In one of my earliest blog posts (written in 1996!), I explained why I’m a female chauvinist. This attitude can be hard to square with my mostly positive perspective on Friedrich Nietzsche, which I explored in my book Songs of Zarathustra. After all, Nietzsche is notorious for spewing vitriol and venom regarding the role of women in modern society. Unfortunately, this is something that his admirers often prefer to sweep under the rug.
One worthy exception is Hedwig Dohm (1831-1919), an early activist for women’s rights in Germany and an eminently clear thinker all on her own. In Dohm’s essay “Nietzsche and Women”, she masterfully rebuts and refutes Nietzsche point by point, using his own words and ideas to expose his ignorance and inconsistencies. As one example, she observes that Nietzsche’s blathering about women belonging in a harem would bring us not one step closer to producing the Übermensch of his dreams.
Yet rather than condemn Nietzsche entirely, Dohm takes inspiration toward a kind of Nietzschean feminism from hints of a more constructive conception in his writings, such as §74 of The Joyful Wisdom: “A deep and powerful alto voice … suddenly raises the curtain upon possibilities that we usually do not believe in. All at once we believe that somewhere in the world there could be women with lofty, heroic, royal souls, capable of and ready for mastery over men, because in them the best of man aside from his sex has become an incarnate ideal.”
Although Dohm does not put it this way, Nietzsche the great classicist should have known that this vision was not merely potential but actual. What of Aspasia of Miletus, advisor to Pericles and teacher to Socrates? What of Hypatia of Alexandria, mathematician, astronomer, and Neoplatonic philosopher? In post-classical times, what of Heloise, who held her own intellectually with Abelard? What of Queen Christina of Sweden, who engaged in philosophical correspondence with the likes of Gassendi and Descartes? What of George Eliot, who completed the first translation into English of Spinoza’s Ethics? And so on.
In the end, Dohm recognizes that Nietzsche was quite simply blind (willfully or not) regarding the highest potential of women, and quotes §226 of Daybreak to good effect: “Even great spirits have only their five-fingers’ breadth of experience; just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”
Dohm’s essay is well worth reading in its entirety, and can be found in Women Philosophers in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Dalia Nassar and Kristin Gjesdal.