Philosophy takes the most fundamental and universal problems of humanity quite seriously. Yet, as a discipline, it continues to face its own 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 do pursue advanced study in philosophy speak of a serious climate problem, 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), a local branch of a widespread network of loosely affiliated Women in Philosophy groups that support and foster scholarship by women in philosophy, and bring attention to some of the most difficult barriers women in a field dominated by men.
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. Recent Philosophy doctoral graduate and longtime PSWIP member Juniper Alcorn 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, Philosophy MA students Katie Gruszecki and Tara Mastrelli, have continued that tradition. Describing PSWIP as a “research and publications support group,” the group’s main focus is its weekly meetings in which members workshop a variety of research, 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 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; as moderators make a list of who would like to speak, women and gender minorities are given priority.
While typical philosophical discussions can often take on a rather antagonistic tone, PSWIP cultivates an atmosphere that is more constructive. “Here, people who’d feel reticent to speak in class can have a more inviting space in which to share their ideas,” Gruszecki says. Members accomplish this by placing greater emphasis on providing 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 networks of peer mentorship have formed through PSWIP outside 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 their annual journal, which had been on hiatus since 2014. The journal showcases papers that have been workshopped in PSWIP throughout the year, providing readers with a view into 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, University of Texas at Austin, and Emory University, among others. And through a new agreement with the Philosophy Documentation Center, the journal will now also reach readers beyond NSSR.
While all of these efforts serve to lift up marginalized voices, PSWIP is also working to change ongoing 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 within 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. Reflecting that commitment, this year’s PSWIP Colloquium speaker is writer and critic Andrea Long Chu, who will discuss 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 people of other genders. These differences reflected a sense that men tend to dominate not just readings, but also in-class discussions as well as more informal departmental social dynamics. This survey led to many important conversations, calls for more attentive practices on the part of administration and faculty around class management, event planning, and even hiring and admissions practices.
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 of today as well as build a stronger foundation and brighter future for future Philosophy scholars.