Monday, August 6, 2012

Report from the Field: Women at the 2012 Summer Institute on American Philosophy

From July 15 to 22, I attended the Summer Institute on American Philosophy an annual program of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, in Eugene, OR. My paper, ”Reading Dewey Reading Addams as Philosopher” (concerning John Dewey, the late nineteenth–early twentieth-century philosophy professor, and Jane Addams, the famed co-founder of the pioneering community center called "Hull House"), was scheduled in a session titled “Feminist Pragmatism.” I pointed out (with specialized input from Charlene Seigfried of Purdue University in the audience and Marilyn Fischer of the University of Dayton as the chair) how in his invited preface to a reprint of Addams’ book on her pacifist activities in World War I, Peace and Bread in Time of War, Dewey shows how Addams’ pacifism differed from that of her colleagues by being at bottom philosophical and suggested that this was a way to get pacifist skeptics to reconsider her argument in the book for giving up traditional political ways to organize international government and replace them with democratic methods inspired by the immigrants’ organizations at Hull House.

My fellow presenter in the session, Katherine Logan of the University of Oregon, gave a learned, relevant paper around the topic of so-called work/life balance in the serious, little-studied work of legal scholar Joan Williams. This presentation led to a very suggestive discussion about how second wave–type feminism is now marginalized in the academy despite the fact that its goals have only been partially achieved. The session was the only session of eight on women philosophers; however, one of the three sessions featuring dissertations-in-progress, which is a regular feature of SIAP, included “The Contested Environmental Voice: Pragmatism and Feminism,” by Tess Varner of the University of Georgia. One of the three sessions featuring books in progress, also a regular SIAP feature, showcased a textbook, to be titled American Philosophy: A Tradition of Resistance, on American philosophy since the 1890s by Erin McKenna and Scott Pratt. The text includes numerous women, familiar and unfamiliar, in every chapter, including Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, Martha Nussbaum, Angela Davis, and Gloria Anzaldua. More importantly, one of the three plenary sessions involved a woman philosopher: “Rereading Dewey through Addams,” with Marilyn Fischer of University of Dayton and Amrita Banerjee of Oregon State University. Fischer’s scholarly yet daring paper suggested among other things that in some respects Dewey’s work was conservative, a claim that inspired energetic discussion.

Most importantly of all from the point of view of feminism, a woman philosopher by herself was the topic of the two-part keynote by Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Purdue University. Prof Seigfried, a distinguished William James scholar who opened the discipline of American philosophy to feminist scholarship in 1991 by asking the question, “Where are all the Feminist Pragmatists?”, and by showing a way to answer it in 1996 with her book Feminism and Pragmatism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Seigfried’s two-part address—“Claiming Authority: Jane Addams Constructs a Social Self,” on the autobiographical opening chapters of Twenty Years at Hull House, and “The Social Self in Addams’ Prefaces and Introductions,” on Addams’ other nine authored or co-authored books—was drawn from chapters of her book in progress. Clearly, Jane Addams received a gratifying amount of attention at the event; however, there was a general lack of attention to other women philosophers.

A plenary seminar on Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke,“Critical Pragmatism and Insurrectionist Ethics,” did mention a few women, including Maria Stewart and Lydia Maria Child, as insurrectionists. Another book-in-progress session, by Professor Doug Anderson of Southern Illinois University, was about Common Sense Saints: Fuller, Marley, Anzaldua, and Thoreau, a book that includes Margaret Fuller and Gloria AnzaldĂșa as titular subjects on a level with Marley and Thoreau. Unfortunately, my own paper was scheduled at the same time so I was unable to attend. Although women presenters were unusually well represented in the most dignified places, more female voices would have been welcome in the sessions. There may be a connection between the lack of visibility of women philosophers (other than Addams) and the comparative lack of women who submit proposals. Male outnumbered female attendees twice over. Although not explicitly about women philosophers, next year’s plenary sessions, “Feminist Interpretations of William James” by Shannon Sullivan and “Indigenous Philosophy,” may inspire more proposals about feminist philosophy and (indigenous) women philosophers respectively. Altogether, SIAP 2012 was an inspiring, educational, and enjoyable intellectual experience.

—Carol Bensick

Carol Bensick is a CSW Research Scholar. Her current research project, titled “The Rise and Stall of Feminist Women's History of Philosophy: Help from the Archives of Julia Ward Howe,” concerns a female philosopher. Detailed primary and secondary texts pertaining to Julia Ward Howe prove that the work of women who read, taught, discussed, and even published on great texts of philosophy with elite university faculty could vanish with their deaths not because their philosophy itself had been discredited or refuted but for no other apparent reason than that their gender caused discomfort, displeasure, or disapproval in their contemporaries—including their own children. This project will document Howe's work and legacy.

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