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The token feminist

February 26, 2010

I am the token feminist. I don’t try to be most of the time, and I keep a large amount of my comments and observations to myself, but I remain the token feminist in most class situations. In fact, a lot of us do.

Who’s us? The women at Goucher College who study philosophy. I’m a communications major, but I have been taking courses in philosophy since I entered college, because, well, all of my friends were using words like “simulacrum” and “transient self” and “objective Truth” and I wanted to know what all the fun was about. And I’ve found that I quite enjoy philosophy, and that we have a stellar philosophy department here.

But I find that I am always the token feminist. There maybe be a lot of us in the class, but but, really, only a few of us speak. And it really bothers me. I do not want to be the token feminist in a philosophy class at a college that has been historically a women’s college.

The current Goucher women to men ratio is 7:3. That’s right. This is a school where 70% of the students are female. But there are departments that are fairly male dominated, and philosophy is one of them. Not only are the majority of philosophy students male, but most of the professors are male. John, Bob, Steve, and Rochelle are the current line up of professors. So, it’s a bit of a boys club, but this really follows the pattern visible in history.

There is a strange divide in philosophy classes here, I have noticed. You have your history of philosophy and general “philosophy of” classes, that are attended heavily by the men in the department, usually having a more even gender (sex?) split, and then there are classes on women’s issues and race issues and sexuality issues that, really, only the ladies in philosophy take. Some boys, of course, venture into these areas, but, mostly, it’s ladies.

In the classes where there’s a decent sampling of men, feminist issues are not usually discussed all that much. I do not think that everything should be about feminism, but I do think that we are at the point in our social and philosophical lives that we should be good at being aware of the silences in both history and philosophy. A friend of mine took a class of philosophy and art. You know what they didn’t discuss even a little? Women. The female in art. Hello? i feel like this is such a no brainer in terms of “things a liberal arts college should talk about when discussing art and thought” that I was quite literally stunned when my friend told me this. (In addition, there wasn’t anything about race, but that shouldn’t surprise you. If women didn’t make the cut for topics to be discussed, race most certainly wouldn’t. After all, we’re all white kids here. No reason to talk about anything crazy like race issues. Save it for an African Studies class)

Women in philosophy have been silent players forever. Can you identify Socrates? How about Hypatia? If you can identify both, do you know one theory from each? probably not. We’ve remained silent players and, even today when amazing theories are being published and put forth by women, we skip over them when talking about “non-women’s” issues. How difficult would it be to throw in a week or two near the end of term acknowledging these silences? I don’t expect every course to suddenly become rooted in feminism, but I think that, especially at a historically women’s institution, it should be something that is at least mentioned in each class. And it should not be up to the students alone to mention it.

That being said, why the fuck aren’t students mentioning it? Why do I, the woman, have to be the one to bring it up? Not just in philosophy, now, but in any class. And why are the reactions when I bring these issues up more of a collective groan than a thoughtful “hmm?” I mean, it seems to go back to issues of privilege to me. The boys don’t have to seem the women’s silences in the course, because they are boys. They dont’ have to be aware of it in their everyday lives, so they don’t have to be aware of it in class. Like I said, some guys are exceptions to this. Not that they have managed to relinquish their privilege, but that they try and stay aware. But the majority don’t. There is still a distinct separation between what real philosophy is and women’s philosophy. The silences in this field have to be relegated to their own field, which enables them to continue being ignored.

There’s a strange pressure being a woman and a feminist in a philosophy class. There is the thought that I must always really know what I am talking about before I speak (even before I ask a question about what I’m seeking to understand) and that I am expected to bring up being a woman, which is typically irrelevant.

In my feminst philosophy class last year, there were 4 or 5 boys and about 12 girls. For my communications class, I counted for two weeks how many times men spoke versus how many times women spoke. On every day, the number of male comments were at least double (usually more) than the female comments. In a feminist philosophy class. What? We women aren’t even speaking in a class that is about “our issues?” If you ask the silent women why, usually they say that they don’t feel qualified to speak, regardless if they have done every page of their reading or not. Why don’t we feel worthy of speaking in class, when there is always that one guy who never really reads anything but spouts of useless bits of information anyway? (Note: I’d rather be the token feminist than that guy.) 

I think it’s time we take our classes. I think it’s time we female philosophers speak up (out) in class. We have the questions and we have the analysis. We have the background and we have the drive. There is no reason for us, especially here at Goucher, to feel so silenced. There is no reason for us to be the only ones noticing the silences. There is no reason for us to feel like all we can speak about is “women’s philosophy.” Come on, Goucher. Let’s figure this out.

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