This piece was originally featured on Research Matters.
Philosophy takes the most fundamental and universal problems of humanity seriously. Yet as a discipline, it continues to face a fundamental problem: As of 2016, only 30 percent of undergraduate students, 30 percent of graduate students, and nearly 21 percent of professors in philosophy are women. Those numbers are even lower for women of color and queer and trans women. Many women who pursue advanced study in philosophy speak of a less-than-receptive environment and of informal barriers that keep them from fully flourishing in the discipline.
In 2001, students at The New School for Social Research organized People in Support of Women in Philosophy (PSWIP), the local branch of a broad network of loosely affiliated groups called Women in Philosophy, which support and foster philosophical scholarship by women and bring attention to some of the most difficult barriers faced by women in a male-dominated field.
Among the most successful and enduring student-organized groups at NSSR, PSWIP has evolved since its founding 18 years ago. What began as a supportive place to share and discuss feminist philosophy has expanded to focus on supporting women in the department with varying research interests. Juniper Alcorn, a recent philosophy doctoral graduate and longtime PSWIP member, recalls the shift: “First it was workshopping papers, but eventually it was also about advancing the work of women in the department as well as creating opportunities for them to make connections and other professional development initiatives.”
This year’s PSWIP facilitators, MA Philosophy students Katie Gruszecki and Tara Mastrelli, have carried forward that tradition. Describing PSWIP as a “research and publications support group,” they identify the group’s main focus as its weekly meetings, in which members workshop research in a variety of forms, from papers and abstracts to oral presentations and exams. During a recent session, Gruszecki presented a paper on Hegel and bodily harm. “I show the difficulty in accepting Hegel’s argument for denying one the right to die with dignity,” she summarizes. “I argue for the right to die with dignity due to the necessity to abstain from violence involved in staying alive under certain conditions.”
Discussion facilitation during PSWIP meetings reflects the group’s mission and members’ concerns about the climate in the field. Once limited to women in the department, PSWIP is now open to philosophers of all genders. Male allies are regular contributors, and group discussions run on the “progressive stack” technique: Moderators make a list of those who would like to speak, giving women and gender minorities priority.
While philosophical discussions can often take on an antagonistic tone, PSWIP cultivates an atmosphere that is more constructive. “Here people who’d feel reluctant to speak in class can have a more inviting space in which to share their ideas,” Gruszecki says. Members provide this space by placing greater emphasis on offering a charitable interpretation of others’ work and by being aware of unhelpful interpersonal dynamics. “This means that we try to give the most generous interpretation of other people’s positions, as well as providing each other the benefit of the doubt,” Mastrelli adds.
“I always think of PSWIP as a platform to not only have these discussions about the state of the field that makes it necessary for this kind of group to exist but to also create a platform for people to succeed in philosophy,” says Alcorn. Informal peer mentorship networks have formed through PSWIP outside of the classroom, and the group has supported initiatives including a dissertation support group and alumni network.
One of PSWIP’s major initiatives this academic year is the relaunch of the group's annual journal, which has been on hiatus since 2014. The journal showcases papers that have been workshopped in PSWIP throughout the year, providing readers with a view of the type of rigorous work that can be created and celebrated through a supportive scholarly environment. It also provides members with an opportunity to gain editorial experience and have their work published. Past journal editors have gone on to hold faculty positions and attend doctoral programs at Stony Brook University, the University of Texas at Austin, Emory University, and other institutions. And through a new agreement with the Philosophy Documentation Center, the journal will now reach readers beyond NSSR.
While all of these efforts serve to lift up marginalized voices, PSWIP is also working to change gender, sexual, and racial dynamics in the field. The group is challenging NSSR’s Philosophy Department to explicitly address some of the most pressing issues concerning marginalizing gender dynamics in the discipline: implicit bias, stereotype threat, and a general sense that women, queer, and trans students’ contributions are less valued. “We want to support philosophy students, graduate or undergraduate, who face oppression on the basis of their gender,” says Gruszecki. In line with that commitment, PSWIP chose as a speaker for this year’s colloquium the writer and critic Andrea Long Chu, who discussed her forthcoming book, Females: A Concern (Verso, 2019), on March 14, 2019.
In previous years, PSWIP members conducted student surveys that showed considerable differences between the classroom experiences of men and those of people of other genders. These differences reflected a sense that men tend to dominate not just readings but also in-class discussions and informal departmental social dynamics. The survey led to many conversations and calls for greater attention to this issue in class management, event planning, and even hiring and admissions practices on the part of administration and faculty.
The current PSWIP leadership looks to build on this legacy. “This year, we’ve launched a gender dynamics share space, which is a Google Form that people can use to anonymously collect testimony to discuss internally or bring up at the yearly departmental town hall,” Mastrelli explains. “Perhaps this is something that doesn’t require action now but will allow students to feel heard today and perhaps someone to feel they are not alone tomorrow.” By building this database of shared experiences, current members seek to support their fellow students now as well as build a stronger foundation and brighter future for future philosophy scholars.