On Being a Woman in Philosophy

No doubt, in just a few months the blog “What is it like to be a woman philosophy” has done more to wake up the field about sexism in the profession than anything in the past few decades.  It’s just about impossible now to ignore or deny. (Just see this gawker story.)  So the questions that have been on my mind lately are these:  What is it about philosophy that makes it prone to this problem? What makes it different from comp lit or other humanities?  It seems, in general, that the humanities are more hospitable to women than engineering and the sciences.  (Though I don’t know what it’s like in the sciences these days.) Does philosophy, at least when it tries to be as “rigorous” as the sciences, become less welcoming to women?  Is there something about women that just unsettles men in the field? Do the old binaries about

reason / emotion

culture / nature

logos / pathos

etc. etc.

have a stranglehold on philosophy?

Are there differences from one sort of philosophy to another?

My own anecdotal take:  Among feminist philosophy circles, women are quite welcome. (Of course!)  Same goes in continental, pragmatist, and much political philosophy. In grad school in a class on early Wittgenstein, I didn’t feel so good about the professor’s aggressive and hostile attitude, but otherwise he was okay. My other seminars were exemplars of civility and welcoming. And my colleagues since have been great.  The truth is, I have had a fabulous time being a woman in philosophy. I have been hugely supported by male mentors and colleagues.  I have no complaints.

But, I can’t help but noticing (and I have been hesitating for many weeks to point this out here), many of the complaints about being a woman in philosophy emanate from “top” programs, “top” not meaning truly exceptional but “top” meaning highly ranked by the circularly produced Philosophy Gourmet  / Leiter reports.  I say circular because the rankings are based on the opinions of a group of philosophers chosen because they have been deemed to be “top” philosophers. The input produces the output.  There’s nothing objective or representative about the rankings, though they have transfixed the discipline, causing many who otherwise know their logic to stay silent about their concerns.  I have blogged on this more than I care to blog on anything. (To see these posts just type “Leiter” into the search field of this blog.)

The point here is that there seems to be an overlap between the style of philosophy favored by the Leiter reports and the style of philosophy that’s unwelcoming to women.  This is not a blanket statement about fields of philosophy or the people in them. There are some absolutely wonderful and welcoming people doing, say, philosophy of language (like Al Martinich, a friend and prof back at Texas). And no doubt there is some sexist pig out there who does Foucault  (though I can’t name one off the top of my head). But it’s hard to ignore so many posts by women in “top” programs complaining of sexism and sexual harassment.

So here’s another question: What is it like to be a department that is trying to increase its ranking — that is trying to be known for its rigor and precision? Who is it going to purge or make unwelcome? What is it going to aspire to?   Sexism long preceded the sad excursion into self-ranking, but the ranking game seems to have made more manifest certain stakes and tendencies.

Finally, note that the rankings game can be easily ended.  If you are at a Ph.D. granting program in philosophy (or an M.A. one, for that matter), simply ask your chair to not turn over the list of faculty to those who come knocking. Those who do not turn over their list are not included in the rankings.  It’s that simple.   We need not participate.  Thankfully, my program doesn’t.  And we are the better for it.