Stanley Fish v. Feminist Theory & Cognitive Neuroscience


The connection is a matter of conjecture, but three things are not:

1.  Stanley Fish’s remark in the NY Times about how boring the run-up to the elections is turning out to be.  And his comment:

 It’s often been said that once a woman or an African-American wins the presidency, the obstacles attached to gender and race will just fade away. They already have. I’m not saying that no one will vote against Obama because he’s black; but everyone gets voted against for something, and now that we have gotten quite used to Obama, voting against him because he’s black will be just another ordinary exercise of prejudice, not a special or particularly notable one.

Let’s leave aside the extraordinary idea that the obstacles have faded and look at the claim that follows.  Since “everyone gets voted against for something,” a racist vote against Obama is just par for the course? What is so very hard to understand about the effects of racism or sexism? Voting against someone because you do not like the way they stare into the camera is very different from participating in a prejudice that ends up with a group of people most of whom are disadvantaged in comparison with those who escape the prejudice.

2. Feminist standpoint theory holds that those who live as a subordinate group can understand the world in ways not accessible to the normal understanding of the subordinating person. 

3.  Cognitive neuroscience has explored the many ways in which our capacities to, for example, move through a complex environment are grounded in neural connections almost all of which are below our awareness.  This morning I was thinking of an old example of Elizabeth Anscombe’s:  Someone is coming down a stair and stumbles at the end; they say, “O, I thought there was another step” even though no such thought would have occurred to them.  What this captures is the way that our bodies can embodied expectations of which we are usually unaware, but which it seems right to count as expectations about the environment.

So here’s the conjectured connection:  a lot of us have a knowledge of the effects of living as objects of prejudice and we have a deep bodily-based sense of it.  The expectations are often ones that feminists may spend a lot of effort to bring out and understand.  But the understanding itself is so hard to communicate  because it is a matter of connections that are often part of our quite fundamental ways of coping with our environment. 

The chances of Stanley Fish’s getting it are not that great unless he makes more of an effort than he seems to have done so far.  But we’ve tried to help here and here.

Here’s how it goes: a real tale from academia

First of all, you need to know that I created a PRETTY GOOD THING. My close male colleague, MN, and I also run A JOLLY NICE GROUP.  And they are connected in that MN helped me  with the PGT and it benefits the JNG, though in fact it helps a lot of others too.

So MN was at a conference and asked me to send him an email flyer about the  PGT, which I did.  PGT, we all agreed, should be open to everyone and I didn’t want it to look like it would have a dominating administrative structure or anything.  The long and the short of it is that I referred faculty to myself (“Contact Dr. jj if you are interested”) but put in an unassuming title, like ‘university coordinator.’  BIG MISTAKE, because MN also sent the  email flyer to our faculty listserv with his return address and everyone who didn’t recognize my name assumed I was a secretary.  “Dear Ms. jj….”

But that’s not a huge deal and I just started to use a more authoritative title, so people could understand why I was actually making some of the decisions.

However, last week MN revealed that he received a letter when the notice went out.  The letter congratulated him on building the PGT, and went onto the issue of his appointing me to the position.  The letter actually vents a lot of academic ill will and slams my character and accomplishments, from publications to promotions, claims I used female charms (e.g., wooed the provost) to get some things, and so on and so forth.  Wow!  I certainly was amazed that anyone would think that wooing would win me anything.  Even if I were inclined to use that, I’m far past the age where that’s a very promising strategy.  But there it is.  And maybe “wooing” was a metaphor?  For paying them money?!?!?

The letter was anonymous, of course.

The interesting question is who is upset about what.  MN is very upset about the letter, and revealed it only because someone else was attacking the PGT.  (A “I don’t know who you all think you are” sort of attack from a department chair in an unpleasantly public way.) 

I reckon that  if  the flyer  had gone out to the faculty under my name with MN as the coordinator, I would have been still assumed to be the secretary.   It’s the sexism, from the assumption that MN gets all the credit, to the idea that I was wooing people to get privileges that is what’s gotten to me.  The hate is hopefully fairly localized; I know the sexism is not.

Mind you, I haven’t actually read the full anonymous hate letter. 

So is this sort of experience typical for women when they get visible power in their society?  Gosh!  Whatever would make one think that?!?



Who cares if a professor is a woman or a man? And an addition

Maybe if you are a journalist taking a week-long science course at MIT, having a female teacher makes a HUGE difference.  Want to generalize from that?  Well, maybe.

Here’s the NY Times’ Judith Warner:

I was attending a journalism workshop called “Frontiers of Brain Science.” The other participants were all real science writers, people who don’t have to rack their brains to remember the meaning of the word “ion.”

At M.I.T., we were mostly spoken to by men, various kinds of men, of different ages and with different speaking styles, and we interacted with them with typical reportorial formality. Some were more popular with us than others; some were more engaged with us than others. Some spoke right over our heads; some reached even me with perfect clarity.

Something very different happened, however, on the two occasions when we were spoken to by women. The atmosphere in the room changed. We all became more familiar. We asked more questions. We interrupted more. We made sounds of assent or dissent; we questioned methods, concepts, base assumptions. It was as though, with the women, the boundaries dissolved. We were all immediately drawn into relationships.

I know that there was no conscious desire on anyone’s part to talk back to them or treat them with less respect. But one woman in particular, Rebecca Saxe, a young, dynamic professor of neurobiology at M.I.T. who gave a riveting presentation on social cognition — “how we reason about the desires and intentions that motivate others’ actions” — was interrupted so much by her super-engaged audience that she didn’t have time to get through essential portions of her talk.

If you don’t teach, you might want to know that the “container model of education” – the professor is to pour knowledge into the students’ mind by lecturing – is not very admired. A thoroughly engaged classroom is considered a wonderful goal to aim at, at least in the US. Every book on improving university teaching I have seen has such engagement as a primary mark of fine teaching.

Of course, women profs can drone on with the best of them. It’s so interesting, though, that the journalists saw the women in this example present knowledge in terms of a personal engagement.

Addition: There are great observations in comments (1) and (3). Let me try to add to the discussion by quoting a bit more of the article. The second part seems to me really worth thinking about. The author, it should be said, worries about the sort of reaction she records.

How much of this had to do with the fact that the women tended to speak more relationally (“I think,” “I feel”), I don’t know. I don’t know if it was created by the fact that the women — to varying degrees — turned the story of their work into personal narratives.

“What did you think?” I breathed to a fellow female fellow, as we filed out of the classroom for lunch.
“I have a crush on her [Saxe – jj],” she said. The women around us made approving noises.
“It was her passion and energy and approach that was infectious,” she later explained in an e-mail. “I really had an emotional reaction to her, and found myself day dreaming about being her friend.”

Take back the blogosphere?

I went to a very interesting event this week, organised by Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy.  A bunch of left liberal bloggers got together to talk about how blogging might engage with and have an impact on national (UK) politics.

The second part of the session (read more about what went on in the first part, and see pics here) addressed the question ‘where are all the women bloggers?’.  Some of the points raised and issues aired in the lively discussion:

  • there seemed to be a failure, by some male bloggers, to properly reference or acknowledge their discussion of topics raised by female bloggers.
  • it was suggested that women – especially feminist bloggers – might be put off blogging by the nasty trolling that might occur.
  • it was mentioned that sometimes women’s comments were ignored or not properly addressed in threads of some of the blogs.
  • that feminist blogging is seen as separate from ‘mainstream’ political blogging was discussed as a problem.
  • it was asked how men might engage with women bloggers, given the complaints of, on the one hand,giving insufficient attention to women’s or feminist’s bloggings from male political bloggers, and on the other, their alleged ‘hijacking’ of debates or comment threads (answer: respect required!). For more on this topic, see the post at the F word, here.

In the spirit of the discussion, and of drawing attention to women bloggers (and on the viral linkage, ourselves!), here are some left liberal blogs by women, that I discovered at the session. If you have such a blog, or know of others please do share the links in the comments!

 Also at the session, and on the women bloggsters scene:

( And for UK politics junkies, see this:

  • Westmonster (comment from the corridors of parliament))

Updated: More from the comments-

From JJ:

Jeralyn Merritt and her main writers are lawyers; they are interested particularly in issues about criminal law and politics

This is a widely admired blog and well cited in the blogsphere.
I’ve heard from good sources that Digby is a woman. While not a feminist blog, its take on things is at least congenial to a feminist approach

From QuestionThat:

Clairwil (
Cheryl (
Trixy (

Ambush predator (


(Updated from comments, thanks! Keep the links coming!)


Take a movie break: “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”

 Flying is out on DVD this month, and lucky feministphilosophers got a screener for reviewing.  When this was a feature at Sundance, the buzz was that it was about “gender issues,” but it’s both more and less than that.  Flying is Jennifer Fox’s episodic autobiographical documentary about her own search for what it means to be a woman, and to be happy, two fundamental philosophical questions treated deeply at somes times, trivially at others, with a good dose of humor lightening up the self-indulgence.  If that’s the way you’d describe conversations with girlfriends over a bottle of wine, it’s no coincidence. Such chats with her friends in multiple countries are half the film.


 In an interview Jennifer Fox said she was a “typical modern woman trying to make sense of my life by talking to other women,” and although she was way off the mark with regard to how typical she is, the project of talking to other women to make more sense out of life is both instantly relatable and innovative.  The six-episode series begins with what Fox calls her personal crisis: entering her forties, lacking the milestones of other women – marriage, kids, long-term relationship – and touched off, in the first episode, at the moment she calls her married lover and gets his wife on the phone (which is interesting, but I’m just saying, not a universal experience).


 Fox embarks on the project of interviewing the women she knows, and at times, passing the camera to them to interview her, in a collaborative effort to make sense of how to be women, and to be happy, which are not always the same things.  The series has been compared to Sex and the City (oh, please), to soap operas, to Annie Hall, etc., but in the spirit of feministphilosophers, I reject the comparisons.  This show is its own animal, going to the source to ask real women around the world about their experiences with sex, abortion, birth control, divorce, abuse, love, motherhood, marriage, and friendship.  Philosophers will smile sympathetically when I say Fox suffers from Nussbaum syndrome, i.e., this worthwhile project could still use more editing and goes longer than it needs, but at least in a series, each episode gets to end with a cliffhanger! Excellent.  Worth a viewing, and for another week, $3 from each DVD sale will benefit the organization, Our Bodies, Ourselves.


Female terrorists

Time magazine reports, here, on the deployment of women suicide bombers. In sending us the link (thanks!), Time described the article as ‘shed[ing] some light on the cycle of hopelessness some Iraqi women find themselves in, and wonders what their motives are, if not political or religious.’

Brief overview: the piece focuses on one woman, Hasna (not her real name) who undertook a suicide bombing mission, after her brother died in a failed attempt. It is suggested that her motivations were not primarily religious or political, but that rather her state of grief and hopelessness was what made her vulnerable to undertaking terrorism.

First off, it is of course very difficult to imagine what kind of social context and mind set would make suicide bombing seem like a good option. And the article does indeed show that situations of desperation and distress can contribute to the willingness of individuals to put themselves forward for such a role. It’s hard to see a choice stricken by such emotions as unproblematically free. And a context in which such a role is a preferred option in itself casts doubt on the choice; the other options must indeed seem pretty hopeless.

But in reading the piece, I was reminded of some work by Marilyn Friedman on the way that female suicide bombers are regarded by their extremist peers, and how they are portrayed in the media. One of her claims is that, amongst the extremists,there is often a discrepancy between the regard for male and for female suicide bombers; the women are not esteemed as martyrs in the way that the men are. The last line of the Time article suggests as much: “God is great!” says the cameraman. “The stupid woman did it.”

Friedman also claims that from the outsider perspective and in the media, it is frequently the case that the women are regarded as coerced and mere puppets. And whilst it seems pretty clear that, in this case, Hasna’s grief played a key role in motivating her, it is also pretty clear that she wasn’t simply swooped upon by extremists in her state of vulnerability: she was previously helping her brother to prepare for his mission; and it seems she had to persuade the extremists with whom she was to work: ‘The group was initially skeptical — they had never worked with a woman, and felt certain she would lose her nerve at the last moment’.

To see her as entirely coerced, then, seems to make invisible the quite significant agency that she must have exercised to undertake a terror bombing attack. Perhaps it’s simply easier not to acknowledge that women might strongly hold extremist beliefs, and be willing to engage in terrorist action… Hmmm. Many complicated issues. What do readers think?

Final gender-equality related note: part of the problem with detecting female suicide bombers, it seems, is that policemen cannot search women. Yet it is difficult (‘frowned upon’) for women to join the security forces…

On the unexpected variety in human choices …

The NY Times today contains a feature about Pashe Keqi, the last of Albania’s sworn virgins. 

The practice of the sworn virgin occurred “under the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct that has been passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than five centuries. Under the Kanun, the role of women is severely circumscribed: Take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same – 12 oxen.”

In a land of war and disease, women might take on the role of a man to replace a dead father, to avoid an arranged marriage, or just to live a better life.  Their assumption of the role was very thorough and they ranked, behaved and were accepted as a man.

Pashe Keqi’s observations on her choice:

“Back then, it was better to be a man because, before, a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” says Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of Raki and smoking cigarettes. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men and are even more powerful, and I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

Borrow a Person

The Living Library sounds like an exercise in objectification– volunteers are classified as ‘Gay Person’, ‘Immigrant’, ‘Police Officer’, etc, and customers come in to borrow them for 30 minute chats. In fact, it’s meant to be– and apparently turns out to be– a fascinating, innovative experiment in achieving understanding between people from different sorts of lives. Here’s a bit of Gay Person’s story:

Earlier in the day, Alternative Medicine Therapist… had said to me that she was learning a lot about her own prejudices from readers and her words came flooding back when I found two young black men waiting for me at the desk. As I sat down with them I braced myself for a stream of invective when one them gently asked, “Do you experience homophobia often?” It surprised me to find myself saying yes and we began one of the most fascinating conversations I have had for a long time. They said that they both had often had strongly anti-gay opinions. I said that if I saw them on the top deck of the night bus I’d probably go back downstairs. And once that had broken the ice, the conversation became an exhilarating opening of hearts. It was a shame we didn’t have more time to talk – 30 minutes can pass very quickly – but I left with real hope. If all young people were like this, I felt, the world would soon be a better place.

Of course, there are lots of problems, perhaps foremost amongst them the way it may shore up idea that a single individual can serve as representative of a whole group, or the apparent presupposition that there will be no overlap between groups (e.g. no Gay Immigrant). But it still sounds like a valuable start toward provoking dialogue, and these problematic assumptions can of course be explicitly discussed in the conversations.

Thanks for the link, lydia!