Thank you for this opportunity to discuss my new book, Where Are the Women? Why Expanding the Archive Makes Philosophy Better, and why I wrote it. Broadly, this book explores how practices of exclusion shape our practices of thinking. I was motivated to write Where Are the Women? after years of skulking around a particular set of dusty, unvisited bookshelves in the library containing work by and about historical women thinkers. On these shelves, I found 40 years or so of material, mainly developed by feminist philosophers, on women in the history of philosophy. And, as I explored, I found myself asking a lot of questions about women’s authority as thinkers. There was another set of material, on another, more visited set of shelves, talking about women’s authority as thinkers, but much of that conversation focused on women’s exclusion. Those conversations about women’s exclusion often ignored the fact that women have always been philosophizing, at least as far back as our record of philosophy goes. In other words, people were talking about historical women thinkers and people were talking about women’s authority as thinkers, but these conversations were problematically separate. I wondered what would happen if we brought them together.
To my mind, the main problems with the separation were, first, the work on exclusion could easily lead one to believe no robust history of women thinking existed and, second, the work on historical women often left uninterrogated some of the trickiest issues raised in the conversations about exclusion, such as how the category of women was/is constituted and what philosophy is or ought to be. And, to be clear, my motivations in all of this were not primarily historical ones. That is, I spent a lot of time looking at history because I was trying to untie some knots about my own experiences in the field of philosophy. Did it matter that philosophy is, and has been, dominated by men? Of what use is the category of women? Could a couple of thousand years of history help me with these questions? Should I even be asking these questions?
The first half of the book takes stock of work done on historical women philosophers; I call this field ‘reclamation.’ I argue that the most promising approaches to that history explicitly attend to how historical women’s thinking transforms our contemporary understandings and practices of philosophy. I then look at three of the most important theorists of women’s exclusion from philosophy—Genevieve Lloyd, Luce Irigaray, and Michèle Le Doeuff—to think about how their methods for understanding that exclusion might help us reclaim historical women’s authority as thinkers. While I find the approaches of Lloyd and Irigaray provocative and helpful, my own understanding of all of this has been most shaped by Le Doeuff’s approach to exclusion, and it is her approach that significantly shapes my own approach to history. For it is Le Doeuff who moves from thinking about exclusion to engaging historical women’s thinking. And she does so in a fascinating way—she speculates about what might have happened if these historical women had not been sidelined. What might have happened? And what does that speculation reveal about our practices of thinking now?
The second half of the book takes the lessons learned in the first half to muck around in the guts of some historical events—the gathering at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, which produced the Declaration of Sentiments, and Sojourner Truth’s speech in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 at the women’s rights convention. The meeting in Seneca Falls (in part because it resulted in the publication of the Declaration) sparked a series of meetings around the US about women’s rights, and is often understood as the beginning of the women’s movement. Truth, an itinerant preacher and former slave, spoke at one of those subsequent meetings. The most famous account of what she said was written 12 years after the meeting by the secretary of the meeting, Frances Dana Gage. When I started this project, I accepted Gage’s story about Truth standing up in 1851 to introduce the question of race into the nascent women’s rights movement with the powerful rhetorical question: “Ain’t I a Woman?” That version of events is recounted in Truth’s own biography, as well as The History of Woman Suffrage, and is regularly reproduced on T-shirts, websites, and posters (for instance). But then, I read Nell Painter’s biography of Truth, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. What started as little more than an attempt to confirm what I already knew turned into an upheaval in my understanding of the early women’s movement and Truth’s role in it. Truth likely did not ask that question, in 1851 or any other time, and the historical record will not yield us any certainty about what she did say. Initially, I was crestfallen. I had a neat story that fit with what a lot of people already knew. I had a tidy arc to my book that would not surprise anyone.
It took me some time to realize that Painter, and eventually many other wonderful sources, had messed up my tidy arc but had replaced it with some philosophical work to do—the philosophical work of rethinking race, gender, subjectivity, and even how we pose questions about such concepts. The book speculates about the historical record on Truth, about what she might have been up to in Akron, and, more important to my mind, what that speculation might mean for us now. I came to appreciate the gift of having my own understanding of a historical event upheaved—and what that upheaving can do for thinking. For instance, I have come to think that Truth sought to destabilize her audience’s understanding of the category “women,” rather than gain inclusion in it. Our posters of Truth would have us believe that she resolved the difficult relationship of race and gender in the early women’s rights movement; that Truth, as Gage put it: “carried us safely over the slough of difficulty.” They would have us believe she did so by demanding her own inclusion, presumably as a representative of all enslaved and formerly enslaved women, in the category of women: “Ain’t I a woman?” My book spends a lot of time eschewing the certainty that has grown up around that story in order to linger with a more uncertain record in which Truth may have said something more like: “I am a woman’s rights.” What in the world does that mean? I think the canny Truth hoped we’d be stumped, intrigued, and ultimately dissatisfied with answers that made us feel safe too soon.
While my home discipline is philosophy, and my obsession with women thinkers began there, the book ranges broadly to think with people—Hortense Spillers, David Kazanjian, Carla Peterson, for example—who unsettle our historical inheritances. My goal is to rethink everything. And to imagine anew. And to be surprised. I am always looking for new friends in such endeavors, so I hope my book will be received as an invitation.
Luce Irigaray. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. Translated by Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.
David Kazanjian. The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth- Century Atlantic World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
Michèle Le Doeuff. The Sex of Knowing. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Genevieve Lloyd. The Man of Reason: “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1993.
Nell Painter. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: Norton, 1996.
Carla L. Peterson. “Doers of the Word”: African-American Speakers and Writers in the North, 1830–1880. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Hortense Spillers. “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 152–175. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert. Narrative of Sojourner Truth; A Bonds- woman of Olden Time, with a History of Her Labors and Correspondence Drawn from Her “Book of Life.” New York: Penguin, 1998.
Sarah Tyson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado Denver. Tyson works in Feminist Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies, and earned her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University in 2011. This post is her reflection on her recent book, Where Are the Women? published by Columbia University Press.