It was delicate for me to inquire into women’s experiences in the Philosophy Department. But these were clearly not homogenous; they varied by age, institutional position, national and racial location, language, and social class. Some female students were open feminists, and some female professors had been feminist pioneers; but open feminism was not a general norm for women in philosophy. There seemed to be safety in women’s numbers: female philosophers from Paris 8 signed the October 2018 statement who were otherwise not always known as feminist activists. Indeed, the statement noted that masculine philosophy had defended itself by dividing women into “feminists” and “non-feminists.”
It is nevertheless instructive to compare the experiences of two women professors, one who had been active in the MLF, one somewhat younger and more guarded (with me) about feminist questions. Consider the case of a female professor hired in the 1970s, Marielle Burkhalter. She had participated in the Women’s Liberation Movement and subsequently worked, above all, on documentary video production. By the time of my fieldwork, she was approaching retirement, and we never met in person. But when I began to write about gender, I wrote to ask if she would be willing to correspond about gender relations in the Department. She was — with a change of terminology.
You call the question of “gender” what I would term the exclusion of women. This began — in spite of our presence in the department, and in spite of the ‘protection’ that we were given — with the exclusion of Judith Miller [in 1970] and continued through the eventual arrival of Mitterrand’s daughter in the department. The “power” was and remained masculine, with its unraveling after the historic professors had disappeared.
For Burkhalter, the masculinity of power was the source of women’s exclusion even as paternalistic power had also been necessary to their survival. This “protection” notably involved a personal commitment to supporting women from François Châtelet, the Department’s chair throughout the 1970s. Paternalism was widespread among the university’s male professoriate in that historical moment. “Towards women, they weren’t necessarily ‘macho,’” recalled Christiane Dufrancatel, the sole woman sociologist in the first days of Vincennes, adding that “they could be quite protective in the framework of a relationship of superiority” (Dufrancatel 2008:42). A “relationship of superiority” seems to have organized women’s place in the Philosophy Department as well. And paternal protection could be unreliable, as I learned from Burkhalter by asking about her experience in the Department’s early days.
I was a part-time teacher [chargée de cours] and there were very few of us women, only four. We too were excluded early on when there were too many part-timers [culminating in the attempt at mass layoffs that we saw in Chapter 1]. But then we were rehired, after protests, in concert with the support for Guy Hocquenghem [a prominent gay writer], who had also been excluded… The arrival of Mitterrand [in 1981] enabled us to obtain the status of instructor [assistant], after eight years of part-time status, so we were able to be [permanently] included within the national education system.
Paternal protection had thus not been enough to escape the precarity of her institutional position. It was only the good luck of François Mitterrand’s left-wing electoral victory that had offered precarious staff a path to permanent positions. And not all women had been able to take this path, Burkhalter explained, with long-term material consequences. She cited the example of a longtime female contract teacher who had worked closely with a famous male philosopher. This woman had eventually retired with no pension, since part-time teachers had no permanent status or benefits. Women’s exclusion was thus not only symbolic or political; it also entailed longterm material inequalities and permanent bargaining with the male power structure. “There was only a single woman who was able to get a position as full professor,” Burkhalter mentioned, “and that was only after the unexpected death of her husband, who was supposed to have had the position.”
That first woman professor was Antonia Soulez, a senior figure during my fieldwork with a reputation for rigorous engagement with students. I asked her once what it was like to have been the first female professor. She said, with great generosity and to my surprise, that she had not thought about it before. By the time of my fieldwork, in any case, a new generation of younger women philosophers had been hired, including the one who observed that a masculine norm was “normal” in philosophy departments. I will not mention her name, since the issue remains delicate, but I was struck in our conversation by her reflexive sense of the material constraints imposed by gender. I asked her to elaborate on this masculine norm. Without criticizing any of her colleagues directly, she remarked that it was hard to participate in the Department if you had young children. “The meetings are scheduled for Wednesday morning, and we’re explaining, me and [another woman colleague], that we can’t come Wednesday morning. And they [ils, the masculine pronoun] finally managed to understand that, if they want to gather their forces, they have to move the Wednesday morning meetings.”
I am sure she was choosing her words carefully, as a female professor being interviewed by a masculine foreign ethnographer. She did not align herself with a more radical feminist critique of the Department (a critique which was anchored at that point largely by a small group of feminist students). Instead, in a quite materialist fashion, she made plain the forces of gendered exclusion that emerged from the French norm that women were the primary caretakers for young children. Gender thus became infrastructural, getting hidden away in a set of unexamined institutional expectations. Childcare was administratively invisible, for instance, since the normative professor was a man. As I asked about her work life, it became clear how difficult it was to separate work from home.
She showed me a weekly planner with the dates of her courses. “I’m pretty forgetful. I don’t have a lot of meetings. No students doing dissertations, which keeps it down. And no students finishing their MAs because I wasn’t there last year…”
“So if we take a pretty typical day in your week, what exactly does your work involve? I’m imagining that you work at home, like most [Parisian] professors?”
“Do you have a little office? Or you work in the living room?”
She laughed. “I have an office, which is my son’s bedroom, and I have a big living room that is increasingly turning into a kind of office. But since the bookshelves aren’t in the living room, I migrate from one space to another. I don’t really have a typical day. I work a lot in bed with my books — my real office, to tell you the truth, is mostly organized around my bed. If that could be mentioned discreetly, anonymously…” She laughed again.
“In reality,” she continued, “we’re never teaching the same courses, so for me, it takes a ton of work. On Sunday and Saturday, I’m preparing for my Tuesday classes. Wednesday and Thursday, I’m preparing for my Friday classes.”
“And usually it’s based on a text that you’re teaching to your students?”
“No, normally, since I started, I’ve done research workshops… I read a lot, to be able to present in class, and then, above all, I read student work, since their job is to turn in homework each week. I correct that, and then I use those corrections as the basis for the class session… It’s a mix of a class on an author and a class on methodology.”
Parisian public university professors rarely had individual offices on their campuses, which were cramped and underfunded. At Paris 8, there was only a shared teachers’ lounge (salle des enseignants) per department, which had to accommodate student meetings, oral examinations, teaching preparation, storage, eating space, and sometimes administrative workspace. I was not surprised that this female philosopher worked largely at home, like most of her colleagues. But I was struck by the intensity of her teaching labor, with its massive reading and evaluation load. And I was struck by the solitude, in a worklife where the books — themselves predominantly written by men — seemed to be the most constant companions. In this solitude, there was also a respite from the iffy gender dynamics that organized campus life.