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  • The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Feminism, and the Epoché
  • Debra Bergoffen

This essay is both theoretical and personal. It is about the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), about phenomenology and existentialism, about feminism, about the ideals of philosophy that drew me to it, about a confrontation with my naïveté, and about a hope that in my naïveté I was not totally duped. It is not so much an argument as a juxtaposition of thoughts that, in looking at some SPEP history in relation to feminism, in approaching phenomenology and existentialism through the lens and demands of the epoché, in proposing a practice that keeps these demands alive, and in giving an example of this practice, reveals a relationship between phenomenology and feminism captured in the following assertion: unless existentialism and phenomenology recognize feminist theory as central to its philosophical practice, it will not fulfill its responsibilities to the epoché. I understand that this is a strong claim. In what follows I hope to show (convince?) you that it is supportable. [End Page 278]

Some History

In 1961 President Kennedy appointed Ester Peterson head of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor and asked her to establish a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The commission operated from 1961 to 1963. Its final, widely read report “American Women” was influential in passing the 1963 Equal Pay Act. The year 1963 also saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act passed with an amendment that added sex as a protected category against employment discrimination.

SPEP held its first meeting in 1962. As far as it was concerned women and feminism did not exist. Perhaps this is forgivable. It took awhile for the events of the feminist 1960s to become a noticeable feminist movement. The official date of second-wave feminism is given as the 1970s. According to social scientist Jo Freeman, it took a media blitz for feminism to make an impression on the American psyche.1 Looking back at the SPEP programs available for the 1970s the blitz did not seem to have made an impression. I count five women on the program in 1972 but nothing that looks like feminist work. It is not until 1978 that a session on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, organized by Peg Simons, appears. The author of The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex, both published in the 1940s, had to wait thirty-plus years to be identified as philosophically relevant to a society that represented itself as a forum for phenomenology and existential philosophy. In 1979 SPEP endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Committee for Pluralism held its second meeting. The goal of this committee was to get Continental philosophy recognized at the American Philosophical Association, not to get women’s and minority perspectives included at SPEP. This would be left to the Committee on the Status of Women, formed in 1984 and first chaired by Sandra Bartky. It appears that SPEP, far from being energized by the critiques of feminist activists of the 1960s and 1970s, found them largely irrelevant.

Starting in the mid-1980s women and feminism begin to pierce SPEP’s consciousness. Sessions on Irigaray, Kristeva, sexual difference, and French feminism were scheduled. Judith Butler was invited to give a paper. There was a scholar’s session for Teressa Brennan and a book session for Nancy Fraser. Michelle Le Doeuff and Julia Kirsteva were tapped to be a plenary and keynote speakers. In 1985 Arlene Dallery became the first woman to sit on the Executive Committee. A policy of male and female [End Page 279] co-directors was established in 1990, with Arlene elected the first woman co-director. Women’s faces were now at the table. Women’s voices were now heard as philosophically relevant.

It would be of some comfort to be able to say that SPEP’s snail’s pace was in tune with the academic times, that its attitude and practices matched those of other academic disciplines. Though it is true that at first most disciplines were indifferent at best and, as often as not, hostile to...


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