Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

The Problem(s) of Women in Philosophy: Reflections on the Practice of Feminism in Philosophy from Contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

The Problem(s) of Women in Philosophy: Reflections on the Practice of Feminism in Philosophy from Contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand

Article excerpt


Philosophy has always had, and continues to have, a Woman Problem. Women remain underrepresented as students, as scholars, in journal publications - especially in 'top' journals - and as philosophical subjects. In what follows, I discuss recent feminist philosophical scholarship on this issue, differentiating what I identify as three related but distinct Woman Problems. I consider each of these, focusing in particular on what I label 'The (Anti) Feminist Problem'. I continue by analysing the marginalisation of feminist voices in philosophical discourses as a case of what Miranda Fricker (2007) has called epistemic injustice . Employing elements of a feminist standpoint approach to enquiry, I go on to consider the way in which experiences and reflections that start from lives lived on the margins of the discipline can be a rich source of philosophical insight that is neglected because of philosophy's problem with feminism. Working from within epistemology provides a means of offering a discursive analysis of all and any thinking and knowledge production, thus enabling me to offer insights into philosophical practice itself. Further, as I discuss later, epistemology is one of the sub-fields of philosophy in which feminist work has managed to gain traction and in which there is at least some intersection and cross-fertilisation between feminist discourses and more centred discourses.

Women in philosophy: The current state of play

For women, philosophy is the least welcoming of the humanities disciplines. Women's underrepresentation as scholars, as students and as subjects of enquiry is unsurpassed by any other of those disciplines. It has a gender profile more similar to (though sometimes worse than) disciplines in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) areas1. A gender gap exists at almost all levels, with men outnumbering women from undergraduate students to professors. Until this year, across philosophy departments in New Zealand universities, men outnumbered women by 3:1. Further, as Rini (2013) discusses in depth, only one woman has been appointed to a permanent (but part-time) position in a New Zealand philosophy department since 2005, while 20 men have been appointed2. In Australia, women hold 28% of continuing positions in philosophy departments, in the USA, the percentage has remained at around 21% for the past decade, while in the UK, it stands at around 25.4% (Hutchinson & Jenkins, 2013, Appendix 1).

In her seminal article on the situation of women scholars and students in philosophy, Haslanger writes of her 'rage' about how she and others have been treated and how many women and others who are marginalised in philosophical discourses and in the professional, academic practice of philosophy, continue the struggle to be recognised and respected as philosophers (2008, p. 210). As she and others note, many simply give up that struggle, some scholars are lost to more welcoming intellectual homes - to disciplines that are more outward looking - while others are lost to the academy altogether. Unsurprisingly then, a persistent theme in contemporary feminist scholarship in philosophy brings philosophical resources to bear in offering critical analyses and reflection on this situation and the reasons for it, as well as explanations of why philosophy has, thus far, proved so resistant to change. In this literature, roughly two types of hypotheses are present: one cites factors external to the practice of philosophy as such, but part and parcel of the way in which women in philosophy are thought about and evaluated (factors such as stereotype threat, evaluation bias and implicit bias), while the other cites factors internal to the practice of philosophy, such that philosophy feels like a game that is alien to many women, because the ethos with which it is pursued feels unwelcoming and the questions that it raises often seem irrelevant3. As Margaret Urban Walker writes,

The presence of concerns, texts, and images that acknowledge women within undergraduate classrooms, graduate training, and professional media allow women students to feel that a discipline, literally, comprehends them, and that it is a space that they are free to enter and expected to enter. …

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