It would not be precisely accurate to say that the President sent Secret Service Agents to my house at Christmas to make me teach feminist philosophy.
But the President has consistently acted like an unmitigated pinhead to women, and I had a chance to teach feminist philosophy at a local college during Winter term.
So that is pretty much the same thing.
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be teaching feminist philosophy, I would have been somewhat skeptical.
To be honest, I became a feminist later in life, and I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.
I was extraordinarily lucky to become a feminist later in life.
The reason I say I was extraordinarily lucky is because growing up I was surrounded by really kind, supportive men who made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to do and that my voice was important.
Exhibit A: My Dad
As a result, I was largely unaware that there were men in the world who might actually believe that women can’t do a lot of things and that menstrual-shaming female debate moderators is standard operating procedure.
Exhibit B: The President
I didn’t actually know many feminists growing up, or perhaps I did but the topic did not come up.
I would sometimes hear people speak about feminists, but it was often in scary and extreme terms.
So, unfortunately, I had this somewhat odd image of feminists growing up, like that they were zombies.
Or some kind of swamp-vampire-demon creature.
But this picture definitely changed when I fell in love with a feminist.
My husband, John
My husband John was the first outspoken feminist I knew, and he frequently pointed out sexist and misogynistic behavior in the media and in society.
I didn’t get it at first.
I mean, I’m fine, I thought. I’m not suffering.
And then one day John suggested that my continual obsession with fitness magazines and weight loss was causing me a lot of mental anguish and that these images were objectifying and bad for women.
Why do I read these magazines so much? I wondered.
And suddenly I knew: Because for my whole young adult life (primarily because of media images), I had subconsciously come to believe that my main purpose in life was to look good to other people and to make myself fit some sort of norm of femininity.
And it consumed almost my every waking moment.
And it made me miserable.
That day I was struck by a insight that felt earth-shattering to me, but is a pretty basic tenet of feminism 101: Maybe I am not supposed to feel miserable and anxious about my body and appearance all the time and like I am not good enough. Maybe the problem is with society and not me.
And that was the day I became a feminist, too, although I didn’t completely realize it at the time.
Feminist Crush: Susie Orbach. She wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue, which is a book about how girls are women are socialized from an early age to think that they must play small and live small in order to be acceptable and valuable. This is one of the reasons, she suggests, that most women are terrified of gaining any weight at all.
A while after this, I started taking philosophy classes because I was considering returning to graduate school to study philosophy.
I was auditing a philosophy class with one of the best professors with whom I had ever taken a class.
I realized the very first day that this class was important for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but the professor was different. He was incredibly intelligent and well-read. He wrote in Latin and Greek. He constantly made literary allusions.
But there was something else. He consistently and purposefully used the female pronoun, she, instead of the male pronoun, in class examples.*
All through my school career, I had been taught to use the male pronoun as the universal pronoun.
I had heard people over the years suggest that inclusive pronoun usage is important for gender equality, but to be honest, at that time I thought this was a bit too politically correct and unnecessary.
I mean, I’m fine, I had thought. Using the male pronoun hasn’t hurt me at all.
A few weeks into the semester with this philosophy professor who used the pronoun she, I thought, I feel really confident and comfortable in this class. I feel like I can be myself. I love philosophy.
And I suddenly thought, Who decided that using the male pronoun was the norm? Who decided that maleness was the norm? How would it affect women’s view of themselves and their world and their abilities if pronouns were more gender inclusive?
Feminist Crush: Simone de Beauvoir. One of her books is The Second Sex, in which she describes how women are socialized to have Being-for-Men. Women are often socialized to believe that they only have value in reference to men and according to how beautiful and acceptable, men find them. If you have ever had some guy rate your appearance on a scale of one to ten, this guy was reinforcing the message that you only have value in reference to how attractive men find you. And I am sorry that happened to you. It sucks. (And by the way, if you are a man, and some guy or woman has rated your appearance on a scale, that sucks, too.)
I eventually went back to graduate school and earned my PhD in philosophy.
This is me shortly after earning my PhD. It was a dream come true.
As I have written about in another post, philosophy has a bit of a female problem.
You can read about this here.
Only about 30% of female philosophy graduate students are women and fewer than than 20% of tenured philosophy faculty are women. And there have unfortunately been a lot of high profile cases of sexual harassment in philosophy departments around the U.S.
In addition, philosophy graduate students read very few, if any, female philosophers in graduate school, even though there are a lot of female philosophers who have written stellar articles and books. It is actually possible to earn a PhD in philosophy without ever having read one female philosopher.
Anne Conway is one of my favorite philosophers. She wrote The Principles of Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, a book which significantly influenced the philosopher Leibniz.
I definitely noticed the gender imbalance when I went to graduate school, but I didn’t think much of it.
I mean, I’m fine, I had thought. Gender imbalance doesn’t really bother me.
I did well in my graduate program, and I loved my colleagues and professors.
So, I was kind of surprised in my last year of graduate school, as I was about to graduate, to find myself crying in the office of one of the female faculty members.
Why I am I crying? I thought.
And I thought about how hard it was sometimes to be one of the only women in a room full of males, trying to muster the confidence to share my opinion with men who were very kind but often viewed and spoke about the world very differently than I do.
And I thought of the Philosophy Bro at a conference who belittled me for a point I made, and I couldn’t figure out why he was being so rude to me until a colleague called the guy out for being sexist.
And I thought about the nagging feeling I had had in graduate school that I wasn’t logical enough, even though I have successfully taught logic for twelve years to middle, high school and college students; have published three logic and critical thinking textbooks; and have won several philosophy teaching awards.
Why wouldn’t I think I’m logical enough? I wondered.
And I knew the answer. Because I am a woman, and women are continually told by the media, by philosophy conference Dudes, and by people in society that they are illogical, hormonal, and emotional and that they argue like a girl.
Feminist Crush: bell hooks. She wrote the book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. In this book she writes about how patriarchy hurts both men and women. It teaches men to be aggressive, violent, and dominating, and it socializes women that they are only valuable in reference to men and that femininity is weak. These messages divide us and keep us from having the loving and meaningful relationships we desire so deeply.
I have come a long way in my feminist beliefs, and what has surprised me is how much I needed feminism and feminist philosophy, even when I did not realize I did.
Feminist ideas and theories have given me a set of tools that help me navigate a world which has often felt confusing to me in the past, although I did not have the words to name what I was feeling or to even identify exactly what was happening.
It is a world that often seems subtly hostile, cynical, and suspicious of my place and my right to be myself in it. This was a spectral pain I felt growing up and still sometimes feel.
In many ways the world has become a more hospitable place for women, but we have a long ways to go.
So over the past year when the President made sexist remarks and news stories broke about powerful men and sexual harassment, I did not think, I mean, I’m fine. These things aren’t happening to me.
I decided to teach feminist philosophy instead.
Because I know that the oppression of one woman is really the oppression of all women. And men, too.
And I know that when when patriarchy prescribes unhealthy roles for women, it also prescribes unhealthy roles for men. All of this prescription binds us, beats us down, and separates us from one another.
And I love women, and I love men, and I love myself too much to let that happen.
Biggest Feminist Crush: John Johnson
*Of course, this wasn’t the only thing the professor did to make the classroom hospitable to women. He was an outspoken feminist, and he regularly worked to incorporate both male and female ways of viewing philosophy into the classroom.
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Note: A few details in this post have been changed.