It’s easy to fade out of philosophy as a woman, because no one is paying attention. Learning to be a graduate student, a philosopher, and a teacher are all their own skills. They require time, effort, and experience–and I have worked hard to stay in my field and succeed. But aside from the true free competition of minds, the fact is I’m learning to be all of those things, as a woman. I say this not to indicate my obvious difference from any particular individual, but it emerges as a striking characteristic of how I get treated—and how I am left with few options for any response.
If all my actions will be judged in relationship to my perceived identity—quiet because she’s a woman, interrupting because she’s an angry woman—then philosophy fails at its own theoretical enterprise into any number of different structures: existence, difference, freedom.
I’ve made it my business to study feminist philosophy—and this is a part of what singles me out. A persistent mischaracterization of feminism sees it as a perpetual numbers game, doing nothing more than to point out inadequate gender ratios and enforce new rules for what is appropriate to say, and what isn’t. But if women aren’t “excluded,” but somehow still not present in philosophy, is that not a structural and philosophical question at base? Isn’t this exactly the way in which feminism could reformulate philosophy into an actual feminist enterprise, and not merely abstraction? Doesn’t this also challenge feminism to be more than just empirical analysis or a political project? The two can work together—but are inspired to this new and mutual relationship through a very practical fault in the organization and practice of philosophy itself.
I have found that faculty have been the most accepting of and interested in, research in feminism and departmental activism regarding the representation of women in the department. It has been more than mere institutional pressure: even if not actively involved in feminist theory and research, my professors have been well read in feminist literature, critical, and even excited to talk about my work with me. I would have never known that feminist philosophy, or attaching the good old “woman problem” with its tried and true clichés of theory to some philosophical field best left neutral (“metaphysics,” “epistemology,” “political philosophy”), is not only unpopular but also despicable and simplistic.
It all feels like a cruel joke—to be dismissed and mansplained—when in fact there is so much interest and support in the rest of academia for feminist work and research. Philosophers do run an odd gamut of conservative to progressive, objective to subjective, but as Sally Haslanger’s article in The Stone points out, this diversity in other fields does not prevent women scholars from steadily increasing. Where is the disconnect in philosophy? Is it a personal cognitive dissonance, an institutional/administrative holdout while the rest of the academy marches forward, or an inherent fault of the discipline itself? Of course, it’s always a bit of a scream into the abyss to ask adults to be self reflective on their dearest habits—philosophers are people, too, after all. But even if we do dismiss my experience as marginal or my reaction as feminist-paranoid, the academic discipline of philosophy talks a bigger game than it plays.
The real question for me is where will this current resurgence in feminism and feminist philosophy in particular, actually lead to? The last year has been a wake up call, as article after article has been published bullet-pointing the abysmal statistics of philosophy within the academy. We’ve seen the numbers, and we feel the pressure of a philosophical “brain drain”, as Linda Martin Alcoff has called it, of women from philosophy to other fields. But it can’t just be a numbers problem: philosophy’s “woman problem” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So few women applied for the MA in Philosophy at the NSSR this year that gender parity was never an option, unless the incoming class was cut to a quarter of its usual size.
This has become an opportunity for activism with a group that I participate in at the New School for Social Research, People in Support of Women in Philosophy (PSWIP). The group is planning beyond our usual weekly meetings for workshops and editing, to host a 3-day symposium on women in philosophy. There have already been two conferences in the last year addressing the situation of women in philosophy, and more have been announced across the country and overseas, for the coming year and a half.
Our conference wants to respond to this recent surge of interest by creating a space in our area, and in our community, for a deeper consideration of the problem. We will engage practical issues in workshops, and theoretical ones in panels of professional women philosophers in order to ask, what is the problem of women in philosophy? Where does the incentive to change lie? Is this a constitutive flaw of philosophy as a discipline, or merely one which perseveres? Has activism or administration been lax? Are there differences inherent to the academic practice of philosophy for women, and in what ways? Experientially, pedagogically, philosophically?
As philosophers, we’re looking for structures, not mere numbers; but if it is the expression of philosophy which needs to be changed, then we must be ready to challenge the concomittant content which has allowed our field to become comfortably reactionary.