Speaker Vulnerability and The Patriarchal University: A Response and Tribute to Pamela Sue Anderson

Lara ColemanLara Montesinos Coleman is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and International Development at the University of Sussex. This article was originally written for the alumni magazine of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, where Anderson was based before her death and where the author read Philosophy and Theology, and has been featured on the Women in Parentheses blog.


I never quite crossed paths with Pamela Sue Anderson. She returned to Oxford in 2001 to take up a post at my former college the year after I finished my undergraduate studies. In February 2017, we were both invited to speak at a British Academy conference on Vulnerability and The Politics of Care. Anderson’s paper was read by a friend, just weeks before her death.

All of us spoke about vulnerability, but Anderson’s contribution stood out in that she addressed our own vulnerability as speakers. She began by recounting an occasion, earlier in her career, when her audience was unable to receive her as an expert on feminist philosophy. The story stayed with many of us, because it reflected the painful, hidden histories of speakers who do not conform to preconceptions of how a ‘knower’ ought to look, be or think. These stories, if they are told at all, are normally the topic of hushed and anxious conversations, where the speaker’s close friends and colleagues express outrage and reassurance. Anderson, however, put her vulnerability on display.

Her story was about a talk at Durham on feminist philosophy. Before she arrived, the posters announcing the event had been defaced with the image of another Pamela Anderson: the Playboy model and actress who rose to fame in the 1990s. Anderson’s talk was particularly well attended – by mostly male students and philosophers drawn to it by interest in the other Pamela. From the outset, Anderson was not quite believed to be a philosopher because of her name. However, she was also accused by a prominent male philosopher of ‘disappointing’ her audience because of the content of what she said: her account of epistemology was deemed to lack the ‘particularity, concreteness and relationality required for women, and so, for “feminism”’.[1]

Of course, even the most privileged and celebrated speakers can feel vulnerable when addressing an audience. We all depend upon our audiences to hear us and to recognise us as ‘knowers’ and we all run the risk of being silenced when this recognition is absent. Some of us, however, have a greater material and social exposure to being silenced or dismissed. If we are not embodied or do not perform in a way that fits with stereotypes of the philosopher (male, white, well-spoken and able bodied), then we are often not recognisable as ‘a knower who is trustworthy’.[2] The ‘joke’ of ‘Pamela Anderson’ speaking on philosophy is instructive. It relies upon stereotypes that cannot coincide: a ‘model’ is ruled out in advance as a potential ‘philosopher’.

How do we respond when an audience is unable to recognise us as a knower? Continue reading

What We Talked About at ISA: The Climate for Women in International Relations and Politics

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Yesterday, The Guardian reported on the level of sexual harassment in British universities. Based on Freedom of Information requests (and for this and other reasons necessarily a partial insight into the incidence of harassment) the investigation notes the combination of allegations from students against staff, and from colleagues against each other (roughly 60% and 40% of the total allegations respectively). Perhaps the most high profile media story on sexual harassment in universities so far, The Guardian piece nevertheless follows from a series of stories and controversies, most notably Sara Ahmed’s documentation of specific cases at Goldsmiths (covered in posts on the initial harassment conference, on the nature of evidence, on discovery and speaking out, and on resignation as a feminist issue).

Many of the same concerns have been raised in International Relations (IR) and politics. Individual stories of harassment have long circulated (and been collected anonymously at sites such as Everyday Power and Privilege in IR). At this year’s International Studies Association conference in Baltimore, ten panels were convened on marginalisation, discrimination and violence in professional contexts. Due to a gap in the programme, I was asked to contribute. I opted to describe – and now report in blog form – an experiment in addressing discrimination and bias against women in academia, and to draw some comparisons with IR and politics.

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