There are so many negative stories to be told, but here is a (somewhat?) positive one. Not too long ago I attended a meeting for women in philosophy (women only). We met to discuss various issues that women deal with in the profession and the pursuit of it, and what might be done to mitigate some of the problems that arise. I was so impressed by how supportive the environment was and how much everyone who was there really cared about making things better. It was the first time that I wasn’t met with a dismissive attitude when I mentioned things that had happened to make me (as a woman and as a person) feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. I was actually being listened to, and it was great. Having my concerns taken seriously made it easier to believe that I’m not the one who needs to change or “get over it” when faced with discrimination. Yes, things can be pretty awful sometimes, but on the other hand we can support each other, and we need to do so. I didn’t think it would make such a big impact on me to sit in a room with a group of other women for a few hours, but it did–it was the first time in a while that I felt like my voice was truly important.
Archive for the ‘presence of women’ Category
Here is a positive story, for once. We are two female post-docs, both working in research groups in which we are the only women and in which not all of our colleagues seem to understand what it means to be a woman in academia. When one of us came to be a short term visiting scholar at the other’s institute, we shared an office. It was a real motivation booster. It made us feel less lonely. It helped us to understand some of the problems at our own institutions better by seeing how these things work in other institution. We could both expand our networks and also offer support to female PhD students. We did a peer coaching session in which we discussed one another’s work and publication strategies, which was really useful, despite the fact that we work in very different areas. There also seems to have been a positive impact on the institution at which this took place, because suddenly it was much more normal that there are women around, and because it showed everyone that people who are otherwise very different can share a feminist perspective (so it might, after all, have a point, right?).
So if you have the opportunity, visiting fellowships can be a really valuable experience and help to create female networks, in addition to having many other benefits. For department chairs who might read this: if you have few women in your department, consider inviting female visiting scholars. Of course this is more difficult if women are mothers, but you might consider either bringing your family or splitting the visiting period into several short visits, going back and forth. With a bit of creativity and flexibility on both sides, a lot is possible – and it can really make a difference!
I have never felt compelled to write anything in to this blog before (though I read it often), because I feel that my own experiences with sexism in philosophy have not been nearly as bad as others – it’s no worse than the implicit sexism we all experience in everyday life.
But reading ‘How Philosophy Changes Women’ just now has really struck a chord, as philosophy is changing me, or at least the way I dress.
I am a grad student, and since I started my phd there are a lot of clothes that I used to wear which I NEVER wear any more. I’m not becoming the ‘tomboy’ type, but my skirts have got much longer (and I don’t think they were short before), and I have generally started to wear clothes that are more plain, more boring (in my eyes), and that stand out less.
This makes me really sad, but the fact is that I often don’t feel that I am taken seriously, and it seems like wearing clothes that come across more conservative helps. I didn’t used to wear inappropriate things before, I was just a young 20-something woman with a particular style, which philosophy is gradually taking from me.
I love philosophy and I love the department I’m in, but this more than anything really makes me aware of the problems women face – even in a friendly and permissive department, I have started almost self-censoring so that I can become the ‘right’ kind of woman to work in philosophy. And that sucks.
Where are the girly-girls and why is it not ok to be one?
The majority of women I meet in Philosophy are tom-boy-ish. Many of them have short hair, wear no make-up, and dress like their male contemporaries (tramping gear or jeans and a tshirt). Of course, I don’t have a problem with women choosing this, if they are choosing it. Not all women want to wear makeup, dresses, have kids, etc etc, and I totally support a women’s right to chose what she does with her body (her clothes, her hair, her fertility). But what I do have a serious problem with however is the fact that, in my experience, women like this seem far disproportionate in philosophy. Where did all the girly-girls go, and why is not ok to be one?
I don’t know if this is due to the women in philosophy, or the men, or the institution.
-Is it that the women think that they need to be like the men in order to be accepted into this philosophy club?
-Or is that the men have driven away the more feminine philosophers (by hitting on them, harassing them for being too girly, or just not taking them seriously)?
-Or is that the institution does not make room for women? It certainly does not make room for people with families or spouses (double body problems) or caregiver commitments, given that graduates new on the job market have to apply for bunches of jobs and take whatever they can get at some horrid institution in the middle of nowhere.
Furthermore, many of my girlfriends in philosophy have changed since they went on the job market or got accepted into various prestigious grad programs. They’ve gone from having what I thought of as a modern kind of feminism (women don’t need to be like men in order to be equal to men), to changing into these tom-boy-ish women. I’m not convinced they’re doing it because that was the kind of woman they always wanted to be, rather than the woman they feel they have to be in order to succeed in philosophy.
The thing that I find the scariest is that they seem to have been brainwashed into this by their fellow women in philosophy. Friends who went to institutions where other female grad students or young female academics were tom-boy-ish, have themselves become like that. They’ve changed the way they dress. They all started a trend of dumping their boyfriends and partners in favour of their career (in most cases, it was not clear that a choice between the two needed to be made). They’ve decided to only sleep with men who agree that there will be no relationship (what if they fall in love, is that not allowed?). They talk about how their Doctoral dissertations will change the world, and hound other younger women about whether theirs will too, and how. It seems that the women are becoming just like the men that oppress them.
All-male shortlist, you are not alone.
It has also occurred to me that the only graduate students in my department helping organize the campus visits for our exclusively male candidates are women.
This isn’t a one-off thing. There’s massive gender inequality in departmental service work among grad students. The general sentiment seems to be that this is bad in principle. After all, we’re all feminists here. But changing it would be disastrous to the department. Most of the male graduate students are just too socially incompetent and disorganized to take on their share.
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?
I am a grad student in a department with a heavy focus on critical theory. Interestingly enough-and perhaps as a result of the strong focus on gender studies in our department-the male faculty members are fairly respectful when dealing with female students and colleagues. The real issues have emerged between the female faculty and female students. Despite attempts at forming a women’s caucus, and despite the fact that our centre is headed by two very distinguished women, the female faculty consistently treat their female students in a patronizing and disinterested manner, while choosing “golden boys” among the other students. Their behavior ranges from condescendingly refusing to acknowledge the arguments and questions of female students in seminars, to discouraging their projects altogether. I have a theory that their own experiences as women in philosophy forced them to be so competitive and hostile; as “exception women” they are more comfortable taking on their male colleagues and feel threatened or insecure about working with other females. Ladies–it’s hard enough being women in philosophy, so let’s not make it any worse for each other.
Sometimes, being a woman in philosophy is glorious. It is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Correction: Barring my personal affectionate relationships, it IS, it just is the best thing that has ever happened to me, to be a woman in philosophy.
It has also, at times, been the worst, but I already wrote a post about the worst of times, so let me explain when it’s glorious: I still remember my first attempt at writing feminist philosophy, and it was awful, it was a lame and untutored student effort. Then, I took more graduate-level course work in feminist philosophy. I studied with an exemplar in the field. I joined SWIP and FEAST and traded papers, conference commentary, whole chapters of the dissertation (and a later book) with other women in philosophy. I have had days of sheer, unadulterated inspiration when I read feminist works and am flooded with appreciation and critical response, and those days have resulted in my best and strongest writings. Today, I can say that I am a very good philosopher. This simply would not be the case without the women in philosophy who have treated me with respect, deference and a disposition to believe that I have something to offer.
Sadly, this has been true at the same time that individual, particular men in philosophy have let me know that they are disposed to believe I have nothing to offer, that writing about women or feminism is irrelevant, that it is a sign of uncritical dogmatism or lack of rigor. It is all the more reason that it is important for women in philosophy to engage each other. You don’t need to agree with fellow women, that would be tiresome. But the readiness of women to engage with me has been transformative. Ich bin ein Philosopher!
I just returned from a conference in Germany in my area of the history of philosophy. There were presenters from Austria, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, the UK, the US and Canada, and the program and so the conference room had more women than men. I can’t recall a conference I’ve been to that was not focused on feminism or women philosophers that had this kind of gender balance. It was refreshing, most especially because the papers and discussion were strong and engaging. I asked the conference organizer whether it was her intent to have a program weighted with women philosophers, and she indicated that it was a bit of a fortuitous accident. She just asked people whom she knew had done work on the theme of the conference.
Within the last ten years I attended an extended seminar on feminist philosophy, I was 4 years into a tenure track job. Perhaps because of the subject matter, it happened that all the attendees were women. This was the first time in my life that I had been in an all women philosophy environment, in fact it was the first time that I had been in an environment in which women philosophers were not a small minority. The contrast with my ‘regular’ life was striking. For the first time I realized the incredible amount of energy it took to go to work every day to a place where I was a minority, even given that most of my colleagues at my job had goodwill. One of the reasons why the seminar was such a great experience for me was that I could spend the finite amount of energy I had thinking about philosophy, not worrying about whether I deserved to be there, or being smart enough, or having my contributions discounted or disrespected, or even silly things like whether my haircut and wardrobe helped or hindered my professional credibility. For the first time I felt like I ‘fit.’ The seminar gave me a burst of academic productivity that was sort of mind boggling and helped me fall back in love with philosophy. Even though I was already well credentialed and well employed, it was the community of excellent women philosophers at that seminar who gave me the confidence to think of myself as a ‘real’ philosopher. I am overwhelmingly grateful for that experience.
In the mid 1990s, I did my undergrad work at a well-respected “public ivy” in the midwest. I studied philosophy almost entirely (all but 2 classes) under white women in their 30s (or, at least, my early 20s self thought these women were in their 30s). I thought that philosophy departments were generally full of young(ish) white women (i.e., people I could easily imagine myself being in 10 or so years). As I entered grad school and learned more about the profession, I realized both how wrong my initial impressions were, and lucky I was as an undergrad. Now, I work in a department where the most senior faculty member is a feminist philosopher. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to always have a departmental “home” where the philosophical legitimacy of both women and feminism is never questioned.