23 thoughts on “The Chronicle on Women in Philosophy

  1. Word. Plus I know several of the people interviewed well enough to almost see the cherry-picking of their comments to make them sound more flat-footed than they are. It also seems to associate ‘shaking up the field’ with having pizza parties. Annoying.

  2. The party wasn’t on the first night of the reception, either. It was on the second. It’s nice that it’s getting attention at the Chronicle, but I think we all hoped for better reporting.

  3. I come up against this all the time. While of course there are other perspectives on the issue that I respect, for me it is in large part a feminist commitment to all humans sharing the same fundamental cognitive capacities that leads me to investigate them in the “traditional” framework and not take a “feminist perspective” on them. And I, like many other feminist philosophers I know, think that there is an objective reality, about the world, and about our minds, that is out there to be investigated. (And it is not a purely social reality.) It should be considered a legitimate feminist position to work in traditional philosophy for such reasons, but articles like this don’t even discuss the possibility.

    On a side note, the article didn’t talk about implicit bias. At all.

  4. I spent quite a while talking with her and would never have chosen to highlight what she chose to highlight from all that I said. But that’s how reporting goes, I guess. She did, at least, verify with me what she chose to include.

  5. Blagh. “Part of the problem, women say, is that philosophy is a verbally aggressive field, and some women may be more uncomfortable than men are with the kind of sparring and jousting typical of philosophical debates.”

    I hate this. And some of the follow up within the article. There’s a difference between engaging in rigorous debate and being a jerk.

    My undergraduate program was overwhelmingly male. Though,the ratio of women to men among the faculty was a bit better than average, there were virtually no other women students in my classes. The school had a seminary, and seminary students were required to major in philosophy. Consequently, there were *a lot* of male students. My classes usually had between 25-30 students in them, and with the exception of a course that was cross-listed under psychology, it was a total shock when there were two other female students in my metaphysics course. We engaged in debate all the time. It was not touchy feely. My relationship with my favorite professor mostly consisted of us pseudo-yelling at each other (everyone else thought we were yelling, we thought we were having a really good discussion). In my entire time as an undergraduate, the only reading I was ever assigned by a female philosopher (that wasn’t something I picked as part of an independent study) was *part* of JJT’s A Defense of Abortion.

    All that said, coming to graduate school was a total shock. Not because there were less women (there were more), and not because there were less women on my syllabi (there were more), and not because it was less friendly to feminist philosophy than I thought it would be (for the first time, there were faculty who had actually read the stuff, and some even specialized). It was because I was not used to being treated like my vagina was more salient than what I had to say. I was not used to male colleagues complimenting me on my shoes or my hair while they complimented male students on their papers. I was not used to people making jokes about how women are less rational, or less good at logic, or are better at laundry than thinking. I was not used to be seen first and foremost as a potential date. I was not used to people assuming that I did not belong, or thinking that I needed to prove myself before I would be taken seriously.

    Being argumentative is not mutually exclusive with being friendly and supportive.

  6. I hate the claim that the problem in philosophy is that the culture is argumentative and women somehow can’t manage that or don’t like it. But I wonder if there is a way to refine the point that connects with the way women are treated: as Haslanger points out, women are treated with less respect by philosophy, both as a group and as individuals. Perhaps the real problem about the tone and character of philosophical discussion is not that women don’t like to engage in pointed or aggressive debates about ideas, but rather that women are not given the same amount of respect or intellectual charity when they put forward their ideas or comments. When giving talks or talking informally with individuals or groups, female philosophers are more likely to confront aggressive verbal posturing, objections based on not finding the view “intuitive” or “plausible” or “interesting”, or just vague overall hostility to their ideas and contributions. I’ve seen this happen. In addition, it seems to me that some male philosophers try harder to intimidate female philosophers and also that they will unfairly talk female philosophers’ work down when they discuss the work with others. So it isn’t that women don’t like to or can’t argue–it’s that they are not treated fairly in philosophical discussions and so get turned off by the debate culture of the field in this way.

  7. This was a very difficult article for a reporter to write. The reporter was tasked with explaining a discipline-specific problem to a general audience, which is not an easy task. I don’t say this to take away from any of the very good criticisms people have raised, but to point to something I saw as a strength of the article. The reporter correctly identified what could very well be the central and most contentious issue in the debate over the treatment of women in philosophy: is it entirely a problem of climate and culture, or does philosophical *content* play a key role as well? (Or, alternatively, is this something of a false dilemma?)

    Given that the reporter is not a philosopher and has, to the best of my knowledge, no experience in the philosophy profession, I was impressed by that bit of insight.

  8. And, indeed, the entire point of Dr. Alcoff’s Presidential Address at the E-APA (I *hate* the Chronicle’s convention to use Ms/Mr etc.) was to raise the question whether the climate problem was at least partly due to the content of what we study.

  9. That’s a great point. Alcoff’s presidential address did directly address the issue. She addressed the issue in a way that contrasts very importantly to what Brian Leiter was quoted in the article as saying. And it seems to me at least that Alcoff and Leiter represent what are probably the main views among those who take the treatment of women in philosophy to be a major issue. And, again it seems to me that those two views point to very different visions of what the philosophy profession should be.

  10. I too agree with Anon (and Kathryn): it’s not argumentation or argumentativeness or criticism per se, but the fact that so often it is tinged with dismissiveness, disdain and default disrespect. “your argument is bad [and you are stupid and your ideas are stupid too].” the guys take punches too, but don’t get this extra wallop in the punches they take.

  11. Dare I say it? Why yes. The most serious problem in Philosophy is not sexism. That would be racism. And many of the women complaining of a hostile atmosphere in Philosophy for women are guilty of creating a hostile atmosphere for certain minorities (OK, blacks, especially black men). I have personal experience with this. You think being at the Smoker as a woman is bad? Try being there as black and male.

  12. It is true that there is a very deep and serious problem with racism in philosophy, and in academia generally. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about the serious problems with sexism in philosophy, however.

  13. Racism may be a worse problem in philosophy because people seem to utterly ignore it. There’s no question it’s as bad a problem as sexism. And it is likely true that women in philosophy contribute to this problem and/or don’t do anything about it. It’s a scandal how white philosophy is. But Anonymous2 I’m not getting why one has to be black and male rather than black and female to experience this problem. Your comment is sparse but one gets the implication that there is some conflict between addressing these two issues at once or caring about one detracts from the other. That’s not necessarily true–but there does have to be a reckoning about race in philosophy. And soon.

    Unrelated: I am on board with the idea that assuming all women are interested in feminist philosophy or women are only interested in feminist philosophy is itself a sexist assumption. But the fact that feminist philosophy is still so marginalized is one point I took the article to be addressing. And I think it’s worth thinking about how that contributes to a larger sexist environment. Maybe if feminist philosophy were more widely accepted as ‘good philosophy’ it wouldn’t make any difference to the profession but I don’t think so–I think it would be very good for the profession. I think it could change the profession in ways that are good for all women. And this doesn’t require all women to do feminist philosophy but it could open up philosophy in useful ways. The top conferences in my field never have any papers in feminist philosophy. Ever. One can’t even have a whiff of feminist philosophy to get accepted to those conferences. Most people I meet in philosophy don’t have a clue about feminist philosophy. One woman graduate student said to me “oh, you talk about abortion, right?” Of course her department doesn’t have anyone doing feminist philosophy. It’s too good for that, of course. I can’t see this phenomenon as unrelated to sexism in the profession–as both caused by it and perpetuating it.

    I guess this overlong point is to ask (1) Assuming you care about sexism–rather than immediately becoming furious about being labeled a feminist philosopher and then letting that make you indifferent (or hostile) to feminist philosophy–perhaps consider making common cause with these feminist philosophers because their interests are marginalized due to sexism. (2) Rethink the whole: “I don’t do feminist philosophy. I do REAL philosophy” attitude. I am speaking as someone who couldn’t do feminist philosophy because there were no feminist philosophers in my department. I too did REAL philosophy and then realized later how real feminist philosophy was–and how relevant to the other philosophy I was doing. Feminist philosophy is not weak philosophy. (Of course it can be done badly, like any philosophy.) Don’t let the sexism in philosophy tempt you to hostility to feminist philosophy because you buy all professional motifs whole hog as a way to survive the sexism of philosophy. Consider that respect for feminist philosophy is not unrelated to rejection of sexist norms in the culture of philosophy.

  14. Most recent anon– note though, that Anonymous2 didn’t say one has to be male to experience racism, but rather that many women contribute to the hostile environment for black philosophers, especially if they are male.

    I’m also really bothered by the attitude that some folks take that feminist philosophy isn’t real philosophy, and I agree that it’s an attitude related to sexism, but are you saying you think someone has expressed this attitude in this comment thread? Because I’m not seeing that.

  15. Carrie, I agree the guys don’t give the extra wallop,but my impression,fwiw, was they didn’t think it was worth the energy.

  16. It seems to me that there are at least two aspects of the culture of combative argumentation that are problematic for those of us who don’t identify or present as white, male, abled, heterosexual, etc. The first is that subordinates are not supposed to be combative. So if we do enter the fray, and are just as direct and aggressive and critical, we come off as merely and inappropriately angry. That’s what’s so annoying about the idea that women, say, just don’t like all the aggression: we’re really not even allowed to try it on in any kind of equal way! But second, there’s the implicit idea that the way to truth and wisdom involves argumentative combat. In order for me to do my best work, I need honest, rigorous criticism. But philosophical discourse that’s devoted to scoring points, or catching people out, is not only unpleasant — it’s a freaking waste of my time. It serves egos, not philosophical progress, and there are plenty of us who are not so much intimidated as bored by it.

  17. I basically agree with ajfifth, although the idea that African American males come from a culture that doesn’t encourage them to be combative is pretty dubious.

    To me the troubling problem is this. I think it is very important in philosophy to be *allowed* to give an aggressive critique, and we who are criticized aggressively should strive to take with equanimity whatever criticism is offered. But, when (as does often happen) nearly *all* of the interaction at a colloquium, seminar, or what have you, follows the adversarial model, it’s not constructive at all, and it’s inevitably demoralizing, and all the other bad things I certainly don’t have to go into here.
    So the situation is that philosophers *have* to self-police. They have to develop a sense of when it’s inappropriate and destructive to break out the flame-thrower. And that’s hard, and it’s hard to see how it’s going to happen.

  18. I do think that the “aggression” question is really not about argument per se, but, as ajfifth points out, a combination of things. I *love* to argue. However, implicit bias plus micro-aggression plus stereotype threat plus arsenal of ad feminam rebuttals that fly (but would never see the light of day if directed at a white normatively self-presenting male) = really annoying (though thankfully not always enough to deter the truly stubborn like myself—however, being this stubborn is a balancing act: how to be a virtuous knower when you are routinely faced with the real possibility of what Miranda Fricker has coined “testimonial injustice” is an epistemological question worth exploring).

    Suppose for the moment that you continually find that your arguments are dismissed when they come out of your mouth, but are considered insightful and thought provoking when they come out of someone else’s… That’s one thing. But here’s a funny thing, too: Suppose also for the moment that when you raise this hypothetical case as an interesting philosophical conundrum, you are told that this hypothetical can’t possibly or isn’t likely to happen, that you have no evidence for it or that your evidence is merely anecdotal, so that the question isn’t really worth pursuing… Hello?! Are you now asking me to do social science instead of philosophy? Since when have philosophers refused to think a thought on the grounds that, “that doesn’t actually occur”? And, besides, there *is* social science that evidences the reality of implicit bias.

    Here I would like to point out is where a person who is genuinely straight up interested in “hard” epistemology might find feminist epistemology to be “hard” epistemology worth pursuing. Mind you, being female should not and does not mean you are interested in feminist epistemology and the assumption that it should or does mean so is really annoying (and particularly annoying from a feminist perspective, I might add). However, might I be so bold as to suggest that being an *epistemologist* (or even just *a* *philosopher*) should mean you are interested in feminist epistemology? I take one of the major points of Professor Alcoff’s presidential address to be something like the following:

    Philosophers who notice a kind of irrationality in the discipline because they experience that irrationality directed toward them fairly regularly and who think & write philosophically about it are in a very good position to be gadflies to the discipline. Those who claim to be inheritors of Socrates (and I should recognize that not all philosophers begin here, but many of those not listening do) ought to sit up and take notice. In other words, “Philosophy: Know Thyself.”

    Lastly, while I agree with Matt that we should recognize the various constraints the reporter from the CHE was under, I do think that no one who attended Professor Alcoff’s address could have reasonably left thinking that here is a person who does not like arguments or truth and objectivity (nor could a person reasonably read her work and think so). Not only did Professor Alcoff stress the importance of truth seeking and _real_ knowing, but also her address was filled to the brink with clear, cogent, and *fierce* arguments.

  19. In addition to sexism in the profession, I wonder if feminist philosophy’s “respect” problem is partly due to a PR hangover from early days – the 80s, let’s say. First impressions linger, and though I’m certainly not competent to judge whether the feminist philosophy of that period was poor, relatively speaking, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t.

    For one, any newish sub-discipline with a novel way of looking at philosophical problems is going to be wide open intellectually. This can prompt quite a bit of intellectual speculation which, while producing many profound ideas, will also produce a lot of crap – initially exciting avenues of inquiry that are quickly rejected. More mature philosophy has had most of the really bad idea rejected a long time ago.

    Additionally, there were fewer people doing feminist philosophy, which makes it likely that there was a quick drop off from the top-end stuff. Things can go from “great” to “meh” pretty quickly, and its likely some of this got into the journals – the public face of feminist philosophy. If 1000 smart people are working in an area (as with more mature areas of philosophy), I’d expect the “best of the best” category to be fairly densely populated. The “really crap” category will be dense too, but that won’t ever see the light of day.

    Further still, it’s my impression that FP suffered from some guilt by association – with women’s studies departments, black studies, etc. Some of the stuff in these areas was peppered with post-modernist jargon, marxism and Freud applied to anything and everything, and generally got a rep as not being as intellectually rigorous as it might be (perhaps not wholly undeserved, though these might have suffered from similar “newness” problems suggested above).

    My point is that if the philosophical mainstream’s first encounter with FP was in this context, it perhaps not surprising that many took a dim view of it’s philosophical worth. It would also not be surprising if the maturing of the area, and a requisite rise in quality that accompanies it, is thus ignored. Perhaps the view many have of XPhi today fits this pattern as well (which is not to claim that XPhi will reach mainstream someday).

    So, maybe feminist philosophy just has to wait it out – not just for the lessening of sexist attitudes, but for a new generation of philosophers will to give FP a fair hearing. (Though I can’t help but feel a name change would speed things along.)

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