In 1970, the Italian feminist Carla Lonzi published her now-classic polemic urging women to “spit on Hegel”. Disregarding her advice, many subsequent feminist theorists and philosophers have engaged substantially with Hegel's thought, and a wide variety of feminist readings of Hegel have sprung up. The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of these different feminist criticisms and interpretations of Hegel. In introducing these various interpretations, I will show how they reflect a range of divergent feminist approaches to the history of philosophy as a whole. My aim is not only to describe but also to evaluate these approaches, with respect to their capacity to generate insightful and productive readings of Hegel's philosophy. I shall argue that what I will call the “essentialist” feminist approach to Hegel is the most fruitful, doing most to illuminate the contours of his thought and to open up new and creative ways of reading his works.
To anticipate, in surveying the various feminist interpretations of Hegel, I will classify them as reflecting four different types of feminist approach to the history of philosophy. The first, “extensionist” approach draws upon the history of philosophy for conceptual resources to understand and explain women's social situation. The second approach is more critical, tracing the pervasiveness of “masculinist” assumptions and biases in the history of philosophy. To call views “masculinist” is to say that they uphold systematic and hierarchical contrasts between masculinity and femininity, contrasts which need not be explicit but may be sustained through contrasts between other ostensibly neutral concepts which actually have tacit gender connotations. This critical approach generates an overwhelmingly negative picture of the philosophical tradition. The third, “essentialist” approach complicates this picture, recovering and highlighting the strands within historical texts which revalorise concepts or items that are given feminine connotations. These often overlooked strands oppose the dominant masculinist tendencies in texts by assigning equal importance and value to “symbolically feminine” concepts. However, proponents of the fourth, “deconstructive” approach object that essentialist readings of philosophical texts accept and reinforce patterns of gender symbolism which feminists ought to challenge. Deconstructive feminists seek to expose and exacerbate the instability within these patterns of gender symbolism by tracing how philosophical texts continuously undermine the gender contrasts present within them.