Academic romance

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


Philosophy has long had a reputation as a work environment inhospitable to women, even though there have certainly been significant improvements on this front over the past few years. Did you face gender-specific obstacles as a woman trying to make a career in a male-dominated discipline?

Well of course in those days every discipline was inhospitable to women. There was only one tenured woman in the whole of Harvard when I arrived there, the classicist Emily Vermeule, and she was in a chair reserved for a woman. I did not expect sexism, because my family was incredibly supportive, my school prepared me for success, and my undergraduate days at NYU were pretty terrific for those days. But Harvard! I felt I had entered a weird world that combined complacent elitism in astonishing ways with gross injustice.

I’ve discussed the problems of sexual harassment and child care I faced at the time in my essay in Linda Martín Alcoff’s Singing in the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy. I spent a lot of time on the writing in that essay, since I was speaking of grave matters, but I wanted to do so in a spirit of sassy defiance and optimism. So I will not try to recap all that. I will only add that, although Owen was, as I describe there, a constant sexual harasser, he was the sort who inspired pity more than fear, because he was destroying himself through alcohol; and he did not retaliate against women who said no, since he basically knew that they had made the right choice. I still think his behavior was terrible and did harm, both to the climate of instruction and to people who were very demeaned and insulted by his conduct. I suppose I always felt he was harming himself, not me, and I also understood that he had always been demeaned and insulted himself at Oxford for his lower middle-class Welsh upbringing. So I saw him as basically a victim. Because of my mother I knew the toll alcohol can take on the personality. Sadly, he did not recover as my mother did, but died shortly after his sixtieth birthday.

And then, all of a sudden, there was Bernard Williams, a real feminist. He was just getting divorced from Shirley Williams, but he had already lived the life of a man who was an equal-time child care provider, and he went on to do the same in his second marriage, to Patricia Williams, a high-ranking editor and a simply wonderful human being with whom I am in touch today. (I dedicated the anger book to Bernard’s memory, and we’ve corresponded about that.) So Williams understood care, and he understood love, and he also had seen up close what women endured. Although there was no sexual harassment policy or procedure, he single-handedly undertook to be that grievance person, and if he could not alter institutions he certainly could tell us that we were correct to feel that our dignity had been insulted and that things must change. I should add that I fell totally in love with him, as I’ve recorded in the long obituary article for Williams that I published in the Boston Review (October 2003) but he behaved in the most appropriate way, respecting his new wife, his supervisor role, and women in general.

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