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  • Tales from the Trenches: On Women Philosophers, Feminist Philosophy, and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy
  • Nancy Fraser

The fiftieth anniversary of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) provides a good occasion for reflecting on the history of women and feminist philosophy in the society. I’m not in a position to provide anything like a real history. But I can offer some memories and impressions of my own experiences. These will of necessity be personal and idiosyncratic. But they might nevertheless shed some light on certain historical events while also revealing something about how the women and feminist philosophers of my generation encountered the society’s practices and how some of us sought to change them.

I belong to the generation of women and feminist philosophers who did their graduate work in the 1970s, the generation who sought to enter the profession in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We had a tough row to hoe. In graduate school, many of us labored alone as the sole woman in the cohort or class. And many of us pursued our work in departments that had not a single woman professor, let alone one interested in feminist [End Page 175] philosophy. This was as true for those of us in Continental departments as for those in more mainstream analytic programs. In fact, I have the impression, though not the data to support it, that the situation may have been worse in Continental departments, which inherited or mimicked an Old World European style, more overtly patriarchal and authoritarian than that characteristic of analytic departments. In such departments, as in analytic departments, female graduate students had to do our work in what I can now see, with the benefit of hindsight, were “hostile climates.” It was often assumed that we didn’t belong, weren’t serious, and could never become real philosophers.

My own experience, it must be said, was rather different. I did my graduate work in the 1970s at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). Unusually, the department’s faculty roster included two senior tenured women, Virginia Held and Gertrude Ezorsky. Granted, they didn’t speak to each other. And both were analytic philosophers. But both had serious interests in left-wing political philosophy, while Virginia was developing an interest in feminist philosophy. More important, both sent a clear message, by their very presence in the department, that a female philosopher was not an oxymoron. In addition, this was a time when CUNY had a significant cohort of women Ph.D. students, including Eva Kittay, Diana Myers, Judith Lichtenberg, Sue Weinberg, Marcia Lind, Bea Banu, and me. Comprising some of the strongest students in the program, this group represented a critical mass. As a result of our numbers, the department’s ethos was relatively woman-friendly. Not only did we women students enjoy considerable legitimacy, but most of us went on to have careers in the discipline, and at least four have done work in feminist philosophy.

But CUNY was the exception, not the rule. In the 1970s, most female philosophy graduate students had to fight for the standing that their male counterparts were granted as a matter of course. Facing skepticism, if not outright hostility, women had to fight for the right to do philosophy, to be taken seriously. And we had to fight that battle over and above all the myriad “normal” difficulties that all graduate students faced. Quite a few talented women I knew did not make it through.

Those of us who did faced bleak conditions once we left graduate school and embarked on teaching careers. In those days, the job market still functioned largely as an old boy network. Very few searches were genuinely open, and even fewer were open to women. Those of us who were lucky enough to get jobs—and it was in one respect easier than now, [End Page 176] insofar as the market was better—mostly found ourselves once again the only woman in the department.

I can best describe my experience by paraphrasing Art Spiegelman: it was upon leaving graduate school that my troubles in philosophy truly began. I taught at three...


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