Many of you will remember Betsy Postow, from the SWIP conference in Stirling, in April of this year. I was utterly shocked and saddened to learn, this morning, that she has died. The following is an obituary, which I received on the SWIP listserv:
Betsy Carol Postow (1945-2007)
Betsy Postow suffered unexpected complications from a blood clot and died on the morning of Friday, June 22. Those who knew her even slightly will remember her as one of the most brilliant, yet also gentle and generous, and one of the most delightfully excitable, individuals they will ever know. Perhaps fostered by her devoted practice of Buddhist meditation (not to mention obsessively healthy diet, circle dancing and performance with the recorder), her youthful charm and angelic complexion will also be remembered, along with a somewhat childlike innocence: in the words of a former colleague, “when she encountered dishonesty, she was surprised. Evil astonished her.”
Betsy lived her first years in the Bronx, New York City: across the street, as it happened, from the paternal grandparents of her eventual colleague Sheldon Cohen. She graduated–summa cum laude–from Harpur College of the State University of New York, Binghamton, in 1966, and received her Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1970 from Yale. After a year of teaching in the University of Wisconsin system, she spent the rest of her career at the University of Tennessee, where, outside of her extremely conscientious devotion to the Philosophy department, her impact was by no means limited, but was strikingly characterized by early and consistent dedication, to the advancement of women in academics and society at large. Her first public presentation was a talk on “Philosophy and Women” in 1973; one of her last was as a discussion leader on “Feminist Ethics” for the Association of Women Faculty. In between, she published an influential anthology of articles on women in sports; a major book on reason and action; sixty academic papers and reviews, several of which have been reprinted (and one translated into Russian); and she gave 80 professional presentations in addition to numerous appearances on campus and before local organizations, besides service to the Faculty Senate, numerous committees, and the local chapter of the AAUP.
During the late 1970s and 80s, Betsy’s scholarly presentations and publications in ethics and social philosophy (including nine papers in “Analysis”, “Ethics”, “Philosophy and Phenomenological Research”, and “Philosophical Studies”) combined with participation in workshops and seminars on teaching philosophy, on which she published five pieces. Her very influential anthology on “Women, Philosophy, and Sport” (Rowman and Littlefield) appeared in 1983: a volume to which she contributed four substantial introductory essays and an Afterword, and for which the participating authors will recall her tireless efforts toward improvement of their own contributions. Beginning in the mid-80s there came a growing focus on rationality and reasons for action, continuing through the 90s alongside ongoing publication and presentations on classical issues in ethics, and culminating in 1999 in “Reasons for Action: Toward a Normative Theory and Meta-Level Criteria” (Kluwer). With the new century came the perception of duty’s call to help meet the department’s growing demand for higher-level courses in Business Ethics. This was something entirely new to Betsy, but she characteristically volunteered to learn the issues and did well enough to present several papers dealing with them. Characteristically as well, she was able to see the theoretical import of problems in the area for her developing work on ethical pluralism.
Betsy was particularly active throughout her career in the Society for Women in Philosophy, beginning with service on the SWIP Steering Committee for local meetings in 1976 and 1979 and on the Executive Committee as representative of the Southern region 1976-1977. She was also president of the Tennessee Philosophical Association in 1977, member of committees and of the Council of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology 1991-1996, and of committees of the American Philosophical Association 1994-1995. Needless to say, she was also a frequent contributor to programs of the APA.
Betsy was of course still working at the very highest level to the end. Of her most recently published article, “Toward Honest Ethical Pluralism” (“Philosophical Studies” 132 ) one of its referees had predicted that the journal would be particularly proud to have published it, as it was a first-rate contribution and likely to be widely anthologized. In Fall 2006, she was a Visiting Scholar at the Ethics Institute of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, where she gave three scholarly presentations on rational decision-making (and from which she returned with a particular love for Dutch licorice in its various forms). She returned to Europe in April of this year to deliver a talk on “Care Ethics and Impartial Reasons,” in Stirling, Scotland, before the Society for Women in Philosophy.
Betsy believed in the power of human reason unlike few others, and she was in her own person as fair-minded and reasonable a friend and colleague as one could possibly imagine. In the words of a colleague, “Although for years she turned away practical ethical questions with the caveat that she did not do ‘applied ethics,’ she nonetheless tried in every way to make her daily living conform to what she rationally saw as the good way to live.” To her colleagues in Philosophy both at UT and afar, and to her students, she will also be long remembered for the generous time that she was ever willing to contribute to individual collaboration, instruction, and commentary. Her loss has been a shock and a sorrow from which it will be difficult to recover.
A Memorial Fund has been established in Betsy’s name through the UT Development Office, to be used by the Philosophy Department to fund scholarships and fellowships for students, with special focus on the recruitment and retention of women students: Betsy Postow Memorial Fund, University of Tennessee Office of Development, 600 Andy Holt Tower, Knoxville, TN 37996-0165.
Richard E. Aquila, The University of Tennessee