Aging and the female philosopher

FemaleScienceProfessor observes today

… it still amazes me that any man in the physical sciences today can seriously ask the “what if there are no qualified women” question as if it is a sane question. 

Her post starts off with the story of a conference which had to have at least one woman speaker and did meet that very minimal requirement.

One could be excused for thinking that the only thing worse than being a women in a male dominated field, such as philosophy, engineering, the sciences and math tend to be, is to be an aging woman in one of those fields. As one’s social-sexual value diminishes, the fact that one is thought to have little or no intellectual value becomes all the more evident.

And everyone knows that one’s abilities are on the decline after 40 or 50, right? Maybe not.

Margaret Mead said, “There is no more creative force in the world than a menopausal woman with zest.”  A ‘health article’ in the NY Times puts the point in today’s idiom. Its title: Evolution’s Secret Weapon: Grandma.

Studies of modern hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Venezuela and Eastern Paraguay — societies that offer insights into how humans evolved — consistently show that Grandma is doing much of the work. … Often, the scientists find, women in their 60s are as strong as women in their 20s. “It’s the women over 40 who are carrying the heavy loads,’’ said Dr. Hawkes.

If one looks at how much of academic and business life is shaped by expectations built on men’s lives, the differences in aging may reveal an overlooked way in which the talent and potential contributions of women are squandered. 

The article is drawing on research by Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah. The results of her work have been in the public domain for some time. As Natalie Angier noted in 1997

As Dr. Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah and her colleagues have found in their extensive studies of the Hadza, women in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and beyond are among the most industrious members of the group. They are out in the woods for seven or eight hours a day, gathering more food than virtually any of their comrades.

4 thoughts on “Aging and the female philosopher

  1. As an aging female philosopher I can tell you that even when I was in my thirties, some of the men in the field treated me like “mum” by using me as a sounding board for their troubles. By the time I was in my forties, students were starting to tell me I reminded them of their mother. I have perfectly wonderful children of my own, and I don’t need any more. Nor was I doing anything, as far as I could tell, to encourage them to see me as their mother. The impression I had was that these students were not telling the male professors that they (the profs) reminded the students of their fathers.
    Mary Carpenter, a literary theorist, coined the term “sexagism” to describe the particular form of sexism that is directed at middle-aged and elderly women. I know that female university staff as well as faculty experience it. A female colleague, still in her forties, said to me recently that she already feels like a “has-been”.

  2. Introvertica, thinking about your comment lead me to realize some of the complementary facets of the situation. For example:

    1. The young women who employ the strategy of saying at meetings: “The male philosophers in this room are just so wonderful and I’m so grateful to be here with them.” As a strategy, executed by an attractive young woman, this works. That is, the value of her opinion is increased, as measured by the amount she is called upon.

    2. The guys who are taken in by such strategies. Recent observations at conferences suggests that it’s not confined to one discipline.

  3. A couple of random thoughts.
    To JJ: Young guys in the profession get ahead a lot by kissing senior asses, too.

    To Introvertica: The mom comparison isn’t all bad. I find more and more of my students have quite impressive moms: doctors, lawyers, chemical engineers, social activists. I’m not a mom, but I like the comparisons sometimes. “My mom is also [like you] smart, independent, a career woman, decisive, socially concerned… {etc.).”

  4. Interesting points, Calypso9999. What has to accompany the kissing up for the targets to conclude that indeed there’s real philosophical talent here? Real talent would be nice, but how about the cases where talent doesn’t seem the deciding factor. E.e., the ‘perpetrators’ are very cute and sweet and completely wrong about the sources they cite?

    This might be tricky to pursue. One thing you could be pointing to is that middle age kissing up is generally pretty uninteresting and so ineffectual. That’s sounds to me like a truth, but I’d want to think a bit more…

    Perhaps your fundamental point about students is that the paradigms of mothers are indeed changing. It’s possible that our students think beyond mothering as providing bandaids and cookies. We should certainly take note of this.

    Now, if I could just get my students to call me “Dr” or “Prof”, and not “Mrs”!!!

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