As I pressed the “publish” button on the “Philosophical Topics of Interest to Women?” post, the old Saturday Night Live commercial for “Chess for Girls!” popped into my head. It was a warning, but one that I allowed to go unheeded. In part this was owed to exhaustion, in part to distraction, in part to what might be a less-than-optimal amount of conscientiousness about certain things, and in part because the person whose inquiry was featured in the post is, in fact, a good and smart person who I know to be sincerely concerned with improving the climate for women in philosophy, and so I did not have my guard up.
A minute after I published the post, criticisms started rolling in—via instant message, email, Facebook, and eventually in comments here at Daily Nous. I headed off to a full-day philosophy workshop, finding time here and there to approve each comment in the growing pile of objections. It was nice to be forced away from the blog for much of the day as this was going on. But now the workshop is over. I have reread the comments here, the post at Feminist Philosophers about it, and can now share my thoughts, in case you’re interested.
First, let me thank those of you who have written to me about this, either privately or in comments here or on Facebook or on other blogs. I’m grateful for the criticisms, and see them as chances for learning. I’m also grateful for the charity that most commentators have extended to me while making their objections, in regard to my intentions (and also to the professor whose question I posted, in regard to his intentions). And I am also appreciative of those who included kind words about Daily Nous when presenting their objections.
Second, it should have been rather clear to me that the question, as presented, embeds some explicitly sexist assumptions and lends itself easily to a further sexist read apart from those assumptions. Also, my posting of it placed a burden of explanation on those who already have their hands full dealing with and fighting sexism elsewhere. So, even though the ensuing discussion was really very interesting and I think quite useful, I apologize for posting it as I did. It was a mistake to post something so sexist.
Third, let me address the call that some people made for me to delete the post. I did not do this for a few reasons. Mainly, it felt like a cheat—an attempt to revise the record. Better, I thought, to not try to hide the mistake, but rather to use it as a learning opportunity, for me and for the readers. I’m kind of Millian about these things, and have the hope (perhaps unfounded) that, generally (generally, not always), further discussion of problematic issues is better than silence.
Fourth, just to be clear, I’d like to say what I would do if I could do it all over again. I would post it again, but, first, I would have edited the query before posting it, eliminating the sexist examples, and eliminating any language that assumes that there are “topics that are more likely to be of interest to women than other topics.” Second, I would have added some editorial remarks that indicate explicitly that, along several dimensions, the value of asking this question is up for discussion. Third, I would have added remarks that stress that acceptable answers to the query will be based on data and people’s real teaching experiences and not on sexist assumptions and speculation. And finally, I would have made some remarks about how even data-based generalizations about students’ preferences may be of little use, and may reinforce harmful and limiting stereotypes.
Let me again thank everyone for taking the time to comment on these matters, and apologize for posting the question as I did. I recognize that Daily Nous is a kind of public space for the profession, and that I need to exercise wisdom in tending it. I am still working on the wisdom thing, though, and so I appreciate you all stepping up to help when I need it.
P.S. Today is another travel day, so comments may be slow to appear.