Let’s discuss rejections of feminist philosophy

Kate Manne has agreed to let me share a post from FB about her experience with a rejection of a feminist philosophy paper.

I received a rejection notice from a journal yesterday. This is a pretty routine occurrence in this game, admittedly. Acceptance rates are notoriously low in philosophy; well under five per cent in the top journals. So you have to learn to accept the rejections themselves gracefully. And much as you slightly dread reading the reports, they can be valuable, even invaluable, in making the paper better. They can help to expose unclarities in your claims, gaps in your argument, etc. But sometimes, they simply confirm that you are fighting a losing battle.

This referee report was one such. The reviewer complained about my use of feminist terms and concepts throughout the paper – e.g., “hegemonic dominance”, “messages that are not only false but oppressive,” and “hermeneutical injustice,” being the specific phrases which they listed as objectionable. And they went on to remark more generally that “the rhetoric of the ms. is such that it will, I think, (1) turn off some readers and (2) distract from the author’s argument. The author brings in some concepts and language which, whatever their merits, seem dubious to many of us in the analytic tradition.”

As a feminist philosopher in the analytic tradition, this is a very disappointing reaction to encounter. Many of us – me included – take the above terms and concepts to be standard, useful, and indeed vital, stock-in-trade. And the people who the reviewer feared would be so “turned off” by the language as to be “distracted” from my argument seem to include the reviewer themselves, ironically. They not only managed to completely miss, but handily illustrated, my central point in the paper. The point being that if one espouses politically marginalized views within philosophy, then one is disproportionately likely to be dismissed, disparaged, silenced, or even excluded from the discipline altogether. One is less likely to be given a platform in leading journals, for one concrete example, in view of which one is of course less likely to be able to earn a living wage, let alone get tenure.

Taken alone, my experience is just one data point, of course. But recent work by Sally Haslanger, among others, strongly suggests that it is not anomalous. Feminist philosophy is virtually absent, and plausibly systematically excluded, from top journals, she argues.

Obviously, the worry here is not that a paper got rejected. It’s that it got rejected for reasons suggestive of ideological bias against an entire area of philosophy, bias so strong that even using the vocabulary common in this area is sufficient grounds for rejection. It seemed to me that it would be useful to open a discuss here in which people can share similar experiences.

So have at it!

18 thoughts on “Let’s discuss rejections of feminist philosophy

  1. I think there are two worries here. The first is a worry about the referee’s complaint that the paper contained language / concepts that (i) the referee deemed inappropriately rhetorical, and yet (ii) are important for theorizing feminist issues. I see good grounds for this worry from the quotations: a draft of Prof. Manne’s paper is on her website and from a skim, it doesn’t strike me as overly rhetorical and the complaint about “hermeneutical injustice” suggests the referee’s ignorant of a swathe of important recent work. The second is a worry that the paper “got rejected for reasons suggestive of ideological bias against an entire area of philosophy, bias so strong that even using the vocabulary common in this area is sufficient grounds for rejection.” I don’t yet see strong grounds for this without having seen the referee report in full (which Prof. Manne could presumably supply in confidence to the original poster jennysaul if this were the case). Indeed, if this were the only reason given for why the submission was unpublishable, it’d be an easy fix. I’d be hesitant to assume this was why the paper was rejected on the basis of a couple of referee quotations out of context the full report, even though I do think the first worry is a genuine one, and worth discussing regardless.

  2. Many thanks for this very interesting post.
    If I may do a moment of shameless self promotion, _philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism_ has in its most recent issue published an essay that (full disclosure) I wrote arguing that the philosophies of all sorts are policed in precisely this way by the academic discipline of philosophy. I argue that it is inquiries into bodily difference itself that is being foreclosed. But the more basic point of the paper is that to really see the wide ranging violences of this sort of rejection, it is necessary to talk about not just the rejections of feminist philosophy, but also philosophy of gender, race, disability, class, sexuality, and philosophies yet to be imagined.
    Emily Parker

  3. Sorry, but the jargon described is not necessary or helpful. It gets in the way of the message. The difficulty is that other areas of philosophy have their own awful jargon and it is accepted without comment in those other areas. The excerpt from the FB post succeeds without use of such jargon.

  4. The discipline of Psychology was challenged by feminist psychologists in the 1970s (Maccoby and Jacklin, 1974). They analysed conclusions and insights from hundreds of formal and published research into gender differences in performance. They did this because they were concerned about representation of capability differences – differences in areas such maths ability, logical thinking, and spatial understanding. What they found was a systematic disconnect between what the actual data analysis showed (and did not show) and the researcher’s conclusions and insights which both exaggerated and even invented gender differences in favour of men. In addition they found that publication of research papers was biased towards papers that reported more positive insights about men. This work led to exposure of poor scientific practice and the introduction of guidelines for balanced research and publication in gender psychology (Hyde 1994, Cited in Challenging Psychological Issues. The Psychology of Sex and Gender. Holloway, Cooper, Johnston and Stevens) which included ensuring that the starting position of a study is not that the male performance or behaviour is treated as the standard norm with female differences being problematic.
    Time for ethical guidelines in the field of Philosophy, it seems, given none of us are immune to cognitive bias and have to actively check and challenge ourselves in the pursuit of balance and equity.

  5. I wonder if the bias here is primarily against feminist philosophy?

    That the reviewer picks out “hegemonic” and “hermeneutical” might suggest that’s it’s primarily about continental terminology.

    True, the objection to “oppressive” might suggest it’s about feminist philosophy. But I wonder if that’s more an objection to strong political language, since even in analytical political philosophy, such overtly “committed” language is carefully avoided.

    Mightn’t the reviewer have made the same objections to, say, a continental paper on Negri?

    This leads me to wonder: if the objection is to unfamiliar (and perhaps unhelpful) continental jargon and to overly committed (in the sense of assuming too much agreement about issues under debate) political language, rather than to feminist philosophy as such, then might it not be bias, but a reasoned (even if possibly inaccurate) criticism?

    I ask this because I appreciate feminist philosophy, but share an aversion to some of these characteristics (jargon and political presumptuousness) of (some!) continental philosophy.

  6. fwiw, the terms the reviewer singled out as objectionable occurred at most twice throughout the course of the paper – the last mentioned only so as to be set aside. And the main stated reason for rejection was that the paper didn’t consider the “obvious response,” which a third of the paper was devoted to delving into. That’s why I say they completely missed my central point.

  7. Here’s a small excerpt from a rejection I received a while ago:

    “This essay discusses Miranda Fricker’s concept of “epistemic injustice,” as developed in a book published by Fricker in 2007. The essay presumes Fricker is correct that there is such a thing as “epistemic injustice” but criticizes claims Fricker makes about it. I would have been happier if the essay had treated the matter from the ground up. What is this thing called “epistemic injustice”? Is this really a moral problem?”

    The reviewer then writes two whole (pretty snarky) pages criticizing the very idea of epistemic injustice, as defined by Fricker, but does not say a word about my actual essay. It finishes with, “In the kingdom of knowledge everyone’s opinions should be correctly evaluated. But not all opinions are equal, nor does there seem to be a “right to correct evaluation.” If so, the label “epistemic injustice” is rhetorical overkill.”

    Based on this single review my essay was rejected with this from the editor: “We do think that you are right that “epistemic injustice” is not correctly characterized as “objectification,” but if this is an error, very few have made it, so the urgency of correcting it is not so great. In the case of Fricker, the whole analysis has many problems, some of them indicated in the attached critique [i.e. of Fricker, not my article], so if though you correct one spot, there are many other spots that need work.”

    Fortunately for me I found another journal in which to publish the essay, Social Epistemology (for which I will give a HUGE shout out for publishing some amazing work in feminist philosophy!). At the time, however, I was pretty devastated. I received the nasty little rejection the summer I was going up for tenure.


  8. Hey everyone– can you please stick to the topic requested? I was wondering if others have examples of this sort, and asked for them. Please DON’T make any more comments on the details of the report Kate received. I did not AT ALL mean for her to have to defend her reaction here. Thanks!

  9. jenny, i feel your pain. the stuff i work on (17th century phil) is not only not accepted by certain journals, but is precluded from being published in them. and the mainstream journals that *do* publish my sort of stuff are among the most difficult to get into (e.g. phil review, nous, ppr; mind has only recently been accepting papers in history of philosophy).

    on a different note, i recall a grad school friend (now a fancy-pants professor in a nice department) having a paper on different types of value (e.g. instrumental, extrinsic…) rejected because the referee did not believe in Intrinsic Value.

    good luck with the paper!

  10. I don’t know about other silent folks, but here’s why I’m not posting (or haven’t been) in answer to the original question:
    (1) The story I have involves top journal ™, and while I’m quite certain that the rejection of the piece (later published in other top journal ™) had to do with, in that case, general editor’s personal views/prejudices about certain issues regarding discrimination, the reason I (now) know that cannot be revealed without putting people who are not me at risk.
    (2) cannot figure out how to genuinely anonymize the story
    (3) It’s true that all kinds of now very well known, and justly well-known articles were rejected by multiple top journals ™ before being published for reasons that had nothing to do with sexism, and for that reason, plus a whole bunch of reasons having to do with sexism, anything I or anyone else says here will be dismissed, I suspect, by most. Why put oneself through that? Those of us who’ve been through it, know. Those who haven’t probably won’t believe.
    So I’m left thinking that the only thing I can say, and mostly for the sake of supporting Kate Manne, is this: me too.

  11. I think it’s important for authors to report any and all instances of blatantly irresponsible refereeing to the editor(s) if only so that it may help to inform future decisions whether or not to use that referee.

  12. Hi, Letshavethisanon…, Thanks for adding a “me, too” and some thoughts on the radio silence. I think you are spot on that there is real fear of being dismissed. To even say “my work was rejected unfairly” is to say “my work was rejected” (which is not pleasant to say) and given that philosophers specialize in raising skeptical doubt, there is justifiable fear that people will pounce on the “unfairly” (thank you, jenny, btw for reminding us that you asked for examples, not for people to pick the examples to death), leaving only “my work was rejected.” So why bother saying anything at all, when to risk dismissal is not just to risk dismissal about being wronged, but also to risk dismissal about doing good philosophical work–“the work was fairly rejected b/c it’s probably not that good.” And to risk this kind of dismissal, given the emphasis on “being smart” in philosophy, is to risk a great deal. [I’m still not convinced though that we need to toss “genius” for “hard work”–it’s a false dichotomy as I think it takes hard work to produce an idea that is genius–we just need to quit the “cult of personality” business that goes on. Implementing known and finding more strategies for combating implicit bias would be nice, too.]

    Still, it’s frustrating to have the sense that one is not alone in dealing with rejection primarily on the basis of one’s work being feminist, but not to know how often it does happen (and also not to know which journals to avoid: the journal that sent me the rejection is not one I would have guessed would be biased against feminist work based on the way it describes itself). So what to do? (I did have a fantasy of starting a website where people could post highly problematic referee reports with the journal that let it be sent to the author identified–but given the risks involved, I didn’t think it viable.)

    Christy, I think part of the problem is that the editors already know. Presumably, they read the reports before they make decisions to reject, no? I thought about contacting a member of the advisory board who I thought would be horrified by the review I received (and was one of the reasons why I did not think the journal would be hostile to feminist work in epistemology). But then I wan’t sure if it would do any good.

    I should add, if it wasn’t already clear, that not only did the reviewer who wrote the report I quote above not discuss a single argument or idea in my paper, but also it was clear that they were not at all familiar with Fricker’s work, just riffing for two pages on what the reviewer thought was ridiculous about the very idea of epistemic injustice. And this was *after* Episteme [not the rejecting journal in question] had devoted a special issue to her book and both the Central & Eastern APA had devoted “author meets critics” sessions to it as well. Anyway…


  13. A couple of years ago I submitted a paper on Susan Okin’s critique of Nozick to a major ethics journal. Here are abridged versions of the reviewers’ comments:

    Reviewer #1:

    This paper holds libertarians to account for their failure to adequately engage with Susan Moller Okin’s devastating critique of their argument that the principle of universal self-ownership grounds strong property rights. The paper is clear and thorough and logically structured. It works systematically through the objections which has been made to Okin’s argument to show that no one has been able to defend the most fundamental premises of libertarianism from the thrust of Okin’s critique (even if they have been able to quibble with aspects of her argument). By defending the importance of Okin’s infrequently cited critique this paper implicitly raises the important question of whether female philosophers and philosophers who point out the male-centric viewpoint of much political philosophy have been unreasonably sidelined. I very much hope it will provoke discussion among libertarians.

    I recommend that the paper is published. [Gives a dozen or so suggestions for minor revisions.]

    Reviewer #2:

    [Starts with a bit of summary of the paper.]

    I recommend rejection of the paper for several reasons: (1) the discussion doesn’t advance much beyond Okin’s original discussion, including a defective formulation of the problem; (2) Okin’s original argument was not very persuasive to begin with and most generously read as tongue in cheek, serving to make plain the simplistic mode of thinking that characterizes much libertarian thought. Thus, the kind of serious argument and counter argument employed in the present paper strikes me as beside the point; (3) Author fails to adequately engage with some of the libertarian defensive objections to Okin’s argument.

    [Elaborates a bit on point (1), then offers some objections to a few particular points. In my opinion, these objections involve misreadings, give arguments that were already discussed in the manuscript, focus on minor points, and so on.]

    Editor’s decision:

    I am afraid that, though both reports contain some favorable comments on your paper–indeed, one reviewer recommends acceptance with minor revisions–and suggest possible directions for improvement, it does not receive sufficient overall support for me to take it further in the reviewing process. In particular, you will note that the critical reviewer has some quite fundamental reservations regarding your project in your article. Unfortunately, because of our high volume of submissions, we can accept only those manuscripts that are strongly recommended for publication. Consequently, I have decided not to pursue further the possibility of publishing your paper in [the journal].

    In follow-up, I asked the editor to contact Reviewer #2 for citations regarding (3), i.e., some objections to Okin that were not discussed in the paper. Relayed through the editor, Review #2 explained that “I did not mean too imply that the author does not at all engage with the said objections, rather that it is done inadequately. Some of what I mean by this I elaborated in the detailed comments.”

    For obvious reasons I’m keeping this anonymous. However, the blog editors will be able to identify me by my email, and are welcome to contact me.

  14. It sounds like an interesting paper. I realise that in career terms the author is best off publishing in a top journal. In the interests of people being enlightened by the argument however, is it going to be published somewhere else?

  15. Gender prejudice has caused a lot of harm. Every person of both gender male and female have equal part to play and the gender prejudice should be alleviated.

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