Author Archives: Regan Penaluna

A Latina Takes on the “Philosopher King-Maker”

Professor Linda Martín Alcoff stared wide-eyed at the computer screen.* It was the end of July 2011, and she had recently been elected vice-president of the American Philosophical Association’s eastern division, which is the largest and arguably most influential of the three divisions. Barring any catastrophe, she would automatically assume the presidency next summer. Of the 102 presidents in the division’s history, only 11 have been women. She would be the first Latina. A friend had emailed her a link. She clicked. Up on the screen was a poll asking whether Alcoff should be disqualified from becoming the president. It was posted on the blog of Brian Leiter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who is considered by many to be one of the most powerful political players in the field. Leiter thought Alcoff should be ousted. The blogosphere lit up. As she sat at the computer, Alcoff read the streams of comments. “It was getting to be a feeding frenzy,” she says. “It was hard to watch,” recalls her friend and collaborator William Wilkerson of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. A couple of weeks earlier, Alcoff, who teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center of Philosophy, Wilkerson and another philosophy professor Paul Taylor at Penn State University, had published the Pluralist’s Guide to Philosophy Programs, an online rating of Ph.D. programs in philosophy. Since the mid-1990s, one ranking system for philosophy graduate programs has dominated the field: the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which was founded by Brian Leiter. It began in 1989 with an informal list Leiter circulated while a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Now, with an advisory board of over 50 philosophers, over 300 philosophers who participate in the annual survey, and Leiter at its helm as editor, the Gourmet Report’s influence is difficult to underestimate. Graduate students use it to decide which departments are worth applying to, and deans use it to decide whether to make hires and to invest more money into current programs. Philosophy departments have risen and fallen on the basis of its rankings. Leiter has been called the “philosopher king-maker.” The Gourmet Report brought transparency to a field where a program’s reputation had been based primarily on word of mouth. Every year, he collects the opinions of philosophers in college and university departments throughout the nation, and then quantifies programs on the basis of such variables as department size and publishing output. Until the Gourmet Report came along, the University of Berkeley was considered by many to be the best program. Today it is tied at 14th with four other schools, and New York University is number one. Not everyone thinks the Gourmet Report is fair. Critics argue it favors departments that focus on the philosophy of mind, and that it does not give much weight to programs that emphasize a plurality of views, such as those held by scholars in feminist philosophy, Africana philosophy, critical race theory, and Latin American philosophy. “It attracts a Cartesian person, where one is disembodied from history, where one’s gender, sex, race, and sex identity are not considered as constitutive,” says George Yancy, a full professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, about the Gourmet Report. Leiter disagrees. In his view, there is only good philosophy and bad philosophy, and most pluralist programs recognized in the Pluralist’s Guide are “generally inferior,” he wrote in an email in October 2012. “This is a judgment on the merits of work, a judgment based on considerations like argumentative and dialectical sophistication and perspicuousness, historical and cultural erudition, and knowledge of the history of philosophy.” He also does not agree that the Pluralist’s Guide is really pluralist, “the guide is just a survey of teachers of philosophers who belong to two organizations, SPEP and SAAP.  I think it’s a great idea for the philosophy teachers in SPEP and SAAP to present their view of the fields they are interested in.  Prospective students need to be aware, of course, that they are getting a minority viewpoint, and that the programs recommended will limit their job prospects,” he stated in an email in April 2012. Leiter’s guide sets the tone for departments throughout the English-speaking world, and it has become a kind of gatekeeper for what matters in philosophy. The Pluralist’s Guide is intended to be a corrective to Leiter’s report. Where The Gourmet Report restricts what counts as philosophy, Alcoff, Taylor and Wilkerson see themselves as broadening it. Leiter’s report, says Taylor, “tends not to register the breadth of opinion in philosophical circles about what counts as good philosophy.” Alcoff, Taylor, and Wilkerson also see the Pluralist’s Guide as more inclusive because it evaluates subfields that Leiter’s report does not, including Latin American Philosophy and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Philosophy. “Let us not give assistance to the border control,” Alcoff writes on the Pluralist’s Guide website in reference to individuals who limit what counts as good philosophical discourse. Alcoff thinks that by showcasing the intellectual diversity of philosophy programs, the Pluralist’s Guide will help diversify philosophers. “People of color and white women do all sorts of philosophy but if you look at who is doing feminist philosophy or critical race theory, it is mostly women doing the former and people of color doing the latter,” she says. Philosophy is not a diverse field. Only 21 percent of professional philosophers are women, just ahead of physics (12 percent) and astronomy (17 percent). Minorities fare worse in this field. Of all professional philosophers, only 1.2 percent are Hispanic, 1.1 percent are black, and 0.1 percent are Native American. Lionel McPherson, a prominent black philosopher at Tufts University who attended Princeton and Harvard for his undergraduate and graduate training, declared on Leiter’s blog in June 2011 that he would dissuade any black undergraduate from pursuing philosophy. He explained that he had simply experienced too much discrimination in his own career to recommend it to his black students. “So what does that say about philosophy, half a century after the civil rights movement, decades after we’ve seen progress in other disciplines?” asks Professor Charles Mills of Northwestern University, another prominent black philosopher. The Gourmet Report rankings provide further evidence that philosophy is a field of white men. Of the faculty at the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report, only 18.5 percent are women. Generally, the higher the program is ranked, the fewer women faculty there are. Only nine of the top 20 ranked programs in the Gourmet Report have a black faculty member. The story of the controversies that arose around Alcoff and the Pluralist’s Guide is, in a way, a story about a power struggle over the nature of philosophical inquiry. Is thought pure, or does it have a gender, race and historical location? Have women and minorities largely not participated in this field because the questions that interest them or the ways they ask questions are considered unacceptable to mainstream philosophers who are mostly white and male? Whatever the answers may be, one thing is certain: when the Pluralist’s Guide made its debut in the beginning of June 2011, Leiter and his allies in top philosophy departments were not happy with it. “Linda is the best known of the three of us,” says Taylor, “and so she was the lightning rod that attracted most of the vituperation.”

***

Alcoff, 54, who has an easy smile and good sense of humor, has learned to overcome opposition. She was born in 1955 in Panama City to a Panamanian father and an American mother. Her parents were children of sharecroppers and mechanics who valued higher education. Her mother got an office job to support herself through school, and her father studied at the London School of Economics and became a professor at the University of Panama. At age 3, her parents divorced, and Alcoff immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister. She says that compared to her sister, she had an easier time adjusting because English came easily to her and her skin was lighter. Her mother remarried, but the family was poor. Despite their economic challenges, Alcoff’s mother still encouraged her to aspire to something greater. “Girls can be anything,” Alcoff says her mother repeatedly told her. Alcoff did well in high school and became president of the student association. But then things changed for the worse. Two weeks after she turned seventeen, she got married and then dropped out of school. She describes the marriage as “pretty rocky,” and it lasted for 4 years. Still, she went on to get her GED and then to Florida State University. She majored in philosophy, but by senior year her marriage was crumbling and philosophy was losing its appeal. She was more inspired by the civil rights movement and its efforts to end discrimination. She found it hard to focus on theory, she says, “when the world was burning.” She dropped out of school and moved to Atlanta where she knocked on the doors in the rural south to speak out against the Ku Klux Klan. At age 22, she remarried and soon after had a baby. To make ends meet, she worked in a factory sewing shirt collars. She was paid for how many collars she made, and so she worked fast. As she threaded needles and mindlessly followed patterns, she found herself daydreaming about Sartre. She decided she wanted to return to philosophy. In 1980 she earned her B.A. in philosophy from Georgia State, and then a couple of years later earned her master’s there, too. She enrolled at Brown University as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. By the time she arrived at Brown, she had two children and her husband supported them by working at a local factory where he punched holes in the metal interior of dryers. He worked 10 hour days six days a week. Fortunately, she made some good friends in the philosophy program who made spaghetti dinners for her family. At one point during her doctorate work, her sons contracted chicken pox, one after the other. She was out of school for two weeks, and could not complete all of her work on time. An adviser encouraged her to lie about why she was out for so long. She says, “I asked for an incomplete and was instructed to lie on the form or risk not getting further support in the program, because some faculty doubted a mother’s ability to stay in grad school.” When it came time to picking a dissertation topic, she knew she needed to steer clear of her true passion. “I knew that feminist philosophy would hinder my opportunities to get a job,” she says. She was probably right. Sally Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at MIT, found in 2008 that 2.36 percent of content in top philosophy journals was devoted to feminist topics. Haslanger found roughly the same percentage of space was devoted to issues of race. Alcoff had broad interests, and so instead wrote her dissertation on epistemology. In 1987, Alcoff landed a job right out of graduate school at Kalamazoo College, a small Midwestern college atop rolling hills. She was the first woman ever hired by the department. She left the following year and got a job at Syracuse University. Alcoff and another person were the first women hired in more than 20 years. She says the early years at Syracuse were sometimes rough, because she and the other woman in the department were often the subject of ridicule. She recalls one incident when she was checking her mail in the department. There were a few secretaries and graduate students around. In walked a male colleague who noticed her “Yale” sweatshirt she had picked up at a yard sale. George H.W. Bush was president at the time. The colleague said to her, “Oh look, another bush from Yale.” “That level of stuff happened all the time,” she says.

***

It’s hard to say when the original idea for the Pluralist’s Guide first came about. Alcoff and Taylor believe that it was something already in the air in the field at large. But they do remember the moment their ideas became concrete. It was October 1, 2008, and they were seated by a window in an Ethiopian restaurant in Pittsburgh, awaiting their entrees. Alcoff remembers Taylor saying “Let’s do this!” They were a diverse crew. A Latina (Alcoff), an African American (Taylor) and a gay man (Wilkerson, who joined them later). Rather than providing an overall ranking, as the Gourmet Report does, they decided to rate only subfields. They each picked a specialty area to oversee, Alcoff took feminist philosophy and Latin American philosophy; Taylor critical race, American Philosophy, and Africana Philosophy; and Wilkerson, LGBT philosophy. Then came the question of how to rank the programs. “I wanted our method to make it difficult to fetishize  numbers,” says Taylor. The Gourmet Report quantifies all departments numerically, which Taylor said felt too arbitrary. The Pluralist’s Guide ranks programs on a scale of one to five with five being the best. Rather than ranking them on their raw score, where a school that scored 4.8 would be better than one that received 4.7, they chose what Taylor called a “Consumer Reports model.” Those departments that received a score between 4 to 5 were “strongly recommended,” and those that earned 3.5 to 4 were “recommended.” All others went unranked. In the next few years, they recruited board members to oversee each subfield, and found a Web designer. By July 2011, they were ready to publish the first batch of ratings. The results showed a trend: programs that the Pluralist’s Guide tended to rank highly were not ranked as highly by the Gourmet Report, and vice versa. For feminist philosophy, the Pluralist’s Guide strongly recommends the University of Kansas and De Paul University, but the Gourmet Report puts the University of Kansas in the bottom tier, and does not even list DePaul as a contender. Princeton University, which is listed by the Gourmet Report as one of the two top schools to practice the philosophy of race, is only “recommended” by the Pluralist’s Guide. But it was not the results of these ratings that enraged the philosophical community. The Pluralist’s Guide also set out to rate programs on their quality of life for women and minorities in philosophy graduate programs. Alcoff and her colleagues sent surveys to faculty members throughout the nation. They were unable to derive enough statistically significant data on minorities or members of the LGBT community, but they did get enough on women. The survey on the Climate for Women in Philosophy included questions about the number of women in the department and more serious questions about the presence of sexual harassment. What they found was shocking. The programs that fared well in the climate survey tended to be programs that did not make the top 50 programs in the Gourmet Report: Penn State, Duquesne, the New School, and the University of Hawaii. But there were some programs that did very poorly. Alcoff decided to create a new category for these schools called “need improvement.” There were only three schools to make the list, and they happened to be the top three overall departments according to the Gourmet Report: New York University, Rutgers University, and Princeton University. Women graduate students at Rutgers were quick to respond. “My department’s bad reputation may have been deserved a while ago, but it’s not now,” said Lisa Miracchi, 24, a graduate student at Rutgers University. She calls herself “a feminist and a philosopher, but not someone who happens to do feminist philosophy.” She and many of her female colleagues were stunned when they got news that their department needed to improve its climate for women. Days after the Pluralist’s Guide’s publication of the Climate for Women in philosophy survey, Miracchi collected opinions from the women in the philosophy program at Rutgers, and at the end of July 2011 drafted a statement that is now posted on both Leiter’s blog and the Pluralist’s Guide. “In numbers we are still the minority,” she wrote, “although it does not feel that way.” The letter closed with a request to remove Rutgers from the “needs improvement” list. Alcoff chose to keep Rutgers on. Meanwhile, another controversy arose. An anonymous student informed Leiter of a serial sexual harasser in the philosophy department at the University of Oregon, and said that a feminist faculty member was suppressing the information. The Pluralist’s Guide rates the University of Oregon “strongly recommended” as a women-friendly department. Professors at the University of Oregon stated that the accusations were a result of a misunderstanding. Alcoff chose to keep Oregon on the list of recommended programs. Leiter and others found Alcoff’s refusal to take Rutgers off the list but to keep University of Oregon on to be irresponsible. At the end of July, Leiter raised the question of whether Alcoff should be deposed as president of the eastern division of the APA. The poll was taken down a few weeks after it went up, but Leiter stated recently this spring 2012 that she is not suited for the job. “My own opinion is that she should be removed from office, given that she can’t possibly represent the departments in the Eastern Division that her Guide defamed,” he wrote recently in an email. No president has been removed from office in the history of the APA, and there are no bylaws explaining how one would do it. Deborah Achtenberg of the University of Nevada-Reno says that the desire to remove Alcoff from office is political. “I think it is interesting that there is a poll to exclude a Latina philosopher. Just when the APA is more inclusive, there seems to be an effort to undercut it,” she says. Alcoff defends her decisions. She says there was a lot of conflicting information about the scandal at the University of Oregon, and she believes that there are enough supportive faculty members at the University of Oregon for a woman to do good work there. With respect to Rutgers, she says that faculty members and students at Rutgers told her in confidence that there were recently problems there. To remove Rutgers from the list, she believes, would be irresponsible. “I felt an obligation to share the information,” says Alcoff. Despite the controversies, Alcoff became president this July and will address the entire eastern division at a conference this December. Although the Pluralist’s Guide is no longer administering Climate Surveys, it offers suggestions on its website for how departments can do their own. After it’s rough start, the Pluralist’s Guide has had a positive impact, some philosophers say. Gaile Pohlhaus, assistant professor of philosophy at Miami University, says her masters students find the guide very useful. “I have seen more talk about the degree to which philosophy marginalizes certain topics and certain persons,” she says, “and about what we can do to make it better.” Rutgers University now has a webpage devoted to the climate for women in their department, and Miracchi and a few female faculty members are devising ways to ensure that the working environment remains favorable to women. She credits the Pluralist’s Guide for it. “I think the Pluralist’s Guide spurred a renewed enthusiasm for climate issues,” she says. The Gourmet Report has added a critical race section since the Pluralist’s Guide was published. On the West coast, at a conference on race in February 2012, Alcoff was approached after her talk by a black woman, Alisa Bierra, 38, who is a graduate student in philosophy at Stanford University and also associate director for race and gender at the University of California, Berkeley. Bierra thanked Alcoff for the Pluralist’s Guide. Bierra says she did so because the Guide’s focus on typically overlooked areas in philosophy is like a “breath of fresh air.” Alcoff says comments like Bierra’s are what keep her going. “That’s why,” she says, “we’re never stopping.”

*A note to the reader: the reporting for this story ends in October 2012, and so some statements or facts may now be obsolete.

Dear Larry

In 2005, I was a philosophy graduate student across the Charles River from MIT where the then president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, made his infamous remarks questioning the intellectual capabilities of women. He was giving a speech at a conference where he offered that a possible reason for the low number of women in high academic positions in science and engineering was due to an innate limitation. He said this was a more likely explanation for women’s underperformance than discrimination. I remember sinking lower in my chair as I heard the news. Summers’ remarks, though they were geared explicitly to other fields, nonetheless threw into doubt women’s capacity for deep thought in general.

In my field, I found that women were just as intelligent as the brightest men, the only difference was that there were far fewer of them. If Summers was questioning the reasons for the underrepresentation of women, then it would follow that he should suspect the same for people of other ethnicities. As Dr. Mary Waters, Chair of Sociology at Harvard said after his remarks: “Has anyone asked if he thinks this about African-Americans, because they are underrepresented at this university? Are Hispanics inferior? Are Asians superior?” Yet, this is something he didn’t publicly do, and if he had, he certainty would have enraged the public far more than he did with his comments about women’s inferiority. But I will leave that point to the side.

To be fair, in a way Summers’ claim that discrimination cannot be the cause for women’s comparatively inferior performance makes sense. We live in a society in which job discrimination is illegal and where there are quotas for hiring women. Furthermore, it is no longer socially acceptable, the way it was a generation or two ago, to discourage women from pursuing careers outside of the home. It could be argued that to all appearances, women no longer have any external barriers preventing them from success. Thus, persons such as Summers conclude that the barrier must be internal. I am sure that Summers, a person very much in the public eye, would not see himself as personally standing in the way of women’s performance. Indeed, he likely took his comments to be mere commentary on the facts of the situation—a neutral discussion of a phenomenon. Yet this is why it was so insidious.

Enter Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010). In this book, Fine argues that sex difference on the level of intellectual capacity is bogus. She analyzes the studies often cited by defenders of women’s inferiority, and shows how they have subsequently been proven fallacious by other scientists or that others have drawn the wrong conclusions from them. One of the most famous experiments that still captivates many, despite having been invalidated by subsequent studies, is the case which claims that there are cognitive differences between male and female babies of only a few days old: female babies are drawn to faces whereas male babies prefer mechanisms. The truth is that the science in favor of women’s intellectual strength doesn’t get much press. But this is only part of the problem. Even if there is no innate intellectual difference, why are women underrepresented?

Fine says that despite society’s attempts to eradicate explicit sexual discrimination, there is a more subtle type of discrimination at work. Recent studies in psychology bear this out. Fine highlights studies that reveal how we are deeply affected subconsciously by the expectations that our environment puts on us. In one study, a group of women were informed prior to taking an exam in mathematics that women tend to underperform compared to men, and another group of women were not. The group that was exposed to the stereotype threat performed far worse than the other group. Fine quotes Gregory Walton and Steven Spencer, two professors at Stanford University who argue that women’s performance is affected by stereotype threats like “the time of a track star running into a stiff headwind.” The reason that women perform less well than men on intellectual tests is a consequence of a tacit signal they are receiving from those around them that they are not good enough.

Of course, men are also affected by stereotype threats. Fine discusses studies that challenge the claim that men are “more aggressive” or “less empathetic” than women. One study, for example, reveals that men who are primed before a questionnaire that scientific studies show they are very empathetic creatures answer positively towards their abilities to nurture, unlike a group of men who were not primed.

What Fine suggests is that—whether we like it or not—the expectations our society has for us affects our self-perceptions, and thus our performance. In the case of intellectual pursuits, women still underperform men because they are getting the message that they do not belong there. Thus it is not enough to simply offer women equal opportunity. It is necessary for those in positions of influence to identify and eradicate the stereotype threats that they unwittingly promote. It is only then that we can actually achieve the ideals that liberalism promised so many of us centuries ago.

Is Childhood an end in itself?

Here I sit in a room littered with toys, colorful books, and tiny dirty socks. I like to think of myself as an aesthete, but as a new parent my living room floor has been taken over by forces far more powerful than my aesthetic sensibilities. My desire to entertain my son coupled with my wish to do something other than clean while he is asleep have resulted in this. As I scan things more carefully, I see another theme arising. It’s not only a wish to preoccupy him that these toys are here, but also a desire in me to help him develop. I see flashcards to facilitate reading, boxes with images of animals to open his mind to the diversity of life on earth, and a miniature plastic piano for him to discover music. Although the ultimate goal of his development is not always clear to me (insofar as I’m not exactly sure what the purpose of life is), it seems much of his existence could be viewed as steps—no matter how small—towards adulthood.

Numerable philosophers throughout history have theorized about how to shape children into their idea of a fully-formed human being. Aristotle wanted children to receive a thorough education in correct moral conduct so that as an adult they could experience a life of virtue, which for Aristotle was synonymous with the good life: “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed society corrupted people, and so he argued that education needed to help children preserve as much of their natural goodness as possible. John Dewey, who tried to sidestep the issue of the purpose of life as defining of education, still wanted to prepare children to continue to grow and have more educative experiences.

Recently in the U.S. media, there has been a debate regarding the proper way to raise a child. Amy Chua, who kicked it off with an essay in the Wall Street Journal (based on her memoir) said that, for parents, “the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.” For Chua, this meant not allowing her children to have play dates or sleepovers, demanding that they get only straight As, and sometimes calling them “garbage” and “fatty.” It also meant that they had to spend grueling hours every day studying mathematics or practicing an instrument (she only allowed them to play violin or piano). Many critics argued that Chua was far too extreme, and that the end she had in sight for her daughters was in fact a rather narrow take on human life (see here and here, for example). The better approach to raising children, some said, would be to encourage children to have new social experiences and to delve into the humanities, both indispensible to the good life.

I am not suggesting that the focus on children as a means to adulthood is inherently bad; indeed it’s absolutely necessary to prepare them for what is to come, and to guide them in the process of learning. We could even say that to neglect this would be immoral. Yet, I still wonder: is there a feature of childhood that ought not simply be a means to an end? Is there something of moral value that we ought not reduce to an investment into the future, whether theirs or ours?

Should government support breastfeeding?

The First Lady of the U.S., Michelle Obama, has made combating childhood obesity her mission. Her initiative, Let’s Move, has the ambitious goal of eradicating it within a generation. Given that obesity in U.S. kids has tripled in the last thirty years, it’s incontrovertibly an important issue. Yet the approach she takes has not been without its critics. This is especially true of late, when Mrs. Obama stated in a discussion with the press that she advocates breastfeeding because “kids who are breast-fed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.” Around the same time, the IRS announced that it would offer tax breaks for employed women who purchase breast pumps.

This two-pronged effort by the government set off a firestorm of debate. It also created interesting bedfellows. Some feminists and conservatives found themselves agreeing that, on this point, the government has no business interfering in the lives of women.

I think the government’s message puts undue pressure on women. As of yet, there is no evidence of a strong link between obesity and formula fed babies. Moreover, anyone who has breastfed a baby or consistently spent time with a woman who breastfeeds realizes that expressing milk takes a lot of time. Additionally, not all women enjoy the experience of breastfeeding or are even able to do it.

Certainly it is right for the government to protect working women who choose to breastfeed when corporate America fails to do it on its own. An admirable example of this is last spring, when the government required that businesses provide non-bathroom space and breaks for nursing mothers. Yet it is careless to send the message that breastfeeding is better than formula when the evidence is not there to support it.

Mrs. Obama has subsequently toned down her rhetoric and said that “[b]reastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman. We are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it.” This is fine if by “trying” she doesn’t mean supporting policies that are based on little scientific evidence.

Is Motherhood Liberating or Confining?

This past year, two significant feminists have spoken out against an increasingly popular trend in parenting. French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter says that today’s mothers are experiencing a “relapse to times long past.” American essayist Erica Jong writes that contemporary motherhood is like a “prison.” Are we truly experiencing a devolution in women’s liberty?

The trend in question, attachment parenting or, a similar variant, green-parenting, encourages mothers to breastfeed, make baby food from scratch, frequently carry them around in a sling, and to generally not be absent the first 3-5 years of the child’s life. Badinter and Jong both see this as severely restricting of a mother’s time. But that is not enough to warrant criticism. On their view, this trend is problematic insofar as it has become so popular and in cases so self-righteous as to eliminate alternate ways of mothering. Women are pressured to always be at their baby’s side, and if they’re not, then they’re made to feel guilty. In this oppressive environment, argue Badinter and Jong, mothers are likely to toss out their ambition with the bath water. In short, Badinter and Jong believe that the ideal for mothers today is counter to the feminist ideal of self-actualization. But is this true?

Not according to everyone. There are some who argue that being a mother is a political act. For instance, these mothers extol breastfeeding because by denying to buy formula, they are shunning consumerism and so sticking it to the man. Similarly, they reject the medicalization of birth, in which hospitals and pain killers alienate women from their bodies. For these women, being a mother is empowering because it allows them to take back control over something that they feel society has progressively taken from them: their bodies and their relationships to their babies.

Who is right? Badinter and Jong have us believe that in the current climate, motherhood keeps women from acting in the world, whereas the other school of thought tells us that motherhood can have a significant impact on society. Yet both sides argue that they are feminists fighting the good fight against oppression. In a way, this is an iteration of the age-old battle in feminism between defenders of women’s individualism and defenders of women’s ability to nurture others. It seems that the question of whether motherhood is liberating or not requires us to answer a deeper question: are we best defending women’s liberty by advancing their individuality or rather their woman-ness?

Plato and Modern Motherhood

“I’d rather be making cupcakes!” said my sister.

She said it so many times in fact that our mother had it printed onto a t-shirt for her birthday. Cupcakes to my sister meant spending time at home with her baby. Before she gave birth, she had set out to become a scientist. Yet now that her baby was here, she wasn’t so gung-ho.

In truth, my sister did not want only to make cupcakes as much as she did not want only to be a scientist. But splitting her time between the two was not that simple. My parents raised us with the belief that we could “be anything we wanted if we only put our mind to it,” and now my sister found herself of two minds: she wanted to be a mother raising her baby but she also wanted to be a successful scientist. Like many modern mothers—myself included—she could not do one without feeling as though she were significantly shortchanging the other.

Plato would not be surprised. Even though he was writing over two-thousand years ago in ancient Greece, entirely unaware of the modern woman’s condition, he said a few things about motherhood that were interestingly spot on. Or, at least the character of Socrates did in Plato’s most famous dialog the Republic.

In this work, Socrates proposes to build a city from scratch in his mind. Many wild things come of this, such as a eugenics program and a “noble lie” told to citizens to get them to accept this program. Socrates’ willingness to vastly reconsider everything also leads him to a somewhat forward-looking take on women. Challenging Greek tradition, Plato has Socrates pitch the idea that women have the same “souls” as men, by which he means that they have the same mental capacities as men. That is, women can reason and so are capable of jobs typically reserved for men, like politics or doing philosophy.

To persuade his friends that a woman can do a man’s job, he tries to persuade them that it’s absurd to allow one’s physical appearance to determine their ability to do a job. He says that “if bald men are shoemakers, we won’t let the longhaired ones be shoemakers, or if the longhaired ones are, then the others can’t be (454c).” It’s absurd that one’s hair-length should determine one’s profession; Socrates wants us to see that and then to consider that it is also absurd to allow other physical traits, such as one’s sex, to decide one’s professional destiny. Just because women are physically different from men, he argues, doesn’t mean they should have different jobs from men. In fact, he argues that when it comes to thinking and doing politics that “men and women have the same nature” and so women should also be in the business of politics, too (456a).

But what does this all mean for motherhood? Socrates wants these women to also be mothers (smart women have smart babies, he assumes, which is good for society). But he also wants them to keep their jobs. His solution? “[T]he children…will be in common, and neither will a parent know his own offspring, nor a child his parent (457d).” He wants to break the mother-child bond “so she won’t recognize her own.” As a result, Plato presents us with women who are mothers and professionals. But the catch is that these women are not torn between these two worlds, like some of us moderns, because by teaching women to see their own children as common to all Socrates conditions the mother out of them. Literally.

Getting rid of the mother’s soul, as Socrates does, is not a solution for me or my sister or any modern woman for that matter. And Plato didn’t really seem to think it was a solution for ancient women either. There are suggestions throughout his text that he made the creation of the city so absurdly impossible that he didn’t really wish for it to exist (for example, Socrates tells us that the annihilation of all persons over age 10 is necessary for the city to come into being, since those over the age 10 are corrupted by tradition. Not only is that downright immoral, but you run into the absurdity of who will teach all of these 10 year olds how to construct this city anyway?). What we can say is that the difficulty Plato saw facing women, that they are smart like men but also by nature drawn to care deeply for their children (he didn’t seem to think the same bond could be found between babies and their fathers) is probably why every morning, as the legend goes, he thanked the gods for having made him “a philosopher, an Athenian,” and foremost, “a man.”

Before my son was born, I looked forward to the connection that I would feel for him. Everyone told me how the parent-child bond was so unique. Yet I also harbored a deep seated fear that this love would take from my professional drive. Somewhere lurked the belief that the more time I spent with him, the weaker my ambition would become. My mother liked to tease me once I was pregnant by reminding me of my proclamations that I “will never marry!” and “never have kids!” which were in a way my own self-inflicted conditioning to “get the motherliness out of my soul,” as Socrates might say.

Still a part of me didn’t totally believe myself either. I did get married, and now I have a child. Like my sister, a part of me wants to enjoy staying at home and making cupcakes, but that is quickly overcome by my desire to do other things too. There is an undeniable joy I derive from both the maternal and the professional sides of myself. Yet that doesn’t solve the pull I feel in either direction. Being a mother is rewarding, and Socrates’ attempt to remove that from women’s lives is too extreme. Nonetheless, maybe there is something a modern mother can take away from his discussion, which is that for mothers who also aspire to have a professional life, at least some sort of conditioning is necessary for them to be convinced that the balance they have struck between their professional endeavors and the caring of their children is right. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that like the people over the age of 10 in Socrates’ city, my soul is already too set in its own ways for any conditioning.