What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?: women in philosophy

The ivory tower is certainly not considered the bastion of progressive thinking, despite the fact that students are often integral to many of the world’s great revolutions and social movements. Of the many and varied disciplines in graduate study, many are beginning to integrate race/class/gender analysis into their canons. Thank goodness (actually, we should thank feminism and racial and economic justice movements).

Unfortunately, the discipline of philosophy has been notoriously slow-moving in this regard. In 2007-8, the percentage of women in tenure track positions was 18.7 percent, with two departments under 10 percent. Only, 12.36 percent of articles in top-philosophy journals were by women and the situation of people of color in philosophy is also rather dire. In the humanities, these figures are pretty shameful. Take history, for example, in which a 2005 report showed women comprising18 percent of full professors and 39 percent of assistant professors.

These days, a long-simmering debate about what philosophy is and who should be studying it is bubbling over. A new ranking, called The Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Programs has released ratings on the climate for female graduate students of philosophy. As you can imagine, it’s not pretty.

Statistics are powerful, but philosophy is notably hostile to women and people of color, by their own testimony. As Sally Haslanger wrote in her brave and valuable paper in 2008 :

“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…”

There’s even an entire blog about how tough it is to be a woman in philosophy, with anecdotes sent anonymously by women around the country.

I was constantly bumping up against the rigid nature of my training in (almost exclusively Western) philosophy and the philosophical questions about identity, society and politics that were foremost in my mind. Thankfully, I found feminist philosophy and critical race theory and had encouraging advisors who let me ask the philosophical questions that were most pressing in my own mind (What is justice? What are rights? How do our chosen/socially-imposed identities affect the way we think and act? What is beauty and how is it shaped by society?).

Seriously, I could go on and on about why I loved studying philosophy, and why I love it still. But all that still has to face up to the fact that these questions are considered marginal in many of the top philosophy grad programs.

In part because the Pluralist’s Guide rates three of the otherwise top rated programs in philosophy as being amongst the worst for women, the guide has really started a kerfuffle over whether the “climate” for women can even be measured, with some taking issue with the method used by the guide. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that some of the poorly rated programs are being identified as deficient not for how they treat women, but for having an approach to philosophy differs from that of the guide’s creators.

As told to Inside Higher Ed, Linda Martín-Alcoff, co-founder of the new guide and a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said that some of the criticism was raising valid points. But she also said that the attacks on the survey were “a kind of resistance to change and resistance to thinking about issues of diversity and inclusiveness.”

Hoo-boy. I’ll say.

Professor Martin-Alcoff has come under strong attack. Now, I’m not going to get into the specifics of the challenges against the new guide and the responses to those challenges. If you’re interested you can follow them on the guide itself, as well as here, here and here.

But I will say this: Despite it being tough to survey the climate for women, people of color and queer folks in the discipline of philosophy, it’s important to do it. It’s important to try, it’s important to shake up the racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and otherwise uncritically exclusive atmosphere in philosophy departments around the country. I don’t believe that these groups of people aren’t entering and pursuing philosophy because they can’t or because they don’t want to. I think the numbers allude to the fact that many departments are freaking miserable places for us to be. And all this in a discipline that is supposed to be one in which critical thinking is championed above all else. Sheesh.

Given all this, I leave you with a potentially confusing plea. If you’re a woman, person-of color, queer, or any other under-represented category of philosophy student, stick with it. There are others of us making a way and offering support. We need your voices, and we need more brave academics putting themselves on the line to challenge the status quo not just about who should be in the ivory tower, but just how we bring that thing down altogether.

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/sarahbee/ Sarah

    If you’re a woman, person-of color, queer, or any other under-represented category of philosophy student, stick with it.

    Thank you for this piece! My undergraduate degree is in philosophy and women’s & gender studies. Like you, I found the intersections of theory within these two disciplines to be invaluable to my philosophical path in school. Equally important, though, was the fact that I was lucky enough to be part of a philosophy department that (at least when I graduated) was composed primarily of women (all of whom are beyond stellar at what they do, if I might add). I was given the opportunity to conduct student-faculty research, present papers and receive mentorship in a department that was absolutely supportive of myself and my abilities. Specifically, the mentorship and support I received from the female faculty in the department remains one of the brightest spots of my academic (and even post-academic) career. And while the male to female ratio among students majoring was still skewed, I found myself equally supported and respected by my male peers – an environment which I believe the structure of the department went a long way toward creating. Like you said, I could go on and on about why I loved studying philosophy – and the circumstances that made that possible. I hope that others stick with it, too. And (cause I can’t resist giving a little plug!) if anyone is interested in finding a program that will be supportive, check out: http://www.plu.edu/philosophy/

    • http://feministing.com/members/mschiff/ Eesha Pandit

      And I’m gonna put a plug in for studying philosophy at women’s colleges (I went to Mount Holyoke!).

  • http://feministing.com/members/profbigk/ Prof Big K

    Lovely post. Thanks for the attention to the “What is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy” blog! That site is a mine of compelling testimony. If readers feel overwhelmed by the badness of the stories and the experiences there, then I just want to call readers’ attention to the fact that it has a companion blog, “What We’re Doing About What It’s Like,” where people have posted constructive responses. So don’t give up. Don’t give up.

    • http://feministing.com/members/mschiff/ Eesha Pandit

      Yes, don’t give up.

      I also linked to the Feminist Philosophers site, but thanks for the link to the other one!

  • http://feministing.com/members/teddyadorno/ Blake

    It’s also worth considering studying philosophy in places other than philosophy departments, if you have interest in feminist or race theory. Many political science departments and comp lit departments allow you to do this kind of work in a way that most philosophy departments won’t. For example, feminism is a much more mainstream topic in political theory than it is in philosophy. In a way, it’s disappointing that philosophy has become a narrow discipline. But it’s also the case that one can do philosophy in many different sorts of departments. So if you like studying these sorts of questions, don’t limit your scope to philosophy departments. Look around.

  • http://feministing.com/members/linnetlynet/ Lynet

    I’m not in philosophy (though my mother is) — I’m in applied mathematics. That’s hard, too. So sometimes it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who struggles, and that I’m not insane for thinking it is a struggle, and that there are people out there who think this is worth sticking with, regardless. So I was really heartened by this post. Thanks.

  • http://feministing.com/members/othello/ othello

    Although it is great if you can be a pioneer as an underrepresented x person in y field, graduate school in the humanities may not be the best venue for this; while there, students are paid a small stipend for teaching, etc., and have few real job prospects when/if they get out. That is, it is not an easy life for the spirit or the body.

    I am sure the figures of full professor across the disciplines will lean towards white men because they are largely from a time when there were less women and minorities attending higher education period. In addition, many professors stop at associate professor because they attain a similar amount of stability and freedom.

  • http://feministing.com/members/j7sue/ Jenny Barnes

    I started doing a philosophy course with the UK’s open university. Normally the OU is good with things like identity. The other students included a large number of mansplainers; part of the course material had a section on how men and women were fundamentally different – as a transsexual woman I felt that was unsympathetic, and gender essentialist. It was like going back in time 100 years. Have you even heard of Judith Butler? No?
    It also seemed to include a lot of simple minded solipsism. So after a few weeks I abandoned it and I’m now doing a course in International Politics. Which I think will suit me a lot better.

  • http://feministing.com/members/andysmith/ Andy Smith

    Still can’t believe these figures… why less women? Diversity is the key for sure. I live in London which is incredibly diverse and notice the difference when I go to other towns in the UK…