A positive story about women supporting women: I received news this week that I was granted tenure. My department chair (a woman) made a point of coming by my class and telling the students (I probably wouldn’t have told them). My class (feminist philosophy) which is all women (we are a women’s college) cheered and whooped. I proceeded to tell them stories for 10 minutes about the crap I’ve had to put up with as a woman in philosophy, from undergrad days through to the present. The next class I walked in find a bouquet of flowers on the desk and a lovely card about surmounting challenges, signed by all of them. I was brought to tears and told them how lucky I am to be surrounded by women like them. And I am.
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I am an undergraduate student of philosophy. I almost finish my last year.
Some months ago I was talking with another female classmate about a certain class. She was a close friend of professor of that class and told me what he thought about me.
I used to wear a lot of skirts, blouses and ribbons so he nicknamed me “Lolita”, I also participate a lot in class and colleagues of his think I am brilliant and dedicated. Well, not him.
He thought I was arrogant and pretentious, like an annoying little girl. That no one that young (20) and FEMALE should behave like that. Being tenacious and strong looks well on a man but makes a girl look hysterical.
He never hid his hatred for me and my grades were never excellent even when my texts were good.
Needless to say that a friend of mine, a man, who behave just like me was his favorite. It’s a shame he is one of the most brilliant minds in my college and an expert in the topics I’m interest in. Philosophical collaboration is being damaged with mysoginistic thought.
I am a female philosophy professor on a graduate admissions committee. This year I found the following sentences in a letter of recommendation for a female student:
“You will have to forgive a bit of political incorrectness, but I think it important. #### happens to be a beauty and enhances her fine looks with a careful attention to her grooming and clothes.”
Naturally, after recovering from my initial sense of shock that someone would put this in a recommendation letter, I tried hard to ignore the comment; it is plainly irrelevant to the applicant’s academic prospects. Yet I found that the comment was nevertheless infecting my evaluation the file: rather than taking the academic content of the letter seriously, I started thinking about whether the letter (as well as all the others) wasn’t as strong as it was just because of the student’s looks. More disturbingly, and for reasons that I find difficult to state, I also felt I was having a harder time taking the student’s own writing seriously, once her physical traits had been brought into the foreground.
I do hope that I ended up successfully overcoming whatever biases this comment introduced and that I judged the file fairly. Nevertheless, reflection both on the terrible judgment of the letter writer and my own involuntary reactions to it left me with a sense of despair.
To prepare my undergraduate class for their term paper, I held a writing workshop where we went over what counted as “good” or “bad” examples of philosophy papers. I am female, and I said at the beginning of the class that the examples we were looking at were written by me.
When we discussed why certain sample papers received their hypothetical grades, I was very careful to say “the author” or “she” in referring to the samples I had provided. The students did not seem to notice and insisted on saying “well, he wrote this…” and “his introduction was poorly phrased” and so on. At one point I pointed out (again) that I had written the samples. Curiously, students then became more inclined to use “she”–but primarily for the “bad” example of a paper, while still leaving “he” or “the author” for the “good” paper.
Then, when I discussed this curious observation with a colleague, he suggested that maybe I had written the “bad” sample in a way that made it sound “feminine”, and this would explain why the students responded the way that they did.
I don’t even know how to process that.
As a grad student I was taking the required philosophy of language course. At some point during the course I asked my professor about feminist epistemology. He laughed, out loud and said that women’s brains worked just like men’s. Because it was an honest question, I took his answer at face value.
Fast-forward several years — I was working on my metaphysics/epsitemology area paper. The thesis was flawed, but I was having a hard time seeing it and this same professor was giving shallow comments and telling me to work on it more. A (new) feminist philosopher who had been hired since I left the area pointed out the flaw in her first set of comments. I promptly ditched the paper all together and asked her if she’d work on a feminist epistemology paper with me. She did, I wrote it and I got it passed in a matter of weeks (the M & E paper I ditched had been going around for a couple of YEARS), It was no coincidence that the rest of the M & E committee read it while the phil language guy was out of town…
Moral of the story, if you’re a woman in a position to help another woman by giving her your full professional attention, do so. I would never have completed by dissertation without her help.
Hi, I’m a male undergraduate philosophy major, just getting started. I’m a returning student who spent the years between high school and university focused on political activism, much of it around feminist issues. I’m not always perfect but I strive to be conscious.
Anyway, I thought by picking philosophy as a major, I’d be getting away from ‘bro culture,’ especially once I got to grad school and left behind the frat boy marketing majors taking lower-division philosophy courses for their required humanities credits. It’s disheartening to read this blog and see how naive I was being. I’m glad I found it though, as it’s making me feel determined to stay on point about being a feminist ally as I move on in the field. Thank you for helping all of these people share their stories. I’m subscribing to the blog, so that I have a constant reminder of the standards I want to live up to.
I don’t have a story to submit at the moment, but just wanted to express my sympathies for the submitter of the last story. What happened to her is horrible and I’m appalled by the behaviour of the grad students. Since there is (understandably) no possibility to comment on the stories, I wanted to contact you in case you have a way of letting her know that there are others out there who completely understand and who are on her side.
It’s so unfair that she’s even questioning herself, asking if she should be able to take these “jokes” better. Clearly, the grad students were trying to undermine her, and the pressure to take this kind of abuse in “good spirit” is so cruel and crazy-making. I know that getting angry is no solution either, since that would just further undermine her, so all I can really say is that I feel her pain. I want to encourage her to continue doing her work, and to not let the thoughts about whether they’re just trying to be funny make her doubt herself. I hope she finds some friends and allies in her department.
One of the things I regret about my time in graduate school is that I let the attitudes of (some of) the men affect how I dressed. I stopped wearing anything to campus other than jeans and a plain top after receiving various unsolicited, rather insulting comments in my early years. For instance, during my first year I wore a stripped shirt and a much older grad student told me I looked like I belonged in an Old Navy commercial. (No offense to Old Navy, but it was clearly an insult.) Another time I wore a dangly necklace and another fellow grad student (but virtual stranger) passed me in the hallway and exclaimed “What is THAT?!” This might sound like a trivial issue, but it really took the wind out of my sails. I was so envious of the women in other humanities departments who walked around on campus with their groups of friends, all wearing their skirts, bright colors, and interesting jewelry. It makes me sad to realize now how vulnerable and isolated I must have felt, especially since I was a confident person before graduate school. I wish I’d just forbidden the culture in academic philosophy from touching that dimension of my life, right from the start.
After a job interview talk at my philosophy department, ca. late 80s, a the female candidate was barraged with aggressive questions from the mostly male faculty. The aggressive macho adrenaline-fueled pack mentality was notably different than anything I’d seen by the same professors in other circumstances. It was as if they had planned to humiliate her. The candidate was visibly shaken by the tone; my memory recalls her almost in tears. Of course this was taken as a sign of poor philosophical ability on her part by the profs, and she was not hired. (This woman was already well-known and respected in the field.) I later heard one professor boast how they had “reduced her argument to shit!” with a shit-eaten grin on his face. This comment and his glee made a lasting impression on me, and was one of the key factors for me, as a male, opting out of philosophy and academia. He was prominent in the field. I wanted no part in a field based on intellectual sadism.
I am teaching at an all-male philosophy faculty, and last year I got the opportunity to teach a full undergraduate course at the intro level. (Context: since this is the European system, students specialize already very early on). My particular course was interdisciplinary, with about 50% of students being philosophy undergrads, and the other 50% from a cognate discipline. I designed a fresh course that was supposed to appeal to both groups.
When the student evaluations came out, I was naturally curious to see what the students had to say about my course. The students from the other discipline were unanimously positive. In contrast to the philosophers, they have other female lecturers who teach them, so I was not the only female teacher they knew. However, I was shocked by the remarks of the philosophy undergrads. Their evaluation scores were OK, but some of the individual remarks were devastating “For a beginning lecturer, she definitely did her best”, “She lacked academic level”, “She doesn’t challenge us intellectually, like the other faculty members do”. Etc. I have no way to actually prove that the philosophers evaluated me in this way because I am the only woman teaching them (there may be other reasons the students from the cognate discipline were happier with my teaching). However, my student evaluations for international graduate courses were always very good, so I cannot believe that my undergrad classes lacked academic level or weren’t challenging.
In any case, because of these remarks, the evaluations are now quite useless to me (for applying for jobs), even though the overall scores are good.
This is not about what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy. I suspect it is about what it’s like to be a human in philosophy. I am a successful philosopher in well-respected department, with a Full Professorship. It’s not a Leiterific department but a small liberal arts college, which sends many students to Leiterific departments. I am a woman. My work is read and I have a prominent standing in the disciplines in which I work. In other words, relative to most people in philosophy, I am privileged. I have power, power that has come at a cost, which is what I’d like to speak to. I’d like to speak to those costs because they diminish all of us, and all of us have pay some of these same prices. Lastly, I am in a field relatively cut off from social justice concerns – basically, analytic philosophy of mind, language, metaphysics and the history of those fields.
I am successful, but in order to become successful, I have paid a price. The first choice was giving up my creative life. Doing what I love has changed the way my mind works. My ability to be creative has been severely diminished. I had been a published poet. This sacrifice cut right to my identity and ability. I can’t do what poets do anymore. I would make the same choice today, but it remains painful that I left that part of me behind.
Second, I have had to shut down emotionally in order to do the thing that I love. Philosophy, especially teaching philosophy seriously, requires a rigor and an unrelenting precision that makes it difficult to maintain healthy human relationships. If I have to choose between doing what I love at the most successful level possible and having healthier relationships, I am ashamed to say that I have chosen and will choose philosophy – the thing that I love. This has made me a diminished friend, a diminished partner and a diminished colleague. I would still choose being a more successful philosopher over these things, both because I love philosophy, selfishly, more than just about anything, but also because I will constantly feel as though I have not gotten the recognition I deserve. I feel this despite the tremendous recognition and support and attention that my philosophical colleagues, male and female, give me pretty much constantly.
So what about what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy? It’s about being among my people – people with whom I feel more comfortable than I feel with anyone else. People who get me. Poeople I love. People who love with the same fervor the same thing I love. People who have sacrificed things that people shouldn’t have to sacrifice to do what we do. We are in a discipline whose practices diminish all of us. The way we behave towards each other makes me ashamed. We are better than this.
Yes, this affects those of us who love philosophy and who are not traditionally members of the tribe more than others. Yes, so many people with a lot of clout and power do so much to mentor and support those of us who are new to the tribe. But at some point we need to realize collectively that we are stuck in a damaging social practice, one that is especially silly given that we’re all pretty much a bunch of geeks. And, yes, this is a thoroughgoingly feminist message.
I took a couple classes with this professor freshman year, and he was always very supportive of my work, always willing to give me some extra time, both in terms of academic discussion and in terms of not being particular about deadlines (2/3 of which I missed). I wasn’t sure of majoring in philosophy, but he pretty much sweet talked me into it halfway through the second semester, whilst also offering to be my major adviser. I really liked the subject, so I accepted on a whim, and once he signed my declaration, it’s not that he changed, but he became slightly different.
He started to single me out, to hold me back after class and longer during office hours, to employ schoolboy horseplay techniques, and so on. He was a lot older, with family, and I was young and nubile. So rather than getting freaked out, I just took it as the natural order of things that he should act with me as any man would act with a young woman. I wasn’t going to marry him, but neither was male attention ever repulsive to me. And I didn’t have a sordid affair, I was not scarred for life – in fact, he helped me get into a top grad program, connected me with some excellent people in the field (including his own advisor) and wined and dined me more than would be considered decent by your average feminist, but certainly less than philosophy professors engage their male students. Not to mention, he ignited my curiosity for the field, without which I probably would have become an engineer or investment banker.
So my question is, what’s wrong with being hit on?
I’m a mid-career female philosopher, fairly well-known in my sub-discipline. I’d like to share a couple of reflections on recent conference experiences.
1. When I meet people for the first time, quite often they confuse me with other mid-career female philosophers in my sub-discipline: they think we’ve met before, or that I wrote that nice paper on X. (Sometimes I like the thought of that amalgamated super-woman who has written so many nice papers!) Tips for interlocutors: when corrected, a good response is to apologise, to say how great that other female philosopher is, and then to ask me about my work. A bad response is to insist that I am confused about whether we’ve met before, or whether I wrote that paper.
2. More and more I find there’s an open sense of solidarity between women (of whatever career stage) at conferences. I really like the social aspect of this and also the sense that we can talk about gender issues in the profession for a while, alongside conversation about philosophy, or gossip, or life in general, without feeling that there is any conflict between these different concerns. I think the profile of this blog, and its siblings, has really helped with that. So thanks!
My department distributes a yearly award for excellence in teaching to its graduate students. Of the past six winners, I am the only woman. In all other cases, the recipients were notified of the award and congratulated in a mass departmental email during the spring semester. The awards committee forgot to notify me and the department of my award until the fall semester of the following school year. As soon as the notification about my award went out, a general discussion on the graduate student list-serve began, questioning the “reasonableness” and “transparency” of the decision-making procedure that the awards committee employs in selecting the recipients of this award. Nothing approximating such a discussion has occurred after the award has been given to any of the other (all male) recipients.
I will be invited speaker at a conference in October. I am the only women among the keynote speakers (as well as the youngest scholar), but it’s not the first time. Curiously enough, though, all my male colleagues were mentioned in the conference announcement and call for papers: only my name wasn’t there.
I don’t have a specific story but rather a general observation about the way that female faculty figure in my department. Power seems mostly to be controlled by male faculty members as most of the senior faculty and full professors are men. Although we have a number of female faculty there seem to be two general roles they can play, each defined by how they are seen by the men. One can get cast in the good role by flattering male egos, agreeing and not raising issues. On the other hand, women who disagree, make requests and raise issues are seem as problematic. Men on the other hand don’t seem to be expected to agree and flatter and their complaints in general seem to be taken quite seriously.
I was talking to a fellow graduate student in our department recently about music. He mentioned the name of his favorite band. I looked them up later and here are some of their song titles: “Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s C***”, “F***ed with a Knife,” “Stripped, Raped, Strangled,” “Addicted to Vaginal Skin,” and “She Was Asking for It” to name a few. It’s great to know my colleagues enjoy such pro-woman entertainment.
This is a copy of an email exchange with our head of school. What is shocking is that he shows NO AWARENESS AT ALL of any gender issues around academic environment or hiring – e.g. he thinks treating all cases the same is equivalent to treating equally, and blythely he claims that our policies are “robust”…The equality and diversity officer (a man) ignored the email entirely.
Dear Prof. P, (cc Dr Z, Equality and Diversity officer),
As Prof. P knows, I have announced my intention to take 2 semesters of
maternity leave from this coming September.
I heard today that the school does not approve of getting cover for
maternity leave. This seems like a really problematic policy to me. I
totally understand that we should be able to cover our regular automatic
sabbaticals without getting teaching fellows, and even that we should be
able to cover funded research leave. However, maternity leave and other
unpredictable leave seem like a different sort of case. and in the case of
maternity leave in particular, the current policy raises equality and
In asking my colleagues to cover for me, the school is asking my colleagues
to do extra work – not work that can be built into our contracts, because as
I said, unlike with regular sabbaticals, and even funded research, it is not
predictable and also fairly rare given the gender balance in our department.
In fact, in my 8 years in this philosophy department I am the
only full time staff member to have taken maternity leave. So far as I know,
before that only one person ever did.
So it is totally clear to my colleagues that they are doing extra work
because of me. In fact, anecdotally, last time when I came back from
maternity leave I was made to feel like I owed everyone favours, and did a
considerable amount of extra work because of that.
But my point here is not about me or my case in particular, it is about a
general policy that seems designed to make people resent their colleagues
going on maternity leave, and make it hard for women to feel comfortable
about maternity leave.
It is also, of course, a disincentive to hiring women. Imagine that my
colleagues, mostly men, are deciding between two candidates to hire.
One is a woman of child bearing age, the other is not. The possibility of
the woman taking maternity leave has now become a serious disincentive to
hiring her – my colleagues know that they will have to pick up her work when
she has a baby.
I have spoken to our head of department in philosophy, and several
of my colleagues about this. I think my view has wide support.
Thanks for taking this into consideration.
Dear Dr Q,
Thank you for your email. There appears to have been some mis-understanding
here, as there is no special policy in the School regarding cover for
Requests for additional teaching associated with maternity leave are taken
together with all other forms of request for teaching support in the context
of the overall subject area teaching plan and the balancing of workload.
Indeed, this is why we have such a plan. To give one indication of this: in
the coming year, even taking into account your own leave, Philosophy will
have more teaching staff available than they have in this current year. So,
far from this being an issue of lack of equality, my own view is the precise
opposite: we deal with this issue in exactly the way that we deal with all
forms of request for additional teaching support and in this respect
maternity leave is treated in exactly the same way as all other forms of
leave such as research/sabbatical leave entitlements.
So there should be no question of colleagues feeling that they are ‘doing
extra work’ or experiencing resentment – planning for covering all sorts of
staff leave is a perfectly normal part of our teaching planning processes.
(Across the School, a number of our colleagues have taken both maternity and
And just to be clear: our appointment processes are robust, and there is no
scope within them for any sort of ‘disincentive to hire women’. Indeed you
might remember that in just this last month, we appointed a woman to a
senior lectureship in Philosophy.
My college recently hosted an undergraduate conference. One of our female students gave a paper on self-objectification in Beauvoir. There was a professor from across town attending whom she had never met before. Dr. X responded to the student’s paper in the Q&A session. The gist of his response was that there is a self-identified feminist in his department and he doesn’t understand why she complains about objectification as a women’s problem because it seems that men are objectified as much as if not more than women in pornography, which he enjoys to watch and has since childhood. “Are you calling me sexist?”, he implies. No other professors from his department were present so I suppose he felt safe telling us this without consequences. The paper was not about pornography. It was about how objectification uniquely affects feminine ideas of the self, implying that he hadn’t listened to her argument. Visibly uncomfortable, the student described portrayals of women versus men in pornography (camera angles, use of force, facials, etc.) and suggested that these differences might signify differences in how we value these people. These can be seen in pretty vanilla pornography, but forced the student admit to watching pornography to a room of her professors and peers to properly respond all the same.
Watching this play out felt like watching a car crash that I was powerless to stop. To clarify, I do think philosophy needs frank conversations about sexuality that respects subjective experiences. I also get that people tend to personalize conversations about sexuality because they affect us in the most intimate parts of ourselves. But I wonder when responding to abstract arguments with your own experience stops being constructive and becomes unfair. If these experiences are brought to the table, those who bring them should reflect on gender/status differentials in that space and how they might shape the conversation they’re able to have within it. It is hard enough to call abstract ideas unethical, so framing these conversations personally makes this almost impossible.
His response also picked on a specific female faculty member who is both new to his department and extremely talented in feminist philosophy. He seemed to use this an an opportunity to vent about her in a way he would not had she been present. Responding to basic feminist arguments so incredulously makes me wonder how seriously he takes her work. This also scares me for my own future as a feminist philosopher. I will hopefully operate under the assumption that my colleagues respect me. Now I have to silently hope that they don’t publicly undermine me to strangers as well, but maybe I should be thankful to learn this lesson second-hand.