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Political theory concentration’s male-dominated culture stifles female voices

May 5, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

My advice ought to reflect this world as it really is, not a utopian ideal of what it could or should be. I am drawing the parameters of “this world” to encompass Hubbard Hall, the sixth floor of the stacks, the Moulton Light Room and the occasional class in Sills Hall, Adams Hall or on the 16th floor of Coles Tower. This is the terrain into which the world collapses a few semesters into your time as a political theory major. This is a male-dominated world. I wish I had a more girl-powered sentence to offer here. But this is not an advertising campaign for the political theory department, and it would be wrong to lie to you in the very first paragraph of something that I hope will serve you well.

So we’ll begin with the truth. There are no female political theory majors in the Class of 2017. This makes me angry in the kind of elementary school way that rears up in the face of horrid unfairness, but how can I excuse myself? I want a role model. I am very close with two senior political theory men this year; they are the people I spend the most time with. Being friends with them has made me more thoughtful about both the work I do and the feelings I have. They are good, kind men. They do me proud. However, the political theory department qua community has denied me a rich network of intellectually inspiring women. Let me be clear: I should not be lumped in with the other women in this department solely by virtue of our shared gender. This fact does not preclude the other and equally necessary truth that role models are essential.

These aforementioned male friends of mine were themselves pulled into the department by the allure of being the ‘Man Who Does Political Theory.’ These inspirations were four or five grades above me—big names which I refuse to spell out. They projected the image that seduces every semi-intelligent guy who misread Palahniuk in high school. They began to think that they, too, might say to hell with society. Never mind that society has been structured with all of their white male interests in mind. Why is this kind of man drawn to political theory? It should surprise none of you that I have several Theories Of: the theory of personal assertion, the theory of Kerouac’s Pernicious Influence, the theory of the allure of the objective truth. It is probably some combination thereof. These Big Names and those who proceed them tend to be men who resent, or at the very least, do not anticipate female intellectual superiority. They certainly love to explain Kant to me, as though I’ve never cracked a book. An individual woman is interesting insofar as she can make this man more self-fulfilled, ease his pain or prop up his self-image.

I have empirical data. I am also a math major, and I am at heart a visualizer of data, which is knowledge-of-self so devastatingly boring that it can only be true. I kept careful records of the discussions in Politics and Culture last fall. Men were far more likely to make grand sweeping statements than to ask questions. The questions they did ask never admitted a lack of understanding; they were always “opening this up to the group.” Women, 30 percent of the class, spoke roughly 15 percent of the time. When to be silent or silenced is the default state, a woman no longer speaks as an individual but as a representative of women. Incidentally, the only time women and men split speaking time equally was during discussion of Hannah Arendt, the one woman on the syllabi of the seven political theory courses I’ve taken.

Gary M. Pendy Professor of Social Sciences Jean Yarbrough has pointed out that female friendship is never discussed in the canon of Western political philosophy. Friendship and love between two men, certainly. But friendship between two women has been seen as unfit for philosophical treatment. This last statement rings false to every woman who has ever had a friend. Setting aside, finally, the men in my life: I am sustained by my female friendships. I believe this is to be a relatively universal experience, even among men, who often use their friendships with women as their only venue for emotional support, validation and advice. It is unsurprising that Bowdoin’s political theory department has specifically failed to encourage women’s entrance and women’s networks. It would be hypocritical to do so while teaching Aristotle.

Why does the culture of your major department matter this deeply? Discussions of philosophy as a way of life I’ll leave to Professors Franco and Yarbrough. Instead, I’d prefer to focus on another, more pointed truth: you’re not doing political theory correctly if you’re not allowing it to infuse the way you think, the way you have relationships and the way you sort out the whole shifting mess of your tenuous connection with reality. Not simply that—although, very much that—but you are not learning political theory if you’re not, for example, arguing late at night with your friend who seems more concerningly Rawlsian every time you look at him. Politics is a public act, and philosophy is a private one, so perhaps it makes sense that the learning of political philosophy is best carried out in semi-private sociality.

Helen Ross is a member of the Class of 2018.

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