Name a female philosopher. Okay, now name one that isn’t Simone de Beauvoir. It’s hard, I admit it. There aren’t many famous philosophers who are female, and being a student of philosophy it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time: why bother writing philosophy when I won’t be taken seriously?
Often I find myself in social situations where I am either the only female or one of small number. This doesn’t unsettle me, I feel confident in my ability to hold a philosophical discussion with men, even when they are older and more educated than me, but is this how all female philosophers feel? Or are females put off when confronted with a male dominated subject?
This is a widely discussed topic. If you Google it you’ll find articles about various women’s experiences of the subject: good and bad. And Men too, rallying, asking where all the female philosophers are?
A problem I myself often find is that people expect women who study philosophy to specialise in feminism, gender studies or fluffier subjects such as aesthetics. Being a philosophy student whose specialisms are logic, metaphysics and philosophy of maths, you have to work hard to become someone who is taken seriously. I’m five feet, two inches tall, barely twenty-five years old, wear flowery patterned clothes and regularly contract incredibly high-pitched hiccups: should I be surprised that I’m seen differently to my male counterparts?
Surprised is the wrong word. Outraged more fits the bill. Logic in particular requires a mathematical brain and will power of steel: you can’t see that from the outside. Male or female, it takes a lot of hard work and reading to study philosophy of any kind and no one should assume anything by the way someone looks. In lectures, I’m cheerful, I participate and often find myself laughing or giggling at my fellow students and lecturers. Perhaps the image I give off in an academic environment isn’t one that shows how serious I am about the subject?
This year I have been running an exercise class for students who are studying logic for the first time: a mixture of male and female. Now, I do make jokes; I turn up my ‘serious teacher’ voice and tell my students (who are all older than me, some of them by 20 years or more,) that if they don’t behave they will have to ‘leave my classroom!’ It’s all in jest and I have absolute confidence that the classes are enabling the students to get more from logic: always something I’m happy to bring to the table. But would a whole year of philosophy students feel the same?
My biggest worry is what comes next. If I’m finding it hard to become seen as more than the sweet girl at the front of the class now, what happens if I decide to pursue a career in academia? Can a young, petite female stand in front of a class of students who may well all be older than her and still be as respected as a male of the same age?
I’d like to conduct an experiment where philosophy students read two academic journals on the same subject and then discuss which they think it was written by a woman: I wonder what the outcome would be? This is a subject that is so driven by predetermined ideas of what a philosopher should be and that may never change. We’re not all well-off, Oxbridge graduates who go home and sit in our philosophical armchairs drinking whisky and smoking a pipe. Some of us watch Made in Chelsea and shop at the weekends.
Simone de Beauvoir famously said ‘One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman.’ This is true also of philosophy, one becomes a philosopher, one becomes an academic. Women shouldn’t be scared of philosophy. The word ‘philosopher’ stems from the Greek word for ‘lover of wisdom.’ Do you love to learn? Then welcome to the club: you’re a philosopher, flowery dresses and all.
Katy Neate Maydon’s dream is to be a published novelist, the other side of the book world. Along with writing her novel and a film script she keeps a blog, which documents her day to day musings on books, movies and life in general.