Letting The Feminists Know What Time It Is

A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote:

My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.

I want to add a little more detail to this story–as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.

That evening, during our first class meeting, there were some twenty students in class. Most were men, a few were women. One male professor from Israel was sitting in on the class. After Virginia handed out the syllabus, the questioning began. It was unrelentingly querulous and hostile, outraged by the outlier syllabus we had just been handed. No Hobbes? The horror! So many feminists? Why? I was taken aback by the edgy conversation, the in-your-face style the male graduate students adopted in confrontation with Virginia. The visiting academic, for his part, did his bit, by adding his two skeptical, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sneering cents: Surely, this material was more suited for a feminist philosophy class?

As I noted above, Virginia handled these responses with grace and tact and intellectual aplomb. (For instance, she had paired John Locke and Carole Pateman for good reason.) My respect for her grew. And I, so used to being marginalized in conversational spaces, someone who had read Native Son only a year before, when I read Marx and feminism a little later in the semester, came to realize where I could find solidarity.

But I digress.

News of this new ‘radical’ syllabus was not slow in spreading; I heard many graduate students express the verbal equivalent of the modern SMH: fucking feminists, they’re really out of control; imagine, putting all these out-there readings on the reading list of a ‘Core’ class!

A semester later, Virginia was teaching a class that I had not registered for, but in which some of my friends were enrolled.  All too soon, news of a delightful incident spread. A male graduate student–a good friend of mine, indeed, perhaps, my best friend in graduate school–had given Virginia her comeuppance. Apparently, she had assigned one of her papers as reading. During class discussion, while discussing its claims about the displacement of emotion or empathy in moral reasoning, my friend–without having done the reading and not knowing who the author was–had jumped into the fray and described her paper as ‘an ignorant parody of Western philosophy.’ Snickering in class; backslapping and applause later.

A few days later, while drinking beers with my friend in his apartment, I asked him if he knew he had become such an anti-feminist icon, the brave defender of the right of all to study philosophy in peace, without the ignorant provocations of feminist philosophers constantly badgering them.  To his eternal credit, my friend was in turns alarmed and then shame-faced; he did not desire such a status; he had fancied himself an enlightened progressive. (He was, and is.) But that verbal style, that cut-and-thrust, that parry, that jab and hook, perhaps they were all just a little too deeply ingrained. We talked a bit more, a little deeper into the night, before turning in. A semester or so later, when female graduate students in our department began to revitalize student government, bringing some of their concerns to the fore, he was deeply involved with their work.

That story had a ‘happy’ ending.  But elsewhere, I don’t think so.

Virginia Held on ‘An Ethics of Care’

Yesterday Professor Virginia Held delivered the annual Sprague and Taylor Lecture at the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College.

On a personal note, it gave me great pleasure to welcome Professor Held to Brooklyn College. My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. On her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors. During that semester, I had my intellectual horizons considerably expanded; after I had written my term paper on Marx and Feuerbach’s views on religion, Professor Held wrote a recommendation letter for me that secured my admission to the doctoral program. Thus was my professional career in philosophy launched. Twenty years on, now a professor at Brooklyn College, I was delighted to welcome the scholar that kicked it all off for me.

Virginia’s lecture was titled “Why Care”; it attempted to highlight the significance of developing frameworks for moral decision-making based on an ethics of care. The abstract for her recently released The Ethics of Care (Oxford University Press, 2005) notes:

Where…moral theories as Kantian morality and utilitarianism demand impartiality above all, the ethics of care understands the moral import of ties to families and groups. It evaluates such ties, differing from virtue ethics by focusing on caring relations rather than the virtues of individuals. [Held] proposes how values such as justice, equality, and individual rights can “fit together” with values such as care, trust, mutual consideration, and solidarity….[Held] shows how the ethics of care is more promising than other moral theories for advice on how limited or expansive markets should be, showing how values other than market ones should have priority in such activities as childcare, health care, education, and in cultural activities. Finally, [Held] connects the ethics of care with the rising interest in civil society, and with limits on what law and rights are thought able to accomplish.

In her talk, Virginia drew out some of the implications of such an ethics: for instance, the value it would ascribe to the maintenance of many significant personal relationships (such as mothering, which currently is paid a great deal of lip service by our politicians but is devalued by their actions and legislation) or more abstractly, the reconfiguration it might cause in our current notions of personhood, which consider persons to be highly individualistic, unitary, autonomous, rational entities, but which an ethics of care might understand as more relational objects.

This last part is of great intellectual interest to me; I intend to write on it in this space. Soon enough.