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  • Some Critical Reflections on the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy and on U.S. Philosophy
  • Linda Bell

Neither celebrations nor critiques of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) and of philosophy in the United States can afford to ignore their complex histories. My own experiences and others with which I am familiar may illuminate some limited but salient aspects of the complexities, not just the problems we have encountered in our pursuit of academic careers in philosophy but also some successes that have occurred along the paths so strewn with human wreckage.1

In 2004, I retired from Georgia State University. The previous fall, my last book, Beyond the Margins: Reflections of a Feminist Philosopher, was published by the State University of New York Press. It contains many stories from my early graduate studies at Northwestern through the years teaching at Georgia State. The title, Beyond the Margins, reflects the way I see my philosophical journey, from being marginalized, at best, to professor of philosophy and director of the Women’s Studies Institute.

Much had changed since my days at Northwestern when there were very few women graduate students, one man of color who quickly dropped out, and only white men on the faculty in the department. There was no women’s movement, just a few voices that I later began to hear about; and [End Page 216] civil rights workers were being beaten and killed in the South and frequently opposed in the North. In class and outside, I listened as a professor made fun of women, viciously attacking one who had somehow slipped by him and been awarded a Ph.D. He disparaged women (like me) who had been admitted with fellowships: a “waste,” he proclaimed. Perhaps he would have aimed a more particularized challenge at me had he not forgotten or possibly not known that I had been rejected the previous year and only admitted then after a friend’s professor protested to his friend at Northwestern on my behalf (the rejection might have been the chair’s decision alone, and he had left). He even ridiculed John Stuart Mill for his support of women’s rights. Some of the male graduate students delighted in his nastiness and later continued to taunt me, just in case I wasn’t sufficiently demoralized.

Incidentally, while I was there, charges appeared in the campus newspaper that Northwestern had been using a quota system in admitting students thought to be Jewish. Apparently, anti-Semitism thrived in the Philosophy Department as well: a distraught Jewish student a year behind me told me one day that she envied my having to deal only with misogyny. Confronted by such freely expressed and acted upon misogyny and anti-Semitism, I often felt that I had not in fact left the Jim Crow South in which I had grown up.

From 1963 to 1965, I was there and attended an early meeting of SPEP, finding it no more welcoming than the Philosophy Department, perhaps mostly because the professor who was so belittling and negative about women was one of the founders. I’m quite sure there weren’t many other women there, and I know, given my experience at Northwestern, that I would have been most surprised—and would remember—had there been any on the program. In fact, though, for a long time there weren’t many women at any of the philosophy meetings I attended, hardly any as presenters.

A bit later, seven male students and I were given “terminal” master’s degrees after our prelims were judged inadequate. Perhaps those exams were indeed not good enough, but such a major housecleaning was probably attributable far more to a newly hired faculty member’s constant and rather bitter complaints about the “quality” of the graduate students, an animosity he surely acted on when he graded the exams.

While it was enormously difficult to overcome the sense of failure with which I left Northwestern, perhaps it was just as well that I didn’t stay there [End Page 217] any longer. I, too, would have wanted to work with the same faculty member who agreed to direct the dissertation of the only...


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