Women are interested in lots of things

Two caveats. First of all, I’d like to say that I love the Daily Nous, and I’m really grateful for it. Secondly, I’d like to say that the point of this post isn’t to beat up on Justin for posting something I disagree with. Rather, it’s to try to explain why I – and I expect many others – found a particular post problematic.

In this post, Justin asks for recommendations of ‘philosophical topics of interest to women’. The intention behind this request is, as far as I understand it, a really good one – it’s one way of trying to grapple with the underrepresentation of the women in philosophy. And yet. And yet I find posts – and conversations – like this frustrating. Let me explain.

1. Requests that ask us to think about ‘what women like’, ‘what women want’, ‘what women are interested in’, etc. encourage the unhelpful but common assumption that women are some sort of bizarre hive mind (and perhaps unconsciously rely on/promote gender essentialist ways of thinking). Different women are very different. Different women are interested in very different things. A white working class lesbian woman will probably have different interests from a straight upper class Asian woman. That’s how that goes. 

2. Women are often socialized – and pressured – to express interest in certain kinds of things. Uncritical discussion of ‘what women like’ or ‘what women are interested in’ can often gloss over the important social factors that shape both the interests of women and the ways in which they express those interests. It also glosses over – and perhaps contributes to – the effect of things like stereotype threat and implicit bias for women’s interest in traditionally ‘male’ areas.

3. If you say something like, e,g., ‘women like ethics, but they don’t like philosophy of language’, that doesn’t send a very nice message to the actual women who are actually doing great work on philosophy of language. Those women already have enough gender-based nonsense to deal with. They don’t need to read on the internets about how they’re working on a dude subject. 

4. It’s a common misconception of those of us who think feminist philosophy deserves a more central place in the philosophical cannon that we think feminist philosophy is really important because it (unlike, e.g., metaphysics and philosophy of language) is something women care about/are interested in. I only speak for myself here, but that’s certainly not how I see it. The importance of feminist philosophy isn’t that it’s ‘something women like’. Rather, the importance of feminist philosophy is that it emphasizes the philosophical importance of gender, and highlights how so many areas of philosophy – including things like metaphysics and philosophy of language – can be affected by considerations of gender. 

Again, I say all of this in the spirit of constructive criticism, and with deeply felt gratitude for all of Justin’s hard work. 

 

Update: Hilde Lindeman says the following in the Daily Nous comment thread:

The question [‘what philosophical topics are of interest to women?’] is a good one, and does NOT necessarily essentialize women. The fact remains that women and other marginalized social groups are woefully underrepresented in philosophy, and course content in introductory and other undergraduate courses can be part of the problem. What I think would really help is if philosophers stopped boundary-beating, and respected the work of people who are doing philosophy on topics that haven’t gotten much attention in mainstream philosophy. A lot of that work is practical: think of the departments, for instance, where bioethics gets dismissed as “not real philosophy.” Philosophy of race, feminist philosophy, philosophy of disability also easily spring to mind. If undergraduates were exposed to some of this stuff in their undergraduate courses, more of them would perhaps find something in philosophy that really speaks to them, whoever they are.

 

I agree with pretty much everything she says (including that the question doesn’t necessarily essentialize women), except the part where she says that the question is a good one. I think the issue of whether the question is a good one and the issue of diversity and boundary policing within philosophical topics are issues that can and should be kept apart. Philosophy has been primarily white, male, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, etc for a really long time. As a result, philosophy can really show its collective bias and groupthink. It’s perhaps easier to think that gender isn’t a philosophically central topic or that we can ask The Big Questions without considering gender when you’ve benefitted from male privilege your whole life. It’s perhaps easier to think that race isn’t a philosophically central topic or that we can ask The Big Questions without considering race when you’ve benefitted from white privilege your whole life. And so on. People who don’t share that same privilege may disagree – and may feel alienated as a result. But it’s a far cry from those concerns – concerns which collectively might push us to expand what we count as ‘real’ or ‘core’ philosophy and encourage us to examine philosophy’s collective biases – to thinking it’s a good idea to ask ‘what kind of philosophy do women like?’  

10 thoughts on “Women are interested in lots of things

  1. justin posted the question on behalf of a professor who wrote in, it’s /not/ his own question. (perhaps you think he should have known better than to post it, but that’s not obvious to me). there’s a productive discussion going on in the comments thread of the original post, over at dailynous.

  2. Yes, I realize that Justin posed the question based on someone else’s query. But I’m assuming that his wanting to host the discussion on his blog means he thinks the conversation is worthwhile and not harmful. Hence this post.

  3. I think I agree with all four of your points here. They’re important correctives to the silly question “What philosophy do women like?” At the same time, cannot someone accept all your points above, and yet constructively raise the question of whether (or not!) adjusting our undergraduate curriculum could be one strategy—alongside other perhaps more important efforts—for making Philosophy more attractive to undergraduate women? Indeed, isn’t something close to that question raised by this post: https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/whats-not-to-like-about-analytic-philosophy/ ?

  4. I’m not saying the question is right-minded, but I do think it’s a good one, because it’s gotten a lot of people thinking about what’s wrong with it as a question, how to rephrase it so it better captures what the problem with women’s underrepresentation in philosophy might be, and so on. Very glad it prompted this blog post!

  5. As someone majoring in philosophy, I can’t help but find the question missing the bigger issue. Yes, philosophy is a very male-dominated field still, but my classes are usually about 40% female. We’re still the minority, but we are interested in the subject in general. I think a better question would be “what can we do to encourage more women to get degrees in philosophy?” This is because, while a lot of female students take the classes, most of those students are taking it as an option and are not philosophy majors.
    I prefer epistemology and philosophy of mind, and I hate logic. A female friend of mine loves logic. I know a lot of women who like philosophy of feminism, but I also know women who like the different philosophies that are considered more masculine. Gender doesn’t determine preference, personality does.
    That said, this is a great post.

  6. So here’s a well-intentioned comment about this whole issue coming from somebody who is probably like the author of the original question being criticized–a man who is committed to women’s equality, who is interested in helping his students, in attracting more underrepresented students to philosophy, and so forth, but who is not really caught up on what kinds of assumptions it is acceptable or unacceptable to make on these issues.

    I just read a very interesting article in the New Yorker (a July issue I believe) about the ongoing disputes between radical feminists and the trans-gendered movement. One of the things I found fascinating about the article was what appears to be several fissures within the feminist movement, which make it very difficult for the well-intentioned but basically non-activist type older male to engage these issues without seeming like a dolt. Are there or are there not biological-type differences between men and women that would manifest themselves as social-type differences regardless of how that society were structured? If there are, then it would seem that it is perfectly proper to ask how a male-centered society might better accommodate experiences and interests that more commonly involve women. If there are not, then it would seem that any perceived difference is a function of prior injustice, and so the aim would be to fight that injustice while asserting the truth of essential sameness. The problem is that I am not sure whether feminists themselves agree on these issues, which I’m sure I’ve garbled horribly, but I hope you get the general idea of the issues I’m trying to point out.

    May I offer one piece of constructive criticism? When you encounter these well-meaning but probably a bit avuncular and unfashionable potential allies, it is probably not right to immediately criticize everything wrong in their approach, as they are only trying to help. Their heart’s in the right place, in other words. Just a thought.

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