In a 2013 letter to the Guardian, “The Golden-Age of Female Philosophy”, Mary Midgley responded to the question ‘How can we end the male domination of philosophy?’ She described philosophy at Oxford during the 1940s when herself, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot and Mary Warnock were undergraduates together:
As a survivor from the wartime group, I can only say: sorry, but the reason [why this was the golden age of female philosophy] was indeed that there were fewer men about. The trouble is not, of course, men as such – men have done good enough philosophy in the past – what is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments…By contrast, in those wartime classes – which were small – men (conscientious objectors etc.) were present as well as women but they weren’t keen on arguing.
It is clear that we all were more interested in understanding this deeply puzzling world than in putting each other down.
In Parenthesis seeks to recover the facts about these wartime intellectual conditions by carrying out archival work at the relevant institutions – primarily Oxford and Durham (our home institution) but ultimately too at all those institutions where women were admitted – and by conducting interviews with surviving wartime female academics and philosophers and their families and students. We hope to reconstruct a historical portrait not only of the conditions under which these five women flourished as philosophers but to recover too the lives and careers of their classmates and peers.
As Mary Midgley remarks in her memoir The Owl of Minerva, when considering her years at Oxford:
Male undergraduates then mostly came to Oxford only for a year’s course, leaving the rest to be finished after the war … The effect was to make it a great deal easier for a woman to be heard in discussion than it is in normal times … Sheer loudness of voice has a lot to do with the difficulty, but there is also a temperamental difference about confidence — about the amount of work that one thinks is needed to make one’s opinion worth hearing.
I think myself that this experience has something to do with the fact that Elizabeth and I and Iris and Philippa Foot and Mary Warnock have all made our names in philosophy … I do think that in normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn’t get heard. Perhaps women ought to shout louder, but of course there’s still the question whether men are going to listen.
We propose to use this project to reflect not only on the structural and institutional conditions that may have contributed to this group of women philosophers emerging as a distinct set of philosophical voices in the 20th century – here we shall trace their evolving family commitments and the ways in which their lives together were interwoven – but also, importantly, to consider their philosophy, its content and breadth, and the discursive practices through which it evolved.
Through this work we will explore the often polarising question as to whether there might be something distinctive about women’s philosophical interests, their collaborative practices and preferred methodologies, as well as their substantive philosophical views. This conjecture is easy to caricature, as recent remarks by philosopher David Papineau make plain:
Something peculiar to philosophy must be keeping the numbers down. We need to find out what this is, if we want to know if this is a bad thing. To take an analogy – which I hasten to add is limited – consider professional snooker. Even though women are eligible to compete as professionals, one is ranked in the top 100. The six-times world champion, Steve Davis, has no doubt about the reason. It is not that women are incapable of the highest level of skill. It is rather that as a group they are disinclined to devote obsessive effort to “something that must be said is a complete waste of time – trying to put snooker balls into a pocket with a pointed stick”
Feminist philosophers and bloggers are rightly critical of any suggestion that distinctive traits of women may mark them out as less suited to philosophical endeavour. But while the claim that women are incapable or uninterested in “understanding this deeply puzzling world” is clearly absurd and offensive, the idea that women, and indeed many men, might be bored by contemporary philosophical norms and practices is more interesting, as Mary Warnock has suggested:
I think that academic philosophy has become an extraordinarily inward-looking subject, devoted not to exposing and examining the implications of the way we think about the world, but to exposing instead deficiencies in the arguments of other philosophers. If you pick up a professional journal now, you feel little but nitpicking responses to previous articles. Women to tend to get more easily bored with this than men.
Of course, regarding the question of the sorts of philosophical topics that women (and men) tend to be interested in (and the related question of the sorts of topics that are awarded the status of being centrally important or of mainstream interest), depends on a broad range of contextual, historical and social factors and can’t be put down to any sort of ‘essential’ difference between the sexes. For instance, the well-documented problems regarding the number of women philosophers on undergraduate or postgraduate syllabi, the sort of ‘climate’ in the working environment, the availability of mentors and the problems of stereotype threat and implicit biases, mean that women in philosophy tend to be discouraged from pursuing philosophy in its traditional form, i.e., as a discipline dominated by privileged, white men. By examining a brief window, albeit in parenthesis, where the social and intellectual landscape of academic philosophy was altered as a result of the disruptions of the second World War, the current project promises to reflect on the questions facing contemporary women philosophers and the more general question of ‘women in philosophy’, as it is known.
“The Golden-Age of Female Philosophy” is a rare case of women flourishing and achieving collective prominence in the discipline, at a standard that rivalled their male counterparts. Through a detailed historical study of this period, with particular focus on the life and work of Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot and Mary Warnock, In Parenthesis aims to describe the particular conditions under which this happened. As well as illuminating some of the more well-documented barriers to inclusion, there is scope to discover unknown factors and ultimately new strategies for gender activism within philosophy.