Women were incapable of having seminal ideas

I’ve talked about Sally Haslanger’s “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)” before – last October – but I’m off to DC tomorrow for the Women in Secularism conference so I feel like talking about it again.

In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman [in] philosophy and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other (male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy.

In other words…women can’t think.

I suspect this is one reason male atheists kept ignoring female atheists for so long (and some would like to go on ignoring us now). There’s an implicit stereotype that women can’t think, and organized argumentative atheism depends on thinking, so organized argumentative atheism had better keep women out or else it will fill up with stupid women talking about shoes. It will become Real Housewives of Atheism, and who the fuck wants to watch that?

My point here is that I don’t think we need to scratch our heads and wonder what on earth is going on that keeps women out of philosophy. In my experience it is very hard to find a place in philosophy that isn’t actively hostile towards women and minorities, or at least assumes that a successful philosopher should look and act like a (traditional, white) man.

Same again, with atheism replacing philosophy. There’s an implicit assumption that a prominent atheist should look and act like a (traditional, white) man. A woman atheist? Doesn’t compute. Makes the stuffing come out.

Problems arise when schemas clash. Valian uses the example of women in the military (Valian 1998, 122-3). The schema for women has us assume that women are life-giving and nurturing. The schema for the military, of course, has us assume that troops are life-taking and aggressive. In such cases, it is difficult to accept anything that seems to be an instance of both schemas. The deeper the schemas, the more difficult it is to tolerate a conflicting case.

Same again, with atheism replacing the military. Women are nurturing; men are aggressive. It takes aggression to face down god and god’s enforcers.

So, what to do? Persist. Show up. Keep talking. Perform the battle against god with words, which is the only way god can be fought. Be there. Push. Lean. Lean more heavily. Persist.


  1. says

    Also, atheism, scepticism, et al. are rational. Women are irrational and emotional. Scepticism, philosophy, atheism et al. is a rigourous, solitary discipline. But women are all social and needy and stuff.

    Oh, and gotta like the slight of History as a worthy subject of study, because we all know only Pure Science and (maybe, as long as it isn’t feminist or postmodern or whatever) Philosophy count.

  2. says

    Philosophy needs more neurobiology, BAD! I think that a lot of what you are describing is more than just a male/female dichotomy (though I would not be surprised if that was one of the biggest conflict areas), it has to do with neurodiversity on a larger scale.

    For myself I have been figuring out that a lot of my own philosophical behavior has to do with the fact that I have Tourette Syndrome, (and ADHD but I don’t know how this might impact yet).

    It turns out that TS is associated with some cognitive advantages, one of which has to do with the rule based aspects of language (written or spoken). I could easily describe my background as having to do with immersing myself in the rule based aspects of language and concepts. In retrospect I see a lot of behaviors that indicate a sensitivity to rule-based philosophy issues.

    *I am hyper-aware of logical fallacies and deceptive (rule breaking) communication behavior

    *I have a “buffet style” approach to philosophical ideas where I tend to forget the person who thought of it, but pick and choose what parts (Rules) I like.

    *I treat authority figure rule-breaking as a problem so bad that I won’t even vote for Obama in the face of Romney

    *More that I am still figuring out since I only started researching this recently

    I wonder what you would see if you analyzed the philosophical preferences of functional individuals with: autism, OCD, ADHD, TS, schizophrenia or anything else that affects the social parts of the brain…

  3. RW Ahrens says

    Keep banging the drums, Ophelia! Sooner or later, the message will begin sinking in…

    In the meantime, you and other women like you, have my admiration and support.

  4. says

    Women are emotional. Hey, human. The real question is, are women more emotional than men? Doubtful at best. The ’emotional’ deal certainly isn’t a good reason for Academia to ignore/belittle half the friggin’ human race…

  5. Ysanne says

    or maybe they’re just a need to catch up with where neurobiology is today, as opposed to where it was during the career of P.J. Moebius (not to be confused with the A.F. Moebius after whom the Moebius strip is named), famous for his seminal paper entitled “On the physiological idiocy of women”.

  6. says


    as you know, probably, I’m not part of the day-in-day-out atheist activist crowd, so I can’t claim to have much insight there, but for a relative outsider like me, the picture of current-day atheist activism is strongly influenced by fairly high profile women, including yourself, greta christina, maryam namazie and others. from what i gather even a natural secular outfit in the USA hired recently a woman CEO (perhaps, not the best choice, but that seems unrelated to her being female). when i undertook research for a forthcoming book and looked at atheists in the military, even there women play high profile roles.

    while i write this, for some stupid reason an ad is displayed on the freethoughtblogs site for the april 13-15 2012 global atheist convention in melbourne (yes, on may 16 that ad is still displayed); of 12 names prominently displayed in the ad, to attract folks to that event, 5 are women. not equity, but surely not a bad record.

    guess, my question is, is it really this bad or is it merely that it was bad in the past?

  7. says

    Udo – And you and Russell did a hell of a good job including women in 50 Voices, so you caused some of this high profile of atheist women as well as observing it.

    But – the representation is improving, but it took a long time. Meanwhile, in contrast to the representation, what one might call the climate has gotten worse instead of better. There’s a lot more open unabashed unembarrassed contemptuous sexism being freely expressed by “members of the atheist community” than I would have thought possible a year ago.

    Sorry about stale GAC ad! We’re bad housekeepers around here…

  8. says

    @ Cubist #7
    I prefer to think of it as differently emotional due to culture. Some of the most emotional people I know are guys who don’t like feminism. It’s like thumb-wrestling jello to get them to actually address some points. I’ve seen them completely redefine normally uncontroversial words just to avoid issues. I got permabanned from a Brony board because they could not deal with the rape example for why feminism is a valid social movement.

    Anti-Feminist: “We don’t need feminism!”

    Me: “Yes we do because rape is a good example for why we still need changes on issues related to sex and gender.”

    Anit-Feminist: “Oh my God! Stop talking about rape! Mods! Mods!”

  9. Margaret says

    women were incapable of having seminal ideas

    Seminal ideas must refer to little ideas that are squirted out by the zillion but rarely go anywhere except into the trash bin. Ovarian ideas are so much more likely to be fruitful.

  10. says

    Ovarian ideas are so much more likely to be fruitful.

    So they get battered relentlessly until one finally worms into a critical flaw?

  11. Dave says

    O’course, if you do take a historical perspective, you’ll know that this whole devaluation of emotion is just a blip [a spurt?] of nineteenth-century bourgeois scientism, which made rather a big thing of being coldly inhuman about everything from the plight of the urban poor [for a Manchester liberal] to the fate of the kulaks [for a you-know-what…]

    And if you don’t agree that Marxism-Leninism is a C19 bourgeois ideology of elite power, well, more fool you.

  12. MosesZD says

    Interesting. Because in my Dr.’s office I was reading an article in ESPN the magazine about the NFL draft and scouting. And a number of behavioral psychologists were interviewed to explain why men sucked as scouts and women would be better. It was basically along the lines of men are enculturated to engage in shallowly-reasoned, high-risk decision making while women are enculturated to engage in broader, multi-factor trade-off decision making.

    And yet, here we are, women get no opportunity and the clowns that tell us Ryan Leaf and JaMarcus Russell are ‘great prospects’ keep their jobs…

  13. says

    Wow. I’m only on the fringes of the whole philosophy/atheism/skepticism thing, and had wrongly thought that this kind of misogynist thinking was mostly found in the hard sciences, and that philosophy would be more welcoming to women.

    The author’s experiences sound absolutely like my experiences in a graduate chemistry department at about the same time. I read the whole article, and kept recognizing myself. (Restricting career options so as to minimize risk? Guilty.)

    Thanks for revisiting that article.

  14. says


    Never underestimate the power of testosterone and cultural laziness. I’m part of a community of men obsessed with the reboot of My Little Pony and I have to debate the merits of feminism and point out misogyny in that arena. A cartoon created by someone who outright said that she fought to include feminist principles in her work at every turn.

    Fortunately I like to argue :)

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