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?