The following is a guest post* from a woman graduate student in philosophy who wishes to remain anonymous.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the complicated ways issues of equity connect with intellectual and professional respect. On philosophy blogs there has been extensive discussion regarding the climate for women in philosophy, issues of sexual misconduct, what treatment we owe to the accused, and, lately, academic freedom. One issue that has not yet fully surfaced is the intellectual cost to the profession at large when our culture prevents certain social groups from flourishing within it. I want to offer a window into one woman student’s thinking as the philosophical community continues in these discussions.
Many months ago now, I received a ‘revise and resubmit’ on a paper I had sent off to a journal, but since then, I have been avoiding actually revising and resubmitting. I have three other papers that I have been hanging on to, tinkering with each occasionally, though I’ve been advised that I ought to try sending them some place too. My hesitance has nothing to do with the content or the work. After I submitted the first paper, I realized my unease wasn’t mere nervous anticipation. I was uncomfortable because the philosophical literature is a showcase for our mutual engagement as academics. It’s a conversational exchange within a community. There is give and take; and I am not yet sure how much I want to let philosophy take from me, or how much I am willing to give. I don’t know how I could productively contribute to our joint scholarly project without questioning my sense of self-respect (in light of some of my own experiences), or without questioning my own complicity (knowing something about the suffering of those who have been, and are being, driven from it).
It may well turn out that any philosophical contributions I have to offer are of no consequence anyway—but I am not alone. I hadn’t articulated these quiet misgivings, even to myself, until a conversation with another woman philosopher who revealed to me that she is withholding her most significant work from literature on account of a similar question. Of course, I’ll need to publish eventually if I want a job. But while I love philosophy and thoroughly enjoy teaching, there are times where I am deeply conflicted about whether or not I genuinely want to continue after I finish my degree. There are certainly many features of my experiences with philosophers to recommend such a career. I have found some wonderful friends, intelligent and creative colleagues, a place where I can pursue my interests, and mentors who give me hope that I might, someday, feel at home in the profession.
All the same, what should I think about my place in a discipline that sometimes feels like an episode of Mad Men, only with less well-tailored clothing? How am I supposed to feel about the worth of my welfare when I can no longer count the number of people I know who have been sexually assaulted by fellow philosophers on one hand? How should I respond when I am told that I ought to keep silent about such things until I have tenure? Why would I want to adapt to a professional culture where this is normal? Will it be possible to succeed without becoming part of the problem along the way?
Psychologically, I can cope with all of this. The questions, rather, are whether or not I should, and whether or not I want to. Importantly, this is not merely an ethical issue. It raises a question about how much talent have we lost because we have failed to allow all of our community members to achieve their potential, and we have failed to attract and retain so many other prospective philosophers (and of course, the fact that we are witnessing so much discussion of issues of gender at all is a testament to how far things have progressed in that respect—how much talent have we lost from other underrepresented groups?). There is this connection, then, between misconduct and the limits of appropriate professional participation: even if someone’s behavior has nothing to do with their ideas at all, it has everything to do with who else will be willing and able to enter our conversation at all.
As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius; and the feminine situation has up to the present rendered this becoming practically impossible.” We are all worse off when we systematically prevent others from achieving, and sharing, their intellectual potential.
(art: detail from Pelican with Young by Mary Ann Willson)