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  • Gender in The Gay Science
  • Kathleen Marie Higgins

In his recent novel, When Nietzsche Wept, Irwin Yalom reiterates a common portrait of Nietzsche: a sexist über alles. Much as the quip “Isn’t business ethics a contradiction in terms?” ubiquitously accosts philosophers involved in that subdiscipline, “What’s a nice girl like you doing studying a misogynist like that?” has haunted my career in Nietzsche scholarship. I have never been entirely certain as to whether this ad hominem is more directed at me or at Nietzsche.

A sympathetic but jovial colleague played on this ambiguity by remarking, when he heard my topic for this essay, “Yes, that must be an interesting topic for someone who isn’t even shallow.” Yes, Nietzsche did say that women, far from deep, were not even shallow. But does this remark prove him a sexist? Are we even certain what it means?

I will attempt to complicate our appraisal of Nietzsche’s alleged sexism by focusing on Book Two of The Gay Science. Considering his passages on women in that book, I will suggest along the way reasons why at least some readings of these as sexist should be rejected. More positively, I will show that these passages urge a reassessment of the relationship between men and women that can be seen as a contribution toward feminist theory (if an unwitting one), and that one of Nietzsche’s intended impacts on his male readers is to initiate a radical revolution in their thinking about women.


The term “gender” is used advisedly in this context, for Nietzsche made the distinction, common in feminist discussion, between sex (the biological potential to play one role rather than another in [End Page 227] reproduction) and gender (the contingently assigned roles that a society attaches to those who are biologically male or female). Nietzsche urged his readers to recognize the contingency of gender roles and to consider the desirability of changing them.

We can hardly begin to consider Nietzsche’s suggestions in these regards, however, without confronting the allegation that Nietzsche was a paradigmatic sexist. Although many of the most important names in Western philosophy have been singled out for feminist censure, Nietzsche is often held up as an exemplar of all that is misogynistic, both in the philosophical tradition and within patriarchy generally. Nietzsche is identified as a misogynist for a variety of reasons. He is seen as an essentialist, an opponent of women’s rights, an enthusiast of masculine virtue, and an advocate of male domination. While none of these attributions may be entirely apt, I agree with Nietzsche’s feminist critics that he was, at least sometimes, too willing to rest content with truisms about women and to vent personal rage in the guise of philosophy.

That said, some of the attacks on Nietzsche are both unfair and unfortunate. I am not the only feminist to think so. Maudemarie Clark, Sarah Kofman, Maryanne Bertram, and Deborah Bergoffen have all suggested that certain of Nietzsche’s views offer starting points for feminist theorizing. I will describe some attacks made on Nietzsche by certain other feminists, however, because they represent the popular perspective on Nietzsche (if not that most typical of Nietzsche scholars) and because they indicate certain pitfalls that feminists would do best to avoid.

Carol Diethe’s article “Nietzsche and the Woman Question,” for example, criticizes Nietzsche in a number of unwarranted ways. Consider, for example, her complaint that Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power entails an affirmation of the domination of women.

If we take his key concept, the will to power, we find that it is so gender based that it practically comes to represent the archetypal phallic symbol. Bernstein describes it as a phenomenon which includes the “will to violate” so that the “feeling of power” (Machtgefühl) is generated, yet when he goes on to mention “Nietzsche’s desire to avoid reducing the will to power to sexuality,” he fails to realize that his own critique has relied heavily on the language of rape and the whole area of male dominance of women which stretches behind words such as “violation.” 1

Diethe simply accepts Bernstein’s characterization of Nietzsche’s...

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