My Journey as a Woman in Philosophy

“You don’t look like a philosopher”

I do not know why I started writing this story in English. As you may not know, I grew up near the Mediterranean sea in France and I mainly studied in Paris. Yet, for a large part of my philosophical education, I read and wrote in English and many of my peers do not speak French. Perhaps it is emotionally easier to tell a story in another language. Or perhaps I hope some of the characters of the story I am going to tell will be less likely to read this text if it is in English. I don’t know.

I write this just before the turn of my professional life. I do not know what I will turn to, though. Right in the middle of a pandemic, it is unlikely that I will land an academic job. I will try just a little bit more before giving up.

My journey in philosophy began a few years back during my master degree in the UK as part of the Erasmus program. It’s there, in the friendly atmosphere of the department and chatting with other PhD students, that I thought of doing a PhD too. I can be a quiet person and I really liked the perspective to be paid for reading and writing philosophy, maybe teaching it too. I still do. I was also eager to become financially independent and earn my pay. In retrospect, joining academia for money was not super smart.

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Me at my first and only graduation ceremony (they don’t exist in France).

“Shut up you bitch! You know nothing.”

I remember moving back a few steps, shocked. My friend James intervened to take me out of harms way and asked me if I was alright. I just had my first encounter with a long series of sexist events in philosophy. This scene took place during a philosophy public event called the Night of Philosophy which was held in London that year. After a roundtable, I had gone to one of the speaker in the hallway to ask a bit more about what he meant on stage. I was not agreeing with his reading of some philosophical work. The man shouted with such an aggressive voice it got my friends alarmed and they rushed to help me. I remember I was shaking. Since then, I learned that public philosophy, on top of being a man’s world, can be quite violent. I soon forgot about this event and continued my studies with great success.

“Aren’t you too young to do a PhD, mademoiselle ? Focus on your master thesis, first.”

I finished my master in France, with almost perfect grades and I was super motivated to continue. I got offered two PhD fellowships, one in the UK and one in Paris, out of two applications. I say this because it took me a long time to realise how badass it was. Still, at that time I was pretty confident in my abilities. Before I got the news, I remember bringing my application to the administrative office in Paris. The guy there started to make a series of jokes about how young I looked for thinking of doing a PhD, that I should care about other things, like having fun or writing my master thesis and getting good grades. I remember being very annoyed by his comments, especially because I knew I was doing great with my assignments already. I was pissed to be underestimated because of how I looked. Yet, I knew the PhD positions in Paris were extremely competitive, with power plots involving professors at the Sorbonne behind the scenes, I was unsure what to expect. I remember the first interview in front of a full room of male professors. I didn’t do so well, but I aced the second interview in front of a larger crowd.

Three more interviews for the PhD fellowships later, when I got to choose between Paris and the UK, the same guy behind his desk told me it was not possible to do a joint PhD. I still wonder about this: surely it was possible. I was confident, but also naive in trusting anything from the administrative desk. Or was I confident because I was naive?

PhD positions in France, on top of being extremely competitive and prestigious, also come with unemployment benefits at the end of the contract. Life in France is also very sweet, so I choose Paris.

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Funny Faces (1957) — Jo, a woman with a passion for philosophy, gets to finally visit Paris.

“Maybe you will travel during your PhD, meet your futur husband, do something else, who knows. It’s even okay to move to Antarctica, I don’t really mind. It’s an adventure.”

This comment was made by one of my supervisors. I didn’t like this comment, I already had a boyfriend and I was not doing a PhD to find a husband. I was confused. It was just chit chat, but for me, it stayed.

I was not awarded a teaching assistantship even though I ranked first (I was told later), it was a bit disappointing, but I never questioned it and I tried to apply for one each year, unsuccessfully. Since I really wanted to succeed, I decided to look for adjunct positions in order to finally teach. I was very excited at the thought of teaching and I also knew that my resume would be worthless without teaching experiences. Needless to say, I was extremely focused on finding such a position. The possibility of a whole career, perhaps, depended on it.

“Be careful about that guy.”

Finally, I found out about an adjunct position opening. Professors encouraged me to apply. I reached to a friend who had taught there. She gave me some warnings about the professor hiring the adjuncts. You know, that type of warning women give each others about sexist men. I braced myself, applied and got an interview. I needed this job.

“Every female PhD student is sleeping with her supervisor, don’t be naive, it is well known. They all do.”

Believe it or not, but this sentence was uttered by this professor during my second interview for the position. I was not alone during the interview, as another PhD student was present, also interviewing for the job. He laughed at the professor’s comment. I coldly replied that this was nonsense and that I could not listen to this and say nothing. They laughed some more. I really needed this job — a whole career possibly depended on it, remember ?— so I shut up. My jaw was firmly close shut and I was siting there, straight as an i, in the café where the interview took place. It got worst somehow.

The interview was a joke — nothing about the job was discussed and it was just two PhD students listening to a professor on the verge of retirement, rambling about mean women getting tenured and fame when he was not getting any, directly naming some women philosophers and scholars I was familiar with. In the middle of this rambling, he started to complain about his neck hurting, after grading too many student papers. He took me by surprise and suddenly grabbed me by the neck to demonstrated where the pain was. On the neck and on the shoulders. I completely shut down and waited for the interview to be over, after all, I needed this job, right?

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Jo crushes a vat on a French philosopher who’s trying to kiss her. She just wanted to talk about philosophy (Funny Face, 1957).

The end of this story is typically French. I got the job together with that other PhD student — who I grew to absolutely dislike, together with his favorite author, Foucault. I never signed a contract even though I pressured the administration about it. Later, they pretexted a legal loophole to refuse to pay me for the teaching I had done. I met with a lawyer and after a long exhausting battle, I got paid. The next semester, they did not renew my contract, obviously, since I dared to ask to be paid. They offered me to do the position for free, though. In French we say “à titre gracieux” — literally, in a graceful way. I never went back.

“Being a woman is a bit like being a duck.”

I found teaching positions elsewhere and traveled to the US to work with a professor in my field. She was reading and commenting on everything I was writing, she offered me guidance and suggested I wrote papers and attended more conferences. She gave me confidence which I had somehow lost in all this struggle. I am not only grateful for everything she has done for me, but also for showing me the type of supervisor I would want to become one day.

I remember she told me about her own struggle as a woman in philosophy. She mentioned this idea of being a duck, appearing graceful when sliding on the water, yet struggling underneath the surface, as a metaphor for women in academia. I don’t want to keep the struggle underwater though.

“You have great legs, I hope you don’t mind me telling you that.”

I went to a lot of conferences over the years. I am very proud of that and I had a lot fun traveling everywhere. And yet conferences are also a place where sexism takes place on a routine basis. Thankfully, my experience never got as worst as that “Shut up bitch” from before I started my PhD. Yet, I got comments on my legs right in the middle of the hallway at one conference — I should wear skirts more often, they said — I got hand-kissed by a drunk philosopher at the dinner of another conference. A philosopher touched my hair without my consent at some other event. Very often I looked at the room — from the public, the stage or at the pub — to found out I was the only woman there. I did not like it.

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Funny Face (1957) — She did not want to be kissed.

“You look nothing like a philosopher!”

I remember greeting a fellow philosopher at the buffet at the start of a conference. We had been sitting next to each other on the plane coming there and we had just realised we were both participating to the same event. I was relieved to have a name tag with the logo of the conference around my neck. He exclaimed “I am so surprise to see you here! You look nothing like a philosopher.” He thought it was quite funny and possibly that he was making a compliment (maybe he was flirting too). Philosophers are mostly white males, but how is that funny ? It is just shameful.

“…”

The next one is a difficult story to tell. As a fixed-term lecturer in France, I once got in a room to grade a very important exam, so important that exam sheets can’t be allowed to leave the building. The first exam I picked was a shout for help — the student was explaining in much details how the main professor was constantly making sexist comments in class. I knew it was true, because that male professor had just made a sexist joke in front of me, minutes before I picked the exam to grade it. I felt very alone in the room, shaking and not knowing what to do, feeling sick and helpless. I went through the official way to deal with these things and reached to the very head of the university. I never got a reply from the administration. This desperate student by complete chance had found in me an ally. And yet, it ultimately was useless. I was helpless. I could do nothing to protect the students. Other tried and failed too. It turned out that a journalist was even investigating this professor. She put to light racist and sexist contents during class. Eventually, everything was silenced by the university under the “freedom of speech” argument. I know, it’s awful; French universities have a long way to go. I did not renewed my contract and just left.

The latest encounter with this “theme” in my life got me extremely weary. Indeed, it is not the sort of experiences that makes you stronger, if anything, it just wears you down until you give up. I had defended my PhD but I could not land that job, again, like so many other jobs. It is something most people are used to in academia, it is not a big deal and I was not that surprised. The (unofficial) feedbacks I got, though, crushed me:

“Your application was the best on paper, but you don’t look like an expert, you really don’t. You look a bit like a teenager.”

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This is me right after my PhD defense. I think I look eighty.

[Update: I finally landed a 1-year postdoc in Toronto (Canada). My spouse is not being able to follow, so I took the difficult decision to go alone].

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Philosophe — Docteure en philosophie (Sorbonne Univ), postdoc à l’Université de Toronto

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