Philosophy and Minivans

Posted: November 2, 2012 by Jender in assumptions about mothers, assumptions about women

Several years ago I visited the Department X as a prospective graduate student in philosophy. A group of prospective and current grad students gathered that evening for drinks at a local bar, and discussion turned to the faculty, and eventually the lone female faculty member at the time: Y. One of the other prospective students commented, “Can you believe she drives a minivan?!?” My interest was piqued. This was heartening news. “Y drives a minivan?” I thought. “Maybe I can do this after all. Maybe I can be a woman and a mother and a philosophy professor all at once.” I was childless at the time, but I was hungry for signs that a person like me – a woman with an interest in family life – could find a place in the world of philosophy. These signs are few and far between. The previous one came when my undergraduate advisor told me that she had gone to a Tupperware party. I suspect she still has no idea how important that one comment was to my decision to try graduate school in philosophy.

It wasn’t until later that night that it dawned on me that the speaker did not mean the comment the way I took it. He meant it derisively. He meant that it was preposterous to think that someone could be a philosopher and a mommy. I felt so stupid. In my eagerness for a role model I had completely overlooked his tone. I also felt very, very angry – both because he had sneered at one of my heroes and because he had shit all over one of my cherished and rare points of identification with professional philosophy. “Fuck him,” I thought. “Y is the amazingly accomplished professor, and he’s just a prospective grad student. What does he know?”

I ended up attending a different graduate program in philosophy, and now, several years into the program, I am married and pregnant with twins. Faced with the challenge of squeezing two infant car seats and a labrador retriever into the back seat of a sedan, we bought a minivan. This prompted some reflection on “the minivan comment” that I remember so clearly.

The truth is that I find it harder and harder to muster that “fuck you” spirit every time I feel like an outsider. I have never felt so alienated from the profession of philosophy as I do now that I am pregnant – and I didn’t exactly feel like “one of the gang” prior to being pregnant, either. I have formed close friendships with other grad students in my program, but almost all of them are men whose attitudes toward family life range from indifferent to downright hostile. Most are not in committed long term relationships, and none have children or have even expressed an interest in having children. From what I have seen of the faculty in my program, these demographics do not change very much at the professor level, either. I guess some of the indifferent male grad students go on to find partners and have children as faculty, but they certainly aren’t driving the minivan themselves.

I am angry at myself for being in this position, for being isolated and without woman friends or friends of any gender who are having children. Lately I think that graduate school was a huge mistake: as much as I enjoy studying philosophy, I wasn’t thinking clearly about whether a career in philosophy would fit in with my other plans and interests. If I had been thinking clearly, I probably would have sought a career in which I would be employed by now at a job with maternity leave benefits, so that I would have something to come back to after the first few weeks or months of my children’s lives. Instead I am standing at that juncture between graduate school and a post-doc or employment, unsure that I even want to mount the exhausting and demoralizing campaign one needs to mount to get a job in this profession. I love philosophy, but I suspect I could also love (or at least like!) another profession that is not so inhospitable to mothers.

I don’t know whether I will stay or go – or even if I will have the option to stay, given that I don’t have a job. But there is one thing that I want to say to all of the women philosophers out there who are reading this: let your students know about the activities you do that go against the philosopher stereotype. Mention your gardening, taking your kid to swim lessons, painting your fingernails, redecorating your kitchen, your recommendation for the best laundry stain remover. Yes, these comments might seem off-topic when the student is there to talk to you about Hume or incompatibilism or whatever. But find ways to drop in little clues and hints now and then. I can only speak for myself, but tiny comments like these have played a huge role in getting me to me to stay in the professional philosophy pipeline as long as I have. The impact can be enormous.

There’s probably a technical term for this kind of signaling that I don’t know, but it’s the opposite of the “whistling Vivaldi” type maneuver that a minority person uses to signal to members of the dominant class around him that he fits in. It’s a signal of hope to other outsiders – and women who are interested in having an active family life are definitely outsiders in philosophy.

Comments are closed.