February 22, 2005


Feminist Fatale: Where are the great women thinkers? Thinking so much about women has shrunk their minds. (Charlotte Allen, February 13, 2005, LA Times)

When Susan Sontag died recently, she was mourned as America's leading female intellectual. So the question naturally arose: Is there anyone to take her place? If you can't come up with many names, you're in good company. The list is short.

This wasn't always the case. Ironically, during that part of the 20th century when overt discrimination barred many women from advanced educations, lucrative fellowships and prized teaching and editorial positions preparatory for the world of public letters, there were many brilliant, highly articulate female writers who combined a rigorous mind with a willingness to engage broad political, social and literary issues for an audience beyond academia. We still read their books (or at least their epigrams), and we remember their names: Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil, Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, Hannah Arendt and Sontag, to name several.

Some of these women possessed glittering scholarly credentials. But most did not, because a public intellectual is more than simply an intellectual. Unlike the academic version who speaks mostly to fellow scholars, public intellectuals pitch their ideas to the general reading public — and their writings appear in newspapers, magazines and books. Garry Wills is a public intellectual; Berkeley's jargon-laden postmodern theorist Judith Butler is not.

Public intellectuals also explore the implications of ideas, which distinguishes them from sharply observant journalists. When Sontag wrote about camp — or Tom Wolfe about customized cars as kinetic sculpture — they joined writing about popular culture with the long tradition of writing about high culture.

The definition is narrow enough to exclude the most significant female intellectual of the 20th century, but not Mary Ann Glendon, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Gertrude Himmelfarb. Of course, none of them count, they're too conservative to be considered intellectuals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2005 5:19 PM

Dorothy Rabinowitz, Caitlin Flanigan, Rebecca Goldstein. I just can't think of any liberals:-)

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 22, 2005 5:37 PM

They are not regarded as authentic women either.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 22, 2005 5:46 PM

How about Condi Rice? She's smarter than almost anyone I can think of in D.C.

Posted by: PeterV at February 22, 2005 7:12 PM

Well, if you believe the e-mails that are flying around the blogosphere these days, Susan Estrich is now the smartest woman in America.

She just has to be, for me to sympathize with Michael Kinsley.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 23, 2005 11:49 AM

Why would any intelligent woman want to classify herself as "an intellectual"?...

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 24, 2005 3:34 AM