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.

14 thoughts on “Women-only spaces and the ‘wrong kind’ of woman

  1. This is an important discussion, one that has happened sporadically over the years in my department, notably when feminist philosophers were the intellectual and social center of graduate student gravity, and some women, actually all of them feminists, who were not feminist philosophers, felt marginalized and implicitly judged in just this way–something that was clearly a problem and one we tried to deal with openly and humanely. I do think that women ought to be every bit as free as men to pursue whatever most engages them. But that said, I can’t escape my own history of having started out doing straight analytic metaphysics and epistemology in the conviction that they were entirely apolitical (a conviction that actually saddened me, since it bifurcated my academic and political lives in ways that contrasted with the experiences of my friends in moral and political philosophy). I came–along with many distinctively feminist philosophers–to see Western academic philosophy as deeply androcentric, even misogynist, in ways that subtly continue to shape the field–as I also came to see it as deeply Eurocentric, even racist. I am, that is, persuaded by arguments that the core problems that shape the field today are woven into the projects of creating the modern bourgeois European man: the core philosophical problems the field grapples with today are the unresolved residue of the constitution of that very distinctive way of becoming a person. That’s obviously the barest sketch of a long, obviously controversial argument; but the point is that those of us who are persuaded by it–whose careers involve making and trying to support it and trying to craft different ways of philosophizing, articulating different problems for different sorts of persons–are not non-judgmentally pluralist about the mainstream of the discipline: we find it seriously problematic, even as we are implicated in and engaged with it, often finding much of it intellectually exciting, and committed to supporting students (of all genders) who want to pursue it. It’s complicated….

  2. Thanks for linking to the very interesting post. I wonder if this part of this response to the post by Uckelman:

    “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.)”

    isn’t at least in tension with developments like those noted in the earlier post on this blog linked below

    https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/departments-changing-social-activities/

    as well as suggestions by the APA “site visit committee” and others that philosophical social events be made more “family friendly”, where that seems to pretty clearly mean not meeting in bars or drinking.

  3. The digression about beer was mostly simply reflecting personal preferences — I enjoy beer and I enjoy hanging out with people who enjoy beer. But it also reflected one of the differences between the AAP and the IAPh — in the crowd I hung out with at the AAP, it happened without explicit discussion that at the end of the day we all hung around until a large enough group got together and then we went out, extending both the philosophical and the social day. There wasn’t anything equivalent to that at the IAPh that I was able to see; instead, at the end of the first day, the final session ended and…lot of people just went home. People who did go out seemed much more organized; they had their people and their plans and executed them, rather than hanging around until a critical mass of people (known and unknown) was reached. And having enjoyed the social aspect of the AAP so much, not having it at the IAPh was another way it felt different.

    On a much more minor note, can I ask that you correct the spelling of my given name?

  4. @Sara, first of all, so sorry for misspelling your name – fixed now! About the beer comment, I totally get what you’re saying and didn’t mean to dispute that this was your experience. My worry was more that your post read to me – and I apologize if this was uncharitable – as though it could easily be interpreted as suggesting that ‘women in philosophy’-types or feminist philosophers *in general* don’t like beer/going out for drinks. That definitely isn’t true, in my experience. One thing I’ve noticed, just anecdotally, is that people seem much more willing to attribute broad-brush generalizations to feminist philosophers than to other AOS-groups: you wouldn’t go to one local epistemology conference and then say ‘epistemologists are like X’ based on that experience, but I often think people are very willing to go to one local feminist event and then say ‘feminist philosophers are like X’, just based on that one experience’. I don’t at all mean to say that that’s what you were doing – I’m pretty sure it wasn’t – but I worry one could easily read your post that way, and that’s what I wanted to push back against.

    @Matt, I admit I get pretty frustrated when people bring up that Colorado recommendation (as they do so often), since it’s been pointed out over and over and over that the site visit program intended all their recommendations – including the one about alcohol – as very specific, very local recommendations tailored to the toxic environment at CU. They were never intended to be broader recommendations for ‘good climate’ in the philosophical community. As far as departments changing social practices, again these are discussions about how we might improve interaction at department functions, and are especially focused on social dynamics between faculty and grad students at department-sponsored functions at their own universities, especially for departments struggling with sexual harassment problems. It’s pretty hard to read ‘feminist philosophers don’t like beer’ or ‘feminist philosophers think we should never drink beer at conferences’ off of that. For what it’s worth, the last ‘women in philosophy’ social event I went to was held at a bar, and the last feminist philosophy event I went to featured very copious amounts of whisky.

    That being said, I do think that heavy drinking is less socially expected at women-in-philosophy events – my own anecdotal impression, at least, is that there’s more variety in whether and how much people drink. As someone who doesn’t drink – and has often found that pretty isolating at philosophy conferences – this is something I really value about women-focused and women-only events.

  5. I think the following misses, a bit, part of what I take Sara Uckelman to be saying, when Magical writes, “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?” It seems to me that one of Uckelman’s points is that the IAPh is not billed as either feminist OR women-only. It’s advertised as a thing for women in philosophy. Her argument, as I understand it, is that it is problematic to bill a group or event as one for women in philosophy and then conflate women with feminists and/or exclude others from spaces. (I realize that on the IAPh webpage, the ‘About Us’ section announces “a particular emphasis on feminist philosophy.” But the conference calls and events tend to simply say they are for women. So Uckelman’s point remains.)

    I have the same concern that the fullness of Uckelman’s point may not be captured by Magical’s saying, “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.” If an event is to be for women and not necessarily feminists, then ideally a woman would feel welcome and included while not feeling particularly feminist at all. So the concerns is not that a woman may feel less feminist than she *really* is. Sara can correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought her concern was a woman shouldn’t have to feel feminist to feel she belongs at a panel on “30 years of women in philosophy,” or whatever. So better recognizing women’s feminism is not what seems urged.

    Sara Uckelman, I switch off between calling you Sara and Uckelman. Both feel awkward. Apologies if either was inapt.

  6. Hi Kate,

    To be clear, I definitely wasn’t attempting to summarize all the points in Sara’s rich and interesting post. There’s a lot there. I just wanted to highlight one aspect of the various issues she raises, since that aspect is especially resonant with things that other women in philosophy have said to me. (Also, if I understand her post correctly she wasn’t talking about a single event, but about several, including the IAPh.)

    “If an event is to be for women and not necessarily feminists, then ideally a woman would feel welcome and included while not feeling particularly feminist at all. So the concerns is not that a woman may feel less feminist than she *really* is. . .A woman shouldn’t have to feel feminist to feel she belongs at a panel on “30 years of women in philosophy,” or whatever” – So yes, I agree that this is a concern, but a separate concern from the one I wanted to focus on in this post. I was especially interested in the case – which I think is quite common – of women in philosophy who are extremely committed feminists, but do not work in feminist philosophy. I think Sara’s post can helpfully be used as starting point for discussion of both issues, and, again, just based on my own experience, I was more interested in the latter concern. (I haven’t met many women in philosophy who don’t self-identify as feminists – at least in a broad sense of ‘feminist’ – so this latter worry felt more pressing to me, just in terms of what I was interested in writing about.)

  7. @Kate, when you say “but I thought her concern was a woman shouldn’t have to feel feminist to feel she belongs at a panel on “30 years of women in philosophy,” or whatever”, yes, this. That helps to articulate some of the feelings I had (many of which, even a week after the events were still inarticulate, which is part of why I wrote the post, to try to put the feelings into words!)

    If “Uckelman” feels awkward, I also answer to “Uckelwoman” (and if you want my daughter, that’s Uckelgirl). But I’m more than happy to simply be “Sara” — so long as the excrescent ‘h’ doesn’t creep in! :)

  8. I’ve just added some thoughts on Sara’s post from the perspective of someone who did attend the reception she mentions (indeed organised it!), and also grew up within the Australasian philosophical community.

  9. I really wonder if there’s some interplay between something like imposter syndrome (though not exactly) and attributional ambiguity. I wonder if someone might go into a space they’re already not sure they’ll feel like they ‘belong,’ and then when things that trigger attributional ambiguity pop up, they’ll tend to interpret them in the ‘Yep, I don’t belong’ or ‘Yep, not welcoming to my kind’ way, when really they were ambiguous and/or innocuous.

    I’ve certainly had that issue when I entered a few ‘women only’ spaces in philosophy. Happily, I did find them welcoming, but I wonder if part of that is some people really making it obvious to me that I *was* welcome and that I *did* belong. So maybe, if I’m right, that some interplay between some version of imposter syndrome and attributional ambiguity is in force, that can help both the attendee *and* the others who already inhabit such places to build some bridges. …maybe?

  10. @Rachel, that sounds both plausible and helpful. Thank you!

    @Cathy, thank you so much for sharing your perspective on the events. And thank you for the hard – and often thankless – work of organizing events like this. They mean so much to so many people. So again, thank you. I should have made more explicit in the original post how grateful I am for all the hard work that people like you have done and continue to do.

  11. (1) There has always been a tension in organisations like SWIP that are meant to be both for *women in philosophy* and *feminist philosophy*. This often means that particular events will skew in one way or another. And yes, it’s not ideal. (2) There are some strands of feminism that are not terribly friendly to analytic philosophy. This is not unique to feminist philosophy. What is unusual about feminist philosophy is that e.g. the continental and analytic people will show up to the same events, so we end up more aware of it. So I totally get why someone might find a particular event or group of philosophers not a good fit, or even unwelcoming. But the thing is: there are now a TON of awesome analytic women who don’t do feminist philosophy involved in work to improve things for women in philosophy. And there are now a TON of analytic feminist philosophers. So the truth is that I think these problems are much diminished. And it makes me sad and frustrated and tired to see someone deciding– and suggesting to others— that if you’re an analytic philosopher who likes a beer you should really start a new organisation. (Also: My intention for What is it Like was never to get just negative stories. I WANT the positive ones. But people have rarely sent them.)

  12. I’ve been squeezed out of two societies for women in philosophy. In one case, after an APA panel discussion when I asked suggested we all go to lunch, the other members of the panel ditched me in the ladies’ room.

    That was quite a while ago. I haven’t been involved with either of these groups since, but I always have been and remain a committed feminist. Early on I was trashed in the profession because I was a woman, I’ve contributed to ‘What it is like to be a woman in philosophy’, etc. I’m admittedly skeptical about ‘feminist philosophy’ but totally committed to feminist political action, including support for affirmative action with hard quotas, etc.

    Maybe things are different now. But this drove me away. And I know lots of other women in the profession, especially younger women who don’t want to be involved because of the perception that such groups, SWIP in particular, are devoted to ‘feminist philosophy’, the it isn’t what they do, that membership won’t do anything for them professionally, and will in fact make them look bad.

    I believe that it’s important for women in professions where they’re underrepresented to have organizations for women in their professions and for feminist concerns in the profession–not as ‘safe spaces, but because when you’re a minority in a profession there are special concerns to be discussed. It might be useful however to compare organizations for women and (not the same thing) for the discussion of feminist issues, in philosophy, what they do and how they’re viewed, to, e.g. the Association for Women in Mathematics and the International Association for Feminist Economics.

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