Here is a story. I have sat on this for years. It makes me reflect on how important it is to be careful about what feminism involves. Many years ago I travelled a long way to take up a new job in a philosophy department. I had taught feminist philosophy in my home country for many years. But the head of department in my new job said I could do this no longer. There was someone appointed at the same time as me to teach feminist philosophy from a European perspective and we thought it would be a great course if I added my analytic philosophy perspective. But, said our boss, it would ‘look bad for him on the faculty if it looked like he had two feminists in his department.’ My near-decade of experience drawing up a course from scratch was confined to my bookshelves. A year later, another young woman joined, in her first post, her PhD not even yet submitted, and for reasons I never discovered, she was allowed to teach more or less the exact same course I would have taught. I suspect one thing, that despite being female, she represented that alluring, mythical creature that philosophers the world over should be lashing themselves to the mast to avoid: the Bright Young Thing.
So there were three women in the department, and each overtly feminist. But there was a difference. A decade older than the others, I was subject to a principle of exclusion. Only one colleague put this explicitly. As far as she was concerned, feminism was about promoting the interests of YOUNG women, who’d been discriminated against. Being in my thirties, I was no longer young, on this measure, and didn’t count. I never could work out how come two newly qualified young women who had sat in classes and been taught feminism could claim to be discriminated against relative to one who had pushed and shoved to create a course in feminism, with much support but also with some brutish opposition, and certainly with few resources. But there you go. The brand of feminism did not seem to be about justification so much as simple power politics – putting young women forward, regardless. My feminist philosophy course material continued to languish unused.
I found out exactly how committed my colleagues were to promoting young women in philosophy. The next year I went on maternity leave. While I was away, two significant things happened. One, I came back to find that my two colleagues had organised an invitation-only conference to promote women philosophers. This was in the days before internet, and I had no idea it was on. Anyone could attend, but only invited women could speak. I was not invited. The conference took place a few days after my return from maternity leave. Yes, that’s right, you heard it, this was arranged while I was on maternity leave. You know, I was busy doing that thing that women do that some feminists think has been an obstacle to female progress.
And, what’s more, for some inexplicable reason, the conference was on the topic of my doctorate. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would have been the best qualified woman in the whole geographical area to talk at that conference. I attended one day but could not bring myself to attend the second. I was humiliated and confused.
Secondly, I found that during my leave, a permanent job had been advertised. One of the women was on a permanent job, but I and one of the others were on fixed term contracts. The areas of speciality in the advertised post exactly coincided with the areas of speciality of this other woman, but nonetheless were sufficiently close to mine that I considered applying. That is, until the head of department sidled up to me and warned me not to, because ‘the department’ was hoping that the other woman would get it. (Uh? I was a member of ‘the department’ and I certainly wasn’t hoping she’d get it. I was hoping I’d get it.) I spoke to several people who all said they’d been told the same. I wanted to complain to equal ops, but no one would support me. When the woman duly got the job, several people who’d previously been friendly stopped speaking to me – being the only one who’d voiced open disagreement with the biased appointment process. But if feminism is about promoting women regardless – if it’s just a power struggle – who is to say that these actions were not perfectly feminist? I for one was so demoralised after all this, together with other problems with the department, that I resigned. I could not bear to go into work again. Years later I still have not get my career back on track. A single parent, my children have felt this too having spent several years of their childhoods living below the poverty line. I mention this point only to bring home the realities of this. We are not just talking about the chance to do some high-brow intellectual activity. We are talking about tangible discrimination, tangible loss of opportunity, real unhappiness at work. There are those who of course have pointed out that feminism should take account of differences between women. But a feminism that then grabs the high ground to promote one woman over another – is it worthy of the name?
Archive for the ‘Bad news’ Category
A few years ago, my department experienced severe issues with our climate. Some of the women students’ complaints were typical indications of a climate that ranged from chilly to openly hostile. These complaints should have generated immediate examination of departmental practices and culture. They did not. Some of the complaints were more dramatic and should have immediately triggered formal procedures for investigating actionable harassment. They did not. At the time I was a junior faculty member and, I now realize, woefully naïve. I was appalled at how little we did and that we did not treat the complaints as urgent. My mistake was in acting appalled. Complaining made me an “agitator;” I was told to “stop provoking people.” Eventually, at my instigation, the university became involved and others were also appalled: the ombudsperson said my department “needed a massive lawsuit to change;” legal counsel assessed our legal peril as “monumental;” and the police invoked the Virginia Tech shootings, citing the awful risks of indifference and delay in dealing with the sorts of complaints we had received.
A couple of years have now passed. We have changed some, instituting some formal mechanisms for addressing climate, guarding evaluations from bias, and so forth. However, despite this and the passage of time, I am seemingly indelibly branded as a troublemaker. For while I was right that we needed to act, I violated the department’s unstated norms – I complained, I got angry, I argued, I sought help external to the department. For that, I continue to pay a heavy price. Let me just describe the price I paid this week.
Our chair recently distributed our committee assignments for the year. My service obligations are incredibly light and I have no role in the governance of the department. In this, I am distinguished from all of my colleagues. So I went to my chair and volunteered to serve on two committees: our Graduate Studies Committee and the newish committee formed to address diversity issues. I was not seeking to supplant anyone, but merely to be added; I did not ask to be relieved of other responsibilities, but to increase my service load. Nonetheless, he declined. Our conversation captures what it’s like be the resident trouble-maker.
My chair declined my requests “because the department is in transition” and our present priority is “maintaining the status quo without dramatic changes.” To place me on one of these committees would jeopardize this aim. I then offered to serve under the status quo preserving terms he described. He replied that anything I might say about my intentions in serving would not be predictive of how I’d actually behave. Consequently, he would follow his own “judgment” that I could not be trusted not to “shake things up.”
In some despair, I asked whether, in future, I could serve on either of these committees. He could not say with certainty, but said it unlikely I would serve on the Graduate Studies Committee, for this committee “already has two women.” When I asked why this would matter, he said that “3 women is not necessarily a problem, but we do still need male representation on that committee.” The committee has 5 members, has always been majority male, and, I gather, is meant to stay so.
With respect to the diversity committee, I “might be considered” in future, but my impression is that I must somehow prove I will not “provoke people” to be considered. For the present, I cannot serve. And the present is truly odd. Because the other women faculty are currently unavailable for it, our diversity committee is now all male. I thus asked directly if my department would really rather have an all male diversity committee than allow me to join it. He said that yes, that’s true, and condescendingly added, “you know, diversity is not just about women.”
My chair’s one concession to my requests was to offer that I could be on the one committee I have, since my initial hire, asked not to serve. Before our problems, he always said that no one need serve on a committee where her preference was against it and she would take an alternative. Now, however, my long-standing and heretofore respected preference is taken as intransigence. My sense of the offer was that it amounted to a strategy for making my lack of service my fault: He expected I’d decline and having me do so explicitly was the purpose of offering it.
The trap I occupy is perhaps obvious. After my department’s ordeal, I tried to escape the perception that I am a trouble-maker; I have not “made trouble” in over 2 years. But it is not enough to rehabilitate me from my “errors.” I am not only on the margins, but deliberately kept there. Indeed, my service assignments are all work I must perform alone. And the worst of it is that in even asking to serve alongside others, I again “make trouble,” for in doing so I challenge the desired status quo.
I write this now, after never having written here about the other, much worse events, because I conclude that I am condemned no matter what I do and thus I may as well seek modest relief in speaking.
Dear APA, thanks for the memories…
Thanks to those who set up this blog, who edit the stories, and who contribute their stories. Although some stories are horrifying, the positive ones are heartening.
As a graduate student in the last decade, I attended the Eastern APA meeting before I went on the job market. At one of the group meetings, I ran into a senior colleague from another university. He said, “why don’t we get lunch and talk about your work.” Over lunch he told me he was divorced with adult children. I immediately pointed out that all his children were older than I was, and stated that my boyfriend and I were in the process of moving in together. Steering the conversation back to philosophical topics, I made it absolutely clear that this was a strictly professional lunch and gave him no reason to think otherwise. On the way back to the APA, he said he was going to his hotel room to show me a book on women philosophers which he thought might interest me. I accompanied him to the room, where he proceeded to wrestle me onto the bed saying “don’t worry, it’s okay, this is okay.” Thanks to my martial arts training, I fought him off and fled the room.
I reported this attempted sexual assault to the organizer of the group of which this professor and I were both members. She said she could do nothing as the group had no authority over its members. I reported it to my advisor, who retorted, “Why didn’t you call the police? Now it’s too late to do anything.” The only person who was willing to take any action was Leslie Francis, the APA Ombudsman. She sent the professor a letter warning him that a complaint had been made to the APA. Unfortunately, this did not deter him from attending my talk at the APA the following year. Although I was dismayed to see him, I managed to give the talk and even answered his questions afterward. These are the kinds of hidden obstacles that some women face on the job market.
I want to publicly thank Leslie Francis for her work as APA Ombudsman. It meant a lot to me that she was willing to help.
This is not a story, just a comment. Reading through this collection of horrible experiences is beyond depressing. It saddens and angers me (a male philosophy PhD student) to the point of tears. I cannot help but ask myself who all these unnamed shits are, and whether there isn’t any way of identifying them. By this I don’t mean to suggest that it is just a matter of outlier individuals, rather than a systemic problem having to do with the inherited climate of a whole profession. Certainly these reports inspire me to be vigilant.
About six years ago (when I was only 20) I was admitted into a top tier American P.h.D. program in philosophy. I decided to specialize in Ancient Greek philosophy. Needless to say, the demands were great, and I was very young. Not only did I have far less experience than my peers (most of whom already had Master’s degrees), I, unlike them, had to learn Greek and Latin. The first two years were very difficult. On the verge of burnout I scheduled a meeting with my male advisor. Among other things I said, “I am having a difficult time making philosophy my whole life.” The male advisor became visibly agitated and, without a moment’s thought, responded, “My wife is just like that. She is good at doing many things at once but not good at focusing on any one thing. Perhaps this is the wrong field for you.” At the time it was a well known fact in the department that this man’s wife was a full time mom. Demoralized, I ended up taking six months off of graduate school. When I came back this professor refused to read my work. I am proud to say that, several years later, I have been invited to speak at conferences and have advanced to candidacy. One of my committee members, a well-known male classicist, lauded my dissertation proposal, saying that it was a cut above the rest. My new advisor (a man) has been similarly supportive.
In the spirit of Dan Savage’s recent video campaign to encourage gay youth, I’m writing as a recent tenure-track hire at a selective liberal arts college to say IT GETS BETTER.
Like many of you, I had a mixed-to-hard time in grad school: my confidence was undercut, I didn’t quite fit in, and there were some bad episodes I won’t recount here. Then I finished, and it got better.
I have a job now, with great colleagues: mostly men, all friendly, respectful and supportive. I have a salary now: no more dispiriting cash shortages. My confidence is on the mend. I wish I wasn’t coming from behind in that respect, but hey, what didn’t kill me….
It gets better. Those of us on the other side of grad school are cheering for you and can’t wait to be your departmental colleagues.
I’m a male, but as far as I can tell my graduate education has been rather free of sexism, and usually when it occurs it comes from people outside the department or the occasional graduate student. I am sadden to realize how much of an anomaly my program is. Though I figured it might because of my undergrad experience (which took place in the last decade).
First, my undergraduate department was composed of three male philosophy professors. In the four years I was there, I don’t once remember a work of a female ever being assigned in any class taught by these men. When I brought this up to the attention of the professors, one told me that because he mostly taught ancient and early modern philosophy he shouldn’t be expected to teach women. The other two professors explained they had taught women before I was there, and planned to do so in the future (I guess just not in the four years I was there).
However, these last two professors were single and occasionally hit on or slept with female students. I don’t think they realized how toxic this made the department for *everyone*, but particularly for women. More than one woman experience anxiety about seeing these professors alone in office hours or generally socializing with them. And while none of these women had been hit on by these professors (I’m not sure they ever gave unwanted attention to students), it still created a climate that made it hard for women to interact with them in the same way that men could. I cannot emphasize enough the damage done to the trusts of all students by sleeping with only a few students. I also know the administration was informed, and no obvious actions were taken.
It is quite depressing to read these stories. I’m nearing retirement age, and when I was a graduate student in philosophy (at a top-ranked university), most of the women had stories like the ones I’m reading now. Male professors and TAs often exchanged crude comments about female undergraduates. Male students could go out with professors for beers, and had the benefit of informal conversation. If we did that, we got hit on. When the women students bonded through a discussion group, the men were terribly threatened. I had hoped that things were better now. Don’t get me wrong. I have had a great career in a department that developed into one that is non-sexist and very supportive. But it is depressing to think that today’s female grad students are still going through what we went through in the late 60′s and early 70′s.