A few months back, pretty much every philosophy blog was ablaze with discussion of how and whether to evaluate and compare the climate for female students in different philosophy departments. The issue was discussed ad nauseum (and yes, I realize I was surely a major contributor to the nausea). Lately I’ve been reflecting on a slightly different issue, namely the climate for women in different subdisciplines within philosophy. After all, departments are not the only ‘natural’ social groupings in the discipline.
The question of how hospitable a subdiscipline is to women has to be separated clearly from the question of how hospitable it is to feminist work. I think that much damage has been done by not separating these questions. Indeed, I think that support, recognition, and full social and intellectual inclusion for women who do not work on feminist philosophy, regardless of their personal politics, is one of the most pressing climate issues in the discipline. Such women risk devaluation and rejection from both the male-dominated discipline at large and from their colleagues who identify as feminist philosophers. Nonetheless the questions are not completely independent, for at least two reasons. (a) A subdiscipline that refuses to recognize the validity of feminist work basically tells women that some of their most pervasive and formative experiences are not appropriate topics for philosophical reflection, and cannot interestingly condition their philosophical responses and insights. This is probably true for a few select subdisciplines, such as logic and philosophy of math, but they are exceptions. (b) As a matter of unsurprising though contingent empirical fact, many women in philosophy, regardless of subdiscipline, do have feminist interests. So hospitability to feminist work is conducive to but not sufficient for hospitability to women. Furthermore, there are at least two different ways in which a subdiscipline x might acknowledge feminist approaches: ‘feminist philosophy of x’ might be a thriving sub-subdiscipline, or feminist approaches and insights may be frequently incorporated into and recognized by the mainstream of the subdiscipline. When a subdiscipline has the former but not the latter, there’s a high risk that feminist philosophy - and with it, many women - will be ghettoized.
Tentatively, I think that for a subdiscipline of philosophy to be truly woman-friendly, it needs all of the following to be true. (1) There are a sizable number of leaders and up-and-coming stars in the field who are women, regardless of whether they take up feminist issues, and (2) it has a culture of taking women seriously, treating them respectfully, and including them in social networks and professional opportunities. If feminist approaches to the field are helpful, then also (3) there is a thriving community of feminist scholars who have the means to network with one another and exchange ideas and support, and (4) feminist insights and approaches are not relegated to a ghetto but incorporated, as appropriate, into the mainstream - anyone can draw upon feminist insights and approaches without having to join a dedicated ‘feminist philosopher of x camp’, and these insights and approaches are recognized as (sometimes) helpful and philosophically legitimate. Furthermore, (5) the subdiscipline as a whole does not presume that all of its female members do feminist philosophy, and (6) the women in the field who do feminist work and those who do not are friendly towards and in solidarity with one another. My totally anecdotal, soft sense, for what it is worth, is that both philosophy of science and bioethics score above average on all six measures. (NOTE my original post here contained some musings about particular subdisciplines, but David Chalmers convinced me (with comment #3 below) that this was a bad idea.)
Many thanks to Eric Winsberg and Bryce Huebner for helping me think through these issues. Comments very welcome, although I will not post anything nasty or ad hominem, nor will I allow any anonymous posts without a really compelling reason to do so.