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 like physics, maths or computer sciences when it comes to the representation of women, which some people find surprising. 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. 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 caring about social niceties. There are all these behavioural and physiological markers of ‘genius’. We think that people who exhibit those character traits as ‘proper philosophers’ because they’re showing all the stereotypes. Whereas women quite often don’t show any of those character traits."
Prof Helen Beebee

Prof Helen Beebee

Helen is Samuel Hall Professor of Philosophy, President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science, President Elect of the Aristotelian Society, and co-chair (with Jenny Saul) of the BPA/Society for Women in Philosophy (UK) Committee for Women in Philosophy.

View academic profile

“One thing that’s important is that we try and bust that myth. To stress to students that this is about hard work, dedication and application, and not raw, innate ‘talent’. 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 say 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 are often attributed to a man who came after her and said it's 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 female logicians like Ruth Barcan Marcus and 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. We asked her what politics has done to improve the lives of women.
 
She explains: 
 
“It’s not what politics as a field of study and research has done to advance or help the lives of women but, more, 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. That’s because politics at a broad level, women and women’s lives are still understood as ‘low politics’.  What happens in women’s lives, their experiences, their every day, aren’t generally the stuff that matters for ‘high politics’. 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 relegated to the private.
 
“So, politics generally hasn’t done a fantastic job of improving women’s lives. It could be 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. We can see women’s lives have been radically improved in the West by feminist politics – academic and activist alike. 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. Such as Angela Merkel, Theresa May, any number of female leaders of the state.
female students in discussion

Female students today are able to benefit from the actions of feminists in the past.

“I know in conversation with my female students that they have never been told they couldn’t do something that men could do. Whereas my generation heard that phrase 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 have done that hard work.
 
“We see how feminism has started to inform practices at a global level, having 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 see feminist work trying to draw attention to women in other parts of the world. That takes seriously how women might experience different burdens than men. Feminism has done a lot of that work, not politics.

“Feminism has made me feel like I can do and be anything.”

“If I reflect on how feminism has improved my life, it 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 my life have been radically improved. Even if it’s just imagining a world that is different than the one we currently live in. A world where gender isn’t a central organising category that defines 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.