Feminism is under threat. The philosophy department is currently in the process of deciding whether to teach the honours course ‘Feminism’ next year. To give some background to this: the current course, taught by Elinor Mason, is one of the most over-subscribed classes in the department, with people usually having to wait until fourth year to study it. The problem lies in that Elinor will be away on research leave next year and the department have no other member of staff able to teach it, nor can they find anyone else to come in to teach it for a year.
Recently a popular petition has arisen online from four proactive philosophy students (Rachel Ram, Eleanor Hall, Camilla Ginty and Eve Ryan) pleading for the philosophy department to keep feminism as an honours option. The reason this petition is so important is because it has sparked the desperately needed conversation around women in philosophy. It is no secret that philosophy is a male dominated sphere of academic discourse. Currently 5 out of 33 staff members are women in the philosophy department, a mere 15 per cent. There is evidently a glass ceiling, creating a vicious circle preventing women from entering into the field. Sadly I can confirm that during my degree I have only ever been taught by two women. This is not mere coincidence; this is a common fact for most philosophy departments.
What also needs to be included in this debate is the problem of having so few women on our philosophy reading lists, and also the lack of feminist intersections taught as critiques to dominant philosophical theories. There is not a single pre-honours philosophy course that teaches a theory by a woman. The common response is, “well maybe there just aren’t enough good women philosophers!” As I mentioned above, this is the vicious circle. The fact that women have been shut out of philosophy for so long has led to a male dominated literature. Yet you would expect a prestigious, Russell Group university like ours to be at the fore of these debates. The University of Edinburgh should want to stand with the side of progress. The University of Edinburgh should want their research to include the cutting edge theories of gender and feminism. Yet academia is reluctant to do so.
If we continue to shut out feminism as a serious area of philosophical study, then we will lose crucial critiques centred on identity and understanding ‘the subject’. For those of us who want to specialise in researching some of the greatest philosophical questions around behaviour, socialisation, power, knowledge, and what it means to be ‘human’ etc. we cannot neglect to focus on the experiences of women or how these experiences might differ due to class, race, sexuality and other factors. Feminism is not just a political movement but also a philosophical understanding of how, when we separate men and women as essentially ‘different’ from one another, we create gender roles that can become the structure of a woman or man’s personhood. Feminism inevitably asks questions as to how much of our understanding of one another is constructed or created; these are undoubtedly philosophical questions that we should be encouraged to study.
The philosophy department has a crucial choice to make. Yes, it might seem small in the scheme of things to not have a course taught next year. But it speaks volumes to the fact that feminism still isn’t taken seriously enough to warrant more than one course on it and only one member of staff qualified to teach it. Philosophy department, with respect, it’s time to do some navel gazing.