Thursday, October 08, 2009

Picking A Fight... Like A Girl

The interwebs are all a-buzz right now about women in philosophy. Wait, correction: they're all a-buzz about the LACK OF women in philosophy.

An article by Brooke Lewis in The Philosopher's Magazine entitled "Where are all the women?" confirms what just about anybody could have guessed: Philosophy departments in the U.S. and U.K. trail FAR behind the other humanities in female faculty. Brian Leiter picked up the story on his philosophy blog (here and here), and the SWIP (Society for Women in Philosophy) list-serv has been on fire with the topic. One suggestion, present in the original article and repeated endlessly in the commentaries on it, is that the discipline of Philosophy has an intrinsically "masculine"-- i.e., agressive and argumentative-- culture, which is ill-suited and off-putting to many women. This is the explanation for why, despite the fact that almost equal numbers of men and women graduate with B.A.'s in Philosophy, the number of women drops off dramatically at the M.A. level, and even more dramatically at the Ph.D. level. At present, only about 1 in 5 full-time professors of Philosophy are women, meaning that it is not only possible, but very likely, that if you are an employed female philosopher, you could be the only one in your department. (That's the situation in my department, for example.) The knee-jerk explanation showing up all over the place goes something like this: Philosophy is rigorous and demanding, not soft and womanish, so it's not surprising that the ladies can't hack it.


A part of me feels like this is not even worth entertaining, but since I've somehow managed to make it through the professional-training-in-verbal-sparring gauntlet and thus proven that I ain't skeered of an arguemnt, here are a few retorts:

(1) Philosophy, as a discipline and as an intellectual practice, is not "intrinsically" argumentative and aggressive. That's just one way of doing philosophy-- a way that has its virtues and its vices. It's not the only way of doing philosophy and it's not always even the best way of doing philosophy.

(2) The argument that women are less inclined to engage in argumentative and aggressive scholarship than men, that they are turned-off by rigorous and demanding intellectual exercise, and that they don't possess the "natural" aptitude for philosophy depends, of course, on an essentialist account of gender-determined affects and abilities that has absolutely no reasonable or scientific basis. Women flourish in plenty of other disciplines that could be characterized in the same way as Philosophy-- law, the "hard" sciences, and almost all of the other humanities. Surely, we don't want to say that those are all "soft" disciplines. Seriously.

(3) The discipline of Philosophy DOES, however, have a protracted and sedimented institutional culture. That culture includes-- along with actual and explicit sexist prejudices-- a kind of default devaluation of women's thought and abilities and a gross underrrepresentation of women who might correct that devaluation. If you're color-blind, you can't complain that the world isn't popping and sparkling with more color.

(4) The characterization of Philosophy that we see in these apologetics is more indicative of how (particularly male, "analytic") philosophers WANT to see themselves and their work than it is of women's aptitude or inclinations. So, the more felicitous question to ask would be: why are we so invested in seeing "Philosophy" this way?

I feel very fortunate to work in a department with enlightened and progressive-thinking male colleagues, but I know that many of our conversations would be VERY different if I weren't the sole representative of my gender-group. I also know, though, that my own disposition and personality tend toward the kind of Type-A characterization of Philosophy that many men want to preserve. (I can be, admittedly, "agressive and argumentative," to put it mildly.) But I would hope, and I think my colleagues would also hope, that philosophers would be attuned enough to the complex operations of social constructions to realize that what we see in the recent spate of articles on gender disparity in Philosophy is not only a red herring, but a terribly unreasonable and uncritical account of an relatively easily-explainable phenomenon.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Wait, philosophy is an institution? With norms other than abstract reasoning? Which happens to be the same as agonistic discourse?

Surely you jest.

Given that your premise (3) is so clearly false, I'll have to assume that the old line stands.

We feminists have to stick together.

(N.B. The final reference is to a Kids in the Hall reference I have thought of at more than one faculty meeting).

Sarita said...

Hi Leigh,

Been reading your blog since your scary post the other day, and glad you're okay.

As a woman who ran from philosophy (or a philosophy department....) and to an all women's college (avoiding the philosophy dept even there!) due partly to what I found to be a gross disparity at at least the undergrad level, I agree that the problem is largely institutional l (I may have been peculiarly mortified/traumatized by being/feeling like the odd philosophy chick out at psu undergrad and more, but let's not play the victim....). And thank goodness there's one male philosopher out there who actually understands philosophy AS an institution (Hah, Ideas Man! : ). Perhaps it takes some sense of marginalization to recognize it as such, but maybe I'm not giving the white boys enough credit...Hah again!)

I do think its true, however, that women in general haven't (for a number of reasons) developed/had a space in which a kind of intellectually combative/critical peer relationship is able to flourish (e.g. where women challenge each other), preferring in conversation to meet in the middle or echo each other's voices...another form of empowerment but not necessarily beneficial (we need to look at what "solidarity" means within women's communities after all).

Have you read The Mind/Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein? It was a bit of a therapeutic release for me concerning women in academia, but you're probably way past the need for that kind of validation (if you were ever there).

BTW, Just started J.Dewey's The Structure of Experience (One of many essays), and am feeling (yeah, feeling), so ready to get back in the swing of reading and imbibing philosophy....(shoot, I developed a social and political philosophy minor at Smith after your class!!!).

Finally, I want to say...Leigh, you give me hope for all the guitar-playing, roots-music loving, philosophically-inclined, happily loud-mouthed women out there. All 10 of us. ; )


p.s. Have you ever read Adrienne Rich's 1979 Smith commencement speech "What Does a Woman Need to Know?" on the importance of not being the "special/token woman?" It's pretty fantastic...

p.p.s. speaking of women who ask hard questions, check out how some are referring to new supreme court judge Sotomayer...she has been called "shrill." Seriously. When it comes to being inquisitive, hard-hitting, vocal, etc, it seems "damned if you do, damned if you don't." Either way it's framed as female (shrill or demure), and thus unflattering. If it's unwanted, it's shrill, if it doesn't exist, perhaps its because a woman just doesn't have it in her to be vocal. And there ya have it. A paradox more mindboggling than Zeno's whole slew of 'em.

anotherpanacea said...

The fact that philosophy has managed to stay as misogynist as the blog (and my own experience) demonstrates isn't necessarily the cause of women avoiding philosophy. In fact, I think it's an effect of women pursuing other fields and leaving male philosophers to waste their time wondering about the sorites paradox.

I mean this seriously: maybe philosophy isn't really rigorous and demanding enough for most of the women considering going to graduate school? It strikes me that women are now getting more PhDs than men, so they're flourishing elsewhere.

Part of the decision for a lot of undergraduate women I've met seems like it's, "Why bother with philosophy?" That's why it's incumbent on both men and women in philosophy to return the discipline to relevance. Otherwise, Howard University won't be the last to simply dissolve its philosophy department.