Women in Brazilian social thought



Women were crossed by intellectual issues of their social and historical times, offering original and creative interpretations of society

When we ask ourselves about notable works and intellectuals of Brazilian thought, it is common for a multitude of male names to emerge with surprising ease and naturalness. However, it is also possible to ask what intellectual histories of Brazilian thought would emerge if we considered the theoretical and empirical problems, as well as the thematic selections for studies on society carried out by different intellectual women. Would we be presented with objects, themes and methodological options different from those we usually know? If so, how do we explain such differences?

Answering such questions brings us face to face with the often paradoxical dynamics of the intersections between gender, culture and the production of ideas. A dynamic that requires us to recognize the collective dimension of the production of ideas, noting that it is also the result of the social relations that make it possible (Connell, 1997; Heilbron, 2022). In other words, taking social thought as a collective practice and product implies observing that it is composed of varied institutional and intellectual histories, and it is essential to investigate the constitutive plurality of each of them, as well as their mutual implications.

As you can see, at first, the inflection of gender places us before the need to broaden current notions about social, political, cultural and intellectual contexts. As a consequence, we begin to more easily recognize the plurality of voices that make up the same context. The gradual recognition promoted, in large part, by the current movement to rescue works by women in social thought puts pressure on representations and traditions of thought not marked by difference.

In addition to an important and necessary policy of representation in the history of ideas and social thought, we also observe that the mediations between gender and knowledge production can only be understood when articulated with the institutional dynamics of the disciplines, the processes of systematization of knowledge through the selection of themes and research methods and the mechanisms of intellectual consecration that help to configure the various fields and areas of knowledge.

The theoretical-methodological effort to incorporate gender difference as a constitutive element of intellectual and institutional dynamics allows us, then, to advance a policy of presence of intellectual women in social thought, positioning trajectories, ideas and works in their respective contexts, but also how to analyze their legacies, without forgetting to consider the fluctuations that the processes of recognition of women intellectuals undergo over time.

Reflecting on the case of sociology, Patricia Lengermann and Gillian Niebrugge (2019: 20) observe that despite the discipline's varied paths around the world, “all national traditions have excluded women from their canons”, an exclusion that, in the authors' argument , “distorts and reduces the understanding of what Sociology is and what it does”, because “one of the ways in which a discipline or profession socializes its new members is by telling its history as a rereading of the texts, discoveries, thinkers and recognized ideas (…)”.

As Karl Mannheim (1972) points out, description and evaluation efforts in Sociology are quite interconnected, that is, the empirical, theoretical and ideological distinctions and disagreements that allow sociologists to operationalize propositions in different ways also emerge from this continuous process of debate, reinterpretation and controversy. Connell (1997), for example, maintains that sociology would be marked by a “pedagogy of classic texts”, that is, a privileged set of texts whose interpretations and reinterpretations help to characterize the discipline and confer professional identity on its practitioners.

Facing some similar questions, Cynthia Hamlin, Raquel Weiss and Simone Brito (2023) observe that a work does not become classic or canonical just by someone's decree: it is a collective, open and long-term process that “supposes finding a cultural environment willing to read it and be provoked by its words, also guaranteeing transmission to subsequent generations” (p. 45). Following the authors' argument, for the internal value of a work to be recognized, “it must first have a chance to be read” (p. 44).

Having the chance to be read, we add, is fundamental to “attendance policy”, as it allows us to critically evaluate the intellectual and cultural belonging of authors to their contexts, moving us away from shifting terrains marked by the ambiguity of progressive erasures on the one hand and, on the other, constructions a posteriori as exceptional women who, while being ahead of their time, also ended up being outside of it. The mechanisms and processes of construction – cultural, political and intellectual – of female exceptionality share one thing in common: the decantation of disputes, controversies and dialogues that these women engaged in in life.

Erasures tend to intensify as the dynamics of attribution of prestige or institutionalization deepen, causing countless and diverse women to, at best, have their existences recorded as more or less fleeting notes.

Less than solitary heroines, uncomfortable presences in the pile of men's works, or mere supporting companions of prominent intellectuals, we argue that women were crossed by intellectual issues of their social and historical times, offering original and creative interpretations of society, often of a less dual point of view and more open to the heterogeneity of the social world. Therefore, it becomes important to understand which social place and experiences they used to question the past, and how their prognoses help us rethink the present.

The difficulties of positioning and analyzing the work and trajectory of women intellectuals in their respective contexts, understanding their choices and theoretical-methodological options, as well as inserting their arguments into the broader web of debates and disputes that they sought to integrate, ends up decreasing not not only their presence in the history of ideas and social thought, but also makes it difficult to evaluate their legacies.

Returning to the questions with which we opened the text, we point out that any answers we seek require the recognition that the works and trajectories of women intellectuals must form part of the learning process between generations of social scientists – being, for example, taught in disciplines of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, gaining space in academic debates and publications, having their works republished. Such learning is an indispensable condition so that we can not only know and represent voices, but recreate intellectual histories that do not ignore the presence of female authors and their ideas.

*Mariana Chaguri é professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp.

*Bárbara Luisa Pires is a doctoral student in sociology at Unicamp.

originally published Blog of the Virtual Library of Social Thought.


CONNELL, Raewyn W. (1997). Why is classical theory classical? American Journal of Sociology, v. 102, no. 6, p. 1511-1557. Available in: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/231125.

HAMLIN, Cynthia Lins & WEISS, Raquel A. & BRITO, Simone M. For a polyphonic Sociology: introducing female voices into the sociological canon. Sociologies, vol. 24, p. 26-59, 2023. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1590/18070337-125407-PT.

HEILBRON, Johan. (2022). The birth of Sociology. São Paulo: Edusp..

LENGERMANN, Patricia & NIEBRUGGE, Gillian. (2019). Founders of sociology and social theory 1830-1930. Center for Sociological Research.

MANNHEIM, Karl. (1972). Ideology and utopia. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.

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