Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Achieving the gender equitable syllabus

I'm not sure what to do about the inadequate representation of women in academic philosophy. There are certainly many explanations for it, one of which is that the relative lack of women on philosophy syllabi signals to women that they are not welcome in the profession and should not aspire to membership in it.

I simply don't know enough to say what role this phenomenon has in explaining the inadequate representation of women in our field, but it strikes me as plausible enough that we philosophy instructors should make efforts to include the work of women philosophers in our courses. Even if this turns out to have only a very small role in explaining the inadequate representation, it does no harm to include the work of women philosophers in our courses when appropriate.

This post at Feminist Philosophers motivated me to look at my own syllabi for gender equity and representation. The results:

In the course I teach most (six times a year usually), women are fairly well represented. It's an introductory ethics course, and we read Judith Thomson and Jane English on abortion, Ruth Benedict on relativism, Midgley's widely anthologized "Trying Out One's New Sword," Ursula LeGuin's short fable "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," and a selection on Kant's ethics by Marcia Baron. I also give the students the choice of which controversial ethical issues we'll study during the term, and they often select topics that result in our reading women authors (English again, this time on filial duties, or Bonnie Steinbock's article on adultery). The bulk of the writers are men, but women are well represented.

I teach moral theory fairly often, and there we read some of the same women as before (Baron, Thomson), as well as Philippa Foot, Martha Nussbaum, Susan Wolf, and Rosalind Hursthouse. Again, the majority are men, but women are represented too.

Despite not having a terribly deep background in ancient philosophy, I teach that too. But here the news is not as good, largely because we read almost entirely primary sources: the expected big two, Plato and Aristotle, with a smattering of pre-Socratics. (At least one of the editors of the anthology I use is a woman!) Wikipedia lists 25 ancient Greek women philosophers, none of which (I regretfully confess) I know much about. And here my earlier "when appropriate" clause enters my mind. I wouldn't want to include women philosophers in that course solely because they are women philosophers. I'd want there to be another philosophical reason to include them. One fear I have is that doing so will strike the students as objectionable 'tokenism' on my part and that the effort will backfire and students will take women philosophers less seriously. Another concern is that including women in the content of such a course might distort the truth: that women's intellectual contributions were, almost without exception, not taken seriously in ancient Mediterranean culture (or by subsequent cultures influenced by said culture). I'd appreciate some insight here. How do others handle this issue?

So philosophers: Is your syllabus gender representative?


  1. I don't teach philosophy proper (rather, religious worldviews, although sometimes political philosophy as well), but I find myself frequently quoting from, referencing, or alluding to women philosophers, both in my classes and blog posts, especially (in no particular order and coming quickest to mind): Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, Sharon Lloyd (political philosophy), Elizabeth Anderson, Amelie Rorty, Linda Zagzebski, Marcia Cavell, Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Simone Beauvoir, Gillian Brock....

  2. Most of the women philosophers listed in the Wikipedia page you link to are only known from snippets in secondary sources, at best (e.g., in the Suda lexikon or Diogenes Laertius). For example, Aspasia, one of the better known ones, appears extensively only in Plato's Menexenus, where Socrates attributes to her a long parody of Pericle's funeral oration. This is a more general problem, of course; much of early Stoic or Cynic thought is only attested in late and biased sources, many of them with polemical intent. But it would seem hardly possible to achieve even a modicum of gender equity with ancient philosophy when relying on actual primary sources; you would have to rely on reconstructions of dubious validity.

  3. Not all of the following is to the point of equalizing women authors on the syllabus, but here are a couple of quick thematic suggestions for ancient philosophy courses: Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire describes the ancient philosophical schools from the perspective of a young woman seeking an education. It is very useful for students looking for a kind of modern synopsis of Hellenistic philosophy. For ancient works, Plato's Symposium is indispensable, with Socrates' description of Diotima's philosophy of love and her "speech". Also Plato's Republic, with the discussion of equality of education for women and the implications of abolishing the traditional family structure. There is also much of historical interest in Aristotle's Generation of Animals, on early Greek theories of reproduction and sexual differentiation. I often assign NE 5 and Politics 1 to explain the nature and attempted justification of patriarchy. The fragments of the Stoics on politics contained in Long and Sedley are very useful here, several of which deal with sexual conventions. I have a student doing an extra-credit report on Maria Dzielska's book on Hypatia. I am considering screening the recent brilliant portrayal of Hypatia by Rachel Weisz in AmenĂ¡bar's "Agora" (now on DVD).

  4. Rosalind HursthouseOctober 27, 2010 at 3:19 PM

    I think it is a mistake to try to correct the inevitable gender bias in ancient philosophy by trying to bring in female philosophers, but it is quite possible to compensate by making a point of referring almost exclusively to modern female philosophers as the authoritative contemporary commentators. Apart from Nussbaum,Sarah Broadie is the tops on Aristotle's Ethics, and on the entire spectrum of ancient philosophy we have, thank heaven, Julia Annas. Her Morality of Happiness is standardly described as 'magisterial' and both it, and her scores of equally authoritative articles (some available on her website, many on philpapers), are all written in the clearest and most friendly style one could imagine.

  5. I'd say it depends on what field. I teach in a tiny department, so my teaching obligations are all over the map.

    For ethics and perhaps Chinese philosophy I'd say my syllabi are very balanced, and not even because I made an intentional effort to make them that way.

    Other classes, phil of mind, metaphysics, early modern, free will, existentialism, chinese phil, and so on, not as much (we read works by women, but simply not as often as we would in ethics).

    I would guess there are two rasons for this. First, perhaps women philosophers are far more representative in ethics. Second, I read a lot more scholarship in ethics/Chinese phil, so I just happen to be very well acquainted with lots of women authors. In the other classes, I don't do research in those areas, so what I was exposed to in grad school (which was not terrible representative) has become, for practical time purposes, the "go to" source list.

  6. I don't choose the readings for my syllabi with gender equity in mind. As Michael notes, I worry about it feeling artificial and forced and that it would backfire.

    When it turns out that the person we are reading is a woman, especially if she lived during a time when philosophy was more hostile to women, I'll make a point of remarking about how much I like being able to teach it. I love teaching Anscombe, for example.

    Mostly I try to deal with this by simply talking to my students about it. Why are there so few women represented throughout the history philosophy? Because until recently, they lived in societies that made it all but impossible for them to be philosophers. That's the true, sad, terrible fact. I don't think it should be papered over. What about now? Well, it's not all together easy to be a woman in philosophy (http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/).

    But I have absolutely no doubt that it is getting much better, very quickly. For example, my philosophy of language course last year (said to be the most difficult in the major) had twelve women and two men. Things are changing.

  7. I'm a sociologist but used to address a similar issue in the teaching of what are consider teh "classical" texts of my discipline.

    The way I addressed it was to include considering of how things come to be considered classical/canonical and the institutional and social processes involved.

    This provides an interesting context for reading works that might be considered sociological (or philosophical) but were not influential in their time, or were "lost".

    It also enables us to talk about the relationship between ideas and their authors, how "disciplines" themselves get constructed and what that means (in terms of the value given to particular kinds of knowledge, among other things).

    Warning: it might also lead to questions of who gets defined as "a philosopher" and how that definitional process has excluded women or reduced them to the status of "critics of philosophy".

    In other words, you can recognize the gender inequity in philosophy and engage with it without "correcting" for it.

  8. Well I don't teach anything so my views are worth exactly what you pay for them, but maybe the problem with "the inevitable gender bias in ancient philosophy" could be fixed by abandoning the historical approach to teaching philosophy - an approach that I don't think any other discipline uses and which often seems, to this outsider, frankly bizarre. Isn't it time to do something different from starting with Plato and working forwards?


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