library with statues; photo by Alex Block via Unsplash

Where Are All the Women Philosophers?

May 21, 2020

Podcasts are democratizing information—and that’s a good thing. Even academics are enjoying the genre, listening to podcasts, as well as writing and producing them. Sarah Tyson, PhD, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at CU Denver, recently became one of the hosts for the New Books in Philosophy podcast. Even more recently, Tyson started CU Denver Philosophy Podcasts as a way to communicate with her colleagues, because she missed the impromptu hallway chats that were no longer possible due to the campus closure. 

Philosophy in a Pandemic

The department podcasts have applied philosophical thinking to issues raised by the pandemic. Topics include substance abuse and propaganda in a pandemic, among other issues. “Part of the reason I started the philosophy department podcast was to share how philosophers think through world historical events as they are unfolding. What I think people will hear is that philosophers are forever sharpening their questions in order to think anew, again, and more deeply about an issue,” Tyson said. The ultimate goal is not to find “truth” but rather to think about what’s happening.

And everyone can offer different perspectives—not just philosophers. “I think that anyone who has to deal with the everyday concerns of the pandemic has a potential edge in thinking about it,” Tyson said. Of course, not everyone “has the time or energy to think, but they do have experiences to draw on to inform and shape how they think.”

Too Many Books, Too Little Time

For non-crisis philosophizing, you can listen to Tyson’s other podcast, New Books in Philosophy. It is on the free New Books Network, which was founded by a professor of Russian history named Marshall Poe. Poe realized that academics—and everyone else—just didn’t have time to read all the incredible books being published. The New Books Network emerged as an answer to this problem of too many books, too little time. Professors from all over the U.S. tackle one book in one subject area in one podcast in one hour (or less). 

The basic idea is for the podcast host to have a casual discussion with the author of the book. This conversational format eventually inspired Tyson to say yes when one of her former professors asked her to become a host for New Books in Philosophy. At first, Tyson was concerned. “Interviewing people is a skill, and I thought I could be really bad at it,” she said. Once she realized the podcast was just a conversation between two colleagues, she got excited by the idea that she could bring philosophy to a broader audience.

photo of Sarah Tyson, alongside her book cover
Sarah Tyson, who teaches in the Philosophy Department, co-hosts the New Books in Philosophy podcast on the New Books Network.

Women Can Philosophize

“My mission is largely feminist philosophy,” Tyson said. This partly explains how she chooses the books for the podcasts she hosts. Besides being by or about feminist philosophers, the books must also be written by authors with a PhD in philosophy and published in the last twelve months. Tyson’s podcasts focus on feminist philosophy books, usually written by women.

But why is this important at all? Because women are underrepresented in the field of philosophy. “What prevents women from being on faculty in philosophy departments is not a lack of interest in or ability to do philosophy,” Tyson explains. Highlighting women philosophers on the New Books in Philosophy podcast “shows students that women can philosophize … That’s a powerful lesson that’s hard to teach merely by insisting it’s true,” she said. 

Where Are the Women?

Tyson is taking up the cause of promoting women in philosophy through the podcast. Recently, she spoke to author and philosopher Megan Burke about her book, When Time Warps: The Lived Experience of Gender, Race, and Sexual Violence, which considers how sexual assault affects women’s sense of time. Tyson also analyzes women’s philosophical value in her own scholarly work. In her book Where Are the Women?, she argues that including women in philosophical history improves the study of philosophy overall. 

“Women have always been philosophizing,” Tyson said. “Philosophy, as a discipline, has been constituted through the exclusion of women. Attending to what women have said and done despite, in response to, and in sheer disregard of this prohibition can teach us a lot about our world and aid our thinking now.” This brings up another question: Why should we think about thinking? In other words, why does philosophy matter?

Tyson answers this eloquently: “I think philosophy is borne out of this desire to reflect and to understand what recedes from understanding as we think more about it.”

book covers by women philosophers; illustration of Audre Lorde by Jen Keenan
Books by women philosophers and feminist thinkers. Illustration of Audre Lorde by Jen Keenan.

Here Are the Women

With all this in mind, we asked Professor Tyson to recommend work by women philosophers. She offers a few notable recommendations for readers who want to delve into the ever-widening spiral of philosophical thought.

Speculum of the Other Woman by Luce Irigaray

“In working with Irigaray, I was approaching things that I found inciting or clearly wrong. She is a really challenging writer, really playful. When I teach her, sometimes students say this is pornography, because embodiment is so important for her. She sets up a challenge that’s productive for me, to try to find the limits of my own philosophical ability.”

The Philosophical Imaginary by Michèle Le Dœuff 

“This collection of essays really sustained me in graduate school. She’s got this famous essay called ‘Long Hair, Short Ideas’ about women in philosophy. The more I read her, the more I saw alignment between the project of feminism and the project of philosophy. She explores that in productive ways. She’s also a very funny writer, which you don’t get so much in philosophy.”

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

“Lorde was not somebody who had a PhD in philosophy and was not working in a philosophy department, but she does all this important work. She diagnoses how white feminists fail in solidarity with women of color, failing to understand their own whiteness as a problem. She’s also just a really beautiful writer.”

Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth

“In 1851, in Akron, Ohio, she said, ‘Ain’t I a woman.’ I thought I’d explore that in my book, then I read Nell Painter’s biography of her and found out the one thing she’s famous for she probably did not say. She’s much more important as a philosopher of freedom.”