Florentine and Me, or How I Learned To Start Worrying About Philosophy’s Gender Problem

This is a story of the blindness of male privilege. It’s probably also a pretty serious and self-indulgent performance of exactly the same thing.

But first, a bit of history.

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C.W. Eckersberg’s portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1814.

The Golden Age

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Søren Kierkegaard as sketched by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c.1840

And in philosophy: Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was something of an awkward and eccentric figure in his time, a minor but persistent irritant and embarassment in the Copenhagen body cultural. That’s more or less how he remains in philosophy today: too continental for the analytic folks, too religious for the continentals, and too weird, indirect, and long-winded for almost everyone. But a few of us end up falling for him. Hard.

Love of Kierkegaard led me to a two-year postdoc stint at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre at University of Copenhagen. And while living there, I encountered another Golden Age Dane. Her name was Florentine.

Woman in Front of a Mirror

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C.W. Eckersberg ‘En nøgen kvinde sætter sit hår foran et spejl,’ 1841

Painted in sittings held at the Academy between August-October 1841, it depicts a semi-nude Florentine from behind as she goes about her morning toilette. Eckersberg manages to fuse marmoreal classicism with a very contemporary, if subdued, eroticism. (Not subdued enough for some: despite the modest framing, someone recently reported the image for nudity on the Hirschprung Collection’s Facebook page — so clearly it retains some force to unsettle, if not quite shock).

At the time I encountered this painting I was finishing off several papers that I was already thinking of reworking into a book. In Chapter Three I use Eckersberg’s painting to illustrate the way in which visual images, even though they imply some viewer (situated at the eyeline of the painter or camera) don’t thereby stand in any internal relation to the perspective of the viewer. Eckersberg shared his modelling sessions with his students, and so there are at least three extant paintings of Florentine from the same sessions. You can even reconstruct where each artist was standing from the perspective of each painting:

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Sally Henriques’ (left) and Ludvig August Smith’s paintings from the same session.

Yet what I’ve called ‘structural indifference’ holds even then: there’s nothing within the image itself that situates Florentine in relation to each painter. Moreover, the book would discuss Kierkegaard’s enigmatic talk, at both ends of his career, of a “naked, abstract self” that somehow transcends concrete individual human lives. What better image for the cover, then, than the most famous naked person to come out of Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen? So that was the plan: call the book The Naked Self, with Woman in Front of a Mirror on the dust jacket. It was all too perfect.

And then someone wore a bad shirt to work.


That day, Taylor gave a TV interview about the mission in which he showed off his tattoo of the Philae lander. What got attention, however, was what else he was sporting: a bowling-style shirt covered in semi-naked, provocatively-posed women.

It didn’t take long for Twitter to start pointing out that this wasn’t appropriate. In our Einsteinian universe the mechanics of social media remain stubbornly Newtonian, and so the inevitable anti-feminist backlash happened almost immediately. What’s the big deal? It’s just a shirt. He didn’t mean anything by it! C’mon, he just landed a probe on a comet! When Taylor surfaced to apologise, he seemed not merely chastened but clearly quite distressed. That in turn set off a new round of outrage: how dare those damned feminists make this guy so upset?!

Context, as always, is everything. The reason Taylor’s shirt was so spectacularly misjudged isn’t just that it was tacky and that he was going on television that day. It’s that he was a scientist going on television that day, a temporarily highly visible representative of a sector which has pervasive problems with gender. As the astronomer Phil Plait wrote:

If you think this isn’t a big deal, well, by itself, it’s not a huge one. But it’s not by itself, is it? This event didn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes when there is still a tremendously leaky pipeline for women from undergraduate science classes to professional scientist. It comes when having a female name on an application to do research at a university makes it less likely to get accepted, and have your research paper cited less. It comes when there is still not even close to parity in hiring and retaining women in the sciences.

And this is all before Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize winner, “joked” that women should work in gender-segregated labs because they’re distractingly sexy, cry when they’re criticised and end up falling in love with their male colleagues. The likes of Richard Dawkins have insisted his comments, in context, were ‘light-hearted banter.’ But as Michael Eisen pointed out, it’s not as if Hunt could reasonably have not known how real such attitudes are for women in STEM: he’d heard it from them directly.

And then, just when things seemed to have hit a nadir, exoplanet expert and talked-up Nobel Prize prospect Geoff Marcy quit his job at UC Berkeley after a finding he had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy. As Melbourne astrophysicist Katie Mack put it in the wake of the Marcy scandal:

There are other people ‘everyone knows’ are creepy or harassing or dangerous for female students to be around … This is how it works. This is the system in which we operate.

Philosophy’s Gender Problem

Like STEM, philosophy has seen a string of prominent scandals, particularly in the US. You may have heard about Colin McGinn’s treatment of one of his graduate students and his subsequent departure from the University of Miami. On the other side of the country, the American Philosophical Association was called in to investigate the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They found “unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behaviour” including bullying. Alcohol-fuelled staff-student social functions were identified as a particular problem. (Again, a senior member of faculty, with a harassment finding against him, quietly retired). An unnamed (but not hard to identify) moral philosopher was accused of having a series of sexual relationships with graduate students, albeit never his own. And most recently Peter Ludlow, accused of sexually harassing two students, quit before Northwestern could fire him.

But this numbing parade of outrages are only the flare ups of a more chronic condition. The “What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy?” blog catalogues some of the everyday sexism women philosophers encounter, from ‘merely’ thoughtless assumptions through to outright harassment and bullying. The blog’s editor Jennifer Saul, a philosopher at Sheffield, notes that the situation is even more shocking if you consider how many stories received aren’t published for fear of identifying someone.

These problems are integrally linked to the drastic under-representation of women, and minorities, in the ranks of professional philosophers. Other humanities disciplines have much greater gender diversity — at least at the less senior career levels — but philosophy staffing persists in being overwhelmingly white, male, and middle-class (hi!). In 2008, women made up 36% of the Australian academic workforce but only 23% of professional philosophers, comparable to figures from the UK (24%) and US (21%). We’re still doing better at gender diversity than physics and engineering, but that’s not much of a boast. And the figures get worse the higher in seniority you look: 17% of all academics at Level E (Professor) nationally are women, but only 10.3% in philosophy.

Various reasons have been put forward for why philosophy remains so stubbornly male-dominated. Some evidence suggests much of the damage has already been done by the time young women reach their first philosophy classroom. Other causes may happen after they get there. One crucial break-point that’s been identified is the transition from first year/introductory courses to second year/intermediate units. Women do enrol in the first year units in substantial numbers, but don’t go on to major in philosophy. In a recent paper, Tom Dougherty, Samuel Baron and Kristie Miller at the University of Sydney found that while two-thirds of enrolling introductory students in the cohort they studied were women, right from the first lecture less than half of the students who planned to major in philosophy were women, and women students found it harder to imagine themselves doing well in philosophy.

What’s driving this? One of the main issues that’s been identified is stereotype threat, which in turn is linked to an idea we unconsciously foster that a ‘philosopher’ is something you simply are, rather than something you become. Instead of explaining that philosophizing is an acquired skill, something you can learn to do and get better at with training and practice, we implicitly treat philosophy as a matter of being inherently ‘brilliant.’ Combine that with a stereotype of these philosophical geniuses as male, and you make it dramatically harder for women to see themselves as (potentially successful) philosophers.

A study from January 2015 argued that “women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent” with a similar correlation for African American underrepresentation as well. These graphs taken from the study show just how stark the situation in philosophy is: no other discipline ranked innate brilliance as highly as philosophy, and only four other disciplines (engineering, computer science, physics, and music composition) had a lower percentage of women PhD students. The implicit message we give our students is that philosophers are born, not made; something you simply are, not something you work to become. Now, having been socialised into that conception of what a philosopher is, take a look at the philosophers around you; look at the feted sages those philosophers in turn look up to; look at the names on the books you’re reading. Notice anything?

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Portraits of philosophers, J.W. Cook, 1825

Saul sums the problem up well:

Stereotype threat will also cause women in philosophy to underperform. It will be regularly triggered — by exclusively or nearly exclusively male reading lists, overwhelmingly male lecturers, department seminar speakers and conference programmes. As they progress further in their careers, their colleagues will become increasingly male as well. Combine this with implicit biases, and it is not at all surprising that those who are not white males should have difficulty flourishing in philosophy.

The Blindness of Privilege

Has political correctness and gender obsession gone that far — that male author writing about “someone’s death” must talk about “her death” instead of “his death”?

I think philosophers should try to avoid this sort of silly fashions.

It struck me as remarkable that someone would actually take time out of his day to complain to someone he’d never met, on the other side of the world, for writing ‘she’ instead of ‘he.’ He seemed completely oblivious to his assumption that ‘his’ and ‘he’ are somehow perfectly appropriate norms, whereas ‘her’ and ‘she’ need justifying.

But most men in the profession are, I’d hope, considerably more reflective than that. Reflective, but bewildered .When we talk amongst ourselves about the under-representation of women in the discipline, the usual response is bafflement. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in a room full of male philosophers lamenting that there aren’t more women, saying how much we hope the winning candidate for this next job is a woman or how we need to encourage more women to stick with philosophy beyond first year. Yet the problems persist. We’re doing something wrong, but we seem — or seem to seem — to have no real idea what.

The research I cited above suggests there are many fairly basic things we can do, from putting more women philosophers on the curriculum to trying not to send messages about success in philosophy being a matter of raw brilliance. But some of it clearly runs deeper, and takes us into the territory of the peculiar blindness of privilege, the inability to see the very structures that give one advantages so ingrained we aren’t even aware of them. (On explaining this in an irresistibly graspable way, you can’t go past the blogger Sindelókë’s Parable of the Lizard and the Dog.)

That means trying to read against our own assumptions and intuitive responses — something that philosophers should prima facie be good at, but we all have our blind spots. As Saul reminds us, “The most basic thing for accomplishing all of these goals is to begin with a bit of distrust for our initial judgements.”

And so it was that I found myself staring at a guy in a bad bowling shirt, and looking at the painting of Florentine I’d lined up for the book cover, and thinking: Am I the bad shirt guy?

The image in Eckersberg’s painting seemed, to me, unexceptionable. Yes, it’s not hard to tell a certain story about the male gaze here, but it’s hardly pornographic. Besides, given that I discuss the painting in the book, didn’t I have a legitimate reason to use the image?

As we tell students, never ask a philosopher a rhetorical question: they’ll answer it, and you may not like the answer.

Learning to listen

But others did feel the image was othering. Look at the cover, one pointed out: what do we see? The names of two men, and a woman’s naked body. The impression, deliberately or not, is of men as philosophers and women’s bodies as sexual ornamentation. Yes, there’s context, but the context is somewhat tangential and by the time someone discovers what it is, it’s too late. In a profession where women were already excluded, the choice was, they felt, tin-eared at best.

I’d love to say I instantly saw the wisdom in all this and agreed wholeheartedly. I didn’t. I bucked and twisted and turned and tried to come up with reasons why my book wasn’t like that.

And that’s the problem, with so much of the way we talk about gender, race, really anything involving power: reflexive defensiveness. We invest a huge amount of time and energy on defending ourselves instead of working to change. We hear someone say how our words and actions hurt them and respond with ‘no, not I.’ Defensiveness, in many ways, is a more pervasive problem than overt prejudice. We admit there are problems right up until the point where we might have to view ourselves as part of them. That’s partly why racism persists, and yet curiously there are seemingly no racists — because we strain to excuse ourselves rather than face up honestly to how racism or sexism are not simply matters of overt prejudice but of unnoticed and pervasive asymmetry.

So Florentine was replaced with another figure hanging in the Hirschprung, Svend. That was his real name — Svend Hammershøi, who modelled for his brother Vilhelm Hammershøi, a scandalously under-appreciated painter outside of Denmark. Working two generations after Eckersberg, his stark, cool, silent Danish interiors are startlingly modern and strangely haunting.

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Vilhelm Hammershøi, ‘Interiør med ung læsende mand,’ 1898

Perhaps a male philosopher writing this piece is the last thing we need. There is, after all, an argument to the effect that male feminists should pretty much just shut up and listen — that is, if there can be such things as male feminists, which according to Sheila Jeffries, one of the most engaging lecturers I was lucky enough to have as an undergrad, there cannot. I’m conscious of Kate Iselin’s observation that “feminism practised by men is often common decency followed by a request for applause.” It’s very easy to fall into the trap of saying something nice and expecting a cookie.

Still, the problems are real, and need to be confronted on the level of the everyday as much as the big picture. Philosophy has spent 2,500 years being almost entirely male and almost entirely white. We all agree this needs to change, but we — men in the profession — are failing to bring that change about at anything like an acceptable pace. Worrying about book covers is perhaps a decidedly first-world issue, but it’s precisely our self-contained judgments of what’s trivial and what’s significant that we need to start distrusting.

Written by

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at @DeakinPhilos (all views mine). Half @TheFakeMcCoys. Inexplicably tolerated by @jesspdoyle.

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