A tiny little chapter in feminist philosophy

In one of the large lecture rooms in Examination Schools on Oxford High Street, I took my BPhil exams. I sat at a desk at the very back of this same room and cried. But I cried not during my exams, which I spent immersed in concentration, but thirty years later during a lecture on Feminist Philosophy. By the rivers of Oxford, where I sat down, and I wept, when I remembered Zion.

In between times, I’d taught feminist philosophy. I no longer taught it, indeed, I was no longer able to teach it, since I no longer had a lecturing post, but I thought I’d go along to that term’s lectures to keep up with how the subject was developing. The north American scholar who was taking the classes was young and enthusiastic, but I only went to her first lecture. She explained that she’s start the term’s course by examining the history of the teaching of feminist philosophy within the UK. I held my breath, and sat up, tight with tension and a peculiar fear.

But as I sat there listening, she went on to explain that she was going to describe the teaching of feminist philosophy through the women’s studies and gender masters’ course at various British Universities. There were many names I knew and descriptions of courses that I knew of. She mentioned various sociology departments. But she didn’t even mention the teaching of feminism within philosophy departments. So she never mentioned my little contribution. Neither did she actually mention the Women’s Studies MA which was briefly available at Bristol and for which my feminist theory course was a component.

I was half relieved that I did not have to sit there and listen to a stranger mention my work, and half appalled to hear an account of the history of something that had been so part of my life, but which left me out. Was I completely insignificant? Why were courses put on by other women, whom I knew, mentioned, and not my course? After the lecture, I approached the lecturer and introduced myself. ‘I taught feminist philosophy at Bristol University,’ I told her, ‘from 1983 to 1991. I drew up a finals paper on it.’ She acknowledged me just very briefly, but showed no curiosity and no wish to extend the conversation. I went home humiliated, and never returned to any more of her lectures. I wished I could have just put a paper bag over my head and crept out of the lecture room incognito, I wished I’d never let myself be known.

I wondered later if the reason why she had not talked about the history of the teaching of feminist philosophy actually taking place within British philosophy departments was precisely because there were so few philosophers teaching it during that period – she was talking about how the subject got started as an academic study in the UK, and she’d started talking about teaching from the 1970s onwards, (I’d taught it in the 1980s to early 90s).  Or for some other reason – that she simply knew nothing about it; that my career had bombed so spectacularly that there was no reason to know I’d started a course on the topic – that I’d failed to keep in contact with the other women involved in teaching feminist philosophy – or that my course was too insignificant to mention? But at the time that I was teaching feminist philosophy, I myself did not know of any other similar course taught within a philosophy degree in the UK. That was precisely the reason why I was so dismayed. So here is a little history of my tiny little, barely significant contribution.

How did my feminist theory course come about? There were a few major factors.

One factor: Professor Stefan Körner retired. He’d been head of the Bristol philosophy department for years and years and, according to what I was told, had been insistent that as long as he was in charge there would be no women working there. Adam Morton was made professor in his place, and could hardly have been a different figure. The next person to be appointed after Adam was me, the first woman ever to teach there.

Another factor: when I first started, Adam said to me that I could teach anything I wanted to teach, just so long as I considered it to be intellectually respectable. I was given greater freedom, accorded greater respect and greater responsibility, on that first day in my job, aged 26, than I have been in any job since. Worth mentioning, given the flack I got from other women philosophers who refused to believe that I was not being treated appallingly in the Bristol philosophy department (see below). But there was something in particular that I was asked to teach.

And that’s the third factor: the students really, really wanted a course on feminism. This was to do with the climate of the times. And I was asked to teach it. The simple reason why I was asked, was, of course, just because I was the only woman there, and the men were all too scared to teach it.  I’d never studied it – indeed, how could I have done so, when it was not taught? Although I had studied psychology, and that at least had included looking at various issues concerning gender. I’d even helped to conduct research with Corinne Hutt into differences in gender stereotyping which compared mixed and single sex schools, the first research which showed that girls were subject to less stereotyping and had higher aspirations at single sex than at mixed sex schools. But that was it. I hadn’t even studied political philosophy, owing to an administrative error as an undergraduate which meant that my department at Keele ‘forgot’ to make me take any courses in it.

The time was just right for this then. I was a newly arrived, female philosopher, in a department with a newly appointed, young head, at a time when there was a good staff student ratio, just before the times when universities really started getting squeezed and measured, before the squeeze on academics to concentrate on research, when there was emphasis on the quality of teaching, when the department could teach and examine students in considerable freedom, when courses could be put on with scant regard for what place they might have in the student’s overall assessment. For although the feminist theory course eventually became a finals’ paper, it started out simply as a lecture and seminar series with no exam attached to it. And, the time was right in that a great many students wanted to study the subject. This would not always be so. But then, conditions all came together.

There was widespread toleration for the feminism teaching in the department, and some strong support. There was only one person who dissented in any way, and I took great comfort from the fact that he was hostile to lots of people, not just to me. I won’t mention his name, because anybody who knows the department as it then was will know who he was, and because nothing is to be gained from ‘exposing’ or naming him. I’ll just tell you a couple of things so you get the gist. He was walking through a door ahead of me one day, so he held it upon, and I walked through it, since it would have seemed discourteous to refuse. ‘Huh,’ he sneered, ‘thought you were a feminist. Just goes to show how inconsistent you all are.’ Now, one thing to note is this: the only thing that I did to qualify, in his eyes, as a feminist, and therefore, as someone to be challenged mocked and ridiculed, was this: I was in a philosophy department, and I was a woman.

From then on, whenever we spotted each other walking along the corridor, there would be a race to reach the door first: I generally outran him and forcefully held the door open for him to walk through, but to give him his credit, he could run quite fast for someone of his age. There were other such incidents. (I’ll tell you the best one later, as something to look forward to.) In other words, this man was so preposterous, and besides which, horrid to so many people, that I thought of him as more of a natural phenomenon, like mosquitoes or hard rainfall, than anything that seriously formed any kind of opposition to what I was doing.

There were numerous challenges. One of these was the relative scarcity of literature and the laborious task of drawing up lecture materials and reading lists and just doing the preparation for the teaching. No computers, remember, no internet, no online library catalogues, it was tramping through library shelves and combing bookshops and periodicals. In those days, there was a much heavier load of teaching than there is now. I taught on average about 16 hours a week, tutorials, seminars, and lectures. All in all in my time at Bristol, I taught as well as feminist theory, applied ethics, ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophical logic and philosophy of language, general philosophy for first years including Descartes, Hume, Plato, and so on, Wittgenstein, philosophy of social science, the ethics of work.

And the first lectures I did on feminism were pretty much cobbled together on the hoof. I do recall one student complaining to me ‘this isn’t philosophy’ – (he is now a professional philosopher) – although I did get the feeling that he just wanted an argument and needed to be convinced. But the majority of students who took my classes were very keen, and many of them were involved in feminism or other political activities in a serious way. The teaching quickly evolved to a final year special subject. It’s true to say that the majority of students were women but there were always not insignificant numbers of men taking the course as well. The discussions were always very good.

The precise nature of the course changed and evolved from year to year. The course included in various combinations and various arrangements certain relevant topics, such as gender and language, abortion, discrimination, etc, certain relevant thinkers and philosophers, such as Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir and Mill, and different approaches to feminist theory – liberal, radical, socialist, Marxist feminism, and so on. I kept changing it around from year to year. The only major revisions that I came to make towards the end of my time teaching it were that I dropped teaching prostitution and pornography, simply because I got burned out from the academic consideration of these two topics which I personally found extremely disturbing. Oh, and I changed the name of the seminars, on a fanciful whim, to ovulars.

Outside of the department, I started to attend some of the Society for Women in Philosophy meetings. Here, I got a lot of pity – whether intended like that, it certainly felt like pity – from some of the slightly older women because of the department I was in, but I can honestly say that it was precisely the openness and the laissez faire attitude of that department which enabled, in fact, demanded, that I teach feminism. I remember more than one SWIP meeting where women were recounting their experiences of departments where there were topics which they would like to teach, but would never be able to, or would never dare to. As a matter of fact, other ‘new’ sort of topics in philosophy – new for the time, that is – which I also taught, again, with the positive encouragement of the department and Adam in particular, were issues in applied ethics, which were included in the list of topics which some other women philosophers felt they could not teach. I naively opened my mouth at one meeting and commented that I was allowed to teach whatever I wanted to teach, and had in point of fact, taught most of the topics which the others had said that they dared not teach. I am not sure that won me any friends. I am not sure even if anyone else there was teaching a whole finals paper on feminist theory, or feminist philosophy, within a philosophy degree, at that time in the mid-80s; again it was explained to me in return that the department I worked in was ‘really bad’ place for a woman to be, it was just that I didn’t realise how bad it was.

The women who told me that were wrong. It was not perfect, but I have never worked anywhere since which did not treat me positively badly. Bristol treated me, in many ways, very very well. But again, part of that was down to the generosity of the times, the appreciation of the importance of teaching, and the enthusiasms of the students, and of some of the other staff.

In 1992, I left Bristol and took up a post at the Australian National University, teaching applied ethics. Another woman was appointed at the same time in a post teaching feminist philosophy. She was in her first job; indeed, she was still just finishing her PhD. She came from a tradition of European philosophy, and together we realised that we could put on a great course if we joined forces. We approached Paul Thom, the head of department, with this idea, and he agreed. The next day, however, he came running along the corridor, saying that he’d realised that it would ‘look bad’ for him on the faculty if it looked as if he had two feminists in his department. (At this juncture, it is impossible not to namedrop in passing, just out of human interest, that he was a former lover of Germaine Greer.) So, I was not to teach feminist philosophy after all, not even to contribute to it.

Twelve months later, another young woman was appointed to the department, again, in her first job, and she immediately started teaching the feminism course with the first woman, taking almost exactly the same classes and topics that I would have taken, had I been allowed by the head to teach them. Somehow, the ‘problem’ of having two feminists in the same department had faded. One difference is, these two young women had sat in classes and been taught feminist philosophy. I’d worked it all up the hard way. And I was the one not allowed to teach it. My files and files and files of notes sat yellowing on the shelves. My days of teaching feminism were over. One of my female colleagues often used to expound her views that feminism was about promoting the interests of young women – I’ll never forget her idiosyncratic way of speaking and how she emphasised the word ‘young’ – she made it clear she did not think I fitted into this category. I was in my thirties. For some reason, she thought that older women had had it easier. Duh? Her academic life was harder than that of older women? Both she and the other woman were the daughters of professors, for a start.

When I came back from maternity leave, (let me repeat that, so that it sinks in – when I got back from MATERNITY LEAVE) I discovered that my two female feminist colleagues had organised a feminist philosophy conference on the topic of motivated irrationality – the topic of my DPhil. But this was a conference at which there were only women speakers, and at which you could not speak unless you were approached and invited. This was part of a feminist move, to allow space for women philosophers to speak. I was not on the list of their invitees to speak. I hadn’t even been told about it. Anyone could attend though, and I attended for one day, and sat there in mute misery as I realised how much I could have contributed, and could not bring myself to attend any more. A few weeks’ later, a job was advertised in the Study Skills Centre at the university. I applied for it, got it, and left the philosophy department as fast as my little legs could carry me. My days of teaching feminism were well and truly over.

Here’s the other story about my annoying colleague at Bristol, to end on a lighter note. After years and  years of ribbing from him, finally one Friday he approached me in the tiny kitchen on the first floor of the large house where the philosophy department was. He thrust a used mug at me. ‘Wash this,’ he instructed me. ‘Wash it yourself,’ I replied. ‘Huh’, he responded. ‘You silly little girly. That just goes to show that you aren’t really a feminist, because feminists believe in equality, and I would have washed your mug up for you.’ (For the record, this man had never been observed washing anybody’s mug up for them, let alone mine.) He then ran downstairs and into the common room, where the rest of the department was assembled waiting for a visiting speaker to start his talk.

That was it. Years of being called a ‘little goose’, a ‘little girly’ and so on finally got to me. I ran down the stairs after him. By the time I reached the common room, he was seated on one of the comfortable seats around the edge, his head buried in an open copy of the Times  Higher Education Supplement. I stood in front of him and spoke. ‘For your information,’ I said, ‘I am not ‘your silly little goose’, I am not ‘your little girly’, it is absolutely obnoxious having you as a colleague, and I am sick to death of having to work in the same department as you.’ I ran out, left the building, and went straight home.

At home, I went to bed and worried. I’d had that outburst in front of the entire department, graduate students, some people from other university departments and a visiting speaker. How could I ever got into work again? But after a couple of hours – when my colleagues would be going home – I got phone call after phone call. Phone calls congratulating me. One older, generally scrupulously polite colleague was laughing so much he could hardly speak. ‘Well done! I’ve been dying to say something like that to him for years!’ Another colleague’s phone at home was broken, so he went to the trouble of going out to find a phone box to call me to offer his congratulations. I went back into work in Monday with no worries at all.

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