A gathering of feminist pragmatists

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Rochester enters a historical year in 2020, with an opportunity to mark Susan B. Anthony’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays and the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. 

Barbara Lowe

It makes for a fitting location for a group of feminist scholars who will gather Friday at St. John Fisher College to participate in the 2019 Feminist-Pragmatist Philosophy Colloquium. The talks bring experts from near and far to share intellectual resources. In addition to presentations and discussions, the group will make excursions to landmarks like the Mt. Hope Cemetery, where Anthony and Douglass are buried; Susan B. Anthony House; and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. 

The event capitalizes on Rochester’s heritage in the feminist movement while amplifying other elements tied to feminist pragmatists who commit to learning from and supporting those who are most vulnerable to exploitation.

Katie Terezakis
(Photo: A. Sue Weisler/RIT)

Barbara Lowe, associate professor of philosophy at St. John Fisher, and Katie Terezakis, professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, organizers of the local event, believe Rochester offers opportunities to become involved in community-based thinking, learning, and creating together—by beginning with its history and understanding its influence on the present. They responded by email to questions from the Beacon about the colloquium and why it matters.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Who are feminist pragmatists and why are they relevant to Rochester?

BARBARA LOWE and KATIE TEREZAKIS: As noted on our conference materials, “feminist pragmatist philosophers aim to illuminate the lived realities of human beings in relation to others. They use women’s experiences as a lens through which to test their theories and their proposed solutions to today’s challenges. Feminist pragmatists give particular attention to vulnerable people and to those who live on the margins of societies.” 

Pragmatism, more broadly, is a philosophical movement that began in America, in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Its founders were interested in how human experiences and needs determine our deeper understandings of things. Some of them—people like John Dewey and Jane Addams—applied their philosophies by participating in progressive democratic social movements. Jane Addams, for example, founded the Hull Settlement Houses in Chicago, and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union as well as the Progressive Party, all while working with the immigrant groups she was living among, learning from, and teaching. Today, feminist pragmatists emphasize this commitment to learning from and supporting those who are most vulnerable to exploitation. We remain interested in the lived experience of people in relation to one another, and committed to challenging both institutional oppression and inadvertent exclusion from economic and social resources.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Why did Fisher and RIT decide to host this colloquium? Why is it significant?

LOWE and TEREZAKIS: The seeds for this gathering of feminist pragmatists has its roots in the Jane Collective, which is a group of feminist-scholars who came together through the Society for Advancement of American Philosophy. Jane Collective began in 2006, with the intention of (quoting from our own materials) fostering discussion and encouraging scholarship on issues in feminist thought as they occur in American philosophies, especially as feminisms intersection with race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, age, and other matters relevant to people’s lives. The group has a non-hierarchical structure with rotating leadership. The name, Jane Collective, refers back to the Hull House Jane Club cooperative, which provided housing for young women working in local factories. The name also acknowledges the Chicago Jane Collective of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which provided abortion counseling for women prior to Roe v. Wade. So, we are intentionally embracing and learning from this history, and we judged it an excellent moment to host both a meeting of the Jane Collective and a wider event on feminist-pragmatism. 

We should also note that this is not first Feminist-Pragmatist Colloquium and neither will be the last.  In 2012, Professors Marilyn Fischer and Denise James hosted the first Feminist-Pragmatist Colloquium at the University of Dayton. Further, we’re happy to share that there will be another gathering of Feminist-Pragmatist Philosophers Jan. 28-30, 2020, at the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain. With the energy of these two conferences in the air, we expect that other scholars and activists will be inspired to host additional feminist-pragmatist gatherings.

ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve managed to attract a few notable speakers. What are your goals for this event? 

LOWE and TEREZAKIS: We are indeed extremely pleased with and proud of the speakers we have been able to attract. Louise W. Knight, a great author and scholar speaking about the Grimke sisters, Deborah Hughes of the Susan B. Anthony House and Marilyn Fischer, a renowned Jane Addams scholar, all speaking on Friday, Nov. 15. In addition, on Saturday, Nov. 16, we are excited to have Erin McKenna and Lee McBride facilitate a dialogue with and about the work of Charlene Seigfried, a foundational theorist in the field of feminist-pragmatist philosophy. Finally, also on Saturday, Nov. 16, we are very honored and proud to host the Mohawk Bear Clan Mother Louise Wakerakats: te McDonald and Sally Roesch Wagner, the executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, speaking at our Seneca Falls location on “Indigenous Matrilineal Culture and the Feminist Movement: When Women Were the Law.”

These keynotes are in addition to an exceptionally rich diversity of speakers coming to Rochester from 13 different states (including New York) and three different countries (including the United States). It has developed into quite an international, multidisciplinary event, because people were really excited to come together and share our intellectual resources during such a critical time. We’ve got two days of jam-packed talks, performances, and scholars’ circles, bookended by two days of exposure to some of what makes our area so special, including our sustainable, climate-conscious wine-industry and the Mt. Hope Cemetery and Frederick Douglass Statue Trail.  

ROCHESTER BEACON: 2020 is a historical year for Rochester, marking Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday. Do you believe Rochester capitalizes on its history when it comes to the feminist movement? Would it benefit us to do so? 

LOWE and TEREZAKIS: Rochester has vibrant women’s and gender studies programs in all of its local colleges, and they work together to offer the Seneca Falls Dialogues conference every two years, which brings students, artists, activists, teachers and political leaders together to share ideas and identify coalitions for change. We also have the Susan B. Anthony House, Anthony’s archives at the University of Rochester, as well as the Susan B. Anthony Institute at UR. So, local colleges and nonprofits are doing a lot to amplify our feminist history. Public art projects such as “Her Voices Carry,” and the support for feminist art from the Memorial Art Gallery, help extend and renew this work. The reproductive health community is Rochester is also active through organizations like Planned Parenthood, and Connect & Breathe. 

But could the city capitalize further? Certainly, and we’d love to help! Rochester has one of richest histories imaginable, in terms of all the complications of the American progressive experience. As many Rochesterians know, Rochester was the home of Fredrick Douglass and his North Star newspaper; Susan B. Anthony’s attic was once the nexus of a home-based publishing network. Amy Post’s Hicksite Quakers came to Rochester to help support and fund both Douglass and Anthony. And we’ve seen, for example, Martha Matilda Harper virtually create modern franchising here, Kate Gleason champion affordable housing here, and Lillian Wald, who was raised here, go on to found the Visiting Nurses of New York City.

At the same time, Rochester provides a paradigm case study of “white flight” from cities to suburbs, and of corresponding and devastating economic disparity that’s been exacerbated by its re-carved school and tax districts. It’s a place where hundreds and sometimes thousands of people can gather peacefully at Mount Hope Cemetery on election days—paying respects to Anthony, but where a Black Lives Matter protest downtown garners national attention for fresh reports and video footage of police brutality (as it did in July 2016). 

A report by ACT Rochester recently shared the data showing that downtown Rochester houses the poorest school district in Upstate New York and the poorest urban district in all of New York State, and that racial disparities undeniably attend these economic disparities. Downtown, we are dealing with struggling schools and infrastructure, yet many of our suburbs are flourishing. So the questions for any progressive, pragmatic thinker are questions both about how we got here, and about how to utilize and develop our history and our resources to become truly and systematically fair and inclusive.         

We believe that some of the challenges that galvanized the great progressives of the last generation live on today in different forms, and that Rochester offers opportunities to become involved in community-based thinking, learning, and creating together—foremost by beginning with our own fascinating history and its influence on the present. We think this conference is a good example of that, and we’ve had a lot of help putting it together, from a number of departments at St. John Fisher and RIT, from the people at Visit Rochester, as well as from a number of philosophical organizations. Together, we’ll be responsible for hosting the scholars coming to participate, and we’d love to welcome any from the community who’d like to come as well. 

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.    

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