I had had many years of experiences with extreme sexism before I got a Ph.D in philosophy in my forties, but that doesn’t make sexism in the refined circles of academia any less humiliating and undermining.
I took philosophy courses in a master’s program at a well-respected state university. One of my master’s thesis advisors harassed me into a affair using quid pro quo pressures; I was desperately afraid this advisor would not sign my thesis if I broke off the relationship, so I waited to end it until after it was signed. I knew I should report this behavior, but others informed me it was a well-known pattern of this professor and nothing would be done. Also, I was old enough to have known better, I thought.
Later, when I was a graduate student in an Ivy League Ph.D. program in philosophy, a male professor used the following example in class to distinguish between two persons: “Smith beats his wife, while Jones doesn’t.” This was intended to be a funny example, and had apparently gotten laughs from earlier generations of students when the university was all male, but no one laughed in the late 1980s with both men and women in the class. Finally the professor noticed the glares coming from many of the students and said, “Perhaps I should have chosen a more sensitive example.” Even old dogs can learn new tricks.
In my first year in that doctoral program, I helped to organize a student colloquium series and gave the first presentation, in which I presented as my own work what was in fact my own reconstruction of an argument from one of Plato’s dialogues. A fellow graduate student, male, asked me if I had done the argument reconstructions myself, despite its being clearly presented as my own work. This was an insulting question which I believe he probably would not have asked of a male graduate student.
Also in my first year of graduate school, after a visiting speaker finished his talk, a male professor invited him and some of us graduate students to his house for refreshments. I was the only female graduate student who attended, and the only female at the gathering except for the host’s wife. I was wondering how I would fit in, when someone started the conversation with the question of which university had the best combination of football team and philosophy department. The men present began to engage in an intense and exhaustive comparison of football teams and philosophy departments, with an eye to ranking them. Not following sports and not being interested in such a ranking, I felt conspicuously female, excluded, incapable of participating, and marginalized. So I decided to talk with my host’s wife, which was much more interesting. This incident is only statistically sexist and was probably entirely unintentional; if I had been a female football fan, I could have held my own.
Still, what proportion of football fans are female? How considerate was it to choose a question that a female graduate student would be less likely, given the average relative frequency of male to female football fans, to be able to relate to?
Later that year, at the annual department party, a senior male professor cornered me and tried at length to persuade me to marry another one of the senior male professors, who was lonely and needed a wife. This conversation made me feel reduced to my reproductive and nurturing function, and quite invisible as a beginning philosopher.
Later in my time there, a fellow graduate student, a male, asked to sit in on my pre-arranged independent study with my male dissertation advisor, and I agreed. However, the advisor spoke almost exclusively to him rather than me, and I felt I had to fight to get a word in edgewise all semester. From this I learned that the practice of philosophy, as many males see it, is not about cooperating to discover the truth, but rather about competing to get the approval of the – mostly male – authority figures.
The way to get this approval was to fight, conceptually, in an agonistic way. One of my professors encouraged me to get more “ammunition” against a philosopher I was writing about. This military analogy turned me off and set me back, as I wanted to see philosophy as a cooperative enterprise in search of truth.
Another fellow graduate student (a married male) was heard in the student lounge bragging about how many female undergraduates he planned to sleep with now that he was going to be a teaching assistant.
In seminars the same thing happened to me as has happened to many other female graduate students in philosophy – my point would be ignored, but when a male made the same point, it was recognized as valuable.
At my first job, in the mid-1990s, a one-year at a midwestern state university, one of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department had a pornographic picture on his office wall. I went into his office and told him that this constituted a hostile atmosphere for his female students and advisees, not to mention his colleagues. When he told me it had “sentimental value” (!) for him, I suggested he remove it and hang it up at home. He replied that his wife wouldn’t allow it in the house. Shouldn’t that have been a clue as to its inappropriateness? Another male colleague, when told of this exchange, explained that the first colleague had actually improved over time, as he no longer displayed his collection of Playboy and Penthouse magazines on the coffee table in his office! So things must be getting better, as many on this blog have argued.
While I had been a feminist activist for many years before pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, and I had taken many courses in feminist thought, I had not studied feminist philosophy as an AOS or AOC for my Ph.D. degree, so it did not appear on my CV. While I was searching for a tenure track job, the chair of a hiring department asked me to add “philosophy and feminism” to my CV. I found out later that the line had been given to the Philosophy Department on the condition they hire a woman who could teach in the Women’s Studies program. I reflected that I had the background and experience to teach in a Women’s Studies program, so I agreed to change my CV. That is how I was hired into my present position – the male philosophers apparently tried to hire a non-feminist female philosopher who could teach Women’s Studies from a non-feminist perspective. So they got a little surprise when I turned out to be a radical feminist!
Many of the entries on this blog refer to affirmative action, as if there is some stigma attached to being an affirmative action hire. I think women and minorities should worry about the so-called ‘unfair’ advantage given by affirmative action exactly when the white males start worrying about the unfair advantage given by white male privilege. Instead, look to your own achievements and do your best work. If the white males ever start apologizing to you about their white male privilege giving them an unfair advantage, then, and only then, should you even consider mentioning the countervailing “advantage” given to you by affirmative action. Affirmative action exists to help counteract the pervasive unconscious and conscious sexist biases which this blog documents, and we shouldn’t undermine that very important function.
Now that I have tenure and have served as chair of my department at my state university, I find I love my job as a philosophy professor. We have hired new colleagues who are feminist, or at least who try their best not to be sexist, and I have published quite a few articles, often in journals edited by women, and feel freer than ever to study and think and write about what I want to study and think and write about. I enjoy teaching and continually revamping my courses and pedagogy, only seldom receiving openly sexist treatment from students, though I can relate to many of the comments of others about expectations that, as a female, I should be more lenient and understanding. Leniency should be limited to justified circumstances, but instead of some women professors trying to be less understanding, I think some male professors should work to become more understanding! Students need and deserve understanding and respectful teachers.
Recently, I served as an outside evaluator for a nearby philosophy department which had just previously hired a fifth philosopher, their first woman, who was then serving as chair. The senior philosopher in her department would only refer to her as their “fifth man,” even though she is a woman! Some old dogs have trouble with the new tricks.
It is disheartening to think that philosophy as a discipline runs on status competition among males, but that is the picture that emerges from this blog and from a book called “The Sociology of Philosophy” by Randall Collins. Also, I recommend C.P. Snow’s old novel “Strangers and Brothers,” in which he tries to describe in detail the operations of what he calls “private power,” or power as it is used behind the scenes by men. This novel is particularly relevant as it features men jockeying for power in an academic setting.
Thanks for this blog. It has given me encouragement to once again propose that our university prohibit even consensual relations between faculty and students. Currently we prohibit sex between faculty and students during the semester when the student is in the faculty member’s class, the strongest policy we could get through the governance process. Some faculty are apparently very worried about the rights of the accused and the probabilities of false accusations. And I shall try with renewed energy to integrate my feminist values into my own work by more diligently calling sexist assumptions into question in my classes, by including more work by women and feminist philosophers, and by working to create a more egalitarian and supportive environment within the discipline of philosophy.