“Peer Pressure”


“Peer Pressure” 

No one can resist peer pressure.

Such is the judgment of Peter Berger, sociologist of knowledge. To this generalization, I am no exception. For that reason perhaps, peer pressure interests me.

One time, I entered the lobby of a hotel where the American Philosophical Association was holding its December meetings. Seeing a friend (as it happens, an established heavy hitter in the profession), I went up to say hello. We had known each for years, so I said laughingly that I’d been out of the country for some time and wanted to hear whatever was at the cutting edge now. Semi-ironically, he directed me to a session on Sex, Gender and Identity.

Sure enough, one of the larger conference rooms was filled edge to edge. The speaker was a much-admired philosophical feminist. I can always tell by the eat-your-heart-out hair color, cut and style.   Golly, I’d like to ask, who does your hair and what does he charge? But that you can’t ask.

Anyway, she argued skillfully for the thesis that sex roles and sex identity are socially constructed through and through. And, in that conference room of clean-up batters as well as bench-warmers, not one man or woman contested this claim. Least of all me. One reason I sometimes win my fights is that I pick ‘em.

That year, the convention was being held in a southern town. I must have wanted to be alone after the session on “Sex, Gender and Identity,” because I found myself lunching without colleagues in a diner near the hotel. Across the aisle was a booth where two young couples were seated, facing each other. The men were built like boulders and their wives were pretty, slight in build and diminutive in size.   The men (or, in their lingo, “the boys”) were talking exclusively to each other on one topic: huntin’, shootin’ and killin’. The wives were not saying one cotton pickin’ thing.

As for me, I wasn’t about to walk up and ask them if they thought these differences in appearance, heft and conduct were socially constructed.

Don’t get me wrong. I taught what was probably one of the first courses on feminism, “Philosophic Foundations of Feminism,” offered in the USA. Gave one of the first public lectures to an overflow university audience. When the subject was new in mainstream philosophy, I published one of the first articles, “Feminism Without Contradictions,” in the special issue of The Monist devoted to that topic. I knew a few of the founding mothers of the movement and was in on some of the opening salvoes. Besides that, I find women interesting and their trials and sufferings important.

Years later, when academic feminism was well-entrenched, a young student asked why I’d put no women philosophers on the syllabus of a course in Nineteenth-Century Philosophy. Answering her, I said that, while Harriet Taylor’s little book, “The Enfranchisement of Women,” was sometimes assigned for gender balance, John Stuart Mill, her husband who wrote on that subject among others, was the philosopher with more systematic argumentative power. At the present time, women had the opportunity – with much less social cost than previously — to equal men in reading philosophers of the first rank. One could get to some depth in the field that way and prepare oneself to do original work, if one were so inclined.

My questioner raised the issue of “role models.” My view was that none of the women in philosophy who’d been my teachers were role models for me. I did not believe we needed to be catered to by intellectually irrelevant devices like role models. We needed to read the best, so that we could come to do our own thinking at an appropriately sound level.

To my regret, my questioner eventually dropped the course, but she came to see me before she did that. I had the impression that our conversation would undergo another vetting, with her teachers and peers in Women’s Studies. I will never forget the deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes. 

Did we give up one form of subjection only to take on another?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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