Women of SoSS
This year, The University of Manchester is celebrating 100 years since some women got the vote. We spoke to some of our female academics in the School of Social Sciences about women in their subjects and how women’s lives could be improved.
Helen Beebee is Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy. One of her research interests is in women in philosophy. She explains:
“Philosophy’s a very male-dominated discipline. It’s similar to things like physics and maths and computer sciences when it comes to the representation of women, which some people find surprising. I think, in a way, it’s not very surprising. In particular, if you ask people to think about a philosopher, what they’ll think of is a man. I think a big part of that is a sort of ‘genius myth’. People think of philosophers as ‘geniuses’, like Rodin’s Thinker. You have to be very intense, you have to be very focused, not really caring about social niceties. There are all these behavioural and physiological markers of ‘genius’. We think about people who exhibit those character traits as the ‘proper philosophers’ because they’re showing all of the stereotypes, whereas women quite often don’t demonstrate any of those character traits."
“I think one thing that’s really important is that we try and bust that myth, trying to stress with our students that really this is all about hard work and dedication and application, and not to do with raw, innate ‘talent’. I think that’s one place that we can start.”
In the Philosophy corridor at the University, Helen has hung a striking image of a female logician, Ruth Barcan Marcus. Helen’s colleague, Dr Frederique Janssen-Lauret, is a Tenure-Track Research Fellow in Philosophy, with an interest in logic.
Frederique shares Helen’s frustration that there are fewer visible female role models for young philosophers:
“Ruth Barcan Marcus is a pioneer of mathematical logic. She was the first to publish a modal logic – a logic of ‘might’ and ‘must’ combined with talk of objects; her famous Barcan Formula was first published in 1947. Before she came along, male logicians tended to tell us that that wasn’t possible, that you couldn’t have a system that combined talk of objects with talk of ‘might’ and ‘must’. She proved them all wrong.
“Sadly, Ruth Barcan Marcus’s ideas, these days, are often attributed to a man who came after her and said that this is all about these things called ‘possible worlds’. She came up with the system and it’s attributed to the man who came up with other applications for it. This is a common phenomenon in philosophy. It’s one of the things that we hope to remedy by having pictures up of female philosophers. I’ve found that my female students are particularly energised by hearing about these female logicians like Ruth Barcan Marcus and hearing about their ideas - not just hearing that they existed, but hearing what their ideas were, what their contribution was.”
Dr Cristina Masters is a Lecturer in International Politics. With the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act celebrated this year, we asked her what politics has done to improve the lives of women.
“It’s not so much what politics as a field of study and research has done to advance or help the lives of women but, more specifically, feminist research and feminist study. I would argue that politics, generally, hasn’t done quite as much work as we would expect in improving women’s lives. I think that’s probably because, in terms of politics at a broad level, women and women’s lives are still continuously understood as ‘low politics’. What happens in women’s lives, their experiences, their everyday, aren’t generally understood as the stuff that matters for ‘high politics’. And so politics has maintained this separation between high and low politics, this sense that there are things that are public and things that are private, and women’s lives are generally relegated to the private.
“So I think politics generally hasn’t done a fantastic job of improving women’s lives. It could be held responsible and accountable for not improving women’s lives as much as we would imagine. Whereas feminists within politics have done a lot of work to improve women’s lives. Here, it’s important to make a distinction on where women’s lives have been improved. I think we can see women’s lives have been radically improved in the West by feminist politics – academic and activist alike. We can see, for instance, how women now make up close to half of the workforce, even though we still don’t get paid as much as men. Women are increasingly seen in public spaces in very prominent positions of power – Angela Merkel, Theresa May, any number of female leaders of state.
“I know in conversation with my female students that they have never been told at any point in their lives that they couldn’t do something that men could do. Whereas that was a phrase that my generation heard over and over again – ‘women can’t do what men can do, women’s place is in a particular space’. Things have changed. Feminist scholarship and feminist activism has done that hard work.
“I think we can see, as well, the ways in which feminism has started to inform practices at a global level that have had some strong impacts on women in less developed countries. In African countries we see the Women, Peace and Security agenda starting to inform a lot of that politics, informing a need to address gender as an important site of enquiry into who gets what, when, how and where. We can see a lot of feminist work trying to draw attention to women in other parts of the world and also trying to take seriously how women might experience different burdens than men. Feminism has done a lot of that work, not politics necessarily.
“Feminism has made me feel like I can do and be anything.”
“If I reflect on how feminism has improved my life, feminism has made me feel like I can do and be anything, that there isn’t a space that I don’t belong in. Feminism has also given me a voice and given me a language to be able to describe what is going on in the world. It was feminism that gave me a way to articulate the sense that I had of things not being quite right. As a feminist who does politics, I can see the ways in which my life has been radically improved, even if it’s just in terms of imagining a world that is different than the world that we currently live in. A world where gender isn’t a central organising category that defines so much of our existence, just because men have penises and women have vaginas. That might be oversimplifying things but I think it captures it nicely, in a nutshell.”
Join the conversation! The University of Manchester is celebrating women’s achievements using the hashtag #UOMwomen.