- Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy
Singing in the Fire is a collection of autobiographical essays by women philosophers along with a strong introduction, itself autobiographical, by Linda Martín Alcoff. Alcoff asked women to write about their experiences practicing philosophy in the United States between the late 1950s and 2002, assuring them that they could control their essay's tone and content. The women who agreed to write chose one or two photographs to represent their younger selves and then, in Uma Narayan's words, made "tricky choices about where to begin or end and what to include" in a written portrait of themselves as philosophers (81).1
Alcoff has been interested for some time in telling the truth about women's experiences in philosophy. When still untenured, she and a colleague, Lynne McFall, designed a survey for women in their department—graduate students, staff, untenured and tenured faculty. Promising anonymity, they asked about work conditions generally and incidents of sexual harassment in particular. Their aim was to provide enough knowledge of women's lives to discuss their situation intelligently. Unfortunately, except for some men who were worried about whose names were mentioned, no one seemed interested.
Singing in the Fire is Alcoff's second "attempt to provoke a general conversation" (6). This time, however, she has adopted a markedly different strategy for gaining her colleagues' attention. Instead of including all ranks of women, she sought distinguished philosophers widely respected in the profession. She set out to collect the stories of women who were generally over fifty, had seen changes in the profession, and would write about their experiences with "maturity and measure" (3). The women who accepted her invitation possess these virtues and more. All are, in Alcoff's words, "brilliant, complex, and philosophically astute" (3). Many serve on elected committees of the APA and other professional organizations. Two are former presidents of the APA.
Most of these distinguished women speak with admiration of at least one and often of several men, on whose guidance they depended—skilled advisers, [End Page 207] gifted teachers, enthusiasts of philosophy. In graduate school, Alcoff herself was treated with consistent respect by her male teachers and had "several energetic and wonderful male mentors" (11). Yet, if they are to believe Linda Alcoff, these contributors cannot now expect a sympathetic reading from their colleagues.
Professional philosophy, Alcoff tells us, is marked by "a persistent tradition of sexism" that "subtly demeans our capacities, undermines our confidence, and undercuts our ability to perform at our best" (4). That tradition includes a general disapproval of female scholars who offer personal revelations of any sort. Worst are the revelations of women who "whine" and "complain." "Many of those women who do have the courage to complain and even to attempt remedial actions about very serious problems in the academy are vilified not just as whiners but as hysterics, whores, and/or general incompetents." Women need to be brave just to "express their range of experiences, positive and negative" (5).
Alcoff offers many excuses for the women who refused to write; she herself suffered a particular anguish when editing this book. But she admires every one of the women who did write; admires "their courage, their honesty, their principled integrity, and their political commitment to advance the situation of women as a whole even at the risk of hurting some of their collegial relationships and diminishing their professional opportunities" (9).
After this high if rather grim praise, Alcoff sets her contributors before us in alphabetical order, which is to say no order at all. Readers who want a metanarrative will trace it for themselves. I begin, as Alcoff does, with a profession marked by the absence of women. In the late fifties, a woman entering philosophy graduate programs in the United States might not encounter any other women, either as graduate students or at conferences where young philosophers meet other philosophers, or as visiting lecturers or members of the faculty. The women who did appear were hyper visible "as...