The Ubiquitous Jane Addams: Women and Gender at the 2017 Summer Institute of American Philosophy

by Carol Bensick

Portrait of Jane Addams by George de Forest Brush, 1906

The twentieth Summer Institute in American Philosophy was held on July 10-15, 2017 at the University of Oregon. The Institute was comprised of plenary sessions, conference paper sessions, dissertation-in-progress sessions, and book/experiment sessions. To begin with plenary sessions, out of fourteen plenary sessions, three concerned a woman philosopher (Jane Addams, Gloria Anzaldua); notably, the same woman philosopher (Addams) appeared twice. On the other hand, five of the 14 plenary lectures were presented or co-presented by women philosophers (Leilani Sabzalian, Kim Garchar, and Mariana Alessandri). One of the plenary sessions by a man (Gregory Pappas) also made several references to Jane Addams.

Of the 21 conference papers, two (by Marilyn Fischer and David Ferris) focused on a woman (again, Jane Addams), and a third, by Paria Akhgari, focused on feminist theory (specifically the works of Andrea Nye, Val Plumwood, and Karen Barad). One other traditional abstract, by Rebekah Sinclair, involved Indigenous women scholars Ann Waters, Marie Clements, and Ellen Clarke. 5 of 21 conference paper presenters and two of 6 paper session chairs were women (Carol Bensick, Paria Akhgari, Rebekah Sinclair, Ani Chen, Marilyn Fischer, Tess Varney). Five conference papers by men (John Giordano, David Ferris, Jeremy Swartz, Matt Silk, Ken Stikkers) also engaged texts by historical or contemporary women philosophers (again, Addams [Giordano, Ferris, Swartz], Nancy Fraser [Giordano], Heather Douglas, Helen Longino, Janet Kourany [Silk], and Martha Nussbaum [Stikkers]). Turning to dissertations, out of 6 dissertations presented on, four were by women. Though none focused on a woman philosopher or feminism, one, by Bobbie Sheehey, did cite a woman theorist (Eve Sedgwick). One dissertation session out of two was chaired by a woman (Lisa Mazzei). Turning finally to Books/Experiments, two out of six were by women (Tess Varner, Kara Barnette). In addition, Barnette drew on woman American philosophy scholars and feminist philosophers (Shannon Sullivan and Terry McMillan, Miranda Fricker and Alexis Shotwell). Three male book authors/co-authors (Zach Piso, Jared Talley, Albert Spencer) also referenced a woman philosopher (yet again, Jane Addams) in their abstract. Of three book sessions, one had a woman as chair (Erin McKenna). The 2017 Summer Institute in American Philosophy was directed by a woman philosopher (Erin McKenna), for the first time in my personal experience.

On the three days that I was able to attend, women were well represented in the audiences of the plenary addresses, if men appeared to speak in greater numbers. At least one of the sessions including a woman speaker and chair was well-attended, and at least one woman there asked a question–a pertinent one.

If anything stands out from this brief overview, it must be the ubiquity of Jane Addams–discussed by men as well as women and represented in plenaries, conference papers, and books. (Though she is not found among the dissertations, given the conference papers, this is probably only a matter of time.) On the other hand, though she is given the nod by many projects, it is not so sure that she is always given more than that. In the plenary on John Dewey it was admitted that Addams was sometimes used as Dewey Spark Notes or Dewey Lite.

In addition, it stands out that Addams is the only 19th century woman philosopher discussed; all the rest are 20th or 21st century. Were there no other women other than Addams, a settlement operator and social worker whose midwest college had just been upgraded from a female seminary, to match with James, Peirce, DuBois, and Royce? Is Addams really the only example of an educated and intellectual woman in the late nineteenth century? Is she the best one? For that should surely be the criterion. Could implicit tokenism be at work in the history of American Philosophy? It’s worth asking.

Carol Bensick is a CSW Research Affiliate. She received her B. A. from Wellesley College in 1977, double-majoring in European History and English, and her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1982 in English, specializing in canonical American Literary and Intellectual History and the European Novel to 1914. From 1982 to 1998, she was an Assistant Professor successively at the University of Denver, the University of Oregon, and the University of California, Riverside, as well as a Visiting Assistant Professor in several Summer Sessions at Cornell and UCLA.