Obituary: Jean Grimshaw

I’ve been teaching Jean Grimshaw’s work for about 20 years now.  I was very sad to learn just now that she has died.  I’ve been sent a collection of remembrances for this important philosopher and founder of SWIP UK.

                         In Memory of Jean Grimshaw (1941-2017)


Introduction: Martin Barker, Alison Assiter and Morwenna Griffiths

Jean Grimshaw, who died on February 1st 2017, was one of the founder members of SWIP – and of the informal network of philosophers which preceded it. She was a distinctive and significant figure in British feminist philosophy circles. She fizzed with energy and enthusiasm and it is hard to think of her as anything but alive.


Her position and style are best seen in her Feminist Philosophers (1986), which critically examined the ways in which the mainstream philosophical tradition was heavily gendered, and then looked at the implicit assumptions and models inside a range of feminist critiques of that tradition. Jean’s originality was not in having a big original theory of her own, but in bringing to bear the best critical eye out of the British analytic tradition to disclose assumptions about ‘self’, ‘authenticity’, ‘relations of reason and desire’, ‘bodies’, and so on. She also confronted masculinist biases how in the subject matter of orthodox philosophy drew on the experiences of males. She always wanted to challenge ill-formulated ideas, and lack of clarity. But with respect to all kinds of feminist thinking, she was always constructive with the intention of bringing out the best in all traditions and kinds of thinking.


Jean taught for 25 years at Bristol Polytechnic/University of the West of England on the forebear of the philosophy programme at UWE Bristol. One module she taught with Martin Barker in the 1970s was called ‘Models of Man’ – or was called that until they both read Dale Spender’s (1980) Man-Made Language. After reading it, they looked at each other and said, “That title has to change!” The course was important as an early example of students being asked to look the ways claims about human needs and desires, cultural processes and power relations could be found in the ordinary language of the media or of official documents. Jean’s primary interests were in doing this sort of work within feminist theory and philosophy, where she rehearsed her skills to the best effect. In the 1990s she played a central role in the development of an MA in Women’s Studies at UWE but sadly it went the way of many such committed programmes as universities increasingly neo-liberalised. But among the students who went through that programme are several who have gone on to hold important positions in other British universities. They always valued Jean’s teaching.


Alison Assiter

I remember Jean as vivacious and lively. Her book was really important to me as the first intervention in feminist philosophy and so beautifully written and clear. Other philosophers have said the same about it.


Martin Barker

Jean Grimshaw was my colleague and friend at Bristol Polytechnic/University of the West of England for 25 years – until she retired and I moved elsewhere on the same day in 1998. Jean constituted one third of a ‘terrible trio’ with Anne Beezer and myself who, together, developed a programme of cultural studies-style courses in the early 1970s. (In many a Departmental Minute we were collectively known as ‘JAM’ …) Anne came from a sociological background, Jean and I came from philosophy (in Jean’s case, via initially teaching the philosophy of education to teacher trainees). But although for many purposes we spoke with a single voice, each of us had distinctive positions and styles.


I have a number of distinctive memories of Jean, as friend and colleague. I remember the surprisingly shy way in which she showed me her book when it first came out in 1986. I remember the day in 1990 when she burst into a class I was teaching, to yell excitedly ‘She’s gone!’ – when news had just broken of Margaret Thatcher resigned. I remember the day (but not the date) when, the three of us sharing an office and Anne and I utterly involved in tutoring students, there was a different kind of yell from behind us, and we turned just in time to see Jean hurl a chair across the room in frustration at her inability to work with so much noise.


Jean could be funny, irascible, precise, and very determined. She moved fast through life. She smoked heavily throughout. She loved her red wine, and other libations. She was a keep-fit (or perhaps better, keep-stretchy) fanatic. She was a lot of fun and ideas. Although I know that she was very critical of the masculinist assumptions that underlie many notions of ‘human nature’ and ‘humanism’, she was to me a humanist in the very best senses of the word. Goodbye, Jean.


Anne Seller:

My best memory of Jean is of a SWIP gathering at her home on slopes above Bristol. It was a brilliant summer day so we moved outside in her large garden, where we talked, listened to each other’s papers, laughed a lot, and had inspiring, invigorating discussions, which always seemed to lead somewhere. A gathering of good friends, sharing mutual interests and intellectual concerns, we were living our vision of what universities would be like without the aggression, competitiveness and fear of our largely masculine departments. With her sense of fun, commitment, and ideas , Jean made a big contribution to such gatherings. The happiness of this particular day for me is her memorial; a part of my life.


Morwenna Griffiths:

Jean gave me my first introduction to the very idea that feminism was relevant to philosophy at a staff seminar in Bristol University where I was a PhD student. She electrified the usually rather sober and sedate meeting with her critique of masculinist thinking in philosophy. Later in 1983, when my PhD was newly complete, Joanna Hodge and I invited all the British female philosophers we could think of to a meeting in Oxford to discuss how feminism and philosophy might relate to each other. Most of the women we invited came: just eleven of us, not all of us working in Philosophy departments. Jean’s radiant energy, impish sense of humour and keen insights helped to create the atmosphere of the meeting. It was characterised by intellectual excitement mixed with bursts of laughter and shared experiences of being in very largely male working environments.


That first meeting inspired a number of others, run on a shoestring. Jean’s drive, energy and imagination helped keep us going. Rooms were booked in university rooms in London to which we brought a kettle, coffee and biscuits and where we discussed our developing ideas, as well as finding support and friendship at a time where there were very few women teaching philosophy, let alone feminist philosophy.


After two or three years of this, we decided to declare ourselves a Society and to publish a newsletter. SWIP came into being. It was about this time that Jean’s book, Feminist Philosophers was published. At the time there were very few books anywhere that related feminism and philosophy and Jean’s monograph was both ground-breaking and influential. The book seem to be less significant now like much published at that time, in what was a very different political and philosophical context. However, her legacy remains in the significant part she played in the process of creating spaces for women and feminism in philosophy. I was privileged to be one of those who read the manuscript of her book before its final version came out. It immediately influenced my own thinking, writing and teaching, shaping how I understood the world and my changing place within it.


I was very sad to learn that Jean had died. She was a valued friend, helpful and supportive throughout my own career in philosophy and education. My life has been the richer for knowing her.


One thought on “Obituary: Jean Grimshaw

  1. I am very sad to learn of Jean’s death. In the amazing year I spent in the UK in the late 1980s one of my greatest pleasures was participating in the feminist philosophy discussion group that met throughout that year. Jean was so important a figure – and friend – in that group. In many ways it was a formative experience for me, that participation, confirming the validity of feminist philosophy and showing me something of how to become a contributor. Jean visited me in here in Canada at least once thereafter. It was a pleasure to know her, and now a sorrow to know she has died.

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