrates that women should indeed be included in histories of philosophy and introductory readers and anthologies.  This paper discusses the contributions of three important American women idealists:  Mary Whiton Calkins, Ellen Bliss Talbot, and Marietta Kies, and evaluates their significance and influence as thinkers.



America’s First Academic Women Philosophers, 1880-1920

Women philosophers have been receiving more attention in the past two decades, particularly those who, like Jane Addams, were writing and theorizing after the twentieth century when women began to gain more political and economic power.  The very first women in academic philosophy, however -- those who earned the Ph.D. between 1880 and 1900 -- have largely been forgotten.  Yet several of these early academic women were successful professors and scholars, and their work sheds light on the development of philosophy in America.  This paper looks at three of the most successful academic women philosophers and gives a synopsis of the contributions of each.

Academe was more open to women at the turn of the last centuries than one would think.  Two hundred and seven women were awarded doctoral degrees in all fields prior to 1900 – or just over seven percent of the total number of doctoral degrees awarded in this period.  Twenty of these women completed doctoral degrees in philosophy at ten different institutions:  Cornell, Michigan,Yale, Harvard/Radcliffe, Smith, Boston University, Syracuse University, University of Pennsylvania, Wooster College, and Chicago.  Fourteen of the twenty held full-time college-level teaching positions for ten years or more, half of them making a career at one institution.  Eight of them were founding members of the American Philosophical Association, an invitation-only organization at the time (1).

Three of these women were the most successful in academic philosophy by today's standards: Mary Whiton Calkins (Harvard, 1894), Ellen Bliss Talbot (Cornell, 1898), and Marietta Kies (Michigan, 1891).  Interestingly, they were all working in the idealist tradition as it developed at the turn of the last two centuries in America and made important contributions to that tradition which deserve recognition today (2).


Mary Whiton Calkins

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863-1930) was an intellectual force to be reckoned with – male or female.  She studied at Harvard, but was not granted her degree, because of the institution’s policy against conferring degrees to women at the time.  In spite of this, she excelled as a professional academic philosopher.  She spent her career at Wellesley (1887-1929), teaching philosophy and helping to establish psychology as a separate academic field.  She was also a charter member of the American Philosophical Association and its first woman president (1918-19), as well as the first female president of the American Psychological Association (1905-06).  The most prolific female philosopher in her era, she published ten books, forty articles, and nearly twenty book reviews.  Her articles are where her most interesting and original ideas appear, and in them Calkins discusses her views as a personal idealist. 

            In Calkins's view, the basic tenets of personal idealism are:  a) that the world is knowable as experienced; there is no transcendent, unattainable truth that stands outside of human experience; b) that entities in the known world are primarily persons, or selves, which have a level of consciousness; c) that ultimate reality (God) is the absolute expression of personhood/selfhood and therefore is an entity that human beings (and other selves) can enter into a relationship with.  Most forms of personal idealism are comfortable with a process view of reality as well, and this is the case with Calkins as an idealist.  She sees process/activity in human beings, other entities in the world, and God as well. 

             For Calkins, to say that the world is knowable as experienced is not the same as to say that the world is primarily a collection of mental phenomena, or “ideas” in the parlance of early modern philosophy.  Instead, it is to use science as essentially an extension of human experience.  Modern science can tell us a great deal more about the objects in our world than ever before.  What science can't tell us, and/or what we can't experience directly, is unknowable.  As Calkins puts it, idealists do not assume that both "sense qualities" and the relations of an object to the subject encountering it are the same.  Many of the qualities of my desk -- its molecular structure, for example -- may be beyond my immediate experience, but I still know it as a real object, the desk that I write on each day.  For me, it is both an object of my experience and, once a scientist has provided me with the relevant data, a thing with this particular molecular structure.  I cannot know more about it than this -- that it has certain real properties that science can inform me of, and that it serves me well as a level, sturdy surface where my pens, papers, books, and computer reside. 

            Calkins takes special care to outline the nature and qualities of the Self, because this concept is, of course, central to her philosophy as a personalist.  In her view, the Self is . . .

1        a reality that is based on conscious experience

2        an entity that persists through time

3        a unique individual

4        a relational entity

The personal idealist's view of the Self differs from the early modern concept of the soul in a slight but significant way.  For the idealist, the Self is relational, but for the early modern thinker, the soul was a separate, even autonomous, entity.  The relational nature of the Self in personal idealism is central to its success as a philosophical system, specifically because the world coheres in and through the relations of selves to other selves.  If each Self were separate and independent, unable to relate to other selves, there would be no activity, no continuity in the world, but instead stasis.  For Calkins and other idealists, the world is a dynamic force, not a static entity.  Much like the process thinkers who were developing a cosmology alongside Calkins in the early decades of the twentieth century, subjectivity presupposes relationality.  This relationality is what also makes it possible for human beings to have an intuition of the divine, of the Absolute Self, as Calkins would put it, which is a dynamic and relational being.

            One of the few early academic women whose papers have been archived, Calkins corresponded with Dewey, James, and Royce.  Calkins also knew Ellen Bliss Talbot, though it is unclear if they were friends or simply professional acquaintances.  Talbot reviewed two of Calkins’s works in The Philosophical Review, Der Doppelte Standpunkt in der Psychologie and The Persistent Problems of Philosophy.  Both reviews were favorable overall, but in the second, Talbot charged that Calkins’s discussion of the self should be enhanced by comparing it more carefully with the early modern understanding of the self or the soul.  In response, Calkins wrote “Self and Soul” which appeared in a subsequent issue of the Review

Calkins is important historically, simply because she was one of the first and most influential academic women philosophers in America.  But she is no less important philosophically.  With her modern approach to philosophical discussion, she went far beyond the sometimes vague and idealized idealism of William Torrey Harris and his colleagues.  She was careful to define her terms, to argue her points clearly, and to map out the philosophical terrain that personal idealism was to deal with – primarily with the Self, the relation of this Self with other selves, and God or Absolute Self.  She, Talbot, and Kies were each able to go beyond simply reiterating the ideas of the German idealists they had studied, which is what we too often see in Harris and other early idealists.  Instead we see them coming up with independent ideas, which might show the influence of Kant, Fichte, or Hegel, but which go far enough beyond them to be truly original.  Calkins is on par with Royce as a representative of a maturing idealism in America, and the recent attention she has been getting is well deserved.


Ellen Bliss Talbot

Ellen Bliss Talbot (1867-1968) was one of five women to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell in the nineteenth century.  Interestingly, all of these women were successful academically:  May Preston Slossen (1880) taught at Hastings College in Nebraska (1880-91); Eliza Ritchie (1889) taught at Wellesley (1890-99); Ellen Bliss Talbot (1898) taught at Mt. Holyoke (1898-1932); Grace Neal Dolson (1899) taught at Wells College (1901-11) and at Smith (1911-15); and Vida Moore (1900) taught at Mt. Holyoke (1893-97) and Elmira College (1901-15). 

Talbot was Cornell’s most accomplished philosophy doctoral student, publishing three books, over a dozen articles, and nearly thirty book reviews.  Her books were not widely reviewed, but she did receive favorable recognition for Fundamental Principles of Fichte’s Philosophy in The Philosophical Review and The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods.  W.H. Sheldon of Princeton said that “under the category of Fichtestudien, the book deserves the highest praise, not only for careful scholarship, but also for clearness and articulation of argumentation”(3).  She graduated from Ohio State University in 1890, then taught in Ohio and New York high schools before and just after earning the doctorate at Cornell.  At Cornell, she was a Sage Scholar and then a Sage Fellow (1895-97; 97-98), where she benefited from the egalitarian approach to education of James Creighton and his colleagues.  Three years after completing her degree, she studied with John Dewey as a post-doctoral student in Chicago (summer 1901).  Like many academics in her era, she also did post-doctoral work in Germany, studying in Berlin (fall 1904) and Heidelberg (spring 1905).  When she returned, she became chair of the department of philosophy and psychology at Mt. Holyoke where she’d begun teaching in 1900.  She remained at Mt. Holyoke until she retired in 1936.  Active professionally all her life, she was a charter member of the American Philosophical Association.

Talbot was a Fichte scholar, and each of her three books discusses his ideas and their significance.  She saw in Fichte a way to work out the impasse that Kant led us to regarding the nature of human consciousness and the known world.  In his early work, she says, he was primarily concerned with the self or the Ego, which he considered the ultimate organizing principle in the world.  But as his thought developed, he recognized that the Ego was too singular, too individualistic to serve as this organizing principle.  It failed to unify experience, just as Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception failed to fully explain how the gulf between subject and object could be closed.  So Fichte began using terms like “knowing” or “absolute knowing” to refer to the Ego, and made it secondary to a greater reality, which he called the Absolute. 

Talbot goes on to explain that in his later work Fichte held that the Ego does indeed have two forms:  as pure subject (form alone) and as the unity of subject and object (form and matter together).  He saw the subjective form as primary and the unified form as secondary in both priority and status, but this dual nature of Ego cannot be denied; it is by nature a unified duality, if I may put that term on Talbot’s page.  The Absolute, now Fichte’s highest principle according to Talbot, subsumes this unified duality, this Ego, which has its existence in opposition, and thus in relation to another.  The true Absolute, then, is not an object separate and distinct from ourselves, but that in which and through which we have our being.  We must think of it, “not as being, set over against knowing [or Ego], but as ‘the living Wir in sich,’ a principle which lives in us and manifests itself through us"(4).  Talbot not only explains but defends Fichte’s theory, because in her view it does a better job than rival theories to explain how subject and object can be both unified with each other and in opposition to each other. 

Roughly one-third of Talbot’s work consisted of original discussions of philosophical problems, with considerations of human freedom and moral value dominating her interests.  Fichte’s influence is evident here, but not overwhelming; her own philosophy is more a general idealism than it is an expression of the thoughts of any one idealist.  Her four longest and most substantive articles, “Humanism and Freedom,” “Individuality and Freedom,” and “The Time-Process and the Value of Human Life” [parts I and II], explore how values, experience, and human freedom intersect with and/or reinforce each other to make moral judgments not only possible, but substantive and meaningful. 

In the free will/determinism debate – a discussion that is of great concern to her – Talbot comes down on the side of determinism, but for reasons that end up sounding surprisingly existentialist.  In Talbot’s view, in order to live a truly moral life, human beings must make choices.  Any choice we make will necessarily be made based on the particularity of a given individual and, in some sense, could not be otherwise.  The influence of family, social relationships, personal history, and specific circumstances beyond our control will determine the choices we make.  But this is not to say that our choices are void of meaning – or even of value -- to any one of us as an individual.  Nor can they be predicted by others, because every moment, every thought and its relation to the will, and every situation are unique to each of us.  Further, the experience and personality of each individual are also unique; we ourselves can’t predict how we would act in a given situation, so how could others do so?  Each choice we make is an expression of the self, demonstrating the continuity of the character of any one of us, because personal decisions are forms of judgment, and judgment requires the use of both intellect and will.  When we face even a simple choice – whether to go to a movie to relax or to stay at home to finish a paper, for instance – we are making a judgment.  For Talbot, this and more complex judgments require the individual involved to use the intellect to assess not only the plusses and minuses of engaging in a certain act, but also the will to act in that way.  When we decide to go to the movies instead of writing, what we are doing is taking an inventory of our personal nature, history, and circumstances in such a way as to determine that recreation is more important at the moment than work.  If a person has a generally relaxed and fun-loving nature, or is simply a notorious procrastinator, family and friends won’t be surprised at this decision.  If a person has an intense, hard-working approach to life, or a deadline looming, family and friends will be in shock that s/he is taking a couple of hours out for R & R.  But for Talbot, the moral philosophical backdrop is the same:  The person knows him/herself intimately and makes the decision based on this intimate – and perhaps subconscious – knowledge of what the best act is, for that moment in time at least.  S/he could not have decided otherwise, because her/his personal history and will to act could not have brought him/her to anything other than that point in place and time. 

The problem with Talbot’s view is that it can never explain the origin of personal identity.  At some point in time, some decision had to have been an original and not-pre-determined, honest to God choice.  Otherwise, uniqueness is an abstract concept that has no place in her discussion:  If we do not make genuinely novel choices, in what sense can we be called unique?  But my main objective here is not to critique Talbot’s ideas, but simply to introduce them.  She is an original thinker who both advanced the discussion of German idealism in America and helped to develop a home-grown brand of idealism.  In doing so, she makes an effort to make Fichte’s thought answer to some specifically American challenges, such as those of the pragmatists of her day.  She determines that Fichte is indeed compatible with pragmatism, looked at in a certain way.  He believed that thought is valuable only if it is thought for a purpose.  If not engaged with the will and with future aims, thought is empty and lacking in value.  In this sense, Fichte’s ideas mesh well with pragmatism, for which thought must serve practical purposes. 

Throughout Talbot’s work she cites not only Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling, each of whom had been discussed by the first American idealists in St. Louis since the 1860s, but also her American contemporaries who were rising in influence:  Josiah Royce, Arthur K. Rogers, William James, and Ralph Barton Perry among them.  She reviewed Calkins’s book, The Persistent Problems of Philosophy, a review that prompted a response from Calkins in The Philosophical Review (5) In short, Talbot was a significant philosophical thinker whose influence was felt in her time, and whose prominence among women thinkers makes her a fit subject for further study.  Those who read her will not find feminist ideas in any of her works, but she was committed to many of the social and political causes her feminist contemporaries were – women’s rights and the peace movement, in particular (6).  Only archival research will tell us more about her relationships with feminists, other women philosophers, and/or her male contemporaries.  But at this point, there is no evidence that any of the letters or unpublished papers that she wrote in her 100-year-long life have been saved.


Marietta Kies

Michigan's most academically successful female Ph.D. was Marietta Kies (1853-99).  She held full-time faculty positions at Colorado College (1882-85), Mt. Holyoke College (1885-91), Mills College (1891-92), and Butler College (1896-99).  She also studied in both Leipzig and Zurich (1892-93), quite possibly meeting another woman Ph.D. and the future president of Rockford College, Julia Gulliver (Smith, 1888) who was in Leipzig studying under Wundt the same year.  Kies published just three books, the first of which was an edited volume.  But the second two works advance a theory of altruism that is not only original, but innovative, The Ethical Principle and its Application in State Relations (1892) and Institutional Ethics (1894).  Both books were reviewed favorably enough in The Philosophical Review, though in my view both reviewers misidentified the emphases in Kies’s theory (7).  Her theory of altruism anticipated the feminist 'ethic of care' that grew out of Carol Gilligan's theory of moral development in the 1980s, and it is still relevant to both feminism and political theory today.

Kies began studying with William Torrey Harris as early as the summer of 1882 at his Concord School of Philosophy and Literature.  Harris was extremely supportive of women's rights to higher education, equal employment, and political participation; he not only wrote and lectured on these subjects but was also a member of voting rights and equal rights organizations for many years.  His egalitarianism extended to his mentorship of Kies and other women who studied at the School.  Ultimately, Kies published her first book as a result of her study with Harris at Concord, An Introduction to the Study of Philosophy (1889), a compilation of his essays and lectures.  By then, she had decided to study philosophy at the graduate level and went to the University of Michigan on Harris’s recommendation.

At Michigan, Kies studied under John Dewey, the idealist George Sylvester Morris, and a political scientist with progressive leanings, Henry Carter Adams.  Dewey and Morris in particular were known for their egalitarian attitudes on a campus that was otherwise hostile to women, according to contemporary reports.  Under their guidance, and quite likely also in consultation with Harris whose influence is apparent, she developed a theory of altruism, one that anticipated the feminist ‘ethic of care’ that would develop nearly a century later. 

In her theory of altruism, Kies makes a distinction between the traditional ethic of Justice, which comes from political life, and the more empathic ethic of Grace, which grows out of religious life.  Justice is the familiar concept of equal protection under law.  Its main emphasis is on ensuring individual rights and advancing self-interest for each autonomous individual while preventing harm to others.  And in this sense, it is primarily egoistic.  Grace is a religious principle, which focuses on care, compassion, and self-sacrifice when necessary in order to ensure the well-being of all members of society.  It is primarily altruistic.  Justice provides a thin layer of protection for individuals in a society of relative equals.  Grace provides a deeper level of support for both individuals and groups, particularly for the poor.  Kies makes a further and very important distinction between her concept of Grace and what some might mistake for instances of Grace in public life.  This is what Hegel called public authority: the provision of police protection, water and sewer systems, roads and transportation services, and the like.  While it is true that all members of society benefit from these services, it is also true that it is in the self-interest of each of us to consolidate efforts in order to provide these services efficiently and to share the expense of these services.  We agree to let the government impose codes, regulations, and taxes on each of us individually, only because it is in the self-interest of each of us to have these goods and services delivered, rather than to fend for ourselves.  In this sense, public authority advances the ideals of Justice in aggregate.  It ensures law and order, protects public health, and advances the free flow of persons, property, and ideas for society as a whole, but only because self-interested individuals demand and require this from their government. 

Kies expects more from Grace.  Grace isn’t interested in simply protecting the interests of individuals, either separately or in aggregate.  While Justice and the rights it protects are essential in a modern democracy, they do not meet the needs of the whole society and therefore fall short of meeting Kies's standard.  Grace is needed as a complement to balance interests and ensure the well-being of the poor or others who lack political power.  She has in mind here the many laws being advocated by the Progressives and Socialist of her day – anti-trust provisions, limited workday laws, child labor restrictions, and the like.  Yet she also recognized that these popular movements could also go too far, so tried to establish her ideal of grace as achieving “true Socialism” in public life.  True socialism recognizes the needs of the poor and/or groups of the disenfranchised, but does not ignore individual rights.  It is just as wrong to completely squelch the freedom of an industrial magnate as it is to let that magnate exploit workers.  Justice and Grace truly do need to complement each other, to be in a constant and ongoing dialogue, in order for each to function properly and maintain a balance in society.  If we need to err, we should err on the side of protecting the poor – but if we make both justice and grace accountable to each other, we shouldn’t have to err at all.  Public policy can and should be able to maintain equilibrium.    

What did Kies contribute to American political and legal philosophy?  As a member of the neo-Hegelian movement in philosophy and the socialist/progressive movements in political thought, a great deal.  A younger member of the idealist movement led by Harris, Kies was emerging as a fresh voice whose interpretation of Hegel was moving idealist thought in a new direction.  Most of Harris's contemporaries often paraphrased Hegel's ideas or applied them to their pedagogical or social theories.  Kies had begun to synthesize Hegel's ideas into her own thought -- to draw on Hegel, but not simply to adopt his views.  Based on her understanding of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, the only rational way for the state to address the problem of poverty is to enact policies that essentially enforce altruism.  This means that a government must establish social welfare programs, institute a graduated income tax, prohibit monopolies, and so on.  Hegel stopped short of advocating welfare, because he feared that it would make "the rabble" (as the translation was rendered in Kies's day) lazy, ungrateful, and dependent on assistance.  In contrast, Kies saw social welfare programs as essential in an affluent society, as the only reasonable alternative for the [Hegelian] rational state.

While Kies was committed to seeing altruism play a role in public life, overall hers was a moderate voice.  And this is a significant contribution to the discussion when we consider the tone and nature of public debates about wealth distribution and social welfare in the past century.  Throughout her two works on the subject, The Ethical Principle and Institutional Ethics, she is very careful to say that she does not advocate simply crushing corporate power or turning the economic hierarchy on its head.  Change only for the sake of change generally just allows new hands to wield the power, and Kies knew this.  In fact, she makes a distinction between political socialism as it was developing in her day and "true socialism."  In "true socialism," the individuals within a society agree to a degree of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole.  She is also careful to say that she doesn't mean total and complete self-sacrifice, but simply agreeing to surrender some comforts and conveniences for the sake of others.  Some good examples are paying taxes that are used for public schools or job training programs; agreeing to a graduated income tax or a tax credit for childcare or elder care; supporting (or at least not actively undermining) housing subsidies and food programs for low-income single parents.  In the social democracies of northern Europe, a high tax base with a correspondingly high level of social services is the norm.  This is the sort of ideal I believe Kies was aiming for when she advanced her theory just over 100 years ago.  Northern Europe does have its well-to-do classes, but it does not have the extreme poverty that we see in both America's urban centers and its rural outposts.  We would not see such poverty in the altruistic society that Kies envisioned.



Women and their impact on philosophy have been far too absent from philosophical discussion for far too long.  As I hope this paper has shown, their exclusion from the canon has been unjustified.  All three of the women discussed above were both significant and influential in the development of American thought.  Mary Whiton Calkins contributes a good deal to idealist thought, with her infusion of personality into the discussion of the Absolute.  Her ideas provide a chance for further dialogue with other personalists, idealists, and process thinkers that could contribute to the future development of these schools of thought in America.  As the chair of Wellesley philosophy department, the first woman president of both APAs, and simply a well-known and successful scholar in her field, clearly she was influential enough to merit recognition in future histories of philosophy.  Ellen Bliss Talbot’s work provides a context for both Fichte studies and a more general idealism.  Her understanding of human will and action provides insight into how determinism can cohere with a more existential stance on human freedom.  As the chair of philosophy at Mt. Holyoke, another prestigious women’s college, a founding member of the APA, and another of philosophy’s more prominent women in the early decades of the nineteenth century, she too demonstrates influence adequate to include her in future discussions of the history of our discipline.  Finally, Marietta Kies began developing a significant and new approach to the discussion of altruism, which must not be overlooked, particularly because it fits so well with recent ‘ethic of care’ theory and improves upon it in many ways.  As the only of these three women to have taught at co-educational institutions, Kies broke barriers to women’s achievement in higher education.  Yet at the same time, she did not reach quite the level of prominence among female colleagues that she might have had she remained at a women’s institution.  Nevertheless, her work was getting attention among her colleagues at the time of her death in 1899, demonstrating an emerging influence even prior to women’s increasing involvement in the profession early in the twentieth century.   As a group, the three provide an overview of how idealist thought developed in America – from Kies’s application of it in political thought, to Talbot’s understanding of human will, to Calkins’s expression of metaphysics.  They also provide philosophical concepts and systems of thought that are still useful today. 



(1) Seven women who were charter members of the American Philosophical Association were also among the first twenty to earn the Ph.D. in philosophy:  Mary Whiton Calkins (Harvard, 1894), Anna Alice Cutler (Yale, 1896), Grace Neal Dolson (Cornell, 1899), Clara Hitchcock (Yale, 1900), Christine Ladd-Franklin (Johns Hopkins, 1882), Vida Moore (Cornell, 1900), and Ellen Bliss Talbot (Cornell, 1898).  The eighth woman earned a Ph.D. in psychology:  Margaret Floy Washburn (Cornell, 1894).

(2) Two other highly successful women, Christine Ladd-Franklin and Amy Elizabeth Tanner, earned degrees in philosophy, but did as much or more work in psychology throughout their careers.  Ladd-Franklin is still recognized today for her work on color theory; she deserves recognition as well for her work in logic.  Tanner worked alongside the psychologist G.S. Hall at Clark University, investigating spiritualism as a mental/psychological phenomenon.  It was tempting to include both of them in this discussion, but the coherence of the works of Calkins, Talbot, and Kies as women in the early American idealist movement took precedence.

(3) Philosophical Review, 4:17:471-473 (August 1907).

(4) “The Two Periods of Fichte’s Philosophy,” Mind, 10:39:346 (July 1901).

(5) Talbot’s review of Calkins’s book appeared in Philosophical Review, 17:1:75-84 (Jan 1908); Calkins’s response appeared in Philosophical Review, 17:3:272-280 (May 1908).

(6) In answer to a question about interests outside of teaching on a 1936 exit survey, Talbot wrote:  “Work of various peace societies, organizations for the protection of civil liberties, and organizations for the securing of social justice.”  Ellen Bliss Talbot’s biographical data file, Mt. Holyoke College archives. 

(7) Charles Cook made comments about Kies’s metaphysics that went beyond the purview of her social/political philosophy in The Ethical Principle.  See Philosophical Review, 1:6:673-675 (November 1892).  W. B. Elkin understood Kies’s Grace as secondary to Justice, but she saw the two as equal and complementary.  See Philosophical Review, 4:4:459-460 (July 1895).