What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?

Given that I have only been in philosophy for around 22 months, ‘in’ in the infatuated, over-ambitious, starry-eyed MA student sense of the word; and the romantic and nauseatingly idealist 23 year-old girl-woman sense of that other word, I don’t feel particularly qualified to answer this, however I would like to try.

This is an interesting question, which forces me not only ask myself what it is like to be a woman in philosophy, but to also go on to ask ‘what is it like to be a blackwoman in philosophy?’

It’s probably no surprise that what constitutes most of the reading for my syllabus is written by dead white men. What brought me into philosophy in the first place is my adoration of Friedrich Nietzsche, John Locke, Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name a few. I can’t say that when I started out on my journey to become philosophically enlightened (I think that’s what this is, anyway) it occurred to me how small the sample size of ‘great minds’ I admired was. I have a habit of doing this in many aspects of life. Actually, much of this year has been awakening for me in terms of what it is actually like to be black and female in this world, amongst many other things which make me someone who is not a member of several dominant cultures I this part of the world.

I’m at a time in my life where I’m learning to live with myself. To recognise those things which characterise me; those things that make me Kayla, and to be comfortable with them. I’m also becoming increasingly sensitive to the place of women in current societies around the world, and conscious of the part I can play, and encourage others to play in elevating women. So, when I think about my place in all of this, I do at times wonder, given my gender and ethnic background, how far can I really go in this field of philosophy, and how widely read would I be? If I started lecturing at public events, would my gender or colour feature in people’s perceptions of me or my materials? I try not to worry about this too much for now.

I’m lucky (or naive) enough to be able to say that at this point in time, neither my gender nor ethnicity has caused my fellow students or lecturers to treat me any differently from the way I perceive them to treat the white male population on my course. I look around the average lecture theatre or seminar and see a few other coloured faces, and a few more women, and that makes me pleased.

I know that my experiences at my institution are not representative of others. The one I attend is a specialist night college, whose demographic is busy professionals who have often chosen to take up study later in , so that could have something to do with it. I know of people who have spoken as their experience being markedly different in other institutions, and others who say the same, but recognize that things may be slowly changing.

I’ve never attended a public lecture given by a women, much less a black woman, so in terms of being able to identify with the people who are in the positions that I aspire to be in, it’s hard. But I’m not sure that this worry is yet at the front of my mind.

So to answer your question, it’s not really like anything. It’s like studying the subject that has become the love of my life, being surrounded by many different souls who have enriched and continued to enrich my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and at makes me so thirsty for life my eyes often fill with tears. On my course, I have met some of the strongest, most amazing women I know. Occasionally this experience is peppered with a niggling anxiety, but only occasionally. It’s great, and I hope it continues to get better for all women. I hope that we can attract even more women to the discipline.


*post by Michaela Reid-Thomas*


3 thoughts on “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?

  1. I believe it may be good to remember that philosophy is not really about “how far one can go in this field” or “how many people will read” whatever anyone writes. That kind of language, this vocabulary and phrasing, is borrowed from a social world that only very recently decided to describe itself as one of jobs, commerce, success, careers, pension plans, popularity. Philosophy is not at all about making your way in “the discipline”: that is only a late, somewhat regrettable post-kantian, i.e. very recent, view of what philosophy may about. The philosophical subject matter is far too important to leave it to people who “do well” in “the discipline”. Socrates, in many ways the founder of this noble tradition, was an outsider, an “atopos”, literally someone with “no place”. He was notoriously ugly, poor, lacked elegance and was not a member of the ruling aristocracy. He was a carpenter who found favour with the ancient Greek aristocracy for no other reason than what he had to say was perceived to be of interest, was wise – not because the ruling class had particularly well-articulated views on tolerance, inclusiveness, etc. In that sense, the founding father of the (ethical) philosophical discipline was in many ways similar to your philosophical heroes, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, both exemplars of the philosophical ‘atopos’: as a classicist and an engineer they had no background in philosophy, and had no desire to develop any – they both despaired (and died in despair) of not being understood by their friends, their family, by the “academy”, let alone by society at large. And yet the three of them, as far as I am concerned, define the main themes of philosophy. The rest is science, or philosophical footnotes. I believe the field of philosophy can be reduced to the core 3 topics those 3 philosophers are famous for: Socrates leads the western tradition in applying reason to ethos, he is the original relentless independent (ethical) inquirer who outshines all by being the first in his courageous unwillingness to show the traditional blind deference to the gods, to religion, the institutions in general, not willing to let logos take a back seat to mythos for fear of social repercussions, and is ready to die for sticking to those beliefs: he knows there are good lives and bad lives, and that the good life is qualified by the attempt at inquisitive self-determination; Nietzsche, who understands that the aporia that invariably follows Socratic elenchus can only be answered by poetry, not science, and certainly not “conceptual analysis”, or so-called ethical “theory”: that inquisitive self-determination is answered by poetic self-creation; Wittgenstein, who knows that at the centre of all of this is the treacherous, widely misunderstood nature of language, that inquisitive self-determination relies on a deep understanding of the nature of the language we use to express questions and answers. All three of them are exceptionally admirable white males who were long dead before they became as widely ‘read’ and admired as they are today.

    I genuinely agree we should work hard at welcoming anyone to participate in the 2500-year old Socratic elenchus, whether they be female, black, Belgian, overweight, welsh, blind, martian, football fans, etc… provided they are willing to risk being an atopos and work hard at saying something that makes a difference: I see these as the only criteria for being taken seriously as a philosopher, as a lover (not a pursuer, not an owner, or even someone who is officially degree-certified as such) of wisdom. The rest is hobbies, i.e. distraction, or careers in the ivory tower, well away from the real action in the agora, which the ancient Academy was (topologically and spiritually) close to.

    As regards your inclusion of Locke in your pantheon, I am profoundly puzzled, as puzzled, I imagine, as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would have been on hearing this. Public School educated Oxbridge graduates, i.e. hyper-institutionalized members of society, hardly ever make for original philosophical spirits unless they are cast in the role of eccentric … of atopos.

  2. Hi Frank,

    Thank you for your response, and for imparting your own account of and beliefs as to what it means to study philosophy, and also what the study of philosophy means to you.

    I’m not sure my own account did imply that I do not remember that philosophy isn’t wholly about how far one can go, but to say that this isn’t one of my many considerations would be ludicrous!


  3. I regret having made that statement about Locke etc : although it was meant to be tongue-in-continental-cheek I am not sure it was taken that way by most people. I apologize to those bright people who are public-school educated oxbridge graduates who took it the wrong way and hope to moderate my comments in future posts. I also hope it does not put anyone off putting up posts on what I believe is a fabulous initiative by the people who run the BBK Philosophical Society.

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