Archive for the ‘feminism isn’t philosophy’ Category

Several things I heard from senior male professors during my degrees that made me seriously doubt I have any hope in the profession.

After expressing fascination with a course a new (female) member of staff was offering, on feminist philosophy of science, my advisor tells me not to waste time on ‘rubbish philosophy’ and do ‘serious subjects’. He also condescendingly described the really established female professor offering this subject as not ‘too poor given the pointless field in which she works’. I took the subject anyway and to this day consider it one of the most rewarding experiences. Going against the advice of my advisor, however, was not to my benefit.

I was told that I have to watch out not to get pregnant because that would be the end of my career.

I was told I cannot expect to peruse an academic career if I am in a serious relationship and that if one wants to succeed in academia one needs to forget about their personal life (this came from an academic who, of course, was married with children).

I was told that publishing in the most prestigious journals in my field before I even submit my thesis is not an accomplishment and I should not feel confident that I will make it in the profession, that one needs to ‘do a lot more to prove themselves’. My male colleagues who did not have such accomplishments were told they are great and will surely have a career (and they now do).

One of my referees describes me in his reference letter as ‘hardworking’, ‘reliable’, ‘organised’, ‘diligent’ and a ‘great tutor’, despite the fact I overachieved during my degree and outperformed most of my colleagues in the department in terms of research output. I never received the same support and recognition as the male students and was never made to think I have a future in academia.

When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, some of my friends and I started a philosophy undergraduate group. Naturally, amount the ten or so of us, there were only two women, myself included.

Most of the time, this was not a problem for me – I was used to hanging out with the boys, and I could argue just as hardheadedly as the rest of them. My male professors were probably the most supportive mentors I could have ever hoped to find; they were encouraging and always very generous with their time. For the most part, the sexism I did encounter straight on was from my male peers toward my female professors. They would challenge them to unrelated logic questions, complain that their subject matters were less worthwhile and (quite wrongly – many of them were top in their field) accuse them of being worse professors than my male professors. I contested them hotly on each point after class, knowing how badly women professors tend to do on subject evaluations, and how this hurts their chances at tenure.
Nonetheless, fearing ostracism by my peers, I never took any courses in feminist philosophy, nor actively discussed feminist issues with my peers.

I did, however, on one occasion feel personally insulted by my peers. We would host public talks, debates, or movie screenings fortnightly. One week one of my closest male friends suggested discussing autonomy and alcohol consumption. He wanted us to debate whether or not a drunk or ‘impaired’ person should be found at fault for rape, given various scenarios (a drunk victim, or ambiguous consent, for instance). My heart still races and I still get hot in the face remembering this topic being brought up. I have to admit I went a little hysterical at the suggestion – I told them I would boycott the group if they chose to discuss that subject. Having been the subject of sexual assault, (although no alcohol was involved), it seemed ridiculous to me to even ask whether someone who had willingly gotten drunk could possibly be found innocent of sexual assault due to their ‘impaired’ state. My friends laughed at me and told me to calm down, that it was a serious philosophical question.
I left the meeting in a huff, slamming the door.

Now I am in grad school, and the friend who brought the topic up claims to be a serious feminist (although he himself is not an academic). I have trouble believing him since he still doesn’t understand what was wrong the many times he has brought up the above scenario since.
Another friend who was in the group has visited me recently, and he confided to me that our mutual friends used to think that I was not very good at philosophy, and that they were surprised I did so well on my graduate school applications, despite the fact that I was always one of the most active members of the philosophy group, and despite the fact that I graduated as one of the top students in the major. Now they say that I am very good, and that they misjudged me (only a couple of them ever went on to grad school themselves).
I am still pretty sure the only reason they ever thought that I wasn’t good because they were sexists, and confused my anger at their continued offenses for philosophical incompetence. And now I feel guilty that I constantly excused them anyway. Maybe we should never have been friends. I feel I have indirectly contributed to the bad climate for women by never bringing up any of the issues as feminist issues, and by avoiding feminist subjects as philosophically illegitimate. Nonetheless, if I had not remained friends with them and cut my teeth in debates with them, I would probably only be half as good a philosopher as I am.

I was employed as a feminist philosopher in a department where I was the only woman; that is to say, I was employed to teach feminist theory in philosophy. From the beginning there were questions about my competency, about the nature of my work, and with that, very little support from my male colleagues. I felt very undermined, and this did not help my profound lack of confidence. I was given no mentoring, and the one senior woman in a cognate discipline, was an anti-philosopher. She had no sympathy or understanding for what I was doing. One of my colleagues came and shouted at me in front of a grad student when I sent him an email in which I mis-spelt his name. As a result, I moved my office. No-one came to invite me back to the department; no-one tried to sort the issue out. No-one apologised. To this day the former colleague has never acknowledged his role in my moving office. I eventually returned to another office in the department but the whole event was ignored and never spoken of. When I unsuccessfully applied for a promotion at the very same time my first book with a first rate publisher was published, no-one helped me out or suggested I lodge an appeal. Yet there were clearly politics involved in my lack of success. When I was head of the department, my male colleagues basically ignored me or undermined any of my efforts to secure pedagogical changes that would benefit the discipline. I resigned in frustration and everything went back to as it was. I left suddenly, without any goodbyes after giving appropriate notice. No-one seemed to care that I left, or why. I became a philosopher because I love ideas and their exploration. That has not changed, but I feel emotionally and intellectually abused by my whole experience.

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.

A few years ago, I attended a state philosophical association conference that was divided into two parallel sessions. All the talks in session A were mainstream analytic philosophy talks by men working in metaphysics and epistemology. The talks in session B were a random mix of analytic ethics, pragmatism, continental philosophy, feminist philosophy, and history of philosophy. The talks were delivered by a mix of men and women. In retrospect, it was obvious that the division was between “topics we consider to be important” and “everything else.”

I presented at session A in the afternoon, but attended session B in the morning because I was more interested in session B topics. The chair of my own talk made several sarcastic remarks to me after my paper, His remarks implied that I had skipped all the morning sessions and attended only my own talk.

At the time, I was just confused by his remarks. But I realized some time later that his reasoning almost certainly went something like this: This guy [i.e., me] wasn’t at session A in the morning. Session B is a waste of time, so surely he wasn’t there. Therefore, he skipped everything other than his own paper.

Great start to a conference

Posted: June 6, 2012 by Jender in feminism isn't philosophy

So I had just arrived at Congress, an annual amalgam of the annual meetings of dozens of humanities societies and associations in my country. I was set to participate in two philosophy conferences. It was quite muggy, and I had the rest of the day to myself, so I put on a sleeveless shirt (which will be slightly relevant in a moment) and went to the registration hall to get settled in. While in line, the older man behind me said “You look like a swimmer.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me, so I just looked at him. “I said you look like a swimmer.” “Okay…” I replied. “It’s because of your broad shoulders,” he added. I made a face and turned away from him. He didn’t stop. “Where are you here from?” I felt really uncomfortable, but I responded. “And what are you doing there?” “Philosophy.” Turns out he is also a philosophy professor. Surprise! “What kind of philosophy do you do?” he continued. I told him that I do feminist philosophy. He replied that he didn’t know what that was, and to him, all good philosophy should “do for males and females alike.” Could I please explain to him what the point of my work was? Luckily by then I had reached the head of the line and was able to get away from him.
What a great start to the conference!

I am writing this to tell any potentially discouraged readers to hang in there. I have experienced sexual harassment, dismissiveness, discrimination on the job, and other offensive behavior throughout my time as a grad student and professor in philosophy. Yet I love doing philosophy and teaching so much that none of this can dissuade me from my purpose. I feel lucky to have this rare opportunity to be a philosopher, and nobody’s sexist crap is going to stop me. Don’t let it stop you either if you love philosophy.

As an undergrad philosophy major, I cannot count the number of times I made a point that was dismissed or ignored by the professor, only to have a male student make the same point and receive praise. All of my male undergraduate professors actively discouraged me from applying to grad school on the grounds that my abilities were not up to par. Nevertheless, I was accepted by four top-20 programs.

My grad school mentors were wonderful, supportive, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, from other faculty I witnessed several instances of both physical and verbal sexual harassment of female grad students. For three years, I was the only romantically unattached, heterosexual female grad student in my program. I was pestered and harassed almost daily by the male students, including everything from offensive sexual comments made in the middle of class to relentless efforts to hook up. The specific physical attributes of female students who took philosophy grad courses were enthusiastically discussed in our dept. lounge. Every time the department sought student input into a hiring process, my preference for a candidate was attributed by the other students, in front of the faculty, to my supposed romantic attraction to him. I was frequently quizzed by fellow students about which faculty member(s) or student(s) I would be willing to have sex with, hypothetically, despite my refusal to respond.

When I began attending conferences and APA events, my trusted mentors had to tell me which male professors I should avoid being alone with. Sometimes they accompanied me to parties so that I wouldn’t be harassed. While this may seem like a negative story about the prevalance of sexism, it’s just as much a positive account of the other guys who had my back and wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. Eventually I received many interviews and a few job offers, and all of my success on the job market was directly attributed by my fellow male students to the fact that I am female.

Once I became a professor, I learned what it is like to work closely with men who cannot seem to visually acknowledge your head up there above the breasts. I learned to deal with male students who tried to intimidate me about grades or come on to me. (Specifically, I learned to keep my office door open, and to inform someone else as soon as a student started behaving strangely toward me.) I do not work in feminist philosophy myself, and apparently that has encouraged several male professors to share with me their view that feminist philosophy is junk and not really philosophy. For a while another single female worked in my department. Some male professors hoped that I might be able to report on her sex life, about which they knew nothing but suspected everything. I have had to listen, in the department office, to my colleagues’ descriptions of escapades at strip clubs.

Though all of the aforementioned events were annoying, they did not intimidate me. The sexism that nearly shook my resolve came later, in the form of having my research devalued because I was female, being judged according to different standards from men in pre-tenure reviews, being pressured to take on more teaching and advising duties than others, and eventually being treated unfairly with respect to family/medical leave. Luckily, my resolve is fairly stout. In the hiring process, I have seen numerous female candidates ignored either because their cvs mention the word feminism, or because they are perceived to do “soft” work in ethics. In awarding scholarship funds to our own students, my colleagues consistently downplay females who have stronger records on paper in favor of males with whom they are friendly. My teaching evaluations are good, but male faculty have often commented (in direct contradiction to the facts) that this is probably because I am not a rigorous teacher or strict grader. I am treated like a secretary whenever menial tasks like note-taking must be done, and one of my colleagues (who happened to vote unsuccessfully against tenuring me) told me in all sincerity that I would make a good secretary.

I’m now past worrying about what my colleagues say to or about me. However, I want to create a terrific climate for our students, insofar as it is in my power. I have had to choose my battles for the sake of preserving both job and sanity, but in the long run I’m winning the war. To all the women and men who want to change things: don’t lose heart!

This is what the chair of a Leiter top-20 department says about feminist philosophy. When asked, “What, pray, are the RIGHT reasons to dismiss philosophy?”, he answers, “Much, though not all, postmodernism, and a good chunk (but, again, not all) of feminist philosophy.” Hopefully the portion some of us work on isn’t part of the good chunk

“Like watching a car crash”

Posted: April 15, 2012 by Jender in feminism isn't 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.

Just a reminder, there are philosophy departments out there that are a nightmare for women. No woman professors ever hired, professors (male of course) sleeping with graduate students, humiliating, sexist remarks made to women researchers on public occasions, and of course, last but not least: a war on the field of women’s studies and any and all related fields. (This means you, phenomenology.)

People crack alot of jokes about gender balance, and question whether people go too far with this kind of sensitivity. But there are alot of demoralized women out there. The women at the department I am talking about are probably too afraid to post on this blog.

When I was a tenured Associate Professor with one monograph out and another forthcoming, I was invited to speak at a university in capital city X. My female host sent out my talk title, abstract, and an invitation to attend to a list-serv for everyone interested in Philosophy-in-X. The talk was from the forthcoming book (to be published with Impeccable Credential University Press Z) on a topic in feminist philosophy, and included reference to a pop cultural example. In response to the posting, Famous Male Philosopher Y sent a message to all subscribers saying (pompously) that he thought my abstract was a joke, that such rubbish lowered the tone for all philosophers, and that he hoped no such further nonsense would be advertised. My host forwarded that message to me; I still don’t really understand why. I wondered if she too wanted me to ante up and give a “real philosophy” talk, as opposed to the bullshit I had proposed? We corresponded about what to do if Y turned up and started haranguing me. In the end, only a few people attended the talk anyway, almost all students, they were a perfectly decent audience, and I realized too late how totally throwaway Y’s posting had been. But I lost sleep over it for weeks, and seriously considered canceling the talk. (Y has been in the news a lot lately, trumpeting the cause of excellence and fairness in higher education.)

When I was on a job interview at a small college a decade and a half ago, I gave a paper on sexual harassment. Things were going well until the dinner, when one male professor who was quiet up until that time, spoke up and said, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with feminists: they need to be dominated by a man.” The other department members (all male) remained silent. I engaged this fellow for a short time, but realized quickly that his character was not one that could be changed. I didn’t get the job. I didn’t want it. I reported the incident to the APA Committee on the Status for Women, and I believe I saw the department listed on the “censured list” a few years later.

I am an female undergrad philosophy major at a highly-ranked university (who just happens to be hiring this year). Prior to the start of class one day, some students and the (male) professor were discussing which areas of specialization were needed in our department and therefore likely to get hired. One undergrad mentioned that our school has a need for someone studying feminist philosophy. The professor responded, “Yah, maybe…” Immediately, a male undergrad made the remark, “Who wants to study the philosophy of having a vagina?” Instead of correcting the rather immature young man, the professor simply responded “Well…” and turned to his computer to prepare for class.

I just want to weigh in to the discussion about the quality of feminist philosophy with a brief (and hopefully obvious) point: of course there is a lot of bad feminist philosophy going on, just as there is a lot of poor scholarship going on in just about every branch of philosophy, and every other discipline too. What is bizarre is how quick some apparently intelligent philosophers are to make the fallacy of the sweeping generalization. It reminds me of this.

I am a female philosopher, and I completed my undergraduate degree in Philosophy in Europe (in the 2000s). In the post “What we’re up against: One man’s view of women who do feminist philosophy”, a male philosopher expresses his sentiments about feminist philosophy. He is harshly criticized by some later (male) posters, one of whom calls the original post “insane”. I’d like to add my two cents. I haven’t been in contact with feminist philosophers or feminist philosophy since I’ve come to the U.S., but at my undergraduate institution, they sometimes offered undergraduate classes in philosophy or literature that were cross-listed with gender studies. I and many of my friends, after attending a few of those seminars, carefully avoided these classes after a while. Being philosophy majors, we were used to being able to have a rational discussion about pretty much anything, and we took it as a given that no claim would be accepted without good reasons. Arguing in this way in those classes was made impossible by some of the students of gender studies. They were easily upset, and rather than offering arguments for their views, they claimed that the person who was challenging their views was trying to offend them. If a professor tried to discourage them from arguing in this way, they accused the professor of being anti-feminist. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with feminist philosophy as a discipline, or that most people working in feminist philosophy are like the students I described. However, from my experiences as an undergraduate, I have gained the impression that gender studies/feminist philosophy seems to attract certain types of problematic students, who are very vocal and leave a bad impression.

It is very unfortunate, though, when a few black sheep are taken to be representative of all feminist philosophers, like in the example of the post mentioned above.

I hope this submission is one of a chorus of male philosophers seeking to distance ourselves from the author of the—frankly—insane post (“What we’re up against: One man’s view of women who do feminist philosophy”). The views in that post are completely ridiculous. I hesitate to even engage with the views expressed there, for fear of giving them more credibility than they deserve. I do not have, by the way, any particular exposure to feminist philosophy, but I do identify as a male feminist, and try to work towards raising awareness of the issues facing women in philosophy. And on that note, please keep the “do try this at home” posts coming!

I am a male philosopher, and I have a very different perception of feminist philosophers and their reputation than the earlier commenter. I think feminist philosophers have done absolutely central, transformative work in areas like political philosophy and philosophy of science. Feminist philosophers are some of the best around, able to root out bad assumptions that we’ve overlooked for years. The ridiculous stereotypes you see in that earlier post (and in occasional conversation with anti-feminist philosophers) show that feminist philosophy continues to be needed.

While I wouldn’t presume to know what most other male philosophers think, my general impression from people I’ve actually talked to is one of respect for feminist philosophers. When you hear the negative stereotypes (over dinner-party conversation, say), the most frequent reaction I’ve seen (at least, amongst younger philosophers) is shock and dismay.

I am a male philosopher and these are my impressions of women in philosophy for what they are worth. I have just as much respect for women philosophers in any area of philosophy as I have for men in an area of philosophy, except for one area: feminism. I am suspicious of feminism for several reasons. First, I think a lot of it (though not all) is very poor quality, often an embarrassment to the profession. (Most male philosophers think the same, even if they won’t admit it publicly, and so do many women philosophers who don’t work in feminism.) Second, I think feminism is too political, and philosophy should not have so much of a political agenda. I often think it is as much, if not more, political than it is philosophical. Third, not only is it political, but it is also very, very radical, often being anti-men, anti-family, even anti-children, and many feminists are lesbians as well (perhaps even by choice, because they hate men). I regard this type of feminist as a real oddity, even a total eccentric, a figure of amusement and of sociological interest, rather than someone to be taken seriously. Fourth, I have a bit of a stereotype of feminists, I guess, whenever I meet one: that they secretly hate me (or at least are very suspicious of me, and don’t really trust me or any man), and that they might be angry, disagreeable bitches, no matter how they appear on the surface. This puts me off wanting to discuss my views with them, or wanting to read them. This is a pity because I agree one hundred percent that women have to put up with a lot of terrible harassment, discrimination, and other problems detailed in earlier posts. But whenever I see a woman listing “feminism” among her interests, I become suspicious, even though I know that not all feminists fall into these categories and that the topic is worthy of discussion, and that some are doing very good work in that field.

In 2002, as an enthusiastic undergraduate, I already knew that I wanted to go on to study for a Master’s and PhD in philosophy, and that the only thing I could see myself being was an academic. But first I needed to get my degree, which meant writing an undergraduate dissertation. The department I was in at the time made it compulsory for all undergraduates to attend so-called “dissertation design” classes, where someone who knew little about our areas of interest or proposed projects would read our dissertation proposals and give us comments on how to improve them.

This was taken by an out-and-proud misogynist, who proceeded to publicly rip my proposal to pieces on the grounds that “feminist theory isn’t proper philosophy”, and that there is nothing of scholarly interest or merit to be said from a feminist perspective. He took delight in saying this loudly in front of the class of about 30 other students, laughing heartily at my silly idea that work exploring feminist issues could be both valuable and analytically rigorous, and inviting the men in the class to laugh along with him.

I also made the mistake of telling him of my future plans for graduate study, to which he replied: “Oh, don’t bother doing that. I always tell my female students – don’t you worry about getting the BA: just concentrate on getting the MRS”.

I got a first class grade for the dissertation and the degree, and now, in 2010, have just been awarded the PhD. Still no Mrs though: my partner and I are content living in sin as Dr and Dr.

Sometimes, being a woman in philosophy is glorious. It is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Correction: Barring my personal affectionate relationships, it IS, it just is the best thing that has ever happened to me, to be a woman in philosophy.

It has also, at times, been the worst, but I already wrote a post about the worst of times, so let me explain when it’s glorious: I still remember my first attempt at writing feminist philosophy, and it was awful, it was a lame and untutored student effort. Then, I took more graduate-level course work in feminist philosophy. I studied with an exemplar in the field. I joined SWIP and FEAST and traded papers, conference commentary, whole chapters of the dissertation (and a later book) with other women in philosophy. I have had days of sheer, unadulterated inspiration when I read feminist works and am flooded with appreciation and critical response, and those days have resulted in my best and strongest writings. Today, I can say that I am a very good philosopher. This simply would not be the case without the women in philosophy who have treated me with respect, deference and a disposition to believe that I have something to offer.

Sadly, this has been true at the same time that individual, particular men in philosophy have let me know that they are disposed to believe I have nothing to offer, that writing about women or feminism is irrelevant, that it is a sign of uncritical dogmatism or lack of rigor. It is all the more reason that it is important for women in philosophy to engage each other. You don’t need to agree with fellow women, that would be tiresome. But the readiness of women to engage with me has been transformative. Ich bin ein Philosopher!