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Her Rightful Place
Philosophers were upset when The New York Times did not publish an obituary of Ruth Barcan Marcus, a preeminent philosopher. Her colleagues organized -- and won the honor for her.
The Weddings/Celebrations section of The New York Times has long inspired fascination and ire among a certain class of Americans, and the strategies employed to be featured in it are legendary. Ivy Leaguers have a leg up. So do offspring of the rich and famous.
Some in the academic world, at least philosophers, have been focused on a different section of the Times the past few weeks, the one dealing with that other big life-changing event: death. (And, of course, that section may be more likely to mark actual accomplishments, as opposed to just the good fortune of having famous parents.)
Ruth Barcan Marcus, professor emeritus of philosophy at Yale University, passed away on Feb. 19. Marcus, who was 90 when she died, was a preeminent philosopher, so many in her field were shocked when the Times initially did not publish her obituary.
“This failure to recognize one of the most prominent and pioneering philosophers of the last 60 years is appalling,” said a post from Michael Della Rocca, a philosophy professor at Yale, on a blog called Feminist Philosophers. More people weighed in, and letters were written to the editors of the obituary section of the Times.
Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, even calculated the number of obituaries of philosophers since 2000 (there were 46, including 5 women).
By Wednesday, the Times had published Marcus’s obituary online, and it is scheduled to appear soon in print.
Though the eventual publication of the obituary will placate some philosophers, many have raised questions about the delay and the lack of female philosophers in the obituary pages in the "newspaper of record."
“Marcus is clearly one of the three most important Anglo-American female philosophers of the 20th century. Gender aside, her influence on modal logic, metaphysics, and philosophy of language was profound; every graduate student in philosophy is familiar with her work,” said Rebecca Kukla, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University. She said she looked at the list of Times obituaries for philosophers “and it is packed with far, far more obscure figures than Ruth Barcan Marcus.” Kukla wondered whether some kind of sexism might be at work.
Marcus was also the first recipient of the American Philosophical Association’s highest honor, the Philip Quinn Prize for Service to Philosophy and Philosophers, said David Schrader, the executive director of the APA. “Ruth’s work in quantified modal logic was widely regarded as seminal even in my graduate school days,” he said.
Jack Kadden, an obituary editor at the Times, who was contacted before the obituary ran, said he had nothing to add beyond that the newspaper was publishing her obituary.
In 2008, a reader asked Bruce Weber, a Times obituary writer, about gender disparity in the newspaper’s obituary section.
His response: “…the majority of people who are dying these days – that is, older people – grew up at a time when achievement and fame were far more accessible to men than to women. Writing obituaries often makes you feel as though you’re reporting on a world that doesn’t exist any more, and I can only assume that as time goes on, the number of women who appear on the obituaries page will grow significantly.”
Jennifer Saul, head of the philosophy department at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom who runs the “Being a Woman in Philosophy” blog, said she was not surprised that Marcus was initially overlooked. “I take this to be, most likely, a manifestation of a very widespread and well-documented tendency to (often unconsciously) associate greatness and accomplishment with maleness,” said Saul, who runs an interdisciplinary project on such biases.
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