Sandra Lee Bartky, 1935-2016

With sadness, we note the death of Prof. Sandra Lee Bartky. Sandy Bartky was a Professor Emerita with the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she was also part of the Women’s Studies program from its inception. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana. Her areas of expertise included existential philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, Heidegger, Marxism, postmodernism, and feminist theory.

Sandy Bartky was a founding member of the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP), from its formation in Chicago in 1971, and she attended almost every meeting of their Midwest division for many years. The importance of feminists in philosophy to her own personal and scholarly fulfillment is vividly described in her introduction to her widely cited and best-known work, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (Routledge 1990).

It is difficult to do justice to her influence on generations of students and colleagues. Her work was so formative and transformative, perhaps because of her experience as a founder of SWIP. As she says, describing that initial gathering, “Clearly, if there were to be such a thing as feminist philosophy, we who were philosophers and feminists would have to invent it.” It is not a coincidence, and was rather her aim, that so many of us who read her work were shaped by it, shaken into new awareness of ourselves, and expanded by our appreciation of feminist philosophies. She notes in F&D, “Most of my writing is meant to offer occasions for consciousness-raising… I hoped that ‘Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness‘ would explain to non-feminists, or not-yet-feminists, what we were about; indeed, I was trying to seduce them.”

Today, as it happens, one of my students, a first-year who is already interested in political and social theory, came to my office hours and asked, “What’s Phenomenology?” I wish I had known that Sandy was leaving us even as I introduced her to a member of the newest generation of university students. I’m so grateful that she continues to raise our consciousnesses, one reader at a time, to seduce us, to make plain our assumptions and move us to know ourselves.

It is something of a custom to share an excerpt of an author’s work in our acknowledgement of their death. I give you just an excerpt of “Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness.” If it is tantalizing, seducing, if you want more, if it accomplishes a twinge in your awareness and even a political intervention, then her influence continues, and her endeavor to persuade you to share her endeavors is accomplished. Pessimists, set your pessimism aside, because there is no time for it here. Bartky’s perspective is entirely informed by awareness of the possibilities.

The very meaning of what the feminist apprehends is illuminated by the light of what ought to be. …To say that feminist consciousness is the experience in a certain way of certain specific contradictions in the social order is to say that the feminist apprehends certain features of social reality as intolerable, as to be rejected in behalf of a transforming project for the future. …What Sartre would call her “transcendence,” her project of negation and transformation, makes possible what are specifically feminist ways of apprehending contradictions in the social order. Women workers who are not feminists know that they receive unequal pay for equal work, but they may think that the arrangement is just; the feminist sees this situation as an instance of exploitation and an occasion for struggle. Feminists are not aware of different things than other people; they are aware of the same things differently. Feminist consciousness, it might be ventured, turns a “fact” into a “contradiction”; often, features of social reality are first apprehended as contradictory, as in conflict with one another, or as disturbingly out of phase with one another, from the vantage point of a radical project of transformation.

Thus, we understand what we are and where we are in the light of what we are not yet. But the perspective from which I understand the world must be rooted in the world, too.