When, in 1972, a young philosopher named Martha Craven Nussbaum was selected for the prestigious Harvard Junior Fellowship, a friend suggested she should be called a hetaira, after that small circle of ancient Greek women who were regarded as courtesans yet were allowed participation in philosophical symposia. It was a cute idea, and very on point.
For her entire career, Nussbaum, now seventy-four, has blazed a trail for women in philosophy, a field that historically has not welcomed female thinkers. In more than thirty books, she has explored ideas about the nature of human goodness, the need for liberal education, and the philosophical links between feminism and social justice.
Nussbaum is best known for the “capabilities” approach, which she developed with the Indian philosopher and economist Amartya Sen. Together, they outlined a framework of goals and conditions necessary for human achievement and happiness. Among them: health, bodily integrity, good social relations, and political participation.
One thing that separates her work from that of many colleagues is the willingness of Nussbaum, who defines herself as a feminist, to tackle questions grounded in the everyday in a thoroughly practical way. For example, her most recent book, Citadels of Pride: Sexual Assault, Accountability, and Reconciliation, confronts the issue of sexual harassment, seeking to define what it is and asking what can be done about it. Not surprisingly, she has some ideas.
A professor at the University of Chicago (including in its law school), Nussbaum has, over the course of her career, received numerous honors. Most recently, in June, she was awarded the Norwegian government’s Holberg Prize for outstanding scholarship—in the words of the citation, “for her groundbreaking contribution to research in philosophy, law and related fields.”
We spoke recently via Zoom; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Claudia Dreifus: You grew up in a time and place—in the 1950s, in Philadelphia’s Main Line suburb—where the expectations for young women were rather conventional. What made you different?
Martha Nussbaum: It was really my father. My father wanted me to be who I was.
He was a lawyer and a writer, and he associated the life of thought with joy and enthusiasm—as I did. My father encouraged me to excel academically, never giving the slightest suggestion that this was incompatible with being a woman. And so, when difficult things came along—as when I was denied tenure at Harvard—they didn’t stop me.
Later, there were others who encouraged me—of course, they were mostly men, too, because that’s who was there. When I got to Harvard as a graduate student, there was not one woman on the faculty in the philosophy department; there was one in classics.
When you were coming up, there were a few women with established reputations in philosophy: notably, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt. Were they role models at all?
Well, de Beauvoir was not academic. I didn’t think she was a very good philosopher. And she was actually an extremely bad role model for any young woman because she and Jean-Paul Sartre were involved in this game-playing, initiating sexual relationships with young people in a rivalrous way, that destroyed the psyches of many.
Hannah Arendt is from a different part of the philosophical tradition from mine. So, I didn’t particularly consider her work a model.
The one who actually was more of a model is Iris Murdoch. She was a philosopher at Oxford and continued doing that while she was writing her novels. She wrote wonderful things about philosophy; and she was known to be a very good teacher. She really encouraged her students to think their own thoughts, beyond the narrow Oxford syllabus.
From what I’ve read, you had a difficult time during graduate school at Harvard—including a thesis adviser who grabbed your breasts during a meeting. How did you handle that kind of harassment ?
It’s a way men have of asserting their dominance and power. In the case of my thesis adviser, he was a very sad alcoholic who had never realized his full potential. It was a part of a kind of pity/sympathy ritual that you were supposed to participate in.
Though I always said “no,” he never penalized me. The women who suffered were the ones who said “yes.” They became enmeshed in his life, which was a terribly sad one. Like all human dramas, it is very particular and complicated. But what it did was create an atmosphere of indignity. The women there were not just allowed to be as dignified as the men.
Now, there was another member of the department who once called me at night and said, “I’ve read your article on Plato’s Symposium and I see you’re a very passionate person.” What do you do with that sort of harassment?
Did you ever consider reporting any of this to the powers-that-be at Harvard?
Not while I was a graduate student. Later, in 1983, when I was on the faculty and denied tenure, I thought of bringing a grievance for sex discrimination.
There was a lot of bad behavior involved in that. It would later turn out that the same person who’d telephoned me at night played a part in my tenure denial. It was sheer sex discrimination.
I knew that the classics department people had been making fun of me for my clothes and that sort of stuff. At the time, I talked to a lot of people about whether I should come forward. My friend the classicist Glen Bowersock advised, “Right now, you are only being mocked by people who’ve never read your work. If you bring a lawsuit, they will be forced to read your work and make up bad things about your work. That could be worse.”
I had tenure offers from three or four other places. I moved on.
When I tell my Columbia students about what work situations were like for ambitious women in the 1970s, they are disbelieving. They say, “Why didn’t you complain? You don’t change anything by quietly moving on.” Are they right?
Well, another woman in the department did come forward and, as my sage adviser predicted, they did say a lot of bad things about her work; she got attacked.
There was one woman who did try to denounce the sexual harasser in the Harvard Philosophy Department. She went to the chair, who couldn’t think of what else to do besides tell the guy she was accusing—and he retaliated against her. It hurt her career, all the way through.
I honor her for having done that. I have made a great effort to write about her work to try to compensate, in some way, for the career damage she suffered.
For younger people, I think it’s less pervasive—except if they are working in one of the sectors I call “citadels of pride.” These are certain areas of employment where there aren’t fixed rules, where there’s an asymmetry of power that seems to be permanently baked into the structure. The performing arts is an example of that. It’s in those places where this still goes on.
Is the new book rooted in your own experiences, then?
I actually started out writing a different book about animal rights. I’m dedicating it to the memory of my daughter, who was an animal rights lawyer; she died in 2019.
But in the middle of working on it came the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I watched them and thought, “Not only is this terrible, but part of the public doesn’t really understand the whole background. Their memory only goes back as far as the #MeToo movement of recent years.”
I felt they didn’t know about all the many people over the past fifty years who’ve been working to bring the law into conformity with justice. In the 1970s, women were saying that the rape laws were terrible and had to be reformed. All over the country, hundreds of lawyers worked, state by state, to make that happen. Women plaintiffs, many of them working class, put their careers and their lives on the line. I think the older movement is, in some ways, preferable to the newer one.
What do you mean?
The older movement meant to change the criminal law with regard to rape, and later, to bring sexual harassment into Title VII (of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) as a form of sex discrimination.
That means that today everyone can take advantage of it. It’s the law! And law has due process. And it can also educate the whole of the society—and the changes in the law really have educated men in America. Of course, there are some hardened offenders, probably psychopathic, who will go on doing it. But in some academic departments, for example, there were a lot of basically well-meaning men who just thought, “Oh, this is eroticism in the workplace, and this is okay.” Today, those people don’t do that.
That’s because of laws. When something’s illegal, you’re on notice that you shouldn’t do it. That’s had a tremendous impact.
Whereas #MeToo is case by case. It’s mostly without due process and it’s about public shaming. There’s great danger in that because public shaming works by cascades and rumors. Where is the due process that’s crucial to justice? Though I value the outspoken women who have come forward, it’s only going to work if it improves law.
What were your impressions of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings?
I thought she was very courageous. She didn’t want to come forward, but when she was dragged in, she told the truth. I knew that Kavanaugh was not doing so. The minute he said he’d been in [former Federal Appeals Court judge] Alex Kozinski’s chambers and was totally unaware of any sexual harassment or misconduct there, I knew that was impossible.
No one within miles of Kozinski’s chambers could have been ignorant of the fact that whole law schools were refusing to send their students to clerk for him because of the endemic sexual harassment there.
In the federal judiciary, there was no real code governing the behavior of judges. And they have this limitless power over their clerks, who are the brightest and best of law students. I favor abolishing the whole clerkship system. But that’s unlikely to happen.
One of the shocks of #MeToo was the sense of discovery that sexual misconduct was so widespread in almost all corners of society. Were you surprised?
I was not, maybe because of what I experienced when I was younger. I studied theater as an undergraduate at NYU and, for a while, wanted to be an actress. It was ubiquitous in the theater.
It was the Bill Cosby case in 2014 and 2015 that brought these matters to greater public attention. At the time, I thought, “Cosby is being treated as though he’s the single bad apple. He’s not. Whenever men make a lot of money for other people, their misdeeds are covered up.”
I then wrote a Huffington Post article about my own experience with a different well-known actor, whom I named, some years later, as Ralph Waite, who played the father in The Waltons. I had consented to intercourse, but not to the violent attack that he committed against me. This was in 1968 in New York. Like most of the women in the Cosby case, I didn’t even think about going to the police; it wouldn’t have done any good.
And that article led to your current book?
After digging into the philosophical concepts of objectification and pride, and studying the law on sexual harassment and assault, I began it. I looked at three areas of employment—three “citadels of pride”—in the performing arts, college sports, and the federal judiciary, where there are no fixed rules. That’s what makes people especially vulnerable to misconduct.
In the performing arts, everybody wants to work, and the unions are too weak to protect them. In the federal judiciary, the judges have lifetime appointments and, until recently, no real code governing their sexual behavior. And, until recently, clerks had an obligation of silence that was understood to include a prohibition on whistleblowing.
And in college sports, there are NCAA rules, but no one enforces them when a very talented player commits sexual assault. Division I college football and basketball, in particular, have a very bad structure; there are a small number of big stars who can make or break the fortunes of a Division I school. Everyone is competing for them. So that means that these athletes are insulated; they can do whatever they want.
If they professionalized, then there could be real rules. Having clear rules and procedures makes a huge difference. It educates people and deters abuse.
In the book, you offer a surprising solution for curbing sexual misconduct in the performing arts.
Tenure. That’s because these abuses are a function, in part, of the way careers in the performing arts are constructed. You’re never secure. You never hold a job for more than just one gig. You’re always at the mercy of the big influential people—like Harvey Weinstein.
In some countries, acting can be a tenured profession. I know tenured actors in the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. They are so different from actors I know in America. That’s because they’re secure. No one can do to them what happens in film and theater in America.
The jarring reality about Harvey Weinstein is that his behavior was widely known.
Yes. That was certainly true of Weinstein, and, in the world of classical music, of James Levine. I first heard Levine was harassing young men probably in the 1970s. It was just gossip, but everyone in the musical world knew.
It’s very significant that Levine and Weinstein were brought low when they were already in ill health. By the time this came out, Levine was no longer able to conduct. There’s a pattern here: when powerful people are making money from the talents of others, many are just going to close their ears.
So, again, what we need are very strong rules.
Are powerful men, in your opinion, more likely to engage in sexual misconduct than less privileged ones?
I think yes, because they are more likely to get away with it. If they have attained their positions, they often think the rules don’t apply to them.
Is there something about the discipline of philosophy that’s discouraging to women?
First of all, I could give you a list of at least fifteen women who are doing important work, beginning with Onora O’Neill in Britain, and Christine Korsgaard at Harvard—she’s fantastic.
That said, philosophy is still more male than the other humanities. It’s partly because of a tradition that you cut other people down by this kind of fast talking—that was always the English way of doing a class.
We sometimes have great difficulty recruiting good [female] graduate students. It’s hard to attract them; some of the best women I teach have gone to law school, because in law, they feel, if you’re good, the path is more open. In philosophy, they still feel that there’s this pressure to be that quick talker. In a workshop, you have to ask the first question and it has to be a devastating one.
I sometimes hear our female students say, “I can’t really be a philosopher because that’s not what I feel like doing.” I say to them, “There are many different ways of doing philosophy, but it’s primarily writing.” You think your own thoughts and then you write. It doesn’t matter how aggressive you are.
Have you been able to get back to the animal rights project?
Yes, I’m working on it now. It’s to be called Justice for Animals, and it will come out next year.
As I mentioned, my daughter, Rachel Nussbaum Wichert, died in December of 2019, after contracting a drug-resistant infection following otherwise successful transplant surgery. She was an animal rights lawyer. We sometimes wrote papers together—the last was on whether or not there could be friendships between human beings and other animals.
I believe her life had great meaning. I’m determined that it’s going to mean even more by my writing this animal rights book in which I can circulate her ideas to a wider audience. That’s a way of not feeling totally powerless. Some people try to gain control of a situation like this by suing the doctor. I’ve been writing a book.
I wrote quite a bit of Citadels of Pride in the hospital because Rachel was there for a long time. I would visit, and she was always ready to talk. I’d sit there with my laptop and write stuff down. Later, the work helped me deal with her death.
She was a person of enormous gentleness. She really believed in helping the most vulnerable, which, for her, were animals. And there I was writing about these bad people—as she was dying, I wrote the chapter on Kozinski. At the same time, I felt there was a point to bringing this issue to the public’s attention, that I was doing something to change things and move us toward a culture of greater gentleness and decency.
In your books, you often stress the need for optimism in life. How do you maintain yours?
I’m an optimist anyway, by nature, or from the fact that I was a happy child, loved by my parents and so on. But I do also think it’s a choice. The difference between hope and fear is almost a decision. You can have hope when prospects are dire, and you can have fear when prospects are very good. I’m with Kant in thinking that you have the duty to cultivate the decision.
Also being a feminist, you cannot help but be an optimist. In almost every country, women now outnumber men in higher education. Women are making headway everywhere in the world. When you think where we were a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, and where we are now. I mean: amazing.