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
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.
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“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.
“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.