Advice for isolated feminist philosopher?

We’ve had a query from a feminist philosopher in a sadly far-from-unique situation. With her permission, I’m reproducing it here so that she (and others in her situation) can get the benefit of advice from all you readers. Please do make suggestions in comments!

I’m a graduate student, and burgeoning feminist philosopher, in a political science program in the US. Save one class I took that was specifically on women in Islam, there have been 2 females listed on my syllabi – 2, in the entire year. Coupled with that, there are no professors within my department who “do” feminist theory – a “narrow” viewpoint as it has been described to me. And I’m not just “at the wrong school.” I cannot believe that I’m the only woman in America being made to feel as if I’m imagining the world I experience every day.

During my undergrad, which was done at a university in the South, my gender studies professors could hardly provide the intellectual guidance young students need – they were battling their departments to even keep gender on the course schedule. How could I expect them to fight for funding for ME, when they were often trying to keep their own jobs.

Trying to find a feminist philosopher or political theorist under which to do my dissertation is nearly impossible. Even if I can locate these women whose departments value and support their work, I, like most women, cannot simply decide to move and hope I won’t be disappointed. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I have a 4.0, I’ve presented and published far more than my peers and I love academia – too bad the feeling isn’t mutual.

What is a feminist to do? Having scratched out my own intellectual development, is it too much to want some input? Preferably from someone who A) at least ACKNOWLEDGES that patriarchy exists and B) is committed to exposing and fighting it. I’m just so tired of the double workload I’ve always carried. Thoughts?

In a second letter, she writes:

After I sent you the message a few days ago, I began thinking about how distressingly not unique my situation is – and my anger made me try to think of concrete actions I could take to change this situation in someone else’s life. Well, not much right now, but I’ll make it out of the academy without losing my mind (we hope). And when I do, wouldn’t it be nice to start a WELL FUNDED summer program for young feminists without access to feminist theory or methodology? It might make the force-fed patriarchy a bit easier to swallow the rest of the year if you could spend a summer immersed in transformative ideas.Ahhhhh.

I know some folks dream of beaches, but I think you’ll understand that I’d find a month with Sara Ruddick or bell hooks far more interesting.

15 thoughts on “Advice for isolated feminist philosopher?

  1. Sadly I don’t have the solution but just wanted to say that I am on the same boat. I applied for a PhD program and my dissertation would have been about women and international law. I wasn’t accepted, and one of my professors said (about my current program not the one that I applied to) that professors tend to accept dissertation to supervise if they have to do with war, guns etc, and not ‘human trafficking” as he put it. Needless to say, my current program has only 20% women which coming from an all-women’s undergrad college, is very shocking to me. When I apply for law school next year, I do intend to do a lot of research on were I can study feminist law. *sigh*
    The feminist summer program sounds awesome, btw! :)

  2. I was in a very similar boat while in graduate school. I was accepted to a PhD program in political theory. The day I arrived at my program, I found out that one of three people I had been planning to work with had left the program. Nobody had bothered to tell me.

    By the time I was finishing up my MA two years later, it had become obvious not only that there would be no way for me to do the research I had been planning to do but that The Department had no plans to support Political Theory. That’s at a big political science department at an even bigger school.

    I was faced with several options: transfer to another political science department, transfer/re-apply to philosophy or women’s studies programs, switch sub-fields within political science or leave academia.

    It wasn’t an easy choice for me, but I decided to leave academia. I now work as a freelance feminist writer. I write on topics I like and feel generally more fulfilled than I felt while I was in grad school. I find myself thinking about the same issues that I was thinking of while in graduate school, I still spend most of my days reading and writing. I just don’t have the stress of academia in my life. Well, I do, because my husband is in academia but at you get what I mean.

    I am not suggesting that you should leave Academia, but I just thought it’d share my experience and put the non-academic intellectual path out there for you to consider. ;)

  3. Following up on the notion of concrete things to do about it: The philosophy dept. at my university (which is unusually well-represented with female faculty and students) includes a feminist reading group and also a group that hosts a women’s night out. They used to meet at local drinking establishments, but that was excluding most of the undergraduates, so now they rotate among the homes of interested female faculty and grad students. Some nights are purely social, and others include paper readings.

  4. Thanks for posting this; I love the comments in the second mail:
    “It might make the force-fed patriarchy a bit easier to swallow the rest of the year if you could spend a summer immersed in transformative ideas.Ahhhhh.
    I know some folks dream of beaches, but I think you’ll understand that I’d find a month with Sara Ruddick or bell hooks far more interesting.”
    I am an academic who does gender on his own precisely because the department that employs me fought tooth and nail to prevent a dissertation proposal that was to be done with me on gender saying, in effect, that (i) it doesn’t fall within the purview of the department’s interests (not true), and (ii) it’s too postmodern. We fought back and won but had to agree to a change in the title in the Board meeting (which was chaired by one of the same faculty members who opposed it in the department earlier) which will unfortunately not reflect the issue that the student wanted to highlight. It’s been some years and the student is doing excellent work, we decided at the outset to ignore the change in the title and keep doing what she wanted to do.
    On another front, dissatisfied with the academia in general in our chosen subject, some of us formed a society which now organizes (through private and outside university funding) summer schools where about 20-30 students and teachers spend about 3 weeks on issues that interests us. We just don’t invite people we don’t want to.
    we feel these efforts are empowering at some level too.

  5. I am blessed to have very feminist-forward faculty at my university, and worry about the day when I will have to leave them and engage in the “real world”. Best of luck to you isolated feminists.

    (I would so go to feminist summer camp!)

  6. I was in a somewhat similar position, and I found a few things really helpful. I helped start an effort to get women grad students and faculty together for dinners. Then a faculty member organized a reading group, which was amazing. I also took grad courses in feminism in other departments in the university. In the end, I managed to find a dissertation committee who helped me craft a project that was motivated by feminist concerns but which linked up to more traditional issues in philosophy. I just got a job where I’ll be teaching a lot of feminist philosophy. So I think it’s possible to end up with a career working on these issues even if you don’t go to a grad program that is super supportive. Maybe if you reach out to other women in your program and other related programs, you’ll find a supportive community. Good luck!

  7. K, a reading group is a great idea. I’m wondering about an electronic reading group. Does anyone know if there are any in feminist philosophy?

  8. petya, I’ve considered going your route as well. I’m wondering how exactly do you get jobs as a freelance feminist writer? Where do you look for jobs and so on? I would be very interested in finding out more info. Thank you.

  9. I love the concept of e-books– I’ve been using my palm-pilot to read them for years, and am encouraged that readers are coming on the market that are easier to read. There are two issues though which are generally enough to start me ranting.

    1) Formats. We are seeing an emerging format war, with Sony and Kindle battling it out and some smaller players (e.g. bebook) trying to fit in with the bigger players. Kindle doesn’t work in the UK, and Sony have a deal with Waterstones here, so it seems like Sony are in the lead in this country. Why does this have to keep happening, why can’t things just be compatible?

    2) I have a weekly commute, and I regularly have to carry five or six books with me– which wouldn’t be necessary if I had electronic copies. If I’ve spent £30 on a paper book, why can’t I get the electronic copy as well? We know that publishers must have electronic copies– what’s the problem? When are they going to get sensible about this?

  10. Sorry guys– I clearly posted my last comment to the wrong thread. I’m not sure how I managed to do that. Apologies.

  11. I started a feminist blog in Bulgarian (that’s where I am originally from, even though I live in the States now). It got “discovered” pretty quickly and I sort of think of it as my writing portfolio. I then emailed magazine editors with ideas for pieces I would be willing to do for them. I also sent them links to my blog so they could get a general idea about the topics I am interested in and my writing style.

    It is probably easier to do that kind of thing within the confines of a smaller market. BUT I was VERY surprised by how responsive magazine editors were to my inquiries. I am under the impression that they are starved for new writers…

    Hope this helps.

  12. As a Ph.D. student in philosophy I wanted to add a feminist dimension to my dissertation. No faculty member in the dept. had an interest in feminist philosophy so I asked a leading feminist to be on my committee. She said yes, but my department would not allow it. We went ahead and established her as an “outside reader.” She is now a great friend, as well as an ally. I am now teaching in a program without a graduate component, but I regularly serve on Ph.D. committees for students doing feminist philosophy. I strongly urge you to reach out and ask someone whose work interests you to sit on your committee when you start working on your dissertation. In the meantime, do try to start an interdisciplinary reading group in feminist theory. You may have to take such initiatives for quite a long time, but I believe it pays off!

  13. U mentioned some people to study w/ specifically like Belle Hooks. I studied w/ Spivak at Columbia and then Anne McClintock at Wisconsin, Madison, which has a cross disciplinary program titled Wom These were excellent programs w/ funding for many integral visiting profs. Check out Wisconsin’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. The fact that they even have a department in Gender and Women’s studies should tell u something. These are not merely 2nd gen retreads either, there are many queer theorists and post-Butler appointments.

  14. I am doing an MA in Women and Gender studies and it is wonderful to work with professors and students who are passionate about feminism. One woman in the program transferred from International Development Studies because her then-advisor basically told her that studying gender is stupid. It is sad that people, especially in academia, still think that way. Anyway, this is a response to jj: I am interested in feminist philosophy and want to find/start a reading group locally, but something on the web would be fun, too.

  15. Heather and others, I think some sort of discussion/reading group on the web would be great. I think it would be very wise to have some people at the start committed to participating and making it work.

Comments are closed.