Friday, September 14, 2007

Being female, and having theoretical interests

Posted by N Pepperell 14/09/2007 @ 10:50 am Filed in Professional Life
Rushing, and unfortunately I don’t have time to write on this in detail at the moment, but I wanted to point those who hadn’t yet seen it to Sally Haslanger’s piece “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)”, which begins:
There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave. Most of the time I suppress this rage and keep it sealed away. Until I came to MIT in 1998, I was in a constant dialogue with myself about whether to quit philosophy, even give up tenure, to do something else. In spite of my deep love for philosophy, it just didn’t seem worth it. And I am one of the very lucky ones. One of the ones who has been successful by the dominant standards of the profession. Whatever the numbers say about women and minorities in philosophy, numbers don’t begin to tell the story. Things may be getting better in some contexts, but they are far from acceptable. (from the online version posted here - final published piece in Hypatia Spring 2008)
She continues:
Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination. I think a lot of philosophers aren’t aware of what women in the profession deal with, so let me give some examples. In my year at Berkeley and in the two years ahead of me and two years behind me, there was only one woman each year in a class of 8-10. The women in the two years ahead of me and the two years behind me dropped out, so I was the only woman left in five consecutive classes. In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy. When I was at Penn as a junior faculty member and told a senior colleague that I was going to be married (to another philosopher, Stephen Yablo, then at UM), his response was, “Oh, I’m so sorry we’ll be losing you.” This was in 1989.
I’ve written here before about the frank discussions people feel comfortable having in front of me about whether “young women” - especially “young mothers” - can handle this or that position for which I’m being considered. I’ve been getting the “are you really female” jokes (or the simple declarative: “you aren’t really female”) since I was a young child.
In my previous program, I found myself continuously having to explain that being female, and having theoretical interests, did not mean that I considered myself a “feminist theorist”: people kept asking whether, instead of working on whatever I was trying to work on, I wouldn’t rather “do something about women” instead. At any rate - not enough time to discuss this properly now, and the topic tends to evoke non-productive fury. I’ll leave it here for the moment: go read the article and the discussions, which will be more useful than what I would rant about right now…The discussions at Inside Higher Education, Lumpenprofessoriat, and Crooked Timber are also worth a look.

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