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….

30 thoughts on “Guest post by Louise Antony

  1. suddenly i regret going into philosophy. she-attorney! grr! sounds like something that might star opposite godzilla!

  2. It’s clear that many women philosophers are insulted by the idea that women may be put off by the combative style of analytic philosophy and it’s also clear why–that claim seems to support annoying stereotypes about women’s “natures”. At the same time, I have to say that, one of the formative experiences of my graduate school experience was when I attended a conference on feminist views of the self and found that combative element absent. (Until then, I had never really been aware of it.) I was accustomed to this attitude toward speakers: You are in the hot seat and I am going to knock you down. But the view at the conference was, thanks for enlightening us, here are some questions, I hope they help you improve your work. It was the first time I ever participated in the discussion that followed a paper. I remember feeling so relieved to know that there was this alternative way of doing professional philosophy. My own experience makes me think that there is some merit to the idea that the way professional philosophy is done might be more off-putting to women than to men. But I think the idea has to be formed much more carefully than it has been.

  3. I’m very much with you, Anonymous. And I continue to be struck by the fact that what we’re now discussing is “the stereotype that contemporary analytic philosophy is just too tough for most women”. That wasn’t at all what Helen and I thought we were discussing. Instead, we thought we were raising concerns about a particular dynamic like the one you describe– which we take to be bad for philosophy as well as something that women tend more often than men to be socialised against. And I continue to think that this dynamic needs discussion and criticism.

    However, I’ve come to be very worried by how easy it is for such concerns to be misinterpreted. And such misinterpretations matter, because there IS “the stereotype that contemporary analytic philosophy is just too tough for most women”. And the last thing in the world we need is women philosophers even appearing to endorsethat’s claimed by the stereotype. I’m beginning to suspect that the stereotype is forceful that we need to be very hesitant about doing saying anything that could be interpreted as an endorsement of it– no matter how careful we are.

    But for some really interesting thoughts on the topic, have a look at the comments on this: <https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/mars-and-venus-a-cautionary-tale-and-some-questions/.

  4. I wonder if we could try to detach dislike of a very combative style from the question of why women aren’t in philosophy. As I think Jenny Saul points out either here or in the original article, there are men who don’t like it, and it’s also bad in its effects on philosophy.

    Most importantly, I doubt that we’ll solve philosophy’s gender problem by getting people to tone it down. And we distract attention away from the pervasive unconscious bias against women.

  5. About the post: I was tempted to think the letter writer had read Simon Baron Cohen. Of course, the dates make that impossible. So did Baron Cohen read him? Not likely. But perhaps both pick up on cultural cliches and interpret them as biological facts?

  6. I agree with Prof. Saul above. And thank you Prof. Saul and Prof. Antony for taking time out of your busy schedules to post on these important topics.

    For what it is worth, it seems to me that the discussion about aggressiveness in philosophy is being framed at at least one level of generality too high. (*At least* one level.) Is it really relevant whether women in general are more likely to be turned off by the sort of aggression that Prof. Saul and others are talking about? It seems to me that the more important way to frame the questions are as follows: how many women would otherwise have pursued graduate studies in philosophies had it not been for a culture of aggression? How many women graduate students would have successfully completed the Ph.D. had a culture of aggression not been present? How many women Ph.D. holders would have flourished had things otherwise been the same save for the absence of a culture of aggression?

    Inviting a discussion of whether women in general dislike the kind of aggressive behavior sometimes found in philosophers strikes me as a bad idea. I’m not saying the authors of this blog have done this, but I do think that it would be easy for people reading this blog to come to believe that they have done this. (Whether they would be culpable for coming to believe this is irrelevant to the question of whether it is a bad idea (from a tactical perspective) to to frame the issues we care about in such a way that it is predictable that many will arrive at these beliefs.)

    For one thing, at least in the US, it just doesn’t seem to me to be true that women in general are less verbally aggressive than men. But in any event is this discussion we want to be having?

    Most people are not inclined to pursue philosophy period. Most women are not. Most men are not. Most people are not inclined to pursue graduate studies after college or a career in academia. People that do are almost by definition bound to be psychologically pretty different than typical members of their populations. This is why it seems to me that conducting a discussion that will likely lead to a discussion on the differences between men and women in general strikes me as a bad idea.

    Whereas attending to more narrow question — of those women (and men for that matter) who otherwise would have the inclination and ability to succeed in philosophy, what percentage do not pursue philosophy because of that culture of aggression — might be more fruitful.

    hope this wasn’t too long and hope it made sense.

  7. I belong to a society in which we discourage/do not permit the combative argument style of much of philosophy and it was founded by men philosophers. We recently held our 16th annual summer conference and we find the friendly help, no less sharp and critical for that, to be just what we all like most about doing philosophy together. My point is that philosophy itself does not need to be combative, to kill the arguer/argument. There are other styles, regardless of what kind(s) of philosophy one is doing.

  8. she- attorney…oh Goddess…of course the argument that women are to “nice or fragile” to be attorneys..yeah that makes sense???

  9. As for sorting out the impact of style, I think we could look at other departments. The sciences are starting to increase the number of women; fields like mathematics are growing. The idea that philosophy departments can be awful is met at least anecdotally by tales from physics and maths.

    I think we should be careful to stress, as Jenny Saul did, that what’s in question is not vigorous argumentation. Instead, think of trying to shame or humiliate, or at the very least, refusing to concede any point while arrogantly re-asserting one’s own position.

    To be perfectly frank, I did nearly walk out of a conference recently even though I was an invited speaker; I’ve mentioned this a number of times on this blog. In my experience, if you are a woman with a new idea, half the audience will assert you do not understand what you are talking about, and probably try to instruct you on the spot. And the other half will snear and jibe. What in the world is the point of staying for that after it has happened for the 20th time?

    (I just today got a note from a very good press who say they are very interested in this “very distinctive” work, but honestly it has been extremely difficult, and I am not at all sure I should have hung in there.)

  10. jj:

    and, thus, my comment about “non-analytic” philosophy!

    and your comment –“In my experience, if you are a woman with a new idea, half the audience will assert you do not understand what you are talking about, and probably try to instruct you on the spot. And the other half will snear and jibe. What in the world is the point of staying for that after it has happened for the 20th time?– is EXACTLY why I left.

    it has nothing to do with aggression; it is the inability of having your ideas heard to their completion, considered in a mindful manner, processed, and then responded to accordingly…

  11. This is a moot point in my case, but if I were single and looking for a wife the last thing I would want is a career-minded woman. (I tell my son now, “You don’t want your wife lifting a ********** finger for any man but you.”) Plus, to me, there is something especially unfeminine about a lady arguing in court. Having said that, I would be adamantly opposed to closing any profession to females. I just think that, for the sake of families, a wife/mother belong at home with the children, waiting to take care of her husband.

  12. Robert Allen: and what would you tell a bright daughter? Let’s say her teachers say she’s just wonderful at mathematics and could become a college professor. What do you say to such news?

    Reel A: I have to say that two recent lectures I got to help fill in evident gaps in my understanding were from women.

    I could get worry about what the simmering anger is doing to my health.

  13. More to the point, I have told my daughter, who is actually studying analytic philosophy as an undergrad, “Fine, philosophy is the greatest subject in the world (although the Medievals are where it’s at, not Russell and company) but if you are going to be a mother, you are going to be a mother.”

  14. Yes indeed, it is true that if you are going to be a mother you are going to be a mother. And the same is true for fathers. And indeed for any roles. (And we can generalise further, given that the form of your claim is *If P then P*.) Is your point that mother, unlike father, is a role incompatible with philosopher? Tell it to my son.

  15. robert allen, I find the fact that you are telling your daughter how to understand her college course of study alarming. Your contrast between the medievals and Russell leaves out centuries of philosophy, including defining moments in analytic philosophy in the last century.

    This forum really is not a forum for views of the sort you hold, and I at least am reluctant to provide a platform for them. You have many other venues for your views.

  16. Thanks for all the comments! Thanks especially to Robert Allen for expressing a view that my undergraduates insist no one holds anymore. (Look for your post on my midterm exam.)

    Two quick points on women and “aggressiveness.” 1) We need to keep in mind that women and men do not elicit the same responses to the same behavior. A lot of behavior that is discipline-normal in philosophy, like blunt statements of disagreement or evaluation (“that just doesn’t follow”) are gender-discordant for women. When we display it, therefore, we’re apt to evoke disapproval that’s unrelated to the content of our remarks. Apart from making it way more treacherous for us to participate in philosophical discourse, it makes it damn hard for us to interpret the feedback we get. So being “aggressive” is not an avenue to success in philosophy, even if one tried to take it.
    2) I want to speak up on behalf of some of the practices that I think are garnering the label “aggressive.” I enjoy and (I think) benefit from the adversarial method. It has its limits, and it is inherently open to abuse. But I hate discussions in which there’s pressure against voicing disagreement or registering criticism.

  17. Prof. Antony, thanks again.

    I have a clarificatory question and a substantive question about your first point above, which I reproduce below so everyone knows what I am talking about:

    “1) We need to keep in mind that women and men do not elicit the same responses to the same behavior. A lot of behavior that is discipline-normal in philosophy, like blunt statements of disagreement or evaluation (”that just doesn’t follow”) are gender-discordant for women. When we display it, therefore, we’re apt to evoke disapproval that’s unrelated to the content of our remarks. Apart from making it way more treacherous for us to participate in philosophical discourse, it makes it damn hard for us to interpret the feedback we get. So being “aggressive” is not an avenue to success in philosophy, even if one tried to take it.”

    Does the ‘we’ above refer to philosophers in general or women philosophers? I wasn’t sure if you were claiming (a) that when philosophers in general say things like ‘that doesn’t follow’ to someone, how that someone reacts is likely to be different if the hearer is a woman rather than a man or (b) when a woman philosopher says things like ‘that doesn’t follow’, how the recipient receives that message and interprets it is likely to be different than it would be were the speaker a man.

    I think both sound plausible, but I wasn’t sure which (if either) you meant. Sorry if I am being dense. But it matters to me which of these are true — as a male philosopher with female students, if it is (a) that is the case, then I need to be aware of that and make sure that I frame what I want to say in such a way that I don’t accidentally communicate something I don’t want to, especially in a situation in which it is important that I give a student *critical* feedback because that is part of my job as a mentor to that student.

    And I would like some advice on what (in your opinion) I should be doing in that sort of situation.

    (It seemed to me that you meant (a), but the last sentence in (1) sounding like you were talking about the risks of women philosophers being ‘aggressive’, which suggested (b))

  18. As one of those who has been critical of aggression, I just want to clarify in response to Louise: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with blunt disagreement. What I’m criticising is the sort of discussion where the goal is to destroy the speaker.

  19. Listen, folks, I’ll put my feminist bona fides up against anyone’s. I studied it with Prof. Antony’s good friend, Prof. Charlotte Witt, and wrote my Ph.D. dissertation under the legendary Barbara Humphries, God rest her soul. And I not only intellectually bought the program wholesale- I lived it, for almost 20 years. But I have come to realize that it simply doesn’t work: at the very least, working mothers is a failed experiment. Children (by nature) want to be with their mothers 24/7, husbands (by nature) want their wives at their beck and call, and women themselves (again, by nature) want to bond with their children and be financially supported by and wait upon their husbands. That is God’s plan and we violate it at our peril. In other words, St. Paul is not telling husband and wives something that don’t already know deep down inside. (Cf. soaring divorce and juvenille crime rates.) It seems that today’s young adults are adopting this mind-set, if my classes are any indication. They have seen through the career = happiness rhetoric of the 60s and 70s.

    Prof. Antony, would you please send me a copy of that midterm? (rallen@schoolcraft.edu) I’m adjuncting 8 classes this term and could use a good laugh. You might remember me from a talk you gave at the Univ. of Michigan a few years back. I raised an absolutely devastating objection to your philosophy of mind, which Eric Lormand swiftly rebutted. It was a good time.

  20. Sorry to disappoint you jj, but philosophy has seriously declined since Aquinas or, at least, Descartes. You simply can’t make sense of persistence sans the notion of a form or an immaterial soul, something simple. And if you can’t make sense of persistence you can’t make sense of responsibility either. Quite a large chunk of common sense, wouldn’t you agree. Believe me, I have tried it with Contingent Identity and Compatibilism, but they simply fall short of the mark.

  21. robert –

    If your primary secular arguments for stay-at-home mothers are appeals to `nature’ and `soaring’ divorce and juvenile crime rates, you’re on the order of 20 years behind the times.

    Louise et al. –

    This thread has got me thinking. It’s high time for somebody (or some bodies) to sit down and give a good, old-fashioned philosophical analysis of what we’ve been calling `aggression’ in philosophy. For starters, I think we’ve already distinguished at least three varieties of aggression: being a passionate defender of one’s point of view; being rude, dismissive, and condescending towards one’s interlocutors; and being blunt and direct in one’s speech. Neither I nor John Stuart Mill think the first and the last are bad things in philosophy, but the second is definitely a vice. And there are interesting, let’s call them, gender valences for all three.

    Anyone want to coauthor a paper?

  22. To mm: Sorry about the confusion. By “we” I meant “we female philosophers.” It may be that women and men have different reactions to *hearing* comments like “that just doesn’t follow” — I wouldn’t be surprised — but what I was claiming is that people in general (both men and women) react differently to a woman’s saying “that just doesn’t follow” than they do to a man’s saying it. Confident, impersonal assertion is consistent with the behavior we (men and women) expect of a man, but not with the behavior we expect of a woman. Women are expected to hedge, to say something like “I don’t quite see how you got that conclusion from those premises” instead of “that doesn’t follow.”

    I want to emphasize that women have internalized these expectations and norms as thoroughly as men have, and it’s one reason that we (female philosophers) have trouble speaking our minds in seminars, talks, conferences, etc. We sound “harsh” or “aggressive,” not to mention “unattractive,” even to ourselves. But it’s a huge liability in philosophy not to be straightforward about disagreement. If you say “I don’t quite see how that follows,” your interlocuter is apt to take you at your word, and deliver an impromptu lecture in elementary logic, instead of discussing your objection to his (or her) argument.

  23. Excellent distinctions, Noumena, and very helpful. It doesn’t sound like you’ll need any help with the paper!

  24. Noumena, I think it’s a great idea to write such a paper, when you next have time. I think we could post an abstract and maybe make a draft available, so you would get great feedback.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask for a collaborator over on the Experimental Philosophy web site. In particular, Eric S, who runs the Splintered Mind blog, has done some experimental work on the opinons of large groups of philosophers, and he might at least have some very helpful suggestions.

    You could write a paper which proposes a series of hypotheses and then tries to test one of them.

  25. The reason I went fishing for coauthors is that I am too busy to write the whole thing by myself right now (dissertation+fellowship applications+teaching for the first time), and would like to get a draft circulating through the community while the community’s actually paying attention to the issue. Strike while the iron is hot, sort of thing.

    If anyone would be interested, feel free to follow the link to my page for my email. Otherwise, jj, your x-phi suggestion is very well taken. :-)

  26. I’m afraid, Robert Allen, that despite your protests to the contrary, you have made your biases (which, as actual feminists, we work hard to try to recognize and then to deal with — but you seem unable to) abundantly clear. The “certitude” of your claims — usually, without argument to support them — is not how I would characterize or understand good philosophy or good science, feminist or otherwise.
    Frankly, I am deeply saddened by the thought of your daughters’ futures if they follow your advice — especially given the “gloss” you add allegedly that suggests you are an “expert” concerning, and have “tried out,” feminism fairly and objectively.
    Your posts belie both claims.
    Perhaps others haven’t responded because they recognize the disingenuous of your posts. But I thought someone should call you out on it.

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