Note: Paula is a good friend and a lively, entertaining, and provocative teacher and writer. I had the privilege of teaching her many years ago at Keele. (Was I the bad or the good cop?) Paula’s style was, and is, inimitable. She always cuts to the chase.
Some students have asked if I can suggest more work by women philosophers to add to their course reading lists, given that on the current lists there is only a minority, and in some cases, a small minority, of female authors. Some women students feel excluded by this, and wish for more role models.
Here is my letter to you, dear students. Do not feel excluded. Simply carry on, read widely, think clearly, think independently. Read as many different styles of philosophical writing as you can find. Did you think philosophy was going to be easy? Did you think a degree from Oxford was going to be easy? Please, welcome the difficulties. These will be the making of you all.
Of course, there may be women philosophers whose work has been overlooked. And of course, in most cases, only a minority of the writers will be women, given that especially in the past, there were so few women working in philosophy. Do look around for good quality work. Because indeed, the work of many people is overlooked in universities now. The practice of cliques, of citation clubs, of ‘you cite me I’ll cite you’, of employing their mates’ favourite PhD students, continues apace, and is probably worsened by pressures on universities over the last generation to meet ludicrous, corrupting performance targets.
So for now, let me tell you a little of how I have come to think as I do on these matters, just on the off-chance that it might resonate and even help a few of you. Things in education have changed so much over the course of my lifetime, and not much of this has been for the better. But old people would say that I suppose. Experience shows that communications such as this letter from older women to younger, generally don’t go down well, but life has toughened me up, so I will continue.
I detested my secondary school. After moving from one side of London to the other aged 13, I was badly bullied at the new school — by the boys, I might add, not the girls (apart from a gang of girls who beat me up for a few months for giving them cheek, but that was later). Discipline was very lax. The headmaster ran off with one of the pupils in my year, that will give you a clue; having abolished prefects in a wave of 70s-type educational reform, they were reinstated simply for the purpose of keeping journalists from the Sun from getting past the school gates. In the sixth form, I often simply didn’t go in, and nobody noticed. I used to walk up to town, as we called it then, in other words, central London, walking for hours and hours and buying second hand books in the bookshops on the Mile End Road, or I’d go to the local library and read through the philosophy section. In many ways the school was good though — we did a load of stuff outside the curriculum, we were encouraged to express ourselves, to think for ourselves, and even, every Wednesday the head of sixth form took a dozen or so of us to the Tate for talks on modern art by some expert there. I only realised decades later how lucky we were. These days, people often make out that the seventies was a decade of bleak drabness where people just ate Findus Crispy Pancakes and wore appalling flares. This is rubbish. I saw David Bowie at the Marquee Club, for heaven’s sake. Beat that. It was great.
The school was high-achieving, yet boasted that its ‘A’ level grades had gone down, claiming that this demonstrated that the emphasis was on education for its own sake not on grades for the sake of grades. Let me repeat that in italics. The school was high-achieving, yet boasted that its ‘A’ level grades had gone down, claiming that this demonstrated that the emphasis was on education for its own sake not on grades for the sake of grades. Let me repeat that in bold. The school was high-achieving, yet boasted that its ‘A’ level grades had gone down, claiming that this demonstrated that the emphasis was on education for its own sake not on grades for the sake of grades.
The point was that people were still getting good enough grades to do what they wanted to after school, but were also getting a broader education and outlook on life. But anyway, I wasn’t quite in this group, and since I missed so much school, I just presumed I’d fail my ‘A’ levels. I remember getting some career brochures from school about joining the merchant navy, since I had a friend who was in it. But lo and behold, I passed my exams reasonably well, and after a year working firstly as a lab technician at Ilford Films, then as a shop assistant in a jeans shop in Brighton, I went to Keele University to study philosophy and physics on their four year degree course, which had a foundation year covering the whole range of subjects from every department in the university.
Oh, and by the way, I worked at Ilford Films before the equal pay act came into force. I got paid less than someone with fewer qualifications than me, simply because I was female. About 10% less in fact. The conversations around this at the time? ‘The men are expected to buy the drinks, so of course they should get paid more’. Yes, seriously. I was there at the time. I remember. Here’s another snippet of history. When I looked around for jobs after ‘A’ levels, I noticed in the ads in the local paper that the highest paid jobs were at Fords in Dagenham and I thought of applying. Like, salaries three times any other factory work (factory work existed back then). ‘Oh you can’t work there, that’s for men’, my mum said. Sadly she was almost certainly right. Although second wave feminism had already got off the ground, what we discussed was known as ‘women’s lib’. There were significant inequalities built into law and custom that have now by and large been swept away. But I was a peculiar kid, in many ways, very serious. I remember I always used to solemnly declare that I believed in ‘everyone’s lib’.
Here’s something funny, looking back. I’d read Descartes’ Discourse on the Method as a teenager, and decided that before I went to study philosophy, I should let my mind lie fallow just as he did, when he just spent all those years hanging around playing cards with soldiers. I will mention this again later. At Ilford Films, I was in charge of the enlargers in the physics research department, and when there wasn’t much work to do, I recall locking myself in the dark rooms and reading Dostoevsky. But when I was living in Brighton, in a house full of art students, I deliberately stopped reading philosophy and literature, and read only Marvel comics. Oh well.
Keele University was brilliant. In the first year, you were not allowed to take as your main subjects anything you had studied at ‘A’ level. I did philosophy and astronomy as main subjects, with short courses in electronics, political revolutionaries, and low temperature physics. And we had lectures from every department in the university, starting with the big bang, through the middle ages, up to the present day. What bliss! You were forced to mix arts, sciences, and social sciences. You were encouraged to take subjects that did not play to your strengths, in order to stretch yourself. After the foundation year, you had to take two main subjects, and two subsidiary subjects, still mixing arts and sciences. If you decided, say, to have a go at Russian or chemistry, turned out to be hopeless, and failed dismally, you could take another subsidiary subject the next year, (although it was true that you had to have passed at least one by the end of your second year). This was fantastic for encouraging an open-minded approach to education. And, in order to encourage you to broaden your horizons, although you had to pass two subsidiaries to get your degree, your subsid mark didn’t count towards your final degree classification. Not that I thought about that much in those days — I had been at Keele three years before I finally found out how degrees were classified. Remember, since I hated school so much, I’d gone there assuming that I was basically dim. But I just wanted to learn.
And here’s something else I might mention. My dad taught woodwork, metalwork, and technical drawing at the school all three of us kids also attended. His mother, Nana Min, was a teacher. He’d been brought up by her alone, after his parents divorced. She’d been the illegitimate daughter of a Victorian barmaid, brought up by some relative or other in the docks in Tiger Bay, an area so rough that when the council wanted to develop it, they renamed it the far more anodyne ‘Cardiff Bay’ (a local pub was called ‘The Bucket of Blood’). Nana Min ended up the head teacher of a girl’s grammar school in Cardiff. Dad’s elder brother was also a teacher. Dad thought women could do anything. He always told me I could do anything I wanted to do in life, that I’d succeed. My parents had both gained educations by going to night school. My mother hadn’t been allowed to take the grammar school exams, was forced to leave school at fourteen to work, and had to hand over most of her salary to her step-mother. At the age of seventeen, my mother asked if she could have a drop of tomato sauce on her dinner. Her step-mother said no. After years suffering in silence, my mother finally called her a ‘mean old cow’. As a result of this, she was thrown out of home that very day, moved to London, taught herself shorthand typing, and had the time of her life, going out dancing every night after work with friends from the nurses’ home in Chelsea where she had a room. We were all brought up with ‘get an education, get an education’ breathed into our ears from the cradle.
And here’s something else too. My sister is a professional musician. She started to learn piano when she was four, simply because our aunt moved house and didn’t have enough room for the piano anymore, so we got it. My sister sat down at it, never having seen a piano before, and started playing tunes by ear. My aunt’s piano had belonged to her father, my maternal grandfather. He and his first wife, my maternal grandmother, both used to play the piano for the silent movies at the cinema on Clifton Street in Splott. My maternal grandmother had gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music, but couldn’t afford to go. Anyway, my grandfather had been in the First World War for its entire duration, had been at the battle of the Somme, somehow surviving all this. By the 1920s, more or less everyone was out of work, the family had split up, and his sister, my Great Aunt Kitty, was unemployed, living alone in one room, looking after my grandfather’s piano for him. In those days you couldn’t get any dole money if you had anything of value to sell. The dole office, whatever it was called then, went round to visit her to check. ‘You’ve got a piano, you can sell that,’ they told her. ‘That’s not my piano, that’s my brother’s piano, he served this country in the trenches for five years, and you’re not getting it,’ she said, whereupon she picked up the hatchet she used for chopping wood for the fire and chased the hapless official down the street. They never got that piano. In the end, we got it. And that, dear readers, is how come, although my poor maternal grandmother never made it to the Royal Academy of Music, my lucky sister made it to the Royal College of Music. Sometimes you have to fight for what you have. Sometimes, the previous generations have done the fighting for you. Never forget that.
And I recall making a deliberate decision when I arrived at Keele. Since I was convinced that I was not very bright, I presumed it didn’t matter too much what my tutors thought of me, and I decided that if I didn’t understand anything, I’d simply ask. If I thought something, I’d simply say it. That way, I’d learn more. Maybe I partly got that idea from reading Descartes when I should have been at chemistry practical, who knows. So I just kept asking questions. In one tutorial, for instance, apropos of I can’t remember what, the lecturer asserted that two distinct objects could not occupy the same space at the same time. ‘Why not?’ I asked, and he gave me one of his most withering looks. (His withering looks could kill a small child, an invalid, or an elderly person at 50 paces.) But he couldn’t answer me. And I had somehow survived the withering look treatment. So I just kept on asking similar questions.
So what do you think happened? In the second year, I started studying philosophy and physics as my majors, and one day in June, as I crossed campus towards the philosophy department to get the exam results, a girl in my class came up to me shaking her fist and laughingly saying, ‘I hate you Paula Boddington’. Luckily she wasn’t being entirely serious. She was just annoyed with me because I’d come top of the year. Exam results were posted in public in those days, typed-out lists on a board. I went to check. Amazingly, she was right, and I sloped off back to my room, somewhat embarrassed. Perhaps there was a connection with not caring if my tutors thought I was saying something daft. Maybe it was a good way of learning.
I’d done pretty well in the foundation year philosophy course as well, particularly logic. Logic was graded throughout the year on effort, and only graded on achievement in the end of year exam, another brilliant piece of pedagogy. I wasn’t one of those real complete and utter logic whizz kids, but I was such a geek in general, I loved logic so much that I used to save my logic homework to do on Sundays for a treat. But often I couldn’t wait, so on Sundays I just did extra logic. Because I’d always handed in my homework and had it marked well in advance of the other students, they used to borrow my homework to see where I’d gone wrong, crib it all, and get the answers all right with ticks all over the place, unlike mine which had quite a few ticks but also some crosses. But … it was marked on effort, so because I was always prompt with my homework and did loads of extra exercises, I was the one who got really high marks for the coursework. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. And in the exam, despite having made far more mistakes than my friends throughout the year (or actually, you will realise, because of it), I did extremely well. I will spare you the insult of spelling out the lesson to be learned here.
By the way, taking logic is a superb way to overcome any doubts about your ability, because once you get it, you know for a fact that you are completely right. There’s nothing like that to boost any wavering confidence. And you can get far higher exam marks than in any other philosophy subject. Also, others tend to think that you have the keys to some magic kingdom or something, if you find logic manageable, which is kind of fun as well.
The lecturers were all men, in both philosophy and in physics. So here’s a comparison — the philosophy department realised I was good at the subject, and encouraged me. By ‘encouraged’ I mean, ‘asked me increasingly difficult questions in class’. That’s how you improve. There were plenty of ‘hard as nails’ tutors there. The final year special subject I took, Metaethics, was taught by two lecturers who basically did a ‘nice cop nasty cop’ routine. (If by any faint chance either of you are reading this, You Know Who You Are.) Tutorials could be intellectually brutal. In all this, though, it never even crossed my mind that being a woman made any difference.
But in physics, it was a completely different kettle of fish. There I experienced the kind of old-fashioned sexism that I hope no longer exists. There were two of us girls in the lab class (okay, I know some people reading this will wince at the word ‘girls’ but that’s what we all called ourselves), Lynne and me. In class, Dr L (I thought about naming this twerp but decided against it, because if he’s still alive, he’s very old, he may have many other good qualities, and it seems hardly fair) used to walk around the lab and announce to everyone, ‘let’s see how Lynne and Paula are getting on’ as if it was some kind of joke. ‘Oh, look, Lynne and Paula got an A- for their lab report last week, how did you manage that girls?’ he’d say. He’d come up behind me and tweak my blouse (which was always hanging out because I’ve got a long back and am generally untidy). I kind of knew that our marks were pretty good, but at the same time felt completely undermined. There was a special maths class for those who had not done ‘A’ level. Because of how Keele worked, where you could choose your main subjects after the foundation year, it was one of the few places where you could take physics without maths at ‘A’ level, and they put on the relevant maths classes for us — about half the year group. I was the only girl in that class. I forget the lecturer’s name. But at each stage of the proof, he would stop and say, ‘Did you understand that, Paula?’ If I did, he’d go on, if I didn’t, he’d explain more. It was like I was the lowest common denominator for the whole class, the canary in the coal mine.
You know what? It never occurred to me, at the time, that he was doing this because I was female. I thought it was because I was the worst maths student in the class — remember, this was completely different to how the philosophy department treated me, so I assumed it was because of my performance in physics. I thought that he must have got some report from my school, which confirmed that I was not very good at maths, and that was why he singled me out. It was only a few years later, when I started a lecturing post, that I realised this could not possibly be true. He simply was prejudiced me against me, the only female in the class.
But what happened was that I started sinking into despair. Not because the work was too hard. Not because we were studying Maxwell’s equations and Plank’s constant and Schrödinger and Einstein and Newton and they were all men. But because this utter creep made me feel like shit, I thought I couldn’t understand anything, even though I generally got reasonable marks, I had a feeling I couldn’t possibly really understand, and I was so naïve I assumed there was something wrong with me.
So I got very depressed, and simply stopped working at physics, for week after week. Again, as at school, I thought I’d fail, and asked if I could change subjects. Eventually I got an appointment with the senior tutor. It was the day before the physics exam. He told me that I could change subjects, but only if I passed physics, not if I failed. I went back to my room, and waited for my friend Angey to get back, then told her the situation. I waited for Angey as I knew she’d stop me panicking. She made me tea and toast while I did nine hours revision, after weeks of not working. (Angey is still my friend, by the way, and I am godmother to her eldest daughter.) And, I got a good 2i mark, with close to perfect marks in the bits I found easier, like relativity and quantum mechanics, although a lot worse in electromagnetism. But that didn’t change my complete lack of confidence. To this day, I plan to study a physics degree when I’m retired. I reckon the older I am, the more they will know, so the better value for money it’ll be.
So I changed to psychology, meaning that I had to do five years altogether, starting psych in my third year and taking an extra subsid, theology, to make up some hours. And that’s my next interesting bit of this story. Well, it’s interesting to me, you might be bored rigid by now.
But first, a small digression. I bumped into Dr L in the Sneyd Arms in Keele village one evening in my third year, a few weeks into starting psychology. He looked at me, surprised, and asked me why I was still hanging around. He actually thought I’d just dropped out of Keele altogether. I mention this as I recall, even now, his patronising tone and the feeling of shamed indignation that he could even think this. I’d come top of philosophy! And he thought I’d just piss off and drop out of uni because he tweaked the back of my blouse in lab class! DLTBGYD.
In the second year of psychology, (that is, in my fourth of five years at Keele), one of the units I chose was biological bases of psychology. For each unit, you had to do one essay and one experiment, but it was pretty impossible to do an experiment for this unit, since no one was going to give you permission to administer hormones to anyone, let alone give them a lobotomy, etc etc. Generally then, students did two essays, but two of us, Sue and I, were given the choice to help out with a research project Corinne Hutt was doing.
Corinne Hutt had a research post in the department and specialised in psychological sex differences. It was interesting times. The predominant view among political activists was to lean very heavily towards socialisation as the root cause of psychological sex differences, or to deny or diminish any measurable differences, but Dr Hutt had an open mind as to what differences existed and whether some differences might be innate or biologically based. Well, scientifically, having an open mind was the only really valid perspective really, especially given the scant nature of our knowledge of the brain, of genetics, of hormones, and the great difficulty of conducting fool-proof research on the topic. She told us that she used to get people coming up to her at conferences, shaking their fists and saying, ‘I hate you!’ all because she was doing research to try to find out what the truth is, and because she thought some differences might be biologically based. But she said to me that she did this in order to help women and girls. One possible view around was that boys had a greater mathematical ability, girls had a greater linguistic ability. (Although, it was clearly known even then, that the bell-shaped curves for all such variables showed mostly massive overlap between the sexes.) ‘If it turns out that girls are really not so good at maths as the boys, maybe if they learn maths differently, we need to find out so we can find ways of teaching them better so they can achieve more’, Dr Hutt explained to us. Makes sense actually. Not to mention, vice versa.
Now at this point, I will backtrack slightly. The first school I attended was a girls’ school. That was indeed, one factor behind our move, because my parents were very much in favour of coeducation, and mixed sex grammar schools were very rare at the time. (Comprehensives hadn’t come in just yet.) I particularly loved science and in fact, I went on to do three science ‘A’ levels. At the girls’ school, this just wasn’t any kind of issue. But at my second, mixed sex, school, girls who did science stood out. The bully boys tended to think you were weird. There were very few of us who did physics or chemistry. I think my friend Damyanti was the only other girl who also did all three science ‘A’ levels, despite the fact that, at the time, our school had the biggest sixth form in the country.
The project Sue and I worked on was looking at attitudes towards future career ambitions and to subject choice, comparing mixed and single sex schools in Stoke-on-Trent, the nearest city. The point was to see if we could find any evidence of socialised gender-related influence. These schools were all in very working-class areas. Ambitions leaned heavily towards working in the nearest pottery, with of course the occasional astronaut and footballer. We designed a survey and also interviewed some of the kids and a couple of the teachers. It turned out that this small pilot study was the first such study on the social effects of stereotyping in schools, to indicate that single sex education works better for girls, but mixed sex education works better for boys. The girls in the single sex schools had a far broader view of subject choice, and a far more ambitious set of career choices, than those in the mixed schools. It did seem as if the presence of the opposite sex cemented a stereotyped and diminished view of what life and subject choices were suitable for girls.
The work was never fully published, sadly. Corinne Hutt died of an asthma attack, in the prime of life, later that year. One small preliminary paper came out of it, but a lot of other subsequent work by others continued to explore this theme. There did indeed seem to be large social effects on how ambitious school kids are. But the boot’s on the other foot now; the group doing worst at school and at university is now that of white working class boys. Never forget this: if the effect is indeed, socially influenced, it will be complex and full of nuance and variation, but it can change. It can change extremely rapidly. It can turn around in a generation or less. And it can also be the subject of individual differences, and individual will power. Never, ever forget this.
Corinne Hutt’s attitude of open-minded inquiry and openness to the question of the existence, degree, nature, and cause of sex differences, her investigation into both biological and social factors, has always stayed with me, perhaps all the more vividly because of her early death and her loss to science.
Yes, there were times of discouragement. The head of the philosophy department at Keele told me I didn’t have a chance of getting into Oxford for postgraduate work. I just proved them wrong. But I somehow believed two things at once. After he told me that, ‘Let’s get this straight, Oxford is out of the question, because you need a first for that, and a first isn’t quite on the cards’, I just went back and checked through all my essay marks. This is another example, like logic, where the maths gives a sense of certainty. My essay marks over the years averaged well over a first. I had got 93 for my last essay. Here was my proof he was bullshitting. Nonetheless, I became so dismayed, yet again, that I recall struggling in the run up to finals, crossing campus through wind and rain (Keele is Mud Central) to see a counsellor to wail that I was going to fail my degree. ‘You won’t FAIL’, she told me. ‘Oh no, that’s right, I won’t fail,’ I realised. ‘I should be able to get at least a third.’ That cheered me up enough to keep going. As it happened, when the results were pinned to the notice board, lo and behold, being a ‘B’, there was my name at the top of the list. I’d got a first. After a long journey of discouragement, encouragment, naivety, and love of learning. The department backtracked, boasted about me, and I got into Oxford with a late application. But you know what? If I’d got a 2i, in many ways, I’d have had more career options. Going down the academic route greatly funnelled and constricted work opportunities. You Just Never Know.
I wanted here to talk mostly about my time as an undergraduate, to make it relevant to you students, but I include a bit extra to try to say something of the plurality of issues that might crop up. The year after finishing the BPhil, as I started my DPhil, I also started working part time as a lecturer in the philosophy department at Bristol University. I was the first woman ever employed in that department. The previous professor, Stephan Körner, had notoriously told colleagues that he would not have a woman working there. So, after he retired, they appointed a woman as soon as they could. I must admit I was stunned when I got the job. Doing the BPhil was extremely scary; lots of people failed, and so was a good way of spending two years beating yourself over the head with the fear that you are not good enough. But I passed quite comfortably, then getting a lecturing post was a fantastic feeling.
But then a colleague told me as soon as I arrived, ‘we gave you the job because you were a woman’. He’s a very nice, well-meaning chap, and I think he meant to indicate to me that the department was full of right-on types who were on the side of women.
They were, on the whole. I’d been told that I could teach anything I liked, ‘so long as you consider it academically respectable’. I was asked to teach feminist theory, for instance, because the students were asking for it, and the men were all too scared to teach it. So I produced a finals paper in this topic, scouring far and wide for the literature. (Nothing online in those days. Online didn’t even exist, of course.) There was one colleague who was insufferable, who called me ‘our little girlie’, and ‘silly goose’. He used to dart down the corridor ahead of me and hold the door open, so that when I said, ‘Thank you’, and walked through the door, he could berate me for being anti feminist for letting a man hold the door for me. This led to the most ludicrous farce, whereby, whenever we were both in the corridor at the same time, there’d be an unseemly race as I sprinted to beat him to hold open the door. Yep. (I usually won.) That’s what a few people were like in those days. Moronic. But then, he was horrible to most people, so I didn’t take it too personally.
And one day, he finally pushed it too far. Just before the weekly seminar with a visiting speaker was starting, he came up to me in the tiny kitchen, thrust a dirty mug at me, and said, ‘wash this up’. I said, ‘wash it up yourself, Edo’. ‘Huh!’, he replied, ‘just goes to show what a hypocrite you are. Feminists believe in equality. I would have washed your mug up for you, yet you won’t wash my mug up for me, so you don’t really believe in equality, so you’re not a proper feminist’. Needless to say, I had never seen the slightest evidence that he ever washed up a mug for any living creature, male or female. After years of this kind of crap, I snapped something along the lines of, ‘Oh piss off Edo’. At that point, he ran downstairs and into the seminar room, where the entire department, plus visiting speaker, plus people from other departments, were gathered. Edo had his nose in the Times Higher Education Supplement already, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
I lost it. I told him, ‘I just want you to know, Edo, that I am not a “silly little goose”, and I am not “your little girly”, and that it’s utterly obnoxious working in the same department as you’. Then I ran out in shame and confusion, dashed home, got into bed and cried, convinced that I had blotted my copybook with the department once and for all by losing my temper in public.
But then what happened was marvellous. After two or three hours, when the seminar was over, one by one, my colleagues telephoned me to congratulate me. One, I recall, was laughing so much he could hardly speak. Another, the chap who told me I’d got the job because I was a woman, had had to go out to a phone box to make the call, as his own phone was broken. They were all thrilled that I had finally stood up to this bully, who, as I said, was pretty awful in general. Nobody had had the guts to do this before. (Although in my case, it wasn’t guts, it was a bad temper.) So was he singling me out because I was a woman? Or was it just a convenient handle for his general dislike of the human race? Maybe a bit of both.
But after I was told, right at the start of what would become ten years at Bristol, that I’d been given the job because I was female, I was completely devastated. It took me years, maybe decades, to forget his words. Don’t for a minute think that this means that I suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ though; if anything, the batterings of the passing years have not so much rounded off my corners as sharpened me into a position of wilful arrogance — I think I am undervalued and that I should have been a professor years ago. Still, too late now. I have always been passionately against positive discrimination. It means that anyone in the protected group will have no idea if they merit their achievements. Any women philosophers added to reading lists because they are women will suffer from this too. And I know, to my cost, what that feels like.
I could literally write a book about the difficulties and obstacles in an academic career. In fact, one day I may do so. I realise that these are going to be different for different people, and that these difficulties will include both what others do, what you yourself do, and how you interpret what is happening. I do think that there are many ways, much of them subtle, in which being female created obstacles; and many of obstacles are handed out indiscriminately, or in ways in which might affect women disproportionately, while not explicitly targeting them, and in which others are also included. People who are shorter, and not so good looking, don’t have a great time career wise on the whole either, remember. The Difficult Chap in the Bristol philosophy department reserved particular venom for me because he ‘accused’ me of being a ‘feminist’; not that I would deny this, but he was simply reading things onto me, and labelling me a ‘feminist’ because I’d been asked to teach feminist theory … by a man … who asked me because all the men in the department were too frightened to do so. But of all the many and various challenges I encountered, I honestly don’t ever think that, for me, the fact that most of the philosophers I read were men, or even, that most of those who taught me were men, was one of those challenges.
And that is probably to do with how I approached reading philosophy. Or maybe, how I approached reading anything. It’s quite possible that I am peculiar in this, I don’t know. I recall being stunned when hearing from some Eng. Lit. friends their views about ‘identifying’ with characters in fiction. Or possibly I heard this in a lecture, I’m not sure. (I started a subsid in English, but dropped it after a fortnight, when one of the lecturers said that the point of literature was to ‘portray the misery of human existence’. I’d already read all the books anyway, so I swapped to computer science.) The point was about the difficulty of ‘identifying’ with characters if they were male. Well knock me down with a feather. It had never even crossed my mind. I had murdered the money lender with Raskolnikov, (from time to time, I still have nightmares that I’ve killed someone and forgotten about it), I had travelled around with Holden Caulfield, I had schemed with Julien Sorel, I had sat on the balcony with Meursault eating eggs and looking into the street. Wasn’t I meant to? It’s true, I had not identified with some, such as David Copperfield, but this simply meant that either I thought they were utter wimps, or else I just didn’t like the book much. I thought, if a character is well written, one sees the world through their eyes. Isn’t that the point of literature? Was I meant to find this harder, if the characters were not women? Of course I could identify with Jo Marsh. But Amy? Euch. I liked Beth though, although my sister hated her. George from the Famous Five? Of course. But Anne? For goodness sake, no! Elizabeth Bennet? Of course. Lydia — get lost! Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Well kind of. But what were her parents thinking of in the first place? Likewise, I couldn’t remember ever consciously considering if the author was male or female. I would just open a book and fall into it.
And what is the point of philosophy if not to think of the world through the thoughts of another? In reading philosophy, I adopted the attitude of firstly reading the text with as much sympathy for the author’s view as possible, trying to get inside the author’s head. Maybe I’d first started out on this track when I had borrowed Descartes from Wanstead public library when I was fifteen, and taken him so literally. It’s much easier to criticize philosophy negatively than positively, to say what is right about it. And criticising philosophy negatively can often be little other than ill-informed nit-picking, rather than anything that really gets to grips with what is going on. So if asked, I generally tell students that first, read just trying to get inside the author’s head. Then read it again, only this time more critically. Then read it again, if need be. Then again.
In such an approach, I felt completely comfortable in reading philosophers regardless of who they were as people; regardless that most of them were men; because it involves a stretch into their minds, into their worlds. They are all so peculiar, anyway, in the main, and so different from each other, to a man, or the occasional woman, that the mere fact that their sex usually differed from mine never even occurred to me, and once it had been noted, it seemed mostly neither here nor there. (Indeed, come to think of it, qua men, historically at least, most philosophers are … well … bloody hopeless with women. `nuf said.) Their writings are offerings from out of radically different other minds, whispering to us through history, continuing into the present. Reading philosophy is an act not just of intellectual endeavour, but of humanity, even for those, especially for those, whose own humanity seems to be made of the most crooked of crooked timbers. Just draw up a chair by the fireside, put a pot of tea to keep warm by the hearth, imagine that Descartes is no longer alone in his stove-heated room, but that you are there with him, and try to listen and understand.
Life is full of choices. Fate, or God or whatever, also has a sense of humour. Want to hear something ironic? Not long ago, I was shortlisted for a lecturing post that involved teaching feminist philosophy, as well as ethics. But the interview date clashed with my son’s graduation, and of course I’d already promised him I would go. The interview panel could not meet at any other time. ‘It’s your choice’, I was told. It’s not a ‘choice’, I explained. I have a pre-existing commitment to my son. This is not a ‘choice’. (These people wanted someone to teach ethics, they don’t know what a commitment is, and suddenly everything is ‘choice’???) This was a job teaching feminism, and I literally had to decide, career or family. I chose my son, of course. He’ll be bringing me bowls of soup when I have no teeth left. My colleagues won’t be.
I wasn’t very well for much of the time that I was at Keele. I had a very bad reaction to my BCG (anti-TB) vaccination, and in my penultimate year, I ended up having to take TB medication for ten months, which is a gruelling treatment with appalling side effects. I had to traipse off to a particular chemist in Newcastle-Under-Lyme who got my meds in for me, as TB was so rare, and he looked at me with gut-wrenching pity every time I went to fill a new script. My pee turned scarlet, I was so exhausted I slept about twelve hours a night, I had to keep a towel by the side of my bed to wipe myself down from night sweats, and I had terrible difficulty in keeping any food down, so much so that my BMI went down to about 17. The doctors were very cagey about whether I actually had TB, but a recent CT scan did in fact show up TB scarring on my lungs. Yet, to date, not one composer has written an opera about me. (That is a joke.)
I say this to you dear students, not to brag about what I achieved despite this, nor to feel sorry for myself, but to encourage you. There are lots of barriers in the way, lots of unfairness in who gets encouraged and discouraged, and lots of ways in which one can discourage oneself without good reason. Some people have obstacles that no one else can see, that even they can’t see. Some people have barriers that turn out to be great opportunities. Some people have barriers that turn out to be barriers. In my experience, life is not a sprint, nor even a marathon. It is a blindfold egg and spoon race around an obstacle course, albeit one where from time to time, you can take a break for tea and sandwiches, only to start again, even if you’ve dropped and smashed your egg, sometimes where you left off, sometimes back a bit, sometimes skipping a part of the course. Remember, ‘The second mouse gets the cheese’. The thing is, simply to continue the course, although the other trick is to work out when to take a breather.
Be like Great Aunt Kitty. Run down the street with a hatchet. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
And, as Wittgenstein once said, ‘In philosophy, the winner of the race is the one who can run most slowly. Or: the one who gets there last’.