I have been lucky to study at an institution where while the majority of professors were male, they were encouraging and supportive of their students. I barely even thought of my professors as sexist in the slightest sense exactly because they showed a lot of support for the students who were interested in the subjects they taught. However, there was one occasion on which I felt really unsettled and to this day cannot quite understand why this event occurred. I was at a lecture by a male professor who was talking to us about rational thinking and he used the most disgusting analogy to illustrate the point he was trying to make. What he said to us, a classroom with plenty female students, was “for example, if you were to be raped and you cannot do anything about it, you better sit down and enjoy it”. To this day I cannot believe that this sentence was uttered at an undergraduate lecture at a philosophy department. Despite intended as a joke, and despite the reaction of most of the male students being to laugh at it, I wanted to leave the room and never come back.
I started studying philosophy as an undergrad almost exactly 10 years ago, and have just finished my PhD and started a TT job. In all of this time, I’ve counted myself extremely lucky to have never dealt with any of the horror stories that so many other women on this blog have had forced upon them. To the contrary, I’d had some really exceptional male mentors who have been warm, kind, open, and supportive without ever making me feel in the least uncomfortable or treating me in any even remotely inappropriate way – and this has been especially important because I’ve always struggled with self-doubt in relationship to work, and thought about quitting many, many times. My undergraduate honors thesis advisor, especially, has always been my model of an ideal teacher and mentor – that is, until today. A friend from undergrad just sent me a text message telling me that he had gossip about this professor – apparently, he had not only married an ex student of his, but was seeing a student in my class while still married to her.
And it’s the next part that I don’t really know how to put into words. I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m doubting myself in a way that I haven’t in years. Not only was he my idol and my reason for wanting to be an academic as an 18-year-old – he was also the first person to show enthusiasm for my work, and that enthusiasm and belief continued to bolster me in moments of self-doubt all of the way through my PhD. And now I’m sitting here, crying at my computer and feeling sick to my stomach because I suddenly feel like I can’t trust one of my earliest and most formative reasons for trusting myself and my work. I worry that he didn’t think that my work was good at all – that I was just another potential student to sleep with. And even worse, a part of me worries that my work (or do I really mean “I”?) wasn’t good enough for him to think that I was worth sleeping with, since he never treated me in any even remotely inappropriate way. The last part is the worst because I don’t endorse that feeling at all – there is no part of me that thinks that a professor 20 years older than you wanting to sleep with you is a compliment. I hate that I can feel so unsure of myself so long after the fact, and I hate that I can’t shut up this voice in my head that is saying odious things that I can’t endorse but can’t ignore either.
I know just how minor this in comparison to virtually every other experience reported on this blog. Part of what terrifies me, though, is that I am suddenly struck by how much I can’t begin to imagine how destabilizing and terrible those experiences must be – if something this small, this indirect, and this long ago is making me feel so out of place in philosophy, how do so many of the women who have experienced so much worse ever stay? And when so many women do experience so much worse, how are there any left at all?
This happened with a new graduate student in my department. I am a faculty member. I asked him if he preferred to be addressed by the long or the short version of his name. He said that only his mother calls him by the longer version. So, I think, the short version is what you go by. But, he continues, in a dreamy voice (mind you, this is in a seminar setting), because his mother calls him that, he finds it so soothing and gentle, so maybe I should use that one.
I was hard pressed not to laugh (but did manage it). The other students, who know me better (and would never consider classifying me as ‘just like mom’) all looked shocked and horrified. Does he ask the male faculty members to use his dad’s name for him? I strongly suspect that he would never do that.
This autumn I have had the privilege of teaching an introductory ethics class, one of my favorites at the undergraduate level. A student recently revealed to me (in a very blase manner, no less) that she had attended a fraternity party on campus with several friends, male and female, and that they were all drugged with a muscle relaxer in vodka drinks. Luckily, they realized what had happened to them, and quickly returned home, so nothing worse than merely attempted rape effectively occurred. However, this is not an isolated incident. The student also informed me that it is common knowledge among the Greeks on campus that this particular fraternity is well-known for drugging their party attendees.
The student didn’t want to really push the issue, she was mostly just telling me about her weekend and this ‘weird’ thing that happened to her, and we both had other classes to go to; the discussion couldn’t have taken more than five minutes, maybe ten. But I couldn’t just let it go. Immediately after I was through teaching for the day, I went first to the Philosophy Department to ask them who I should contact. The DGS, secretary, and my advisor all recommended I go to the campus police first as my legal obligation. Being familiar with the tendency of universities to cover up and avoid bad press, I was skeptical of this approach, but didn’t want to make any false steps in terms of my legal obligations.
The campus police told me that unless I was the legal guardian of the student and the student was underage, they could not even file a report, much less open an investigation on the fraternity, without the student there. They directed me to the campus interpersonal violence prevention offices, who helped me fill out the appropriate form to include this incident in the criminal statistics for the university, and called the office of the Dean of student affairs. Their conclusion was similar: without the participation of the affected student(s), they were not required to investigate the situation.
Finally I called the local police. The only new thing they could add to repeating that the student would have to file was that the actual parents of the student could file the complaint. I now have to contact the student again and ask her to come forward and file a complaint. I have very little hope that she will, based on how flippant she seemed about her narrow escape.
So basically what we have here is a case of a fraternity drugging and presumably raping people on a regular basis, but without a victim coming forward nobody is legally required to do anything so nobody will do anything. The fact that this happened to an introductory-level Philosophy student is only incidentally connected to this blog, but the problem is so immediate I had to share it with someone outside of my social circle. What’s it like to be a woman in Philosophy? You have to respond to these kinds of problems somehow, on a regular basis. I feel like a lot of male philosophers can just pretend this isn’t going on, because they are less likely to have students confide things like this in them, even in passing. You have a legal obligation to do a lot of things which ultimately seem to amount to nothing at all. You have to confront despair.
I am a bearded white male with a PhD in philosophy who stopped working in philosophy departments per se some years ago. I left in part because of what I saw as the discipline’s shoddy treatment of feminist philosophy in general and my female colleagues in particular. Since then I have become a research scientist respected in another field.
Ironically, the fact that I did graduate work in feminist epistemology as well as in analytic epistemology has proved an asset in doing science. I oftentimes acknowledge my philosophical background in my professional talks, crediting it for my theoretical range and ability to write clearly.
Recently I had a female undergraduate student come up to me after a talk I gave. She asked me for advice as to whether to go to graduate school in philosophy or in my adopted field, and told me that she had been accepted to top programs in each. However, and when I enquired as to which schools she was considering, the philosophy departments she mentioned were programs known to me as programs intolerant of pluralism.
I looked her in the eye and told her that while I believed the situation in philosophy graduate programs had gotten better over the years, I said that based on my experience she would be likely to encounter a systemic tradition of sexism within the discipline and might well even experience sexual harassment in those programs.
I could see how crushing my snap reaction was for her to hear, and it made me instantly second guess whether I had in fact told her right thing. I felt this even more acutely when, on reflection, I realized I probably would not have offered the same snap advice to a male student.
She and I did manage to have a little more hurried conversation about the relative advantages and disadvantages of a philosophic education versus a scientific one, but in the end I am afraid I may have discouraged a bright young woman from entering–and perhaps helping to change–my old profession.
I hope she has the guts to enter it anyway; frankly, all sorts of people discouraged me from entering graduate work in philosophy on practical grounds as well–though never on grounds that had to do with my being male.
1. I got engaged, and a senior male professor jokingly tells me not to “go getting pregnant now,” thinking he’s giving me good career advice. I’m pregnant the next year and have two kids before I finish my PhD, which I do in 6 years (earning two masters degrees along the way).
2. I’m at an international conference, out to drinks with some other students. One student goes on about how women can never be good at logic. I tell him he’s just plain wrong (telling him how I tutored two male students in my logic class because they couldn’t keep up as well as I could) and that ridiculous opinions like his do keep people from pursuing his specialty, to its detriment. As great as some of us ladies are, some of us would prefer never want to have to regularly socialize with asshats like him, even if it meant not pursuing logic as a specialty.
3. Same international conference, a senior person in my field casually tells me that I must be sleeping with my advisor. When I get angry and say hell-no, he tells me I protest too much, and that it must be true. I do not tell anyone about this for 3+ years, not even my spouse, because I am so upset that anyone would have the nerve to say something like this and, worse yet, that, if this douchebag has the nerve to say it, then others must think it is also true and believe that my only worth to my advisor is in my pants and not in my work or intellectual worth.
Thanks for the vent.