Feminist philosophers and women philosophers

There is an interesting discussion unfolding on the SWIP list over the last couple of days. It began with some questions about both the validity and the usefulness of the Leiter rankings for women and/or feminists going into philosophy. It was suggested that an alternative ranking system for feminist-friendly programs might be appropriate. By the way, there is a listing of feminist-friendly programs at the CSW website linked through the APA website, here. You’ll need to scroll to the bottom of the page. Note this information is not a ranking. These are programs that are self-reported as feminist-friendly and the information here is of the sort that can help people make judgments for themselves. Anyway, as the discussion on the SWIP list has progressed a number of questions have been raised, among them the question of the connection between being a woman philosopher and being a feminist philosopher.

There is certainly some reason to think that there would be an overlap between these two. At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to think that they are not equivalent. Most particularly, it seems reasonable to think that there is no requirement for women to focus on gender issues purely because they are women. There are many women philosophers who have no interest in feminist philosophy, even though they might count themselves to be feminists. And then there are women philosophers who are antagonistic to both feminist philosophy and feminism. Being a woman philosopher does not ensure any particular attitude towards feminism or feminist philosophy.

There are a number of things that could be said about this and I am not really sure what I think about it at the moment. I began my career having no interest in feminist philosophy, though I was sympathetic to feminism. It wasn’t until the early 90s, 10 years out of graduate school, that I started working on issues in feminist philosophy of science. Before that I was occasionally asked if I could teach feminist philosophy, I suppose because I was a woman. I refused to do so, because I thought it was a weird question and resented the assumption, but over the years it became clearer to me that as a woman doing philosophy, I was finding it increasingly difficult to separate my intellectual from my pragmatic struggles (what sort of jobs I had, how I was perceived by my peers, how I perceived myself, my abilities, what problems I felt capable of tackling). It is this latter set of concerns that makes me sometimes wonder whether it really is possible to completely separate feminist philosophy from being a woman doing philosophy, no matter what you are working on. I wonder this even though I know that the “proper” attitude to have is that these two issues are distinct. Still, I think I am puzzled about this because it brings me face-to-face with the question of how integral gender is to any and all human activities. I am not really sure what it means to claim that gender issues are or are not relevant in a particular case, because I am not entirely sure how I would know. I think I feel more comfortable acknowledging that they are are more salient in some cases and for some issues than for others. But whatever the salience of gender to the issues that we are working on, isn’t what we want is that our gender is not a roadblock to our interests and our pursuit of those interests. Isn’t this the underlying problem in the discussion about the low numbers of women in philosophy, the low number of female applicants for jobs in philosophy, and most importantly, because it suggests that women are being discouraged or even driven out of the field, the decline in the number of women who are in the profession after receiving their PhDs?

I am not sure of the answers and I think it is worth questioning some of the assumptions, but I am very happy that this discussion is taking place.

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