Women and Philosophy: A Reflection on Recent Events

women and philsopohy

This is a post occasioned by Justin Weinberg’s recent post at the Daily Nous, occasioned by this post on why a trans woman philosopher feels compelled to leave the profession (tl;dr – those transphobic witches).

Given that this is an intra-professional post, I’m going to do my utmost to abide by disciplinary convention and be less biting and sweary than usual (advance apologies to those of you who come for the jokes and the cussing). I’m also going to do my utmost to be measured and calm, despite the fact that I’m actually very very angry, and the fact that I’m addressing the profession, and hence feel the need to be measured and calm about something I’m enraged about is, in fact, central to what I’m about to say.

Let’s get to it:

The letter written by the anonymous ‘t philosopher’ is principally an emotional appeal to vulnerability, an intent to share the philosopher’s “pain and anger about being forced out of a career that I once loved.” The argument is, essentially, ‘allowing these women to express their views makes me feel so intolerably bad I have to leave, recast as ‘being forced to leave’ (a.k.a “you made me do it”?).

There are several things we can say about how this appeal might be received, and how that might relate to the sex of the speaker and listeners, and how our gender conventions are informing those interpretations.

1. The first thing I want to note, is that Justin responds to this appeal as if it describes an entirely foreign vulnerability. There are several instances of this:

“But most of us are fortunate enough never to have had our toughness tested in this way.”

“For most of us, our well-being is almost never jeopardized by our work environments.”

“Most of us have not experienced what t philosopher has experienced.”

I picked Justin up for this on twitter, because, of course, as is immediately evident to anyone who is not a white man, this is not a foreign experience to some of us at all. (Note: I am not claiming that trans philosophers’ experiences of marginalization are the same as women’s, that is not something I could ever know. I am merely noting that the idea of being ignorant of what it’s like to be mentally jeopardized by our work environment is a statement that could only be made by white male (and probably straight) philosophers.) In response to my tweet Justin has clarified that that is why he wrote ‘most of us,’ and has since amended the post to reflect the recognition that the profession is 70% male and 85% white. I still, however, want to underline what is going on here. We are having a conversation about whether some women should be effectively muzzled in the profession, and the person writing the post is male, and the audience he is imaginatively addressing is also male. That is, the men are talking about whether a few women should be silenced, without acknowledging anything about how the men’s sex is affecting their understanding of the situation, and how that might be different for the women they are discussing – the women who, implicitly, are the ‘problem’ here.

2. One thing that is incredibly striking to me about this is that the men are extending a degree of concern and empathy to the experience of t philosopher that is completely foreign to how I, as a woman, have come to understand men’s reactions to women’s experience of philosophy. We work in a profession which has built an entire metaphysical edifice on devaluing the rationality of women. We come into the profession knowing that most of the men around us, more or less explicitly, think we are not in possession of the logos, and that any expression of emotion or vulnerability on our part will almost certainly be taken as evidence of our unsuitability for our chosen work. The culture at large, as is reasonably well recognised, is littered with images of ‘hysterical’ ‘angry’ ‘vengeful,’ women. Any expression of women’s needs which refuses to comply with male people’s desires or demands is frequently characterised as wanton aggression (which is highly relevant to the emotional force of the image of the TERF). And any expression of the damage that has been done to us will be used to posit us as hysterics and undermine our credibility. From this is follows that:

a) As we know how expressions of our vulnerability or anger would be taken, the very idea of our writing a post like the post written by t philosopher is inconceivable to us. The assumption that the expression of our pain might “stir some of you to greater action” rather than simply being an extreme professional liability is, in itself, a product of the system of gender as it is brought to bear on the authority and priority granted or not granted to those of certain sexed bodies. And this is one of the reasons why we maintain it is important to be able to point to sex, why the attempt to disallow the identification of sex as ‘misgendering’ is pernicious, and why us pointing to sex is not simply a wanton desire to cause harm – because yes, I am claiming that the very fact that t philosopher thought expressing her pain in this manner was a potentially effective political manoeuvre, and that people responded to it as such, is something to do with her not being female. (Kate Manne would not like this, but to those of us on this side, it seems obvious that what is going on here is, in fact, a version of ‘himpathy’ (and we should note, women extend greater sympathy to male people as well, that’s what female socialisation is for)).

b) The fact is, therefore, that those of you who are male do not know a great deal about female people’s experiences of harm in the profession, because we do not tell you, and we may, furthermore, go to some great lengths to conceal it from you. I am wrestling with myself right here and now about whether I should write a list of some of the shit I have experienced, both in academia in general and in philosophy in particular, and how I consider this to have severely impacted my progress in the profession. (I would not claim that these issues are the only reason I have decided to practice as a philosopher outside the academy, but it is one of the major strands. Maybe I should write a blog called ‘Why after 10 years of training I never even tried to enter the profession’? I wonder if you will find it ‘heartbreaking’?).

Perhaps then, against all my inculcated instincts, as an experiment, I will give you a taste.

  • A few weeks after I arrived in Stony Brook, one of my male colleagues threated to glass me for not believing in the univocity of Being (for those of you who don’t understand the gendered metaphysics going on here, I’m not going to go into a digression about sexual difference feminism, but I am going to assume many of you don’t understand, because frankly, until all of this blew up, most of you were quite happy completely ignoring what feminist women were talking about).
  • Around about the same time, one of my female colleagues – a woman who had encouraged me to apply to Stony Brook – weighted herself to the bottom of a lake, at least in good part because she had been made to feel so inadequate in a profession that she was, in fact, extremely gifted at. After her death, there was some discussion among the grad students about possible gendered aspects of what had happened, but nothing was recognised at an institutional level – and this, I should underline, was in a department I had uprooted myself to study in, because it was supposed to be one of the most hospitable places for feminist philosophers in the Anglo-American world. After this, several of the female students fell into a deep depression, and one of them, who was, to my mind, one of the most talented philosophers I’ve ever met, never made it through the program.
  • I was told at the end of my undergraduate training in Cambridge that my ‘intellectual trajectory’ was ‘unfortunate,’ and left the academy for nearly ten years, before I worked out that the reason my thought was being so utterly dismissed by the person I was meeting to discuss my academic future, was gendered.
  • I have had to deal with the fact that I could never get any funding for my work in my own country – despite having a first class degree from the best university in the UK – because I work in continental feminism, which is doubly marginalised, and, moreover, there are very few departments here that would even consider my work to qualify as ‘philosophy.’
  • I have, on several occasions, had to deal with men who feel threatened by women who refuse to conceal their intelligence, being extremely belittling and aggressive to me in professional contexts. I have experienced a fair amount of male violence in my life and have a hair trigger for men trying to dominate me. Maybe you could imagine struggling to hold onto the thread of your argument and keep your voice from breaking while your body floods with adrenalin and shame and rage because some insecure man has felt the need to put you firmly back into your place in front of a room full of your colleagues? It really is super-fun. Especially when you fail, and leave feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach, and that everyone now thinks you’re a hysteric, and you decide that you probably don’t need to go to that reading group on that thing you’re really interested in after all.
  • And perhaps I’ll end with the fact that over the last few years I was participating in professional contexts, men with a great deal more power than me started to wave Judith Butler or trans politics in my face every time I tried to make any observation about women’s oppression, or critique any masculinist bias in something we were reading. Which was GREAT.
  • Note: I’m aware that having done what I have just done is something of a performative contradiction. What I am going to say is that I think I only feel able to do it, because – partly due to the stance I have taken on these issues, as well as several other factors – it turns out my path is to make my way in the world without needing many of your professional approval, or you giving me a job.

3. These issues surrounding the non-expression of women’s feelings also relates to the fact that we are trying very hard, in this situation, not to let anyone see how distressing this whole conflict is to us, because we have no confidence that it will not simply be weaponised against us. (Justin for example instructs us in the manner we should respond – cordially, calmly, although the whole conversation is precipitated by an extreme – and some might think, manipulative – expression of emotion which is, nonetheless, being given enormous, uncritical, weight). And this very much relates to the fact that the balance of sympathy, and the balance of the assessment of harms, as it relates to the present conflict, are extremely uneven. While Justin’s post stops short of agreeing with t philosopher that we should be unilaterally muzzled (what is the philosophical equivalent of the Scold’s Bridle I wonder?), the distribution of identification with who is being harmed and who has legitimate interests here, is entirely asymmetric.[1] (Some might think that a group of people sitting around discussing whether we should be run out of the profession was a harm in itself? But of course, we have brought it on ourselves by committing wrong-think, and, after all, we could so easily have just complied with what we consider to be our own erasure.)

Trans activists frequently assert some version of the claim that we are playing academic or intellectual games with other people’s lives, or, as in the excerpt from Talia Mae Bettcher, that the current discussion is not to be undertaken as an equivalent of “investigations into the question whether tables really exist.” I just want to stop here and ask you to really try and consider the claim that discussions about the nature of the being of women might be in some way academic or impersonal to women, and further, to consider, therefore, the basis of the claim that what is motivating us could only be animus towards trans people, as if we do not have some kind of interest or investment in the definition of the class of persons to which we belong. (This, among many reasons, is one of my objections to the label TERF, or even, in Justin’s amendment, to calling us ‘trans-exclusive.’ It centres our position on the effect it has on trans women, and hence refuses to grant recognition that we are concerned about the definition of women and the functioning of female spaces because we care about female people. That is, calling us ‘trans exclusive’ is to refuse our intent to define ourselves through the act of centering ourselves, and to define us solely on the basis of the effect we have on male-born people. It is not then, as Christa Peterson claims ‘camouflage,’ it is, rather, refusing to allow women to be reduced to agents of male service, which is, in fact, the core mechanism of patriarchy).

Anyway, the point here is that the entire conversation – at least with respect to Justin’s exhortation for empathy with t philosopher, and this is very much mirrored by the ease with which gender critical women are being publicly monstered – is being focused around trans people, and specifically trans women’s needs and feelings, while refusing to grant any recognition to the fact that women also have needs, interests and feelings here as well.[2] We are not playing games with other people’s lives. We are engaged in a debate about our own lives, a debate we consider to be of massive existential importance to us, and which is deeply and unerringly distressing – because we keep being told that we should accept our existence being redefined, and that the definition of our own existence is of far less consequence than trans women’s – that is, male-born people’s – feelings. If you are familiar with feminist analysis you should know that we consider that our culture constructs women through male people’s projections, and that one of the central practices of feminism is to define ourselves in our own terms, and to refuse male people’s definitions. If you understood feminist analysis you might also have some sense of how horrifying it is to us to watch male people colluding with each other in determining how we should be defined, and how painful it is to be confronted with such an extreme instance of the ease with which asserting our right to self-definition is cast as an act of extreme hatred (while somehow, also, just an academic game). If you understood feminist analysis then you might start to appreciate that we, too, are persons in our own right here, that we have our own interests, and that we are doing this because we care about women and girls’ needs. You might start to recognize that while we are not, in fact, disputing the existence of trans people (rather, we are precisely arguing for recognising that they are trans), the trans rights movement is actually attempting to erase female people as a political and legal class, and that there might be substantive reasons for us to oppose that which have nothing to do with malice, or heartlessness, or, least of all, intellectual entertainment. Because I can assure you, this whole situation is the very opposite of fun for us.

4. The last thing I want to point to is the relation between the way Justin erases us in the opening descriptions of how foreign the vulnerability of marginalization is ‘to most of us,’ and the way he erases us in the discussion about what we should do in response to t philosopher’s testimony. (As an aside here, apparently our dismissals were in the register of “mock[ing] what she says,” while I would rather characterise, say, Kathleen’s response, as ‘knowing what coercive control looks like and refusing to be emotionally blackmailed.’ A diagnostic protocol, which, I wager, is probably more familiar to women than men.) Anyway, the point here is that Justin characterises those of us who were inadequately moved by t philosopher’s account as saying “deal with it,” and then goes on to note “But here’s the thing: we’re the it.” Which is staggering. Because you’re not the ‘it’ Justin, we are, and we’re not you. Indeed, as your opening erasure makes more than evident, you really don’t have the first clue what being a woman in philosophy is like. To return to where we started, what then happens is Justin has a conversation about “our practices and speech” and the fact that they’re “up to us,” which is addressed, in effect, to an implicit audience of other men, without acknowledging that the ‘problem’ they are talking about is not, actually, all of us, but is, rather, a particular group of women and whether those women should be allowed to express opinions about the definition of ‘woman.’ Moreover, he doesn’t acknowledge that while this might be taking up a lot of discursive space in the philosophical world right now, if it should be decided that women should be barred from expressing opinions about the definition of ‘woman,’ it’s really no skin off Justin Weinberg’s nose, because Justin Weinberg actually has no substantive interests at stake here, other than concerns about the disciplinary practice of philosophy. All of which would be evident, if any of this conversation was ever conducted around the recognition of women’s interests in this question.

5. Further to this, I’d like to ruefully note how convenient it is that male philosophers suddenly want to take responsibility for the ‘heart-breaking’ effects of marginalization in philosophy when it turns out that the people allegedly responsible for that marginalization are a bunch of women. We have been trying, without appeals to emotion, but in the way feminists do, diligently, by accumulating arguments and data, to try and get you to pay attention to the marginalization of women in philosophy for, oh, I don’t know, the last fifty years? You were about as interested as you were in the fact that we dismantled patriarchal metaphysics around 1973. (Yes yes, carry on talking about desire as if it only exists in the masculine why don’t you? I’m sure we’ve never had any pertinent thoughts on the matter *flat stare at Lacan, Foucault and indeed, Butler*). What this comes down to is the fact that to deal with the marginalization of women in philosophy the 70% (or more) of you who are male would have had to seriously interrogate both your behaviour, and also, in many respects, your philosophical and disciplinary assumptions. And you have never shown the slightest inclination towards doing so. Now, however, you can demonstrate your exquisite concern for the suffering of the vulnerable, and it actually demands nothing of you. Because what’s being asked of you is whether some uppity women should be made to shut up.

Which, from where we’re standing, makes this whole sorry mess look pretty much the same as it ever was.

[Final caveat: I want to acknowledge that a few male philosophers have been very vocal and steadfast in their support of us, and we are profoundly appreciative of it].

—————-

[1] This asymmetry is also mirrored in Justin’s presentation of the way in which “some of the most visible philosophers challenging the self-understanding and liberties of trans persons have engaged in behaviour that can most charitably be described as juvenile.” Note that a) our position is again characterised as all about being ‘anti-trans’ rather than about the interests of women, and therefore mimics the presentation of the issue by the trans-ideological side, and b) the emphasis on who is behaving badly is uneven. Justin does go on to recognise that there has been some “hostile rhetoric” directed at “some of us,” but only after extending empathy for the trans philosopher who is forced to share professional space with her “tormenters” (because we’re not trying to make a philosophical point in women’s interests, we are just trying to cause pain because we are in some way enjoying it?). On this I just need to note that we have been described as “cockroaches” by Rachel McKinnon and a Facebook post we engaged in was described as ‘terf-infested’ by Rebecca Kukla. I’d really like the other members of the profession to tell me when we started turning a blind eye to colleagues comparing each other to vermin, as if we don’t know where that kind of rhetoric goes, and I’d challenge anyone to find anything resembling this coming from our side, such as Justin’s asymmetric emphasis might be justified. Moreover, Holly Lawford-Smith has been called “a bigoted piece of shit” and a “vile fucking human” by Keyvan Shafiei and a “cunt” by Rebecca Kukla, and again, I’d like examples of equivalent ‘violent rhetoric’ that we have used about our opponents.

At this point I’d also like to underline that at present, in the UK, two gender critical feminists have been physically attacked by trans women in the course of this conflict. In both cases the trans woman was a male under the age of 30, and the feminist was a female over the age of 50. This is male violence against women, it is being used in a political context in order to try and stop us exercising our democratic right to assemble, and I am sick to the back teeth of people making false equivalences and handwaving literal violence.

[2] This issue of the relative balance of sympathy, or whose interests are being recognised and whose are being erased, is also replicated in Jonathan Ichikawa’s recent twitter thread, especially with respect to the effort to use standpoint epistemology in order to give priority to trans women’s claims. Putting aside for a moment the infuriating spectacle of a man using an element of feminist epistemology designed to explain why we might grant authority to women’s claims in order to undermine women’s claims, the question must transparently be, why are trans women’s claims to harm and epistemic authority with respect to this question to be prioritised over female people’s? (I asked Ichikawa this question. He declined to answer, noting that on the advice of loved ones he was withdrawing from the conversation, which, in itself, is an artefact of male privilege. Note also, Ichikawa claims to specialise in rape culture, as do I. I asked him, given this area of expertise, why he was apparently tone deaf to why women might be feeling increasingly distressed and angry about a group of male people ganging up together to coerce their boundaries. No answer has been forthcoming.)

16 comments

  1. Thank you for being the 20/20 vision we need. It’s so easy to not analyse and kinda get suckered into the gendered societal norms. If I’d read (I haven’t) the “poor Rachel” response from the man-centric male philosopher I’d PROBABLY have thought “oh yeah, right enough, poor Rachel”

    We need you. Keep at it. Brava.

  2. Thank you so much for spending the time and mental energy on this. (This post is literally an example of the run of the mill emotional labour us women have had to do for ages.) I’m a female person (sorry, woman…!) trying to decide whether to enter the “profession” but, frankly, fuck this shit, I don’t want to have to put up with all this male entitlement.

  3. This is such a brilliant dissection and criticism of this mess. You raised so many important points in this. This post should be taught in trans discourse 101. Unfortunately, it won’t be and the men who need to read this won’t, and those who do will probably read it angrily and not understand 1/60th of it.

  4. Great article. You handed Justin his ass. I have thought about taking some philosophy courses, just to familiarize myself with what the great philosophers have said (and to decide whether I agree with them or not). I have shied away because the syllabus for an introductory course usually emphasizes that the purpose is to teach the student “how to think.” I don’t want to think like Justin Weinberg or any of the other sexists in the academy, thank you very much.

    1. The actually mean ‘think critically’, but it never pans out like that because the men believe women are incapable of thinking critically, or of thinking at all in some cases.

  5. Misogyny has been in evidence since 8th century BC, many Greek philosophers disrespected women, your piece shows little sign of it having stopped. It is misogyny that needs the bridle now, a bloody big one by the looks of it. Pack all the lies, ignorance, and manipulation in and give women a break.

    Shifting the social balance you describe between sympathy versus harms, where men are still cared for and believed over women will take some sort of relentless determination. Also needs far more honest self-reflection from those prone to himpathy, which unfortunately may be beyond some skill sets. What a mission!

    Brilliant analysis such as this keeps the women-centred, feminist push-back strong, hopefully it will help the people it is aimed at think better too. Thank you so much.

    Still I Rise. By Maya Angelou.
    You may write me down in history.
    With your bitter, twisted lies.
    You may trod me in the very dirt.
    But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

  6. 1964, Philosophy Department, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL. USA.
    Me, completing the Intro course with an A: “I would like to major in philosophy.”
    Professor: “We don’t accept women as majors. There aren’t any jobs for women philosophers.”
    Me, nonplussed: ………………….

  7. Dear Dr Jones,
    Thanks for this moving and – as usual – *well-argued* post. Do you think that it would serve any useful purpose if I posted a link to it in a comment on Weinberg’s thread?
    Charles Pigden

  8. What floors me is seeing the utter non-existence of women in minds like Justin’s. How do they do it? How? They don’t live in Saudi Arabia. They interact with women daily as if we’re human people. And yet, in fact, in their minds, we’re some kind of furniture. It’s never even occurred to them that women could have concerns, let alone that these should be considered. The dining room table might as well rear up and object to dishes being put on it. a) It’s preposterous. b) Carrying dishes is what dining tables are for.

    How do people get so completely oblivious to some of their fellow humans? It’s not a natural state for a social animal. How do they do it? What does it take? What does it cost them?

  9. Hello Dr. Jones, How refreshing to hear a women speak up in the middle of a conversation between men regarding how to handle our misbehavior. I’m pretty sure that you will be disregarded as a person who couldn’t cut it as an academic philosopher and must have obtained your top-notch degrees on a fluke, and who further, blames your failures on specious discrimination against women. I assume also that the gentleman describing himself as a philosopher will not have your credentials nor writing skill. He will, however, have his desire to weaken women’s struggle to resist male domination, which will overcome your excellent arguments. Academic philosophers will continue to be more that 70% male, the gentleman will return if he chooses to claps on the back, and philosophy will continue as a male domain.

    Women will, as usual, find our alienation deepening. But we now have gifted thinkers like you with the intellectual depth and tools to publicize the operations which resulted in your leaving academia and result in male convos about whether to apply the scold’s bridle. Please continue your writing. You have more and more supporters here in the real world who can appreciate intellectual rigor and sound positions. Thank you.

    1. Hi! I’m new to gender philosophy. I’d like to hear your perspective if you’d like to present it. I’m interested gender possibilities. Is it possible for men to become women, or vice versa?

      I’m also interested in the policies allowing men into female gendered spaces. If these policies allow men into female gendered spaces like washrooms, those policies are bad, and should be removed. However, if the policy allows women into female gendered spaces, the policy is fine. So, if trans folk in the UK and the USA aren’t in fact women, but are in fact men in women’s clothing, we need to ask whether those men can become women. If those men can become women, but haven’t yet, we may help them become women. Once become women, those individuals may enter the female gendered spaces.

      If those men can’t become women, then we’ve learned something about the metaphysics of gender. Right?

  10. I’ve been saving this to read when I had the mental energy, and it was totally worth it. You write so clearly and with such passion, and I too have been having many conversations with people — particularly male people — about how the feelings, claims of harm, and claims of knowledge of trans people are being taken seriously while the feelings, claims of harm, and claims of knowledge of what it is to be female by female people are dismissed, and you’ve given me good language to keep this up.

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