One sexist philosopher down…

The NYT talks about a high-profile philosopher getting fired for sexually harassing his grad student. I’m sure I’ve written about this before… But, I’ve come to see that — as with white privilege, it’s important for those experiencing the other side of privilege to tell their stories — and for those with privilege to listen.  So — I have an obligation to tell my story concerning male-privilege.

I was inspired to write this post because of this part of the article:

But changing the broader culture of philosophy to make it more woman-friendly, many say, is a daunting task — particularly since no one can agree on the root cause of that unfriendliness.

Is it straight-up sexual discrimination? The lack of female mentors? The highly technical nature of much contemporary Anglo-American philosophy? The field’s notoriously rough-and-tumble style of argument?

Scholars in all disciplines have disagreements. But philosophy is unusual, many say, in its tradition of developing ideas through face-to-face and sometimes brutal debate. “People in other disciplines think we’re just thugs,” said Louise Antony, a philosopher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

That reliance on debate can pose a particular dilemma for women, she added. Argue aggressively, and they’re branded shrews (to put it nicely). Hold back, and they’re not good philosophers.

“Many people have called philosophy the combat sport of academia,” Ms. Antony said. “But if you can’t have those conversations, you’re at a disadvantage.”

I should say up-front that I ended up with a fantastic dissertation adviser and a wonderful dissertation defense committee.  I didn’t sense any sexist attitudes from them and certainly nothing nearly as awful as what has happened elsewhere.  They were fantastic, hands down.

I never received or knew about any kind of explicit sexual harassment in my department.  Perhaps that’s because I was, as I am now, a chunky girl –at the time I was married and living 60 miles away from campus, so the amount of casual conversation was limited.  I’m not about to say it didn’t happen, but I will say that it would certainly surprise me to hear that it did.

In the end, my time in grad school gave me a means of understanding male-privilege, from the non-privileged perspective.  There are a few stark times I recall..   It started right away.  Classes hadn’t even started when I had a meeting with the Graduate Adviser.  He actually asked me if my husband knew I was in grad school and whether he knew that I may not be home to cook dinner for him. I didn’t quite know what to say — I probably changed the topic and left confused — did the GA think it was 1954?    After that first meeting, repeated e-mails and phone calls got me exactly 0 meetings with the fellow over several YEARS –although other students had no problem getting time with him.  Those students were male.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I read the department’s graduate handbook cover to cover and followed the guidelines..  which were, as it turned out, incomplete.. So, as a result of my first grad-adviser’s asshattery, I was unaware of a requirement that I have several semesters in which I take 3 courses at a time.. I took ALL of my courses in pairs, because I was commuting from 60 miles away.  What my peers would do was to take three at a time, complete one or two on-time and then finish their incomplete courses during the following semester.  This was such a common practice that one of my professors didn’t finish grading the papers he assigned in time to complete grades — and in order for me to graduate, I had to re-submit a whole bunch of papers that HE lost…

When I was about to leave the state, I got a new Graduate Adviser — this one was much better and significantly more helpful.  When the question of my residency period came up, I was quite clear that I had a difficult time getting advice from his predecessor, that the department graduate handbook didn’t include a residency period, and that it would be in the best interest of the department to get this cleared up.  Not surprisingly, he got the message and got the residency requirement waived for me.

Another time, I had just heard of the concept of feminist epistemology — I asked a professor, in class, about it and he literally laughed in my face and said that women and men don’t think any differently, so the whole area is ridiculous.  Turns out there is a bit more to it than that, but what an expression of male-privilege… and exactly the kind of thing that feminist epistemology attacks –the idea that the white-male perspective IS neutral, thus it can be assumed that every person has the same perspective.

The thing about my time in grad school is that I never felt comfortable dropping by my male professor’s offices for a chat about philosophy.  I just didn’t.  Upon reflection, I’m not sure why I didn’t, as  most of them are  very helpful and kind people — but, the fact of the matter is that I didn’t get the sense that my presence was welcome beyond the time in the classroom.  It may be the case that my male classmates weren’t welcome either, but that didn’t seem to stop them.

This is the really sneaky and weird thing about privilege — even now I mostly blame myself for not taking the initiative to form those informal but crucial relationships with my graduate faculty.  I wonder why I didn’t feel I would be welcome in their offices  when I saw, on a daily basis, my classmates (nearly all men) dropping by to chat with various faculty members.

I have to wonder why I didn’t think I was worthy of similar discussions?   I suppose the stark realities of my position in the graduate cohort were clear to my sub-conscious brain in ways that I didn’t want to admit at the time.  I suppose the feedback I got on papers, (when I got it), the grades I received and the response to my classroom participation all reinforced the message that I wasn’t worthy of their time.  I wasn’t a “smart” philosopher — in their judgment.

The thing is, I have eyes and ears — I SAW my classmates making stupid arguments in class all the time.  I had conversations with them in which they revealed the number of incomplete courses they had at any given time… courses I took with them and that I completed on time.  I SAW those students get TA positions and have informal relationships with the graduate faculty.  I knew I wasn’t getting the same attention, so I figured it was just that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.  At the time I didn’t think it was sexism, really — I thought the trouble was with me and not them.  I lived with the constant worry that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, philosophical enough, to finish my program.  That made me worry that all of the money, time, energy, stress and miles on the car were a waste of time.

THAT is the pernicious thing about sexism… when it isn’t overt.  When it isn’t explicitly sexual, when it’s not about doing something obviously BAD directly to a person, but rather it just ends up that males consistently get preference over females.  When similar comments and class performance end up with males being branded as “smart” philosophers, and females being seen as simply “hard working” (which, FYI — isn’t nearly as good as being smart — for a philosopher).

When a perfectly smart and capable woman can tell herself during her 60 mile commute home, that she probably isn’t as smart as she thought she was and have her seriously think about quitting grad school every semester when it comes time to register for the next semester.  The very real knowledge that she could leave grad school and not be missed, not be contacted to ask why, that nobody would even care that she decided philosophy wasn’t for her…  That’s the pernicious part of sexism/male-privilege in my discipline.

I think it’s fair to assume that my experience in grad-school was relatively mild..  So, play it out across the country — women all over the country starting grad school (although, the studies show that the pipeline narrows much earlier) — and questioning their own intellectual abilities.  Questioning their place in philosophy, their ability to contribute to a field older than Socrates… noticing that they aren’t welcome — at least not in the most informal ways.

The resulting gender imbalance in philosophy isn’t a mystery to me.


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August 3, 2013 · 11:19 am

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