“Women Philosophers Who Are Not ‘Women In Philosophy'”


The first evening of the conference, there was scheduled a reception for Women in Philosophy at one of the local pubs, and upon viewing this on the schedule, she and I had one of those “Are you going?” “I dunno, are you going?” “I don’t really want to go if I’m going to be the only one.” “I’ll go if you go.” sorts of conversations. Neither of us had an inherent desire to go to the event because of the type of event that it was, but we both felt that, as women in philosophy, there may have been some sort of obligation on us to attend, because it’s an event that’s organized specifically for us—and wouldn’t it be a bit churlish not to go?

But as the afternoon waned on, we talked more, and we agreed: Neither of us really fancied the idea of going and hanging out with a bunch of people we don’t know simply because they’re the same gender as us (especially when, given our druthers, we’d rather hang out with people of the opposite gender). So we instead went out to a different pub with a mixed group, and proceeded to have a very interesting conversation about whether or not we actually had an obligation that we were shirking by not going to the Women in Philosophy reception—a very interesting conversation that included both men and women, something that almost by definition could not have happened if we had gone to the reception, and which had two interesting results. One, one of the men involved relayed how in previous years, the reception has explicitly excluded men, which meant that while it was going on, the men gathered in another room of the pub, and there—without the tempering effect of women—conversation degenerated into the worst of belligerent agonistic philosophy. Thus, while women only events in philosophy may be beneficial for women in philosophy, one might wonder whether they are beneficial for philosophy. Two, we came to the conclusion that neither of us had an obligation on behalf of ourselves to attend the event: If we did not think the event would be beneficial for us, then there was no obligation on us to attend. (Whew! That meant I could enjoy my company and my beer and not feel guilty).

However, there remains the issue of whether we might have obligations towards others to go—to other women in philosophy. In particular, it is unlikely that there would’ve been any other female logicians at the event (which was one of the reasons we weren’t that interested in attending in the first place); however, what if there were a young female graduate student interested in doing logic, but unsure of the advisability of pursuing it, perhaps because of gendered reasons, and who would perhaps have benefited from going to such an event and seeing some more senior (how on earth have I moved into the “senior academic” category? I think it’s the grey hairs) women logicians? I know that I personally never felt the lack of senior female role models—all my best teachers and role models were men, and this never bothered me or seemed problematic—but I also know that I cannot consider myself typical (in fact, I think I am extremely atypical, and also a combination of extremely lucky and extremely oblivious. I have followed What’s it like to be a woman in philosophy? for years, and I have read the stories there with a sense of disconnect with (my) reality: I could not identify with a single story written there. I finally submitted my own a few days ago. Take a look at the title they gave it. Isn’t that sad?). Since I cannot assume that my case is typical, I should assume that there are others out there who would benefit from having someone like me around. Do I have an obligation to them to attend such events?

In the end, the group had a strong argument to the conclusion that “while members of oppressed groups may have a responsibility to resist their own oppression, they don’t have a responsibility (simpliciter) to resist the oppression of others in the oppressed group”. Even though that conclusion excluded me of any responsibility to attend the event, I’m a little bit hesitant to assent to it. I think I do have an obligation towards these amorphous, indistinct others, but I don’t have a good sense of how this translates into concrete action, i.e., which women in philosophy events I can skip and which I can’t…

Those are the words of Sara L. Uckelman (Durham), at her blog, Diary of Dr. Logic. About another event, she writes:

The discussion was actually focused on the 30th anniversary of a special issue of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy on Women and Philosophy, with a number of the contributors to the journal there to reflect on how things have changed (or not) for women in the discipline in the last 30 years. I ended up finding the entire event profoundly uncomfortable. There were a number of times in which “areas that women work on in philosophy” was equated with “feminist philosophy”. Hello! What does that make MY work? Or what does it make ME?…

Sometimes I feel like only those who do feminist philosophy can rightfully claim to be women in philosophy…

I came away from this roundtable with a profound feeling that if this is what Women and Philosophy is, then the only logical conclusion is that either I am not a woman (or the right kind of woman) or what I do is not philosophy (or not the right kind of philosophy)…

A few of us decided we needed to start a club for women philosophers who are not “women in philosophy”

Those are just excerpts; go and read the whole interesting post.

Over at Feminist Philosophers, Magical Ersatz comments on Uckelman’s concerns:

If my experiences talking with women grad students and early career philosophers working in technical subfields is at all representative, I think that at least some of the frustrations that Uckelman expresses in her post are not uncommon. There’s sometimes a delicate interplay between philosophers who are feminists (that is, philosophers committed to feminism) and feminist philosophers (that is, philosophers whose research interests include feminist philosophy). And I think it’s easy for women who work in technical or esoteric parts of metaphysics, logic, and epistemology to be made to feel—often implicitly, but sometimes explicitly—that they are somehow less feminist in virtue of their research areas. And this can easily make them feel as though, somehow, they are the ‘wrong kind’ of women for women-in-philosophy spaces…

There’s no one way to be a woman in philosophy, and no right or better thing to work on if you’re a woman in philosophy. Valuing traditionally marginalized areas of philosophy— including feminist philosophy—shouldn’t come at the expense of saying that other areas are somehow less good or less worthy.

The above posts originally appeared on Friday and over the weekend, and might have been missed by many interested in the topic. Discussion is welcome here, though I ask that the comments on this particular post, at least for now, just come from women who are or have been in the philosophy profession (as students or professors), and not from men. (The “I Am Smart Chorus”: “But Justin, doesn’t that exemplify the very thinking that Uckelman is concerned about?” Maybe. But knowing what I know about how the internet works—and really, one does not need to know much to understand this—I’m just not interested in hearing men’s opinions about women-only philosophy events at the moment.) Thank you for your cooperation with this request.

Sarah Morris, painting from the Rio series

Sarah Morris, painting from the Rio series

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