5 Life-Changing Philosophical Books by Women Writers

The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler

Impressively, these five women writers wrote eighty-two books in total, which also include their works of poetry, plays, and academic essays. Highlighted here are five particularly important philosophical works from their collective bibliography.

These books are intensely practical in their philosophical narratives and also present ideas that are beautiful in a genre-defying kind of way. As Albert Einstein once said: “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” There’s something literary and artistic in a well-crafted idea.

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Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows:
on the philosophy of complex systems

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

Many people are now discussing topics relating to “systems thinking” and the science of complexity. We have women like Donella Meadows to thank for it. Because it’s one thing to have a siloed academic discussion about these topics, and quite another to have them enter mainstream thought.

Complex systems are incredibly important for understanding everything from the evolution of life on our planet, to the social dynamics of cities, to the inner workings of our minds. Meadows’ book, Thinking in Systems, is the perfect primer for those who are just dipping their toes into this subject. You will learn about important and generalizable principles, such as what Meadows calls leverage points:

“Leverage points are…places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in behavior. This idea of leverage points is not unique to systems analysis—it’s embedded in legend: the silver bullet; the trimtab; the miracle cure; the secret passage; the magic password; the single hero who turns the tide of history; the nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles.” 

This book challenges us to see the world in a whole new way and acts as a map for the new territory it describes. Where might we find these leverage points that dramatically transform the systems we live within?


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The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler:
on the philosophy of hierarchies

The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler

There is some baggage that comes with the word “hierarchy.” This is something Riane Eisler, author of ten books and now in her 92nd year of life, must know. But she doesn’t want us to throw out the idea of hierarchy, or indiscriminately hate it.

Her work, The Chalice and the Blade, actually has the potential to bring much more positive aspects of hierarchies to light. And that begins with her distinction between two “flavors” of hierarchies. The first (symbolized with the blade) is the domination or dominator hierarchy which many people think of when they hear this word.

For them, this is the only kind of hierarchy. It is, in that view, a structure of oppression and inequality, fueled by violence, and leading toward the concentration of power. The second variety (the chalice) is what Eisler calls an actualization, growth, or partnership hierarchy.

This is an organizational structure of mutual fulfillment, fueled by love and reciprocity, and leading toward the distribution of power.

“Domination hierarchies are very different from a second type of hierarchy, which I propose be called actualization hierarchies. These are the familiar hierarchies of systems within systems, for examples, of molecules, cells, and organs of the body: a progression toward a higher, more evolved, and more complex level of function. By contrast, as we may see all around us, domination hierarchies characteristically inhibit the actualization of higher functions, not only in the overall social system, but also in the individual human.”


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The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch:
on the philosophy of goodness

The Sovreignty of Good by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch is the author of twenty-six novels, several of which have won prestigious literary awards. In addition to her beloved works of fiction, Murdoch also wrote several impressive books on philosophy.

She was particularly adept as a modern spokesperson for the kind of Platonic realism that was largely out of fashion—making her into an iconoclastic defender of ideas that others were ready to discard. Along with several other influential literary ladies, Murdoch helped breathe new life into moral philosophy and post-God metaphysics. 

Her most powerful and succinct work of philosophy is arguably The Sovereignty of Good. Though it is still dense and challenging, it is also highly readable. In the quote below, Murdoch shares some thoughts on her distinctive brand of naturalistic mysticism.

“There is a place both inside and outside religion for a sort of contemplation of the Good, not just by dedicated experts but by ordinary people: an attention which is not just the planning of particular good actions but an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue… This is the true mysticism which is morality, a kind of undogmatic prayer which is real and important, though perhaps also difficult and easily corrupted.”


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Governing the Commons by Elinor Ostrom:
on the philosophy of economics

Governing the Commons by Eleanor Ostrom

Does economics seem dry? Un-literary? Don’t worry—this isn’t one of those books that tediously demonstrates how change X in supply chain Y has effect Z on the price equilibrium of toothpaste. Rather, Eleanor Ostrom was a philosopher of economics who challenged our deepest assumptions and broadened our world.

Her best-known work, Governing the Commons, explores a neglected third road that runs between two other long-standing economic paradigms. This third route is meant to address one of our thorniest and most persistent problems:

“Hardly a week goes by without a major news story about the threatened destruction of a valuable natural resource … A New York Times article focused on the problem of overfishing in the Georges Bank… Everyone knows that the basic problem is overfishing; however, those concerned cannot agree how to solve the problem … The issue in this case–and many others–is how best to limit the use of natural resources so as to ensure their long-term economic viability …

Some scholarly articles about the ‘tragedy of the commons recommend that ‘the state’ control most natural resources to prevent their destruction; others recommend that privatizing those resources will resolve the problem. What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems.”

Ostrom was recognized with a Nobel Prize for her work—the first woman to ever receive that award in an economic field. Those who open her books will find wisdom that has never been more relevant than it is today. Her lessons can help us shape better and more just economic systems.


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Shakespeare’s Last Plays by Frances Yates:
on the philosophy of Shakespearean magic

Shakespeare's Last Plays by Frances Yates

Writing about Shakespeare is like writing about love or religion or politics. There are so many voices that compete for space that it’s hard to be confident that one is saying anything new at all. Like Iris Murdoch once wrote, one can reach a moment of negation in which “all one’s hard won knowledge and carefully thought-out conclusions suddenly seem to be commonplace.”

So what can be said about Shakespeare that will surprise us? What about connecting him to a tradition of serious occult magic, secretive esoteric societies, a powerful Queen, and the expansion of the British Empire?

Frances Yates argues in Shakespeare’s Last Plays that his later works take a decidedly magical turn. As in, they are not just comedies or dramas to be casually enjoyed. They are also works of philosophical fiction that conveyed just how serious the vocation of magus was during the Renaissance.

Characters like Prospero in The Tempest were modeled after the real magicians of the Elizabethan era–figures like John Dee, who was the Queen’s “in-house” alchemist. 

“It is inevitable and unavoidable in thinking of Prospero to bring in the name of John Dee, the great mathematical magus of whom Shakespeare must have known… Dee permeated the whole Elizabethan age, from the Queen downwards. That he was the inspiration of Shakespeare’s Prospero is very strongly indicated… To treat of magic, or the magical atmosphere, in Shakespeare one ought to include all the plays, for such an atmosphere is certainly present in his earlier periods. In the Last Plays this atmosphere becomes very strong indeed and, moreover, it becomes more clearly associated with the great traditions of Renaissance magic–magic as an intellectual system of the universe…, magic as a moral and reforming movement.”

The “moral magic” hidden in Shakespeare’s last plays was, thankfully, rediscovered by Yates. And we can still turn to her work when seeking lessons about how to transform our world.


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Contributed by Evan Atlas. Evan is a writer and political philosopher from New York’s Hudson Valley. His work confronts our most significant challenges, and develops a theory of change for the 21st century that is unlike anything you’ve heard before. He believes that the future of humanity can be more loving, more free, and more beautiful, but that this future is in danger. Join him at evanatlas.com and on his Substack and help create a more beautiful planet.

5 women philosophers


2 Responses to “5 Life-Changing Philosophical Books by Women Writers”

  1. Although it’s unlikely I’ll get to read these authors, your description of their accomplishments is wonderful to read.

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