Italy and Roma

Probably unbeknownst to most Americans, one of the most discriminated-against groups in Europe is the Roma. And Italy has become, especially recently, an especially bad place to be Roma. Berlusconi has recently launched a campaign to fingerprint all of Italy’s Roma population (and nobody else). But what seems to finally be waking people up to how bad things are is what happened on a beach in Naples. According to reports (for some questionning of them, see the links here), four Roma sisters went swimming despite lack of knowledge of how to swim. Two of them drowned. Many people failed to even try to help. Their bodies were laid on the beach. Then everybody got back to sunbathing– not allowing a couple corpses on the beach to interfere with their holiday. Photos were taken of holiday-makers sunning themselves by the bodies. I’m not posting them here, as I feel that might be disrespectful– but they serve to show the extent to which the Roma have been dehumanised in the minds of many Italians (and others). I’m so very depressed by this.


Marilyn Frye, in her classic paper “Oppression”, emphasises the systematic nature of oppression– that it is a system of constraints and barriers, which can only be understood when considered as a system. In teaching this, it can be useful to distinguish such a system from more isolated injustices and prejudices, but difficult to come up with examples which don’t feel like philosophers’ inventions. For anyone who seeks such an example, here’s a real one.

Jender-Son went for a visit at a school where we planned to start him in pre-school. Our first impression was excellent: they’re really proud of having kids from lots of different countries, and all the kids get story times in English, Spanish and Arabic. A friend has a daughter there and loves it. All was going swimmingly (well, if you consider not asking any questions at all about our son swimmingly) until the head teacher noticed that Jender-Son has an August birthday. Whereupon she informed us that he would always be the youngest in his class and this would be hard. She went on, “My husband has an August birthday, and he thinks it’s held him back his whole life.” I said “do you think we should be really worried?” She looked at me very seriously, and explained “It’s been proven that boys with August birthdays do less well academically. The important thing is not to push him, not to expect too much.” She went on to introduce him to a fellow teacher, telling them only his name and that he’s an August birthday.

Phase 1 of my response was guilt over having had a child in August and therefore blighting his life. But I moved quickly to Phase 2, in which I recalled that it’s definitely been proven that low expectations for children are self-fulfilling. And I grew enraged at the head teacher’s expression of a prejudice I’d never even known of before, August-Birthday-Boy-ism.* I don’t want my son’s time in school to be governed by a holder of this prejudice, even if they are immune to other prejudices. Jender-Son, if he stayed at this school, might well be seriously (and unjustly) disadvantaged.

But, very importantly, because he would not be the victim of various systematically interlocking barriers in other areas of his life, he wouldn’t be oppressed. The prejudice against boys with August birthdays is not a widespread one (I hope!), and it is one that can only operate in certain limited circumstances, like schools in which teachers both hold the prejudice and are aware of a child’s birthday. The various forces contributing to oppression on the basis of sex, race, disability, class, sexual orientation, and so on, are very different from this highly localised prejudice. (Hence its usefulness as a contrast case in discussing Frye on oppression.)

*Yes, it’s true that boys with August birthdays will for the first few years of school be less mature than classmates. Believing this doesn’t make one an August-Birthday-Boy-ist. But believing that this will blight them forever and that we should just accept this sad fact, and having no interest in individual traits of individual August birthday boys, does. (As noted earlier, for all I know this teacher would be fine and was just expressing herself badly– but what I’m considering here is what’s true if she was really expressing her attitude.)

Doctors required to lie

I’m a little late to this one, but it bears mentioning:

Doctors in South Dakota are now required to tell a woman seeking an abortion that the procedure “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being.

You can argue over ‘whole’, over ‘unique’, over ‘living’, over ‘human being’. But separate? I don’t think so. (Thanks, Jender-Parents.)

I’m Back

And I had a lovely time. Eagerly, I looked to see what had happened on the blog while I was gone. And there was much that was good. But not all. Whoa. Looks like it’s time for a reminder to BE NICE. And perhaps a clarification of what that means. One key bit of it: Assume good will and a genuine desire to understand on the part of your interlocutor. We all make mistakes, and one of the great things about blogging is how easily and quickly these can be pointed out. And we here at FP are very grateful to you when you point out our mistakes. But there’s a difference between pointing out mistakes and making conjectures and accusations about our motives. The former is great. The latter is not. You may not agree with these rules, which is totally fine. But they are in fact the rules HERE. If you want to talk somewhere with different rules, it’s very very easy to get your own blog at Let us know about it, and we’ll even link to it and send readers over.

Now back to the fun! Sorry for this methodogolical interruption to your regularly scheduled substantive blogging.

Computer game tells ten-year old that she’s fat

Not sure how this had escaped my notice up until today, but for those of you who have similarly been living in some metaphorical broom cupboard for the past couple of months (and thus been oblivious to the news), it appears computer games are now going round telling our youngsters that they need to lose weight. The Wii Fit by Nintendo calculates players’ BMI and categorises their bodies before setting them various agility tests. Sadly, Nintendo classifies players whose BMI is within a certain range as ‘fat’. It should be noted that children’s BMI cannot be accurately calculated in the same way as it is for adults. Moreover, some researchers also think that the BMI is a bad indicator of health, even for adults as it does not take bodily composition into account. But these worries about the BMI aside, there are enough pressures on children – especially girls – to look a certain way without being told they’re overweight by computers. Shame on you, Nintendo!

Read the Metro article here.

Local Builders Merchants and their saucy calendar, ‘Flirtations’

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that I have a delightful calendar showing topless ‘glamour’ models on my kitchen wall. What, they might wonder, is a self-proclaimed feminist doing with such offensive material on public display? Well, my friends, it was a present from my partner, who was gobsmacked to discover the local builders merchants giving them away, and thought I might be amused. In a grim, ironic sort of way. I put it in the kitchen to remind me that Building Stuff is for Men. Real Men. With red blood and lots of testosterone*, who like looking at pictures of naked, oiled-up, surgically-enhanced ladies. Don’t you forget it.

*Actually, women have red blood and testosterone too. So do men who aren’t into naked glamour models.

Aging and “Sexiness”

This article by India Knight celebrates the fact that women are no longer considered wholly asexual upon reaching the age of 40, or upon becoming mothers. Hurray! Right? Uh… maybe not so much, as we learn that we can still be sexual in our sixties *if* we have a body like Helen Mirren, and that we should be very grateful that surgery is now available to help us in that pursuit– a feminist victory, according to Knight. She tries to spin her idolisation of Mirren as really about her natural appearance, but it doesn’t last long:

There are no comedy plastic bosoms, or an eerily smooth face, or grotesquely inflated absurdi-lips, no weirdly sinewy body that suggests she lives in the gym. She just looks great.

She has perhaps had a reasonable bit of “work”, but nothing that is outside most people’s league, now that so-called minor surgical procedures are deregulated and your chiropodist can technically give you Botox: we are hardly talking three facelifts and intensive body work.

Knight devotes quite a lot of effort to spin all of this as feminism. Silly me, getting the feminism all wrong, thinking that one could be a sexual being without getting work done so as to have a body like Helen Mirren’s. Ah well, live and learn. (Thanks, Jender-Parents!)

CFP: Midwest SWIP

The Midwest division of SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) is looking for papers, poetry, panel
proposals and/or other proposals for our upcoming conference.

The conference will be held Sept 19, 20, and 21, 2008 at the University of
Wisconsin-Whitewater. We invite work in all areas relating to feminism and
feminist practices; anti-racist theory/practice; political theory and ethics; metaphysics and epistemology as well as papers, panels, and performances that engage feminist anti-racist praxis
and theorizing more broadly.

Midwest SWIP is an interdisciplinary conference with a particular emphasis on troubling the discipline of philosophy and the theory/practice dichotomy.

Queries and submissions should be sent via email to each of the following: Tinola Mayfield-Guerrero at tinolam AT and
Chris Gallagher at cgallag3 AT

Please visit us at:

The deadline has been extended to August 1, 2008.

Feminist Philosophers, do not go gently into retirement.

I see that the Philosophy Job Market Blog has picked up on the fun of the conversation over at Leiter Reports as to whether or not senior faculty have an obligation to retire at some point.  It IS fun, isn’t it?  Such a nice distraction from writing about global warming, torture, and my usual choices of subjects. 

Yet seriously, I didn’t start writing about the feminist and personal for journals until the year I got tenure, and I’m not so much young anymore.  My mentor, Claudia Card, only found her “outlaw” voice years after getting tenure, and has done her most prolific writing in her sixties.  I remember her smilingly saying, in the hallways of the Wisconsin philosophy department, “They’re going to have to carry me out of here in a body bag,” and I remember thinking, That is great news.  I recall reading Zillah Eisenstein, who observed that she wrote in proper, WELL-BEHAVED analytic fashion for years before daring to be a less well-behaved full professor and radical feminist.  And I consider the persistently low numbers of women in philosophy, and I think, there’s few of us enough already.  And then I think my own colleagues will have to carry me out in a body bag.  (I know, I know, if the quality of my work is suffering, if it’s not an option, etc., etc.  Sure there are reasons some should retire.  I’m arguing against an across-the-board obligation.)