Review of "Singing in the Fire"

By Linda Martin Alcoff (Editor)
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Review by Diane J. Klein, J.D. on Oct 29th 2004
Singing in the Fire

Reading Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy is like attending a great dinner party, where every guest is smart and fascinating, and you stay too late, knowing you'll regret it at work the next day but you don't care, because you want to talk, really talk, to everyone there.  That the book includes black-and-white photographs of the contributors, not formal book jacket portraits but mostly decades-old family-album-type snapshots from graduate school, greatly enhances this sense of intimacy and warmth so seldom found (or expected) in a philosophy book.

It isn't clear whether the contributors were given a "topic" – instead, each essay seems to be a free-form answer to the question, "What was it (or is it) like for you?"  The late Teresa Brennan tells us that "the editors' brief for this good idea (women philosophers tell the truth) is to say something useful from the vantage point of younger women" (23), and each of the twelve contributors, as well as our "host," editor Linda Martín Alcoff, has certainly done that.  Whether the reader is interested in philosophical autobiography, the effect of American feminism on academic philosophy, or simply anecdotes about the history of the profession, younger women and men alike will find something "useful" in it – and something enjoyable and inspiring, as well. 

The contributions range from the deeply personal and confessional (Andrea Nye, who reflects on her transformative relationship with her high school English teacher, Miss Grant) to the more explicitly formal and professional (Kristin Shrader-Frechette, who shares some biographical information about her mother and her past as a Catholic nun, but focuses primarily on her litigation with the University of South Florida, and everything in between (Stephanie (Mrs. David "possible worlds") Lewis, the sole non-Ph.D. holder but a significant force in the American Philosophical Association (APA)). 

Several contributors address practical issues relating to pregnancy, motherhood, and a career in philosophy (Virginia Held, Alison Jaggar, Martha Nussbaum, Shrader-Frechette), though one wishes more were said about the philosophical effects (if any) of motherhood itself.  Claudia Card shares her experiences as a closeted lesbian graduate student and junior person fixated on theories of punishment and penology, and later, as an openly gay feminist philosopher.  Though all but one have tenured philosophy jobs, not all have "scaled the heights" of endowed chairs in the most prestigious universities, or national offices in the APA.  Most hold (or have retired from) philosophy jobs in more "ordinary" places – Syracuse, Wisconsin, Colorado.

A number of contributors express legitimate hurt, even outrage, at having subjects they take seriously belittled – whether as a Continentalist in an analytic department (Sandra Bartky), a practitioner of "applied ethics" (Held), or an ecofeminist (Karen Warren, who abandoned a dissertation on Leibniz's Monadology to write about whether trees have legal standing).  It is unquestionably true that a central task for all philosophers, and perhaps especially for feminist (not just female) philosophers, is developing confidence in "the importance of what we care about" (in Harry Frankfurt's words).  These contributions provide a new way of approaching questions like whether anything a philosopher is interested in is philosophy; whether anything taught by a person with a doctorate in philosophy is philosophy; and most of all, why it matters so much to philosophers whether something in particular is or is not philosophy. 

Nussbaum (neé Craven), the eminent classicist and philosopher, takes us into the most elite academic precincts – the Harvard philosophy and classics departments in the 1970s, and the Harvard Society of Fellows (of which she was the first female member, in 1972) – to share priceless reminiscences of her experiences there as a mother, as well as an object of sexual harassment and anti-Semitism (by marriage).  She has kind words for Bernard Williams, Hilary Putnam, and Robert Nozick, the last of whom created a "world-historical moment" (105) for her by interrupting a visiting speaker with an announcement that he had to pick up his son from hockey, thereby introducing the forbidden subject of children and child care into Emerson Hall.  Perhaps due to the distance provided by decades, Nussbaum seems indulgently, even excessively, forgiving of Hellenist G.E.L. Owen, her alcoholic thesis advisor who "walked into my room at 8 a.m. and simply lay down on top of me, an act that in some sense I count as an attempted rape, although his physical weakness allowed one [why not "me"?] to push him away quite easily" (99).  Distance gives way to immediacy, however, in her discussion of one former department chairman – not named, but instantly recognizable to anyone who ever knew him – as a "satanic figure" whose "career would show a good actor how the role of Iago ought to be played" (104).  The experiences she recounts make her rather doctrinaire prohibitionist position on sexual relationships between male faculty and female students (and even junior faculty) – none, ever – at least understandable.

The book gains added depth and conversational flavor from the contributors' institutional or personal connections with one another.  Bartky, Jaggar, and Card were early members of the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP), and movingly describe its value to them, while Nussbaum indirectly blames SWIP for contributing to the suicide of a colleague.  Ofelia Schutte and Jaggar were at Miami University of Ohio at the same time (1970-1972), and remember it fondly.  But while Schutte seems happy to have joined the University of South Florida faculty as the head of women's studies, and has apparently congenial relationships with the philosophy department, Shrader-Frechette (now holder of a named chair at Notre Dame) devotes most of her essay to an account of her litigation against the same institution. 

Unsurprisingly, nearly all the contributors discuss the hugely transformative and liberating effects of intellectual and academic feminism on their personal and professional lives and self-understandings.  At the same time, at least a few confess to the debilitating effects of profound self-doubt, to which most graduate students in philosophy (of either gender) can relate.  Indeed, if something is missing from the feminist analyses offered by several contributors, it might be a failure to acknowledge that although as and for women, a sense of inadequacy in the discipline has historically been (and continues unfortunately too often to be) tied up in gender (and for women of color, in race and nationality as well), even straight white men confront crises of confidence in philosophy. 

Those who pursue philosophy have often selected the discipline that is most difficult, rather than easiest, for them.  When a discipline has been around for millennia, with heroes who are "immortals," everyone has a reason to feel inadequate.  Robert Nozick, no sufferer from low self-esteem, once remarked about himself, "Isn't it ludicrous for someone just one generation from the shtetl, a pisher from Brownsville and East Flatbush in the Bronx, even to touch on the topics of the monumental thinkers?  Of course it is.  Yet it was ludicrous for them too.  We are all just a few years past something or other, if only childhood.  Even the monuments themselves, so serenely in command of culture and intellect, must have been children once and adolescents – so they too are immigrants to the realm of thought" (Philosophical Explanations, Acknowledgements, viii (1981)).  Held makes a similar point in her essay (with a more careerist spin) when she says, "although I may not be very capable or competent at all [at philosophy], I may be not very much less capable or competent than others who occupy the positions they are already in" (51), a crucial confidence-builder for us all. 

A final caveat about the philosophers selected: all of the contributors other than the editor and Uma Narayan were born before the early 1950s, meeting Alcoff's goal of "collect[ing] the stories of women who are generally over fifty and thus senior enough to have seen some significant changes in the academy" (5-6).  Alcoff openly confesses that she "was loose with the age limit to try to ensure some ethnic diversity" (6), but this well-intentioned decision mars the history.  Although Narayan's essay about her experiences as a Tamil woman, raised in Uganda and India, now practicing philosophy in the U.S., is certainly interesting, the inclusion of someone born around 1960 who did not complete her Ph.D. until after 1990 unfortunately exemplifies a phenomenon Narayan herself identifies and decries – "the burden of being constantly asked to participate … because legitimate concerns that women of color be represented … translate into responsibilities for which there are only a few of us to shoulder" (92). 

A more honest history of academic philosophy in America would necessarily reflect the painful exclusion of women of color.  (Narayan's essay would be a valuable centerpiece of essays from "the next generation.")  The other essays, however, provide an invaluable window on the experience of being and becoming a woman in philosophy during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.


© 2004 Diane J. Kein


Diane J. Klein, J.D. (UCLA School of Law), Ph.D. candidate (philosophy) (U.C. Berkeley), is Associate Professor of Law at Albany Law School, Union University, Albany, New York.  Her philosophical areas of interest include virtue ethics and moral theory; her areas of legal scholarship include professional responsibility, race and gender, and trusts and estates.


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