What it’s like to be a woman in philosophy

A new blog with a novel concept has started. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN PHILOSOPHY? collects and posts a few anecdotes per day on the question. As the editors put it,

This blog is devoted to short observations (generally fewer than 300 words) sent in by readers, about life as a woman in philosophy. Some of these will undoubtedly be tales of the sexism, conscious and unconscious, that remains. But we hope that others will be tales of ways that improvements have been (or are being) made. Many will be written by women in philosophy. But we hope that not all will be– for others in philosophy also know some important things relevant to what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy. They know, for example, what men in philosophy say to each other when the women aren’t there.

The other day I read all the posts through in one sitting, starting with the earliest ones.  There’s something hilarious about the horrible gaffes made, but at the same time it’s really sad.  There is something about this discipline of philosophy that is just not friendly to women.  Perhaps it is the argumentative / combative style that is prevalent in some schools of thought (but thankfully not in the ones I work in, nor at my new home, Emory’s philosophy department). Philosophers are conventionally trained in “gotcha” methodology.  Look, ma, how I can take him down! At least that was my experience in some seminars in grad school, where the prof would lean across the table and practically jab his finger into your chest.  But other seminars, in other genres of philosophy, were sites of respect, decorum, and civility.  There really is no need to one up each other much less to belittle each other to make a point. To honor our own philosophical interests we don’t need to disparage others. Women working in philosophy, especially those who claim some interest in feminist thought, have often been told that their work “isn’t philosophy,” as if there is any settled idea of what philosophy has to be. (And aren’t all the philosophers we think of now as “great” ones who have overturned conventional ideas of philosophy?)

So read the new blog and listen to what is being said about what counts and think about how to count things — and people — differently.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.