A few more thoughts on the “Women in Philosophy” problem

The “why aren’t there more women in philosophy” problem pops up outside feminist philosophy circles with perennial regularity, almost like bulbs in the spring.

We’re in the midst of another bloom, mainly fueled by some discussion on US-based blogs and in the UK newspaper The Guardian. This time we’re talking (again) about how women don’t seem to like combative, confrontational argumentation.

Leigh Johnson–the other Doctor J, lol–has some really excellent thoughts over on her blog, readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore:

And here we can see why the pro-caring/pro-cooperative, anti-antagonistic/anti-aggressive “attitudinal” arguments for including women in Philosophy not only so grossly miss the mark with regard to women, but do so on the back of a set of implicit, unacknowledged, fundamentally, essentializing and essentially racist presumptions.  Just in case this is not obvious, let me connect the dots:  we don’t stipulate the same frame when we’re dicussing the under-representation of people of color in Philosophy as we do when we’re discussing the under-representation of women in Philosophy because the frame itself would undermine our implicit (though unacknowledged) presumption that people of color– at least when they do, or try to do, “philosophy”– ARE taken already to be combative, aggressive, antagonistic.  Sure, we may concede that the reason philosophers take people of color to be more combative, aggressive and antagonistic when it comes to “doing Philosophy” is a consequence of a long history of deeply sedimented disciplinary prejudices and practices, but that only makes more obvious (to me, anyway) the manner in which our concession to the given frame of talking about why-there-aren’t-more-women-in-Philosophy twists us into philosophical pretzels.

You should go read Leigh’s full post–it’s really great and raises a lot of important issues. As @AdrielTrott suggested in a discussion on Facebook, discussions of women in philosophy are generally framed as discussions of white women in philosophy (and able-bodied women, too).

I want to add one more critique to the mix. Focusing on how we “do” philosophy–our professional practices, like how we relate to one another in conferences and in seminar rooms–suggests the problem is with the attitudes and habits of individual people and groups of people. But the problem isn’t (just) with individual people or groups of people, it’s systematic and institutional. The problem is built into “philosophy” itself. [And, SO MANY people have made this argument: Mills, Beauvoir, Kristeva, Davis, Marcano, Gines, Alcoff, Dotson, Goswami, Fanon, I mean, LOTS of people.] Changing professional practices might be a necessary step, but it is not a sufficient step. For example, a post-feminist society is one in which overtly sexist attitudes are socially unacceptable, but which is still normatively patriarchal. Changing professional practices would make philosophy post-feminist in this way: superficially less sexist but still patriarchal as an institution.

So, I think arguments or diagnoses such as “women don’t like combative engagement” function as red herrings that obscure the institutional character of sexism, racism, ableism, Eurocentrism, etc., in English-language philosophy.