Wanted: Female Philosophers: update

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education put out a very useful special supplement on diversity.   One section’s title starts with the words above.  Unfortunately, my password is not working and they haven’t sent me its replacement yet.  But even without a subscription, you can search their data base on race and ethnicity  in US universities.  You can also buy a web pass.  Or read  the first para of some articles. 

Below is the first para for philosophy.  It is a vivid reminder of the fact that it is not just female grad students and PhD’s who are  losers in the situation.

The study of philosophy is a pillar of a liberal education. It is an opportunity for students to examine their lives and deepen their knowledge of existence. It would be hard to find a philosophy student who has escaped the very definition of the term itself, which translates from the Greek to mean the love of wisdom. Yet, for a field so profoundly shaped by understanding human experience, it is surprising that its students are hardly representative of humankind.

Of course, one has to ask about whether the characterization above does fit philosophy today.  I should think that for at least many of us it does fit the philosophy we most value.  What do you think?

BTW, there’s  some indication that the article tries to give advice about diversifying.  If you can get access to it, please let us know if there’s something useful.

Update:  Many thanks to Jen, who put the whole article incomments below, but  I’m concerned we’re violating copyright, so we may have to remove some of it.  In any case, I think the central point of the long article is in the passage just below.  The author has said the male-dominated canon is a big factor.  Then she writes:

… one explanation for why there are more women in history and English[which also have male dominated canons] is that researchers and teachers in those fields have taken steps to offset the negative consequences of a male-dominated canon. Numerous English scholars, for instance, bring a critical approach to the interpretation of patriarchal texts, while also raising awareness of the literary works by women. Similarly, many historians reframe the annals by attending to the historical contributions of all members of society—including women.

It is also important to keep in mind that sexism in the canon has the potential to affect philosophy students to a far greater degree than those of other disciplines. That is because unlike the canonical figures in English and history, those in philosophy are models for philosophy students.

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex

Mr Jender and J-Bro have both sent me this amazing story, on the women astronauts who very nearly were– way back at the beginning of the space programme.

Imagine if the first person on the moon had proclaimed, “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for mankind.”

It could have happened. In the late 1950s, the United States government contemplated training women as astronauts, and newly released medical test results show that they were just as cool and tough as the men who went to the moon.

“They were all extraordinary women and outstanding pilots and great candidates for what was proposed,” said Donald Kilgore, a doctor who evaluated both male and female space flight candidates at the Lovelace Clinic, a mid-century center of aeromedical research. “They came out better than the men in many categories.”

The clinic’s founder, Randy Lovelace, developed the health assessments used to select the Mercury 7 team, and thought that women might make competent astronauts. It was a radical idea for the era. Women’s liberation had just begun to stir, and only a quarter of U.S. women had jobs.

But Lovelace was practical: Women are lighter than men, requiring less fuel to transport them into space. They’re also less prone to heart attacks, and Lovelace considered them better-suited for the claustrophobic isolation of space.

In 1959, Lovelace collaborator Donald Flickinger, an Air Force general and NASA advisor, founded the Women In Space Earliest program in order to test women for their qualifications as astronauts. But the Air Force canned it before testing even started, prompting Lovelace to start the Woman in Space Program.

Nineteen women enrolled in WISP, undergoing the same grueling tests administered to the male Mercury astronauts. Thirteen of them — later dubbed the Mercury 13 — passed “with no medical reservations,” a higher graduation rate than the first male class. The top four women scored as highly as any of the men.

Guest post by Louise Antony

Dana McCourt, writing in The Edge of the American West, says:

I think the stereotype that contemporary analytic philosophy is just too tough for most women has more to do with how philosophers would like to see themselves rather than anything particular about women’s aptitude….

And adds this speculation:

Moreover, three generations ago I’m sure the same argument could be made about why women simply didn’t choose to become English professors or lawyers or biologists.

Indeed it could – and was! Here’s a letter to the Editor of Harvard Magazine from March of 1944 – a little over three generations ago. Apparently the Great Crimson One was contemplating the audacious step of opening its Law School to women:

To the Editor:

Anything but a misogynist, I hope the Harvard Law School will be kept free and clear of females. Women, God bless ’em, are out of place in the profession of the Law. They are motivated by intuition – their special prerogative – impulse, and prejudice, all of which are antithetical to that reasoned judgement which must be a prime characteristic of a sound lawyer. Apart from any question of moral character, a good woman cannot be a good lawyer; conversely a good lawyer cannot be a good woman….A she-attorney cannot be the companion man needs and she needs to be.

— Charles L. Griffin, Harvard 1888, Law 1890

Of course, they were just silly-billies back then….

Seeking diversity: another approach

The following notice is being circulated to the women’s studies faculty at my university (which I’ll  call the “XYZ University”). 

On October 22nd a Gender Equity Visiting Team from the American Physical Society (APS) will come to the XYZ Physics Department.  That team will consist of Prof. Barbara Whitten** (Colorado College), Professor Peter Sheldon (Randolph College) and Sherry Yennello (Texas A&M). The goal for the visit is to try and identify actions that we can take as a physics department to try and improve the situation regarding attracting women to and keeping them in physics as a career.  In addition, we need to understand what campus-wide and more general societal issues that we need to be aware of and help address to the extent we can that will facilitate our primary goal.

A small luncheon is planned for the visiting team to meet with physics staff and faculty as well as guests from outside departments.   If you are interested in attending this luncheon meeting …

It’s intriguing to think of doing this for philosophy in various countries.  What would we need?  For starters:

Active interest on the part of departments

A group of advisors with the relevant expertise


Given the discussions here and elsewhere recently, the need for expertise is quite a substantial requirement.  It means a good grasp not  just of the causes of women’s underrepresentation, but also of the  ways to alleviate it.  Still, this is something that could be a goal.  Or, at the  very least, worth thinking about.

**Barbara Witten, if memory serves me correctly, spoke at the first FEMMSS conference.