Guest Post: An American Feminist Philosopher in Dublin – Contexts and Intersections

The Summer Institute in American Philosophy brought me to Dublin. At the conference (June 8-13), hosted by University College Dublin, I enjoyed meeting colleagues from across Europe, the USA, and beyond. Using the theme “Transforming the Emotions,” our four-member panel on Feminist Pragmatism ranged wide. Our papers intersected philosophy with the fields of science, literature, art, and psychology.

Charlene Haddock Seigfried and I presented papers on Jane Addams’s use of sympathy, which lay at the heart of her ethics. I discussed how Addams (1860-1935) drew her conception of sympathy from the science of the day. Like many scientists, Addams regarded sympathy as a primitive instinct and a primary factor in human social evolution. Unlike those who segmented the civilized from the primitive and denigrated the latter, Addams used the sympathetic instinct to bridge such divisions. Seigfried explored George Eliot’s Middlemarch to uncover the many patterns of thought that Addams shared with Eliot. Both writers were keenly attuned to how everyone’s perspective is limited, shaped by their own experiences and contexts. For both writers, sympathy provides a pathway toward deeper understanding.

Ryan Musgrave gave a three-stop tour that demonstrated pragmatist aesthetics in action, showing how art could be placed in the service of social justice. The tour included Hull-House, the settlement house founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago in 1889; the Barnes factory and foundation in Philadelphia, dedicated to making art available to working-class people; and Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where the arts were central to learning. Musgrave called these “collaboratories” with art and aesthetics used democratically as resources for ethical and social renewal. Clara Fischer examined literature on the contemporary turn in recent feminist philosophy to affect and the body. Her question was how to mobilize affect for ethical-political ends. Concerned by tendencies toward dualisms in some recent feminist theories, Fischer mined John Dewey’s theory of the emotions for its potential use in liberatory politics.

Pragmatists take context seriously; geographical and temporal locations matter. With my scanty knowledge of Irish history and contemporary Irish politics, two experiences outside the conference impressed me deeply. Clara invited Charlene and me to participate in a protest by SPARK (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of Our Kids) in front of the Dáil (Irish parliament). Many women and some men spoke eloquently of how devastating the most recent cuts to lone parent households would be for their own particular families, each with its own configuration and challenges. I was struck by the resonance between these women’s stories and stories I hear frequently in the U.S. I was also struck by how politicians in both countries refuse to see how their proposed policies will play out in the lived experience of their citizens.

Clara suggested Charlene and I visit Kilmainham Gaol. It was sobering, standing at the spot where the men of the 1916 Easter Rebellion were executed, seeing the plaque with their names. Again, I was reminded that in struggle and in war, women’s service and suffering are often omitted in textbook accounts. The young tour leader was quite knowledgeable about women’s roles in the movement for independence from Great Britain, as he had taken a college course on Irish women’s history (yes, feminist scholarship and teaching make a difference!). It was moving to learn about Constance Markievicz, Mary McSwiney, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and others. The visit reminded me that context matters. While Irish and American suffragists participated together in the international suffrage movement, their stories are not parallel. Irish suffragists needed to ask themselves whether to advocate for the right to vote for Irish members of the British Parliament, the very government that oppressed them, and whether they should give priority to the struggle for Irish independence. At the same time that African-Americans were being systematically denied the right to vote, American suffragists had to ask themselves whether to expand their efforts to include black men as well as black women, or to turn their movement in essence into a fight for white women only. These stories intersect and they differ, and they all need to be told.


Marilyn Fischer, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, USA


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