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Pamela Sue Anderson

In conversation with Sophia Blackwell

Dr. Pamela Sue Anderson is the Dean of Regent’s Park College on Pusey Street, where she teaches philosophy as a Tutorial Fellow. She is the author of Ricoeur and Kant (1993) and A Feminist Philosophy of Religion (1998); she has published articles in various journals, including The International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, Sophia, and Feminist Theory in which she published ‘Autonomy, Vulnerability and Gender’ (August 2003). Her most recent book is a collection of critical essays, Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Critical Readings (2004) co-edited with Beverley Clack.

Front Cover of 'A Feminist Philosophy of Religion'

‘I tried to speak my philosophy first in sculpted bodies… crafting a feminist philosophy of religion from the aesthetics of a passionate embrace... Yearning becomes a central component of this philosophy.’

It’s good for people to realise that Regent’s Park isn’t “a place for training monks”!

“A place for training monks” was part of the description of Regent’s Park College which appeared in a Oxford University student paper in 2001, and it somehow developed into a popular myth about Regent’s Park, at least for that year during Admissions. I think the initial, wrong description came about because someone had confused Regent’s Park College with St. Benet’s Hall – which is also located on St Giles. However, this was clearly not an account which would please the Regent’s Fellows, or JCR! It was wholly inaccurate and led to all sorts of related confusions: that Regent’s had no women, no undergraduates, no one reading subjects other than Theology. All of these gave an utterly wrong impression of the college. Yet it is important to realise how such myths can quickly develop and misrepresent a small college!

The thing which I like about Regent’s Park is that as a small college, students and Fellows come to know each other. Giving and gaining personal support becomes usual, yet never taken for granted. It is great to be able to say honestly that nurturing academics of all types exist in Oxford University – and that some of the best are in Permanent Private Halls (PPHs). In contrast, large, older and wealthier colleges can be at a disadvantage at least in this sense: additional pressure of social status, large numbers, fixed academic reputations can add to any underlying sense of a student’s own individual insecurity. At a venerable, long established Oxford University college, academics of any sort can be easily overwhelmed by pressures which range from dining in formal Hall to keeping up a familial or school image. It is possible – and often easier – for a small PPH to be amenable and personally supportive to a diversity of student needs, to the distinctiveness of various academics and to personalities of scholars not fitting into an older established model of an academic lifestyle. Although Regent’s Park College is over 250 years old, originally founded as part of the University of London, it only became part of Oxford University in the twentieth-century as a non-conformist college. Thus, in Oxford terms, it is a very young and not under the Church of England.

My rosy view of the size and nature of Regent’s Park College could sound like a lot of special pleading or preaching on the merits of a PPH – but I believe the merits of such a place are not heard enough. Regent’s Park offers the possibility of nurturing students and academics in highly personal and distinctive ways. Admittedly, this stress on personal development is also a more general goal for the tutorial system in all of the Oxford colleges. Yet, while Regent’s Park has a whole range of students within its membership, including some of the best, there are those who initially struggle with the Oxford academic life; and Regent’s Fellows aim to provide appropriate pastoral care for each student, whether excelling or not. Regent’s Park College is also very good for women. This is a fact which can be supported by my own personal experience. I’m the only woman Fellow, my male colleagues are highly supportive of my teaching and research, whether this is in philosophy, religion or feminist theory. In other university departments of philosophy in the UK and the USA, women philosophers often find themselves the only women in the department, aggressively competitive male colleagues can often undermine the one female, often leaving her overwhelmed with both administrative and pastoral duties rather than what are seen to be the more significant research or lecturing matters. Obviously, in Oxford if I want to compete with the best philosophers in the country this is possible because I am a member of the Oxford Philosophy Faculty (and I should add that I am a member of the Theology Faculty as well), but I can develop my own research interests, my teaching and pastoral concerns at Regent’s without feeling the severe academic and financial competition which have undermined women philosophers. Not that we are satisfied with less than the best teaching and research at Regent’s but that the environment is not a hostile one. At the same time, my Philosophy colleagues outside of Regent’s Park College, especially at the moment philosophers at St Hugh’s, Worcester and St Hilda’s Colleges provide me with philosophical support in teaching and writing.

I’m very keen on student-tutor relationships, so it was ironic that when I arrived at Regent’s I was appointed Dean…

Most of my friends from other colleges thought it ironic (if not surprising) that when I first arrived at Regent’s Park College I was asked to be the college Dean. I guess in the eyes of those who had known me before Regent’s I was not an obvious candidate for dealing with problems of student discipline or destructive behaviour. And there is also the image of the male Dean who is seriously stern or like a ‘college cop’ – which is incompatible with my own nature. Of course, others can believe what they want about me and the job of Dean, yet I like to think that my temperament, gender and personality have been more than compatible with the position of Regent’s Dean. Essentially, the JCR here aims to be self-regulating – again, size is a positive asset for this aim. There simply is not much seriously destructive behaviour (at least not yet in my experience) at Regent’s. I remember in my first term as Dean comparing notes with the Dean of another college where there had been several attempted suicides and serious damage to the college infrastructure;  and I thought, ‘Well, I’m glad I’m at Regent’s.’ The kind of mischief students get up to at Regent’s is normally fairly harmless and typical of university student life – this behaviour is more or less regulated by the fact that everyone is well-known to each other in the JCR. Again, I return to the virtue of a small place.

Clearly, a major disadvantage of a PPH is financial, since not supported by the university in the way full colleges are, and often PPHs – as is the case with Regent’s – do not have the endowments. So we struggle with serious monetary worries. Nevertheless, this disadvantage necessarily motivates students and academics to search for monetary and material support from other resources. In fact, we cannot be exclusively inward looking. Instead members of Regent’s Park College must also look to friends, funds, alumni and colleagues outside the college, both nationally and internationally.

I started out reading Philosophy and French, but somehow I was moved into Philosophy of Religion…

I was always a student who fell between disciplines. Initially, in the States I thought of doing twentieth-century French literature and Philosophy. But quite quickly I was moved to Philosophy of Religion. Gradually, my area of subject expertise, in teaching and writing, evolved between philosophy and theology, and often between philosophy and literature – the latter because literary theorists have worked more on French philosophy than Anglo-American philosophers have. After completing my Oxford DPhil and on the job market I also moved between philosophy and women’s studies – largely because of the struggles women in philosophy have in teaching and maintaining academic positions, my research interests gravitated towards feminist philosophy. So, I have often found myself being stuck between subjects, which is not always the best place to be! Not being at the heart of a pure discipline tends to be a weak position in terms of obtaining a secure academic job, of gaining research funds and of becoming recognized and respected. I sometimes think I was also marginalized because my interest in philosophy has fallen in areas identified, notably in feminist work, as the ‘softer’ domains of the field, e.g. moral philosophy. From the beginning of my academic career, I was genuinely less interested in the so-called ‘harder’ domains such as logic and philosophy of science. Instead questions of value, action, virtue, as well as more social and political issues popular in European philosophy maintained my critical interests. In retrospect, someone might say that my gender led me to certain softer concerns – but this runs the danger of stereotyping a philosopher according to her sex.

I have been especially intrigued in recent years by the political concerns of the French philosopher, Michèle Le Doeuff, whose writing about women and/in philosophy has taught me a great deal about the gendered imagery which shape the discipline. Le Doeuff has also demonstrated how questions of the philosophical imaginary cannot be separated from ethical issues such as the conflicting rights of women. For example, it may be agreed that women have the right to expect a fair level of education. Yet if a woman’s right to dress a certain way is denied – as in the denial of women’s attendance at school wearing a headscarf – even for what may seem positive, liberal-minded grounds, this can result in the loss of her education. Issues such as this one about a woman’s basic right can seem initially straightforward, yet the multi-faceted nature of women’s oppression, including the familial, religious, material and social dimensions of their lives, render difficult the establishment of her own integrity and quality of life by the introduction of particular laws.

Well before I began to read Le Doeuff, my philosophical work focused on the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur is a living philosopher, ninety this year, whose own writing and recognition have developed in the past twenty-five years. I remember when I first started reading Ricoeur it was difficult to find his books on sale in either Oxford or Paris – now the Parisian bookshops of all sorts have Ricoeur’s books on their shelves. Ricoeur himself is a philosopher between disciplines, or between subjects and branches of philosophy. Again, his influence made my own research vulnerable at least initially. Fortunately, wise advice given by my philosophy tutor, Alan Montefiore, ensured my strong grounding in modern philosophy – and especially in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant as a long time dead philosopher with a secure reputation! Ironically, perhaps my interest in the softer domains of philosophy led me to Ricoeur – and then to Kant – but both Ricoeur and Kant led me to a more secure position in my knowledge of the history of philosophy – as well as knowledge of the most contemporary developments in the field. That is, I have read on questions of freedom, justice, evil, goodness, God, personal identity and love precisely because of following the works of Ricoeur. Ironically, what may have seemed initially as a vulnerable starting point in my study of philosophy has become the strongest dimension of my philosophical thinking and writing.

In retrospect, I see that I have been fortunate to have come to know, first, Ricoeur and, later, Le Doeuff well. Each of these French philosophers – although of different generations – was schooled in the history of philosophy, both with concerns about how to read philosophical texts, with ethical and epistemological questions. Yet they remain different from each other in their approaches to philosophy and different from the world of Anglo-American philosophy. Somehow, I have been able to flourish to a certain degree in the latter world.

It is striking for me to recall that when I began working on my DPhil in Oxford in the 1980s, I was frequently asked, ‘Why are you here if you are working on a French philosopher (i.e., Ricoeur)?’ In fact, I did not have a good answer then, but now I can see that Ricoeur’s writing was a vehicle to thinking about philosophical issues which remain timely for my teaching in Oxford today. It is also noteworthy that in the 1990s each of Ricoeur and Le Doeuff were asked in separate years to give an Oxford Amnesty Lecture (Ricoeur in 1992 and Le Doeuff in 1996). The lively ethical and political debates with which Ricoeur and Le Doeuff have engaged have maintained my own motivation intellectually and personally. I feel certain that the same sort of motivation would not have been generated by the more ‘hard core’ of analytic philosophy – had this been the initial basis for my career.

I think philosophy still tends to be very dominated not only by Anglo-American interests, but by men…

When any philosophy student begins to read the standard history of western philosophy today it becomes quickly apparent (if a student takes a moment out to notice) that the authors on the reading lists for papers in the history of philosophy are all men (a few women in the twentieth-century may appear on the list, but the virtual impact is not much changed by this). Le Doeuff herself has made inroads into trying to change this picture in her The Sex of Knowing (2003). Admittedly, certain prominent men in twentieth-century philosophy rendered possible positive shifts in the direction of the philosophical interests of women in philosophy. For instance, there have been definite shifts in contemporary philosophy; even if these have been in moral philosophy, which again is thought to be softer, so more easily open to change, the transformation has become significant. The highly respected British philosopher Bernard Williams (formerly the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford) who died this year is an excellent instance of a male philosopher whose brilliance and insight made extremely significant connections between the softer side of philosophy (e.g. ethics) and the more hard core domains of philosophy of science and epistemology. This was made evident to me when comparing the recent Oxford Ethics papers for the Finals in the Honour School including Philosophy with earlier philosophy papers. Not only were the results of Williams’s criticisms of the once pervasive utilitarian style of thinking in ethics evident in new more substantive ethical issues, but Williams’s concern with questions of personal projects, relationships, social upbringing and acquired virtues seem to render ethics a very different subject than it was twenty five years ago when I first came to Oxford. Of course, I have not mentioned the names of moral philosophers such as Philippa Foot and Onora O’Neill who as women in the field have taken their place alongside men on the Ethics reading list. But philosophy generally is still dominated by men. The hope is that if philosophy is to remain true to is original reflexive and critical nature, its exclusive reliance on certain privileged authorities is going to have to change in the light of an increasing awareness of the weaknesses (and falsehoods) created by the highly specific social and material locatedness of its history.

I was born in Minneapolis...

My parents, brother, sisters and their families still live there. Minneapolis in the state of Minnesota is where I grew up and I would not deny the positive influence on me of this upbringing. But it is a place where (we were made to understand that) natives rarely left permanently. I became an exception in the context of my family and this understanding. It is difficult to work out one’s own motivations in retrospect. I had a very secure and happy childhood. Going to France as a teenager to learn some French, and then moving to England to study at Oxford University could not change all that was positive about being born in Minneapolis. But I have now spent more than half of my life living elsewhere. So my world does not revolve around my place of birth. I have also long ago lost touch with the character of the city. If someone asks me, ‘How many people live there?’ I could not give an exact answer. I used to be asked where I came from, when I said Minneapolis, this was followed by, ‘how far is it from New York City?’ It seemed to work both ways the English had only a vague idea of the location of Minneapolis, but the Minnesotans had very little, if any, knowledge of Oxford. So, I guess it was natural (perhaps too easy) to grow apart from my ‘hometown’.

When I was at school I was very keen on French – which was in-itself fairly unusual for a Minnesotan where ancestors spoke Swedish, Norwegian, possibly German, but rarely French – or British English for that matter! Ultimately, I would have been thought of as ‘an odd ball’ – a description which any Minnesotan would know well. But a more positive description was given to students coming from Minnesota by one of my first Oxford tutors – ‘they have fertile minds’. I guess this meant I was healthy and ready to have ideas planted and flourish in my mind – it would be nice to think that this was true, and possibly still is.

I first came to Oxford in 1979 and I was attached to Mansfield College...

Mansfield College was in 1979 a similar size to what Regent’s Park is today. It was the obvious place for me to begin in Oxford. At the time, there were a couple crucial links between Mansfield and Minnesota. First, the college Principal had a link with St Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, where I was interviewed for a place at Oxford. Second, Mansfield had the one Lutheran Fellow in Oxford University – although I apparently did not appear to be like any Lutheran at Mansfield, St Olaf was a Lutheran college, so this link made Mansfield a likely home for me. I  really enjoyed not only Mansfield, but living in Oxford right from the beginning.

In fact, I never lived in Mansfield College or had any academic tuition there – but I made friendships quickly with members of the MCR as well as the SCR. I actually lived in a Merton College house on Holywell Street for eleven years, where I had a landlady who I maintained a close friendship with until May 2003 when she died. Her death remains a sad loss for me. My landlady had lived at 17 Holywell Street since 1939 when she moved there at the beginning of World War II, in order to undergo treatment at the Nuffield Hospital – she never left that home.

I was mainly ‘farmed out’ to philosophy tutors at other Oxford colleges. I remembered being tutored by Mary Warnock in the early 1980s. From her, I quickly realised that as an British philosopher she found the standard of writing of contemporary French philosophy below the standard of Oxford philosophy – I was tutored by Mary Warnock on Descartes, as well subsequently, on Sartre and the Existentialists (about whom she had written). Nevertheless she could be unreservedly critical of the current style of French philosophical writing. This judgment was significant for my own future research in philosophy at Oxford. In fact, Mary Warnock’s negative judgment was useful – yet it did not in the end put me off of my own deepest interests. I remained interested in French philosophy, but found it necessary to gain solid knowledge of the arguments in the history of modern (European) philosophy. Again, as mentioned earlier, Alan Montefiore who was at Balliol College became very important for my Oxford education in philosophy.

Montefiore was not only an excellent enabler of Oxford philosophy students, but he was an actual bridge-builder between the French and the British, that is, he did a considerable amount practically to bridge the divide between so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy and Oxford Philosophy (or, essentially Anglo-American analytic philosophy). When working on my DPhil I relied upon Montefiore’s knowledge of and friendship with philosophers in Paris. In particular, Montefiore put me in touch with a woman translator (and philosopher) who was working on Ricoeur’s French texts – those which would be translated as Time and Narrative, vols 1-3. Once I started meeting with Ricoeur in Paris, it was also important for me to have contact with his translator, Kathleen McLaughlin (now Blamey) who was not only also born in Minnesota, but had an impressive command of Ricoeur’s philosophy and the French language! A friendship and crucial support were made for my research, and future work on Ricoeur and French philosophy.

Much later, in the 1990s, it was again Montefiore who put me in touch with Michèle Le Doeuff. Before meeting Le Doeuff, I had read her work on women in philosophy: Hipparchia’s Choice: An Essay Concerning Women, Philosophy, Etc (1991). This put me on a new stage of philosophical research, encountering a whole new dimension of philosophy – this time raising questions of gender which had never crossed my mind until then! So French philosophy has been a definite catalyst for me and my career, but this will seem surprising to many. My interest in Le Doeuff also ultimately helped bring me back to Oxford – even if indirectly.

I had gone to the USA and went on the job market there through the American Philosophical Association (APA) in 1989. APA conferences are like cattle markets. Philosophy departments send representatives to view the cattle (i.e. philosophy graduates!) newly on the job market. My main disadvantage was that I had no Oxford representatives to sell my virtues. Nevertheless, I had numerous interviews and three job offers. I accepted one offer for a year at the University of Delaware. I learnt a lot that year, but missed Oxford, especially my friends, relationships and personal support. So I spent holidays and the summers in Oxford. My heart never really left Oxford. I spent several years with a good philosophy job in the North East of England, living in Durham, but again returning every holiday, many weekends and every summer to Oxford where my partner lived through all this time.

One American woman philosopher who was at the University of Delaware also made a significant impact on me: this was Sandra Harding. I also remember Harding having Le Doeuff’s The Philosophical Imaginary (1989) on her desk. None of my years teaching outside of Oxford were wasted. I learnt that England was not just Oxford, but also that personal relationships were as important, if not more important to me than a career in philosophy. As a woman in philosophy I had to be willing to go away where to become established in the profession – but I could not have done this without strong personal support from my loyal relationships in Oxford

It is not clear the specifics of what motivated me to settle in the UK. I can only say at this time, when I look back, it was because of one or two people who matter most to me that I remained – and never returned to live in the USA. Once settled in a permanent job in philosophy in the UK, I put into practice some of the things I had learnt firsthand from Sandra Harding about women in the profession – but, also from the reflections I had on, and contact with, Le Doeuff. My areas of expertise and teaching competence became increasingly focused on the areas of ethics and feminist questions in philosophy, especially epistemological questions. My research in epistemology included work on women and knowledge, as well as questions about the rationality of religious belief. Together these areas of expertise led me to receive a commission from Blackwell’s publishing to write A Feminist Philosophy of Religion: The Rationality and Myths of Religious Belief (1998). I had previously published a book in 1993 – Ricoeur and Kant – but my second book took me off in various new directions both in terms of teaching and in terms of research conferences, etc. For instance, I became active in the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP), giving papers at their conferences. Eventually, I was asked to be an Executive Member of SWIP and an editorial member of Women’s Philosophy Review (WPR). WPR is a small journal, literally put together by the women philosophy editors themselves. It is self-funding – nothing like the USA where SWIP and its journal have an institutional support from the universities where its women members are employed, as well as from the APA. Nevertheless, I am pleased with the warm support given to me and others by the UK SWIP and the women working on WPR.

The woman on the front of that Women’s Philosophy Review 29 (2002) was my first doctoral student…

Photograph of Hanneke

‘Hanneke…challenged us to think and feel as uniquely embodied women’ (Anderson 2002, 8)

Hanneke Canters, the woman whose photograph appears here on the front cover (pointing to a copy of the journal), did a doctorate in feminist philosophy with me, writing on the contemporary French philosopher, Luce Irigaray. Tragically, Hanneke developed liver cancer and died; she was just about to start her first job and career as a woman philosopher. She was barely thirty years old – it was very tragic. Hanneke died in September 2002 – and I’ve been learning about death and dealing with the loss of life, loss of other personal relationships and bereavement ever since. More people I know have fought to live with cancer…Yet my main point here is that we dedicated a special issue of WPR to Hanneke, because she was quite an inspiration. She was not British, but Dutch, coming to this country because she was very keen to work on philosophy in England. Unlike me when I was a student, Hanneke was a very strong feminist as a student. I must admit to learning from her about how to work with women in philosophy – most of my working days in philosophy had been with male philosophers. Hanneke made a practical difference in how I approached teaching and relationships in philosophy. As a student I never raised gender issues. Once out working, I had come to realise the importance of personal relationships for my life and career – but most of these had been either close friendships outside of philosophy or working relationships with male colleagues in philosophy departments. It is interesting to admit that I was challenged to think practically about gender and relationships from my first philosophy doctoral student. Crucially, Hanneke had an infectious enthusiasm, and determination I had not seen in other women philosophers. Normally, working on philosophy had been exhausting and painstaking, especially for women with little practical support. Philosophy continued to demand intensity and long years on one’s own, but working with a feminist philosopher meant that I also began to think more about life. It is then sad and ironic that Hanneke also taught me something about death – along with two other persons close to me who, sadly, died in the past year.

I remember when she was first ill I started going back over the past in my mind…

‘Would I have done things differently if I knew that she had a limited amount of time to live – and would have limited contact with me, or with anyone else for that matter?’ Death has forced me to become aware of the past, to try to hold onto memories and what is learnt from people who have died – as well as wanting to treat students differently now and in the future. I think that death has made a big difference on how I looked at teaching philosophy, and about the content of a philosopher’s life, too! Philosophers can become obsessed with research targets, with managing their time, their teaching and research. We worry greatly about research assessment exercises, as well as quality teaching reviews. Personally, I know that I have been caught up with publications – and not until recently have I begun to think about the fragility of life and the value of my life and the lives of other people.

It’s not that I didn’t value and enjoy students and friends in the past. I did. I enjoyed being with Hanneke – I can remember how we exchanged notes, ideas, letters, postcards and papers. But I don’t think that I saw the danger of allowing philosophy – especially the management of philosophy – to replace living. Now I feel that philosophy must be bound up with living, with other’s lives and my life. In the past year, I’ve become more committed to supporting the life struggles of my students, as well as getting them to do work, which they can be proud of.

I think what’s strange is that you can sail through life and be really lucky and feel invincible…

Especially if you’re young and healthy and you’ve been lucky, or you’re clever and you simply fly ahead and not think what it will be like to look back on life from the point of view of losing a loved one. Did I take enough time to say and do the things which I should have? When young, life feels as though it will go on forever. But, then, all of a sudden something happens, and you realise that life is actually fragile, the struggle is not simply to get ahead, but to live in such a way that you will be proud to look back, grateful to what has been learnt and lived. I think death has aged me, but I hope it has made me a better person and perhaps, a better philosopher. Certainly, I am driven now more than ever by ethical questions, about promise-keeping, recognition and love. I’m more interested in the concrete aspects of these questions. Ironically, I want to be more concrete about meta-ethical questions which are thought to be essentially abstract! Isn’t the nature of love abstract? Perhaps not, if you ask about the cognitive nature of learning to love.

‘Imagery of the sea becomes central in my philosophical reflections on belief, life, memory and lost love:

Photograph of flowers floating at sea

Like mariners we must, in following previous philosophers, rebuild our ship at sea, plank by plank, and bit by bit we change our evolving conceptual scheme’.

I have been and continue to work on concepts at the interface of ethics and epistemology. This means addressing questions about particular virtues, even asking what it means to treat love as an intellectual virtue. My intention is to bring substantive issues to bear on moral philosophy. I never was a keen logician in the sense of being preoccupied with the hard questions which had one true answer; but now more than ever, I want to understand patterns in life and the way in which our embodiment, our relationships, our lives and loves affect our thinking. The interface of thinking and acting has become a lot more important to me. And this seems to be bound up with trying to make sense of life, not just trying to be clever or to publish an astonishing philosophical argument that will change how people think. I want to change how I live – and possibly in some small way how we think about living and dying.

Hanneke, when she was still alive, helped me organise a conference…

This was an Author Meets Critics conference – I must have been mad, since I was the Author and Hanneke helped me organise Critics to respond to my 1998 book, A Feminist Philosophy of Religion. This was the first book published on this subject, so the conference was a big event for us. In the book I aimed, first of all, to criticise the Anglo-American analytic style of doing philosophy of religion, and in particular, the conception of philosophy bound up with traditional theism and proofs for the existence of the traditional theistic God; second, to propose a way to refigure the discipline, using my knowledge of French philosophy – Le Doeuff figured high on my agenda in this book. One way to describe my aim is that I intended to transform the field by bringing desire into discussions of rationality and religion. Some of my critics focused on the nature of my ‘feminism’, others on my use of French philosophy. Although generally, the need to transform Anglo-American philosophy of religion was accepted, they had many criticisms of my attempts to reform rather than reject the role of reason and belief in my account of feminist philosophy of religion. In the end, the conference was a success – but this would be the last thing I would do with Hanneke. Had I known this would I have done things differently?

Since 1998 I’ve been working with fifteen women, living in either the UK, USA or Europe, to publish a collection of critical essays on feminist philosophy of religion. At least five of the contributors were women who I first encountered at the Author Meets Critics conference. So a debt for this book goes back to my early work with Hanneke on that conference. I hope that this new book will be accepted by universities in this country and abroad as a textbook for the field. I’ve completed the index and proofs for the book. I must admit that after five years of emailing, writing, rewriting and various production difficulties, I am excited about the end result. I think it looks good – and let us hope it will make a significant impact on the teaching of philosophy of religion. The field needs a new vibrance – and dare I hope that our textbook will help! The fifteen women contributions are not all saying the same thing – certainly they do not think the same way! These women make up a range of different ages, backgrounds and philosophical approaches to the subject. We have deliberately tried to demonstrate that women don’t all think alike – it is accepted that men do not think alike – but women’s thinking has either not existed or when it did it was ‘women’s thinking’ – often a pejorative thing – like ‘women’s intuition’; it was somehow assumed to be less important, especially to the academic world.

At Easter 2003 I went to Sweden for a conference on feminist philosophy of religion. I was invited by the University of Lundt to give a lecture and chair a seminar on my current thinking – since the publication of my 1998 book. Like the Dutch who I met through Hanneke, the Swedish philosophers somehow seemed more progressive on issues of gender than I have been used to. Men and women at Lundt seemed keen and able to discuss feminist issues with knowledge and insight. It was flattering to find students and professors who knew my work well. And they were receptive to what I’m doing in the area of feminist philosophy of religion. I learnt only then – April 2003 - that one of the first reviews of my book in 1998 came out in Swedish. It has since been sent to me, but not being able to read Swedish, I do not – as yet - have any idea what it says!

If I’d left Oxford and never come back…

I might have remembered some of the more negative things that happened with male tutors when I was a student. In those early days I was – to be honest – plagued by my own insecurities. A little woman from Minnesota studying in Oxford was an image which gave me no confidence – in fact, it implied the reverse to those who thought that they knew: inadequate upbringing. However, leaving Oxford and becoming successful in my own right in various contexts outside of this venerable place became more significant for me when I came back to teach in Oxford. I had a new sense of confidence. I was no longer a woman from Minnesota, but a woman with various success stories to tell. Even if these stories are of little significance to other Oxford dons – I now  know what I know from having taught students philosophy, and I know that I have something to teach those who want to know what I have learnt. When I look back at my learning, I see Oxford and my time here as a student in a different light – but I would not have seen this either if I would have stayed here or if I had left and never returned. So once more I am grateful to be able to look back – looking back on the way I have gone creates in me a sense of gratitude and of appropriate recognition.

There are some male philosophers today who are excellent tutors and enablers of their students. I try to find both good male and female tutors for my students in the sense that they will be enabled to develop their own thinking and express their ideas critically – with confidence. However, I do know that many philosophers today continue to advocate and practice a certain adversarial model of teaching about which I have grave doubts. Teaching students to be combative may be a good thing for future MPs, for other politicians and people in high office. Yet I wonder if this model of arguing and thinking is not being however gradually rejected. Some might say that this is because more women are going to politics. But think of Margaret Thatcher, she was a woman but she did not end combative behaviour in the commons and in her diplomatic relations – in fact, she was more of a model male in the sense of aggressive behaviour than many men. So changes in thinking and knowing are not down to having a woman Prime Minister or more women in office. It is about changing the ways in which we think, know and argue on critical matters. This is all to say that I do not suppose the best way to learn philosophy and apply it to life is to have a tutorial with an adversary attacking one’s every word, as well as one’s general position, without enabling the expression of more subtle contributions to the debate.

Admittedly, some students respond better to a more direct, even aggressive manner of addressing philosophical arguments. But the down side of this style of teaching is that it can damage other forms of communication and learning, especially if the student and/or tutor fail to convey the other valuable (ethical) aspects of philosophy, e.g., responsibility in the face of the other.

If I had not been a student at Oxford, I may not have had the training and experience which enabled me to be confident about my own ideas. Moreover, I would not have understood what has been the dominant and privileged position in philosophy. In a sense, I have been both in and outside of this privileged position. I’ve been outside of it as a woman from Minnesota, but I have been inside of it as a successful Oxford philosophy tutor. Yet I wonder at times if I have ever been the latter – humility tells me I have not had that success, but necessity tells me I have the ability, and must maintain the confidence, to enable my students to do well in exams and in life. The latter gives me a sense of significance, and I hope eventually success. But I stress that this is not an easy matter for women in philosophy.

In the mid’ 1990s Women’s Philosophy Review prepared a questionnaire about what qualities women should have in order to be good philosophers. I remember one of the notable conclusions drawn from this questionnaire: that is, the best thing a philosopher could do to get ahead was either to be a man or act as much like a man as possible. Certainly, the unfortunate stereotypes - like the woman who is too emotional and flighty to think clearly, let alone sustain an argument - mean that women have had learn to defend themselves; but again there may be ways to do this other than, so to speak, a battle of wits locked in a philosophical argument. Destructive stereotypes have forced women – and men - either to conform to a certain style of argumentation, or to reject any idea of doing philosophy. Even at Regent’s Park you can see that…

I’m really very pleased with the results this last year, in terms of my students’ degrees…

…but I always notice when (most of the time) more men are given Firsts than women. One of my concerns is to try to bring women out as much as possible, but it’s still difficult to do this. The men who received Firsts in Philosophy this year at Regent’s Park are not obviously brighter than many of the women. But either the women have resigned themselves to not caring whether they achieve a First or not, or the women ultimately are disadvantaged by their style of thinking and writing. It is always rewarding when any student who struggles against certain odds succeeds to do well – e.g., receive a First -, especially when it matters to them and to what they are able to do next. The tutorial system is labour intense, but the rewards of a student’s success can be huge for the tutor as well. Personally, I would like to see more women with the determination to succeed in achieving a First in Philosophy. Watching the development of a young person is marvellous, but noticing the differences between young people due to their social backgrounds, gender or future goals can be revealing – and at times discouraging.

Sometimes, women need to feel confident before they can be challenged…

Other times they have the confidence already. I think that it is noticeable – and good - that young women coming to Oxford (and to other universities as well) are more confident about their abilities and their future success than in my day. Things change slowly, and yet there is evidence of younger women having had more positive experiences at school and so they have a greater confidence when they arrive at university. Rather than being put down by teachers, constructive patterns of teaching women result in more positive outcomes for them at all levels of education. But I would still like to have more women maintain this confidence as they continue on in their academic and personal lives. Confidence still seems to dissipate as women encounter resistance at later stages in life.

In fact, this problem is apparent already at the last stage of an Oxford degree: Finals. I teach many students Ethics for Regent’s and other colleges. This year the Finals paper in Ethics was extremely difficult. I was pleased to see how well the students I taught did generally. Nevertheless, some of the women who I think could have got Firsts on that paper did not. I wonder why. I wish we could do more studies about gender, learning and writing exams. Sometimes I worry that nothing is really changing and women in Finals lose confidence or write in a style which markers do not see as sharp, rigorous and to the point. The subtleties of women’s thinking and arguing should not be, but are often a disadvantage in Finals when time is limited and rigour, clarity and focus must be maintained. Do women tend to collapse in some sense at this stage? More studies on this would be interesting for me – for one – to read.

I know that Cambridge University actually did a study about women and Firsts. If I remember correctly the following was confirmed – that women tend to be more concerned than men in their arguments to be fair to everyone and to tease out all the nuances, but this more nuanced concern and fairness can be a disadvantage to women in writing philosophy essays, as well as essays on politics and other similar fields. It seems in this context that all students must be clear to take a position which is straight down the line and black and white about each detail. Exploring the grey areas tend generally to prohibit a woman from achieving a First class degree.

As a philosophy of religion student in Oxford I had a tutor at Oriel, which was all-male at the time…

David Brown, my tutor, was the chaplain of Oriel College. Today he is the Van Mildert Professor of Divinity, University of Durham and Canon of Durham Cathedral. I remember Brown as an amiable and attentive tutor – this was lucky for me, since Oriel was still a male bastion where Anglo-American Philosophy of Religion was done by men in narrowly structured, competitive tutorials. This was, precisely, the sort of environment which I tried to avoid as a female student interested in Kant and Ricoeur. Now, as a tutor myself, I have to expect to encounter from time to time what I could avoid as a student. For an example of how the past can come back to haunt, I recently attended the retirement party for the Oriel Chair in the Christian Philosophy of Religion, Richard Swinburne. An eminent scholar and extremely important figure in the field, Prof Swinburne was, I must admit, someone who I avoided in the past – and  managed not to be taught by him. But now he clearly knows me, and more importantly, my recent work in feminist philosophy of religion. Anyway you probably get the picture. To complete the story, I was standing and enjoying a glass of wine with a group of colleagues at this occasion, when Swinburne himself came over and said ‘Thank you for coming, Pamela.’ I quickly looked up at him, and then he said to me, ‘Now you’re going to say ‘thank you for going…’! Said in fun, there was nevertheless an edge to his statement and he knew it. Prof Swinburne was not keen to go – being well and active in teaching and publishing, he was not an obvious candidate for retirement; but Oxford has a strict rule about age of retirement. And my own writing makes clear that I do not advocate the style or content of the philosophy practiced by Swinburne. As a result, his words were a friendly swipe at me. Later in that same term, I attended another retirement dinner at Merton College with other philosophy colleagues, Prof Swinburne managed to catch me once again, saying ‘Oh, you’re back for more!’

In fact, I must admit to the huge significance and positive work done by Swinburne to keep philosophy of religion strong and respected in the university. His publications and teaching are without question seriously impressive and important for the respectable position of the subject in Oxford and beyond. Nevertheless, it remains true that Prof Swinburne seems to have no interest in women’s issues – and gives women little, if any, support when it comes to positions in the church, for instance. So, women who claim that he is not their biggest fan are certainly correct. I think he himself would probably admit this, too. In addition, the rumours about him are possibly true that he left the Church of England when women were ordained. He is now a practicing Greek Orthodox, in a church which does not ordain women; this fact is some proof of the truth of the rumour.

Of course, this is Oxford and we cannot expect that a male bastion for hundreds of years will change the minds of its men easily or in one large sweep. Change is slow, and the full recognition of women is no exception. As one female, Anglican curate said to me, ‘you do encounter men regularly who, either consciously or unconsciously, aren’t happy that you’re there.’ There’s a lot of prejudice in Oxford – as in the rest of our global world – but here the central significance of class and gender status remains obvious. In philosophy, there is no question that until recent years, it has been harder for women to do well. Some women undergraduates realise this when they are still students – and others come to the realisation later. Once more, it must be admitted that things are changing for women; women are more often getting ahead faster than before (and faster than some men). Nevertheless, the idea of a glass ceiling – or perhaps, a brick wall – comes in to explain why all of a sudden confident and capable women fail to move ahead. They may even realise that their failure isn’t due to anything they’ve done or haven’t done- but this does not make the situation any less frustrating or less debilitating.

I’d never lived anywhere else in the UK before I lived in Oxford…

When I came back from the American job market I found a job in the North East in England. This experience taught me that I had been naïve about England. When I was a student Oxford I simply assumed that the whole of the country was like it. I assumed that class differences, jobs and manners were the same throughout the country. I assumed everywhere in England was like Oxford. I learned that this was far from the case – and then, realised that I had been very privileged when living and learning in Oxford. In a sense, I was treated better than my own social background would have otherwise required because I was a student at Oxford University. Living in Durham and teaching philosophy in the North East, I was no longer part of any upper class club, and at times at least I struggled with life more or less like anyone else working for a wage in the region. Of course, the difference was that I was not a Geordie, and I felt I had no definite class position. In fact, my point is that, until then, I had never taken on board how different the rest of the UK can be from Oxford. This was obviously good for my understanding of the country, and of the students who I now see struggling in Oxford due to their own very different backgrounds. It might be thought that class and gender do not matter when it comes to learning philosophy. But my experiences in the North East helped me to see that this thought is wrong.

I’ve also done a great deal of external examining in the UK (including Durham, Glasgow, Leeds, Sussex and London) and gone to academic conferences in various parts of the UK. These have been all to the good for my career. But specifically I recognise that it is easy to be so preoccupied with life in the University of Oxford not to realise that other styles of living and working go on all around this place. This gives a sense of perspective to any smugness I might have had.

I’ve always wanted to be an academic, I think…

That was reinforced when I came to Oxford, and I don’t think that I ever really wanted to do anything else. Like every academic, I would enjoy having more time for research, and more time for writing. Yet I think that this wish creates a dilemma, because most academics (at least in my experience) need the input and energy of students to keep them thinking – which is also vital for doing research.

How do you tell a philosopher to relax? sounds a trick question – but I raise it without any definite answer. An answer might be to keep a philosopher away from other philosophers. But then, relaxation for a philosopher might be to do philosophy! This leads me to think that philosophers are very bad at knowing how to relax; and generally, don’t want to do anything but academic work. From my experiences of personal loss, I now know I need close friends who can take me away from my work, including philosophy research! It is important to have relationships with people who aren’t – like me – academics. Philosophers in particular can drive each other completely crazy, if not be totally impractical. Admittedly, this is a stereotype – and perhaps a chauvinist one. I would like to avoid these! Yet there is some truth (even in this stereotype) in philosophers not being practically minded, that’s why I learned a lot by going to Durham and setting up a ‘home’ away from Oxford. It is imaginable – and evident in Oxford colleges – that a person trained in philosophy could spend his, or her, whole life not learning to do a range of ‘normal’ things such as not learning to drive, buy a house, get a mortgage, or go in debt. A philosopher could spend her whole life hidden away in an Oxford college busy writing books without ‘a care in the world’. Yet I wonder if we compared the works of reclusive philosophers with the best philosophical works by philosophers deeply immersed in the culture and city life, would one be necessarily better than the other? If not, then what makes a good philosopher? They are not required to be absent-minded and preoccupied by their own ideas. It does not hurt them to experience firsthand life and death, work and play, colleagues and friends. At times, I see clearly how my life as a woman in philosophy requires more than what the reading and writing of philosophy can provide. Although I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, I think it is important to remain aware of the fact that the rest of the world may not be like Oxford –and this knowledge can make for a better life (if not a better philosopher) for myself and my students.

At the end of the day, I try to be realistic about the impact I can have on my field of teaching and research. I’m never going to have my name in lights. On the other hand, Richard Swinburne recognised me as someone who was worth at least a couple of unsettling comments! I know that he has also admitted to a former colleague of mine that Pamela Anderson may be ‘a feminist philosopher,’ but she is (and this was said with some amazement) ‘a very nice person…’ (laughs)! This can be read as a backhanded insult or compliment. It would be great to be told that someone thought me a good philosopher. Yet I have to admit that I would rather my students think I was a nice person than a daunting Dean or distant Fellow. An exciting thing I have done as Dean is go to the Magistrate’s Court with the JCR bar manager to obtain a license for the Regent’s Park College ball, and then, be given a free ticket to the ‘Final Fling’ – at which even a philosopher can have great fun!

Photograph of Pamela and Beverly at Regent's 'Final Fling'

‘Beverley Clack (left) and I (right) had a reproduction from Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’ printed on the cover of our co-edited book. It was in the same, convivial spirit that we decided to dress up and enjoy the dinner at Regent’s Final Fling. A dinner party is an apt image of what feminist philosophy of religion involves, women expressing themselves in public, exchanging ideas over food and wine, agreeing and disagreeing about life, love, birth and death. In this way, we promote feminist philosophy as a collaborative exercise of sharing our differences and challenging each other.’

I thrive on being a Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy, and will continue to do so, along with doing research in philosophy. But I don’t know how long I’ll be Dean - it took me a year and a half to realise I should put ‘Dean’ at the head of my letters (apparently Deans do this to gain a bit of prestige…). An ongoing problem for me has been working out how to drink port at the Oxford University Dean’s dessert evening on the fifth Monday of term, after which I have to survive the rest of the week! If one drinks port on a Friday night, it’s not so bad.