Women-only spaces and the ‘wrong kind’ of woman

As we’ve discussed before, feminist and women-only spaces are often less inclusive than we’d hope, especially to women of color. And this is of course an ongoing issue that intersectional feminism seeks to wrestle with and improve on.

But there’s an interesting question that’s specific to feminist and women-only spaces in philosophy – are they inadvertently unwelcoming to women who do certain kinds of philosophy, especially the kinds we typically code as ‘male’ (logic, formal epistemology, metaphysics, etc)? It’s this topic that Sara Uckelman – a logician – explores in her blog post about her recent experiences at women-only and women-focused philosophy events.

If my experiences talking with women grad students and early career philosophers working in technical subfields is at all representative, I think that at least some of the frustrations that Uckelman expresses in her post are not uncommon. There’s sometimes a delicate interplay between philosophers who are feminists (that is, philosophers committed to feminism) and feminist philosophers (that is, philosophers whose research interests include feminist philosophy). And I think it’s easy for women who work in technical or esoteric parts of metaphysics, logic, and epistemology to be made to feel – often implicitly, but sometimes explicitly – that they are somehow less feminist in virtue of their research areas. And this can easily make them feel as though, somehow, they are the ‘wrong kind’ of women for women-in-philosophy spaces.

It’s a two-way street, of course. Feminist and social philosophers are often told that they are less rigorous, less smart, etc than those doing technical work, or that their work isn’t ‘real philosophy’. And unhelpful generalizations can hinder communication both ways. (An odd part of Uckelman’s post was the discussion about feminist philosophers and beer – plenty of the feminist philosophers I know like beer a lot.) But I do think it’s important that feelings and experiences like Uckelman’s are talked about and recognized as part of making women-in-philosophy efforts more inclusive.

There’s no one way to be a woman in philosophy, and no right or better thing to work on if you’re a woman in philosophy. Valuing traditionally marginalized areas of philosophy – including feminist philosophy – shouldn’t come at the expense of saying that other areas are somehow less good or less worthy. And of course one’s research area can never be treated as a proxy for one’s moral character or engagement with social causes. (*Cough* Thomas Pogge *Cough*). There are a lot of ways to be a woman in philosophy, and hopefully we can make philosophy better for all of them.