Obituary for Margaret Whitford

Kathleen Lennon’s obituary for Margaret Whitford, which is also a great primer on feminist philosophy in the UK from the 1980s on, is here.

A taste:

‘It is difficult to convey the desert which faced women philosophers in Britain in the early 1980s’, Margaret Whitford once remarked. It was a desert that Margaret’s own work was pivotal in modifying. At a time when feminism was flourishing outside the academy, philosophy seemed especially immune from its influence; both in terms of content and in terms of numbers of women philosophers employed in academic departments. Philosophers who attempted to interrogate the foundations and presuppositions of their discipline, explicitly from their position as women, uttered what she later (in her inaugural lecture) identified as ‘fragments of ideas … murdered at birth’ by the policing of the philosophy establishment. To provide the conditions of possibility within which such ideas could take root, Margaret, along with other feminist philosophers, started women’s reading groups, seminars and workshops. From these came the establishment of the UK Society for Women in Philosophy, which her energy and vision were pivotal in maintaining. This established the Women’s Philosophy Newsletter (later renamed the Women’s Philosophy Review), which Margaret co-edited and produced from 1991 to 1997. She remained as books reviews editor until 2001.

On Rapists

Charlotte Allen wrote a deeply problematic column on Slut Walks, Halloween costumes, and the need for women to stop confusing men into raping them by dressing sexy.

One of the many responses it inspired was this one, which contained some fascinating and important research on rape. Maybe it’s familiar to all of you, but it’s news to me– and I think it actually does call for some rethinking of various feminist claims (for example, about pornography making men *in general* not understand women’s sexual refusals). Here’s a bit of it:

Most rapes are committed by a single-digit portion of the population. They use the methods that produce the least evidence and are least likely to get them prosecuted: they use alcohol and fear rather than overt force, they target acquaintances rather than strangers, and they employ careful methods to test boundaries and select victims who are least likely to be able or willing to resist or seek redress. Each such serial rapist has an average of six victims.

What does that mean for Allen? Well, her theory is totally at odd with that. Careful, planning predators are not overcome with urges they can’t control. They don’t test and see, plot to isolate and intoxicate. That takes hours, or even days. That is the work of a cold, calculating predator. It means rapists are not just the average guy, and the average guy is not a rapist. It means that rape is not the result of miscommunications, and since it’s not the result of miscommunications, sending “mixed signals” isn’t the problem.

What is the problem? Well, in the first instance, the rapists are the problem. They need to stop raping people. But they’re not doing it by accident, so no program of education will make them stop. Instead, we as a culture need to clear the underbrush they hide in: the tangle of sexist crap and conventional wisdom that results in a practical inability to enforce laws against rape except in cases that fit a very narrow paradigm. Make no mistake, the culture is the problem.