Friday, July 15, 2016

What it's like to be THIS woman in philosophy

Gather 'round and make yourself comfortable, because this is going to be a long one...

Tuesday afternoon I got back from 10 days in Australia, a trip which involved three back-to-back conferences and which gave me three very different views of being a woman (or at least, being THIS woman) in philosophy (let me make it clear, here and now, that this post is going to be about ME and MY experience, not generalities about "what (all) women do/be/are in philosophy"; in fact, these generalities are precisely one issue I will be railing against). The first conference was the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Logic, and the primary reason for the trip, as I was invited to give the keynote (you can read a summary of the talk over on the Medieval Logic and Semantics blog). The second conference was the annual conference of the Australasian Association for Philosophy, a generalist conference which basically accepts all abstracts submitted. I figured, since I was going, I might was well present, and submitted a non-logical abstract. The third was the annual conference of the International Association for Women in Philosophy, which I did not present at because the deadline for abstracts was long before I made any of my plans to go. All three conferences took place in the same city, with the second two being at the same campus.

The AAL conference was great -- a passel of fascinating talks, getting to see some friends I haven't seen in years, getting to meet in person people I've previously only known over the internet, and getting to meet new people. It was small enough that everyone got to talk to everyone, and the talks were long enough to really be able to say something, and have time for good discussion. It was basically everything I want in a conference. One sad part was that a friend I'd been looking forward to seeing was unable to come at the last minute, which had an added consequence that the number of women speaking at the conference went down from 3 to 2. Luckily, the organizers were able to find a replacement for the talk, and because gender imbalance in logic is something the organizers care about, they made sure it was a woman. So, there were three of us speaking, and another three women in the audience (out of around 20-30 people total). These are not good numbers, but they aren't horrible.

The AAP conference was huge, and I was glad I went into it with a core group of friends collected from the AAL, including one of the other women speakers. The first evening of the conference, there was scheduled a reception for Women in Philosophy at one of the local pubs, and upon viewing this on the schedule, she and I had one of those "Are you going?" "I dunno, are you going?" "I don't really want to go if I'm going to be the only one." "I'll go if you go." sorts of conversations. Neither of us had an inherent desire to go to the event because of the type of event that it was, but we both felt that, as women in philosophy, there may have been some sort of obligation on us to attend, because it's an event that's organized specifically for us -- and wouldn't it be a bit churlish not to go? But as the afternoon waned on, we talked more, and we agreed: Neither of us really fancied the idea of going and hanging out with a bunch of people we don't know simply because they're the same gender as us (especially when, given our druthers, we'd rather hang out with people of the opposite gender). So we instead went out to a different pub with a mixed group, and proceeded to have a very interesting conversation about whether or not we actually had an obligation that we were shirking by not going to the Women in Philosophy reception -- a very interesting conversation that included both men and women, something that almost by definition could not have happened if we had gone to the reception, and which had two interesting results. One, one of the men involved relayed how in previous years, the reception has explicitly excluded men, which meant that while it was going on, the men gathered in another room of the pub, and there -- without the tempering effect of women -- conversation degenerated into the worst of belligerent agonistic philosophy. Thus, while women only events in philosophy may be beneficial for women in philosophy, one might wonder whether they are beneficial for philosophy. Two, we came to the conclusion that neither of us had an obligation on behalf of ourselves to attend the event: If we did not think the event would be beneficial for us, then there was no obligation on us to attend. (Whew! That meant I could enjoy my company and my beer and not feel guilty). However, there remains the issue of whether we might have obligations towards others to go -- to other women in philosophy. In particular, it is unlikely that there would've been any other female logicians at the event (which was one of the reasons we weren't that interested in attending in the first place); however, what if there were a young female graduate student interested in doing logic, but unsure of the advisability of pursuing it, perhaps because of gendered reasons, and who would perhaps have benefited from going to such an event and seeing some more senior (how on earth have I moved into the "senior academic" category? I think it's the grey hairs) women logicians? I know that I personally never felt the lack of senior female role models -- all my best teachers and role models were men, and this never bothered me or seemed problematic -- but I also know that I cannot consider myself typical (in fact, I think I am extremely atypical, and also a combination of extremely lucky and extremely oblivious. I have followed What's it like to be a woman in philosophy? for years, and I have read the stories there with a sense of disconnect with (my) reality: I could not identify with a single story written there. I finally submitted my own a few days ago. Take a look at the title they gave it. Isn't that sad?). Since I cannot assume that my case is typical, I should assume that there are others out there who would benefit from having someone like me around. Do I have an obligation to them to attend such events? In the end, the group had a strong argument to the conclusion that "while members of oppressed groups may have a responsibility to resist their own oppression, they don't have a responsibility (simpliciter) to resist the oppression of others in the oppressed group". Even though that conclusion excluded me of any responsibility to attend the event, I'm a little bit hesitant to assent to it. I think I do have an obligation towards these amorphous, indistinct others, but I don't have a good sense of how this translates into concrete action, i.e., which women in philosophy events I can skip and which I can't. (In the end, I did have one good reason why I was not obligated for this particular one, at least not as strongly as maybe for some: Events like this are often about networking, and given that the network most useful for young philosophers there to be plugged in to was the Australia/New Zealand one, since I'm not a part of that network, I wouldn't be able to contribute much.)

Hold that last thought, because it's important later on. The AAP itself was pretty well gender balanced, at least from what I could tell of the composition of the coffee breaks, and also all the keynote talks and special lectures were given by women, which is pretty cool. Given that, it's interesting that at least three of the contributed talks I went to (there may have been more, but I only noticed/counted in these three), I was the only woman in the room; usually, one out of 8-10, but in one of them, it was one out of 20. All three talks were on topics in logic and philosophy of language, reinforcing my belief that if I had gone to the reception, I would've been unlikely to find anyone doing what I do to talk with.

The final day of the AAP was the first day of the IAPh, and the two conferences shared a round table, "30 Years of Women and Philosophy", to be live-streamed on a radio station. Still being somewhat uncomfortable about having opted out of the reception, I figured I would go to that, especially when a friend said he thought he'd go. It was a bit awkward, though, because we weren't sure if this was something like the reception -- was it a women only event? would he be excluded, implicitly or explicitly? -- but when we poke our heads in the room, there were a handful of other men, so he gamely followed me in.

The discussion was actually focused on the 30th anniversary of a special issue of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy on Women and Philosophy, with a number of the contributors to the journal there to reflect on how things have changed (or not) for women in the discipline in the last 30 years. I ended up finding the entire event profoundly uncomfortable. There were a number of times in which "areas that women work on in philosophy" was equated with "feminist philosophy". Hello! What does that make MY work? Or what does it make ME? Once one of the speakers trotted out the "men are mind/thinking/rationality, women are "body/emotion/irrationality" trope in order to rebut it, but the way she rebutted it was not by saying that women can be mind, but by saying "women have brought the body into philosophy!" -- while I sat in my chair shrinking into myself and thinking "but what if I want to be mind?" As my discomfort grew, I started posting about it on social media, e.g., a quote from FB:

I came away from this roundtable with a profound feeling that if this is what Women and Philosophy is, then the only logical conclusion is that either I am not a woman (or the right kind of woman) or what I do is not philosophy (or not the right kind of philosophy).

By the time the IAPh fully got going the next day (Friday), I'd been conferencing for more than a week with only 1.5 day break over the weekend, so I fully recognize I didn't go into the conference in as charitable mood as I might have, but even so, I found the first day that there was basically no intersection between what was going on and what I was interested in. Almost no one that I knew from the AAP stayed on for the conference; there was no logic at all; and the history of philosophy track started off with one talk that briefly named a few people from the 15th and 16th C, and then everything else was early modern or modern. And again and again the equations of male = rational, female = irrational came up:

Now, in each case, they were brought up to be rejected, but I experienced that perverse psychological effect whereby simply bringing something to attention, even if it is to be rejected, has the consequence of reinforcing it. Maybe (some) men act as if male = rational and female = irrational, but if so, their actions never affected me in the way that women saying these things did. (Cf. comment above about obliviousness. I don't want to say that misogyny didn't/doesn't exist in any of my academic homes; but one advantage of being socially awkward is that transgressions of social norms sometimes simply don't even register.) The tipping point came the second day, during the Q&A of one of the keynotes. The talk was on women in the history of philosophy and the entire period from 400-1500 was basically skipped with one throwaway mention of Hildegard of Bingen and one of Christine de Pisan (Eloise didn't even get a name check!!), because these were the "Dark Ages", there was no education, there was no development in philosophy. I tried to push back against these ideas (not the least the fact that "Dark Ages" as a term is highly deprecated amongst medievalists!), and had my very first experience in academic philosophy of being talked over by a senior academic. Even when I said quite explicitly "May I please finish my question?", that didn't work. I have never been talked over like that before, ever, and really didn't know how to respond. A number of people came up to me afterwards and offered support, and in the end I ended up sitting with some very excellent women at the conference dinner, and had a good time. The final day was also better than the previous two -- there was actually two talks on philosophy of language (one of them given by the sole male speaker, and one of only two men who attended the conference), and a few people I'd struck up conversations with during coffee breaks the day before seemed keen to continue engaging, and I ended up having a very interesting discussion with one until the end of the final reception.

One other way in which the conferences differed, which may seem a minor thing but in fact I think is not so minor at all, was that there was a distinct lack of beer involved with the IAPh:

With the AAL and the AAP, every evening after the talks were over, a group of us would gather for beer and food, or food and beer, depending on the time we got started, varied up one night with a trip to a whisky bar and capped off with karaoke until 2am after the AAP conference dinner. I like beer. I like drinking it, I like talking about it with others (during the pre-conference-dinner beers, I ended up sitting next to someone from Australia who was at the same beer festival in the Netherlands that I was at in 2014), I like hanging out with people who like beer, and I like the opportunities to hang out that beer involves. It gave us a common purpose -- as the sessions wound down for the day, we'd gather in the common lobby, wait for a critical mass, and then go out and socialize. That didn't happen at the IAPh, and I can't really imagine how it would. Now, I know that the presence of alcohol is often a problematic factor in mixed-gender-social-philosophical gatherings, but I also think it can play a very valuable role in bringing people together.

It was interesting, following up some of the conversations started by posts on twitter and FB, particularly with a few other women (mostly of the logical bent, unsurprisingly!) who have experienced similar feelings of alienation or discomfort. A few of us decided we needed to start a club for women philosophers who are not "women in philosophy":

I don't have any grand thoughts or conclusions, but I did think it important to write all of this down and document it. If I didn't, I would continue to stew about the experiences, but hopefully now I can put them behind.


  1. FWIW, I've noticed that theology has something of a similar problem. If you are a woman and a theologian, everyone assumes that your field of interest MUST be feminist theology, or the theology of women, or women saints. Not, for instance, eschatology or some other topic to which being a woman is not of primary concern.

    Annoying, especially since theology (like philosophy) benefits from as many good minds as it can get.

    1. That's really interesting -- and very sadly unfortunate. If I did theology, I'd be doing apologetics all the way (that's what my dad did when he went to seminary, and that's a pretty strong factor in why I like medieval logic!)

  2. Hi Sarah, We met briefly on the train back into town from the dinner at the IaPh. FWIW: My charitable take on the history talk to which you refer was that the paper intended to be questioning why feminists do not seem to appeal to women philosophers from our past. This strikes me as an important question, one well worth asking. Because everyone thinks feminism started with women's suffrage or something. The speaker thought that to answer it she needed to demonstrate that there were women doing philosophy worth appealing to. And in trying to demonstrate that, she did no one made me uncomfortable and it's my area. Personally, I found it interesting that any attempt to bring women into the narrative of western european philosophy (at least from the early modern period forward) was immediately met with charges of western imperialism. That was not a reaction I expected or have ever the west. And my talk opened with an explicit acknowledgement that there were other traditions that I was going to exclude, and I got hit with that. I've been trying to figure out what was really going on with that response. (Different people I spoke with afterwards have different theories.) Two more things. (1) The early modernist women go out for beers, drinks, good meals. Believe me. We should have roped you in. (2) Being a woman in philosophy is complicated. Being a feminist woman in philosophy matters to me, but for me that involves championing a lot of women (and also men) who do super interesting work whom no one has heard of.... because the same seven guys keep getting read over and over again, as if they are sacred texts. Some of those women's work is feminist or at least proto-feminist. Some of it is just interested in philosophical questions that have fallen out of fashion. And of course these are not mutually exclusive. So this is just a long way of saying that I also found IaPh weird and a bit uncomfortable.

    1. Lisa, it was sitting with on you the train that made me make the effort the next morning to get to your 9am keynote, and I'm glad I did, because yours was worth getting up for! (And I'll totally take you up on beer with Early Modern people the next time we're at the same conference.)

  3. Hi Sara,

    This is Cathy Legg, it was great to meet you at the AAL and I so enjoyed your keynote on why people interested in logic should also care about history.

    Regarding the women's drinks at the AAP, I actually organised this as convenor of the AAP's Committee for the Status of Women. (Having said that, the following remarks should be taken to express my own personal opinion, not that of the AAP.)

    Why did you think that no-one at the event would have worked on your areas of philosophy? I was there, I work on logic (amongst other things) and would have loved to have talked to you. I was looking for opportunities to talk more to you through the AAP, which is why I came to your paper, and started a conversation with you at the conference dinner.

    Men were not 'excluded' from the event in that it consisted of a large central table at which women were gathered (and I believe quite a lot of those women were drinking beer, although I was drinking wine, as that is my preference). Meanwhile, around the edges of the room were couches and tables containing mixed parties. A number of people were moving back and forth between the centre of the room and the periphery and to me it all felt very natural and relaxed, although I can't speak for others.

    If such a gathering is not your thing, please don't feel any obligation or guilt about not going. I believe a number of women find it valuable though, including myself.

    On the IaPH, I only attended the panel session that you mention. I enjoyed this session as an Australian woman philosopher, as Australia has a very particular history in terms of the entry of women into Philosophy, and to hear the pioneers' remembrances really meant something to me. I didn't agree with everything that was said during the panel, but I don't agree with everything that is said in a typical philosophy of language seminar either. I feel that a diversity of viewpoints is a healthy thing in philosophy.

    Thanks again for coming and visiting us 'downunder' and giving such a great keynote.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I'm sorry too we didn't have a chance to talk more (and that I missed your paper!). It's good to hear that men weren't actively excluded from the reception; it was honestly very hard to tell from the programme if this was an exclusive event or not, and there wasn't any other information elsewhere, and people I talked to indicated that previous versions had been exclusive.

      Where there any logicians other than you there? Three out of all the women isn't very much. :)

  4. So, sorry you felt in some way excluded, Sara. As one of the organizers of the IAPh conference let me just say that our intentions were to be inclusive. When the call for papers for the IAPh went out some female logicians got in touch about having a panel on logic, and I strongly encouraged them to do so and got in touch with Greg Restall to ask if the AAL would like to support such a panel, maybe with money, or some other kind of encouragement. He did not get back to me, and the people who were interested in a logic panel did not submit abstracts, and so this idea folded ... but I suspect that inviting a woman to be a plenary speaker at the AAL conference might well have been encouraged by the very fact that, because the IAPh was in town, the issue of supporting women in logic was raised.
    Personally I've published in Philosophy of Language and argued against the maleness of reason in The Woman of Reason. But I also find quite a lot of contemporary analytic philosophy rather pointless and sterile, and so I think there is a place for criticizing the ahistorical and apolitical content of the kind of analytic philosophy that continues to pride itself on being at the top of the discipline. Ultimately, I think we need to support each other by reading and criticizing each others work in a friendly and generous fashion. The emphasis on history that was evident at the conference developed out of the idea that if we don't take historical female philosophers seriously, we can hardly expect to be taken seriously ourselves. It is just an accident of history that the work on historical women has so far concentrated on the seventeenth century. I actually wanted a panel on Ruth Barcan Marcus ... but who works on her?

    1. A panel on Barcan Marcus would've been excellent!

      I too was sad that the women logicians panel fell through; when I was first invited over for the AAL, Adriane was the one who brought the IAPh to my attention and suggested that we consider doing something for it. Unfortunately, plans never made it beyond that point last summer, and by the time that I was in a position to follow up on the idea, the deadline for abstracts had already passed. :(

      And don't get me wrong -- as someone who works on women and logic in the Middle Ages, I'm all for studying historical figures! I was just sad that "history" seemed to start with the 15th C. (Of course, this is not something that the organizers did, it's a function of who submitted abstracts, but it was just one of those "even when I put on my historian hat, rather than my logician hat, there isn't anyone doing what I'm doing!")

  5. Ohhhh, I've read through all of this and am sorry that the IAPh meeting wasn't a satisfying event for you. I am a newly-elected Board Member of IAPh (but couldn't go to Australia) who works almost exclusively on women's contributions to philosophy throughout history. I am an avid beer-drinker and will buy the first round when you and I and others meet up somewhere at some conference. Shameful admission: I absolutely loathe logic (can't do anything symbolic: including stenography) mostly because I totally suck at it, but have in the past enjoyed philosophy of logic and philosophy of language. Upon request I will gladly fill your head with long rants about women philosophers of the "dark ages" through medieval period" (the "dark ages" were dark only in Europe - whichever presenter fast-forwarded through that time either needs to do more research or more carefully frame her comments). As token consolation, visit and browse through some pages about your foremothers, or read my "Finding Bits and Pieces of Hypatia" in Linda Lopez McAlister's Hypatia's Daughters. Hypatia did awesome shit in early philosophy of mathematics, before you logicians came up with the idea of trying to express "x", "the unknown." xoxo

    1. We totally need to have a "beer and medieval women philosophers" event! Hmmm, the Netherlands has a strong tradition of both beer and medieval logic, maybe we can organise a walking tour involving breweries and Canterbury-Tale-esque retellings of the lives of various medieval logicians (regardless of gender).