Jill Hernandez’s post is part of our Revealing Voices blog series.
It’s probably not shocking to learn that I quite accidentally stumbled upon the trove of scholarship by early modern women by way of studying well-trodden arguments by early modern men. The experience is akin to one I had this morning, when I looked at the other passengers on my packed airport shuttle and discovered that I was the only woman. I was intent on prepping for my conference, happened to glance up, and realized that I was one of one.
Eight years ago or so, I was similarly intent, writing a paper on Leibniz and the problem of evil. As a young PhD, I had a keen interest in Leibniz’s treatment of evil, especially in works outside of the Theodicy. But, around that time, early modernists were getting ready to celebrate the Theodicy’s tricentennial, and I was prepping a submission for an open call for papers to revisit the exciting arguments in the monograph. While going through lists of bibliographies and footnotes in secondary works, I happened to glance up and realized that I was the only woman in the “room”. All of the many authors I was reading at the time were men, writing about evil. Evil! The epiphany came: Have male scholars cornered the market on writing about suffering?
The problem becomes even more entrenched when we think about the power structures in politics, education, religion, and publishing that largely precluded women from participating in the field during the early modern period. Those who knew, perhaps most, what it meant to suffer were those who were excluded from having a voice in philosophy about the implications of suffering. The irony was just too rich to ignore. I felt compelled to make two inquiries, 1) were there women now who were writing good philosophy on the problem of evil? and 2) where were the women’s voices in early modern scholarship about a topic so endemic to the lived experiences of women in the period?
Answers to the first question were almost as difficult to uncover as answers to the second. Although it isn’t a small part of how I came to study early modern women in philosophy of religion, my research led to contemporary feminist ethics and Claudia Card’s unique atheistic contributions. Atrocious harms are a special class of wrongs, which stem from systems of oppression and which negatively transmute the dignity and identity of people who suffer. Card’s atrocity paradigm is an ethical system (rather than an argument in philosophy of religion) meant to distance the concept of ‘evil’ away from theism to place full moral responsibility for atrocities on us—the people who perpetuate, or do not mitigate, harms that come from atrocities. Contemporary female scholars in theology have had a bit more impact than those in philosophy on this problem, but there were only two major women in analytic philosophy addressing this problem—Marilyn McCord Adams and Eleanore Stump. Both served as inspirations and modeled truly aspirant epistemic humility. Marilyn’s work (and encouragement) more strongly takes up the problem of concrete evil (rather than treatments of evil as a logical problem), and her concept of horrendous evils is actually quite similar to Card’s atrocities. Eleanore’s work motivated me to think about the problem of evil relationally, something that I am still trying to do. And, both Marilyn and Eleanore encouraged me, though differently. I became friends with Marilyn during a Logos conference at Notre Dame (and over a shared affinity for mole and Mexican culture). At an American Catholic Philosophical Association conference, I gathered my courage and approached Eleanore to ask if she had heard of the atrocity paradigm and whether she thought its version of concrete evil was a unique challenge to theodicy. She patted my arm and assured me, “Jill, God does not care if your dog dies”; when I assured her that the problem was deeper than that, she told me to write a book about it.
Answers to the second question were equally elusive. Apart from Elisabeth’s correspondence with Descartes, I had very little exposure to (and no graduate training in) the scholarship of early modern women. Of course, I turned to Margaret Atherton’s seminal book, Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, which was the first sustained encounter with early modern female scholarship in philosophy that I experienced. None of the selections in the book dealt directly with suffering or evil, however. I was astonished at what seemed to be stellar contributions in epistemology and metaphysics (as well as the diverse intellectual interests of the women represented), but I was on a mission to find out what women were saying about the problem of evil. In fact, the lack of textual support in the Atherton book for women and philosophy of religion generated a maddening sense in me that women had to have been writing about evil, but I was going to have to dig for it.
So, I started looking in non-traditional places and running searches in political science, history, and literature. That research was fruitful, and soon led me to Catharine Macaulay, whose Appeal to the Men of Great Britain on Behalf of Women contained themes like systemic oppression and the perverting effect of power that were echoed in Card’s contemporary ethical work. Karen Green’s good work on Macaulay’s political thought launched me into thinking about Macaulay as a philosopher of religion. But, and here was the kicker, Macaulay was a theist. Her work, which was not directed at philosophers (who would have excluded her, it seems, anyway) but at those in power who were perpetrating abuse and stifling the education and rights of women. She was, then, focused completely on a concrete sense of harm and on the lived experiences of suffering. Yet, she was convinced that those who abused their power to oppress others undermined any faith they professed in the Church. She was adamant that only “Scoffers” could not make the presence of human moral evil consistent with the existence of a divinely perfect being, and she called out philosophy specifically for its commitment to an eschatology that damned earthly sufferers to an eternity away from God, given that they had neither the station nor the education to develop and practice the virtues.
Macaulay was (and remains) fascinating to me. Unlike most of her male contemporaries in philosophy, she conceived of evil without abstraction; and like contemporary feminist ethicists, she had a deep interest in ameliorating the negative impact of women who suffer under oppressive systems and for holding men morally responsible for perpetuating that harm. Unlike most theist philosophers of religion, she did not engage in whether the co-presence of God and evil in this world are compatible; but unlike contemporary atrocity paradigm scholars, she remained committed to understanding how someone could live with their belief in God while undergoing undeserved suffering.
I thought I had a really interesting idea, and one that seemed to scratch the surface on a bigger problem of trying to reclaim the voices of women who were very clearly doing good, unique philosophy. But, I wasn’t sure where to try to publish the work. On one hand, the project was a reclamation project in the history of philosophy. The difficulty with publishing non-exegetical work in the history of philosophy, in my experience, is that Reviewer Two tends to be the distinguished philosopher of early modern who is committed to non-interpretive methods in the field. Not only was I suggesting something interpretative—Macaulay made significant contributions to philosophy of religion—I was also putting her in conversation with contemporary atheist ethicists. Even if I could make Reviewer Two happy with the exegesis I provided in the paper, surely either the philosophy of religion or the ethics would be off-putting. On the other hand, my experiences in analytic philosophy of religion had suggested that putting Macaulay in conversation with a feminism might be rejected out of hand. I decided that I wanted the paper to be read also by those outside of history, and that I had a better chance of wider readership if I went with a philosophy of religion journal. So, I scoped out solid journals where senior scholars in the field had published, and crossed my fingers.
The paper, “The Anxious Believer: Macaulay’s Prescient Theodicy,” was published without revision on my first attempt at placing it in philosophy of religion, in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. I couldn’t believe it! In the period of time the paper was under review, I developed work on Mary Hays, a paper on Hays and Macaulay, some grant projects, and was asked to keynote an undergraduate ethics art and philosophy exhibit. Initially, I thought about these projects individually, as a series of projects. But, I solicited some letters of reference for a pre-tenure grant project, and Margaret Atherton read a prospectus. She encouraged me to include Mary Astell, among others, and provided the impetus for me to think about the project in a bigger, unified way. In fairly short order, I published the Hays paper, “Atrocious Evil, Divinely Perfected: An Early Modern Feminist’s Contribution to Theodicy“, in Journal of Religion and the Hays/Macaulay paper, “Acquainted with Grief: the Atonement and Early Feminist Conceptions of Theodicy,” in Philosophia (after its initial appearance at the 2014 Logos conference).
After a series of small grant rejections, I decided to go after an ACLS fellowship. The fellowship would have been significant, because it would have allowed me a year to dedicate to research and writing of a monograph on the topic. My department chair, Michael Almeida, was fully supportive and, as a preeminent philosopher of religion, his encouragement of the project and comments were invaluable. By that time, I had presented core ideas about the unified project at several venues, including one at a Berkeley conference where Linda Zagzebski keynoted. I was able to interact with her a bit there, and subsequently asked if she would write in support of the grant proposal. She was enthusiastic, and she (and others) provided comments on drafts of the proposal.
Along with my rejection of the ACLS fellowship, I received a one sentence referee report:
“I remain unconvinced that evil is gendered.”
I was stunned, frustrated, and dismayed. The proposal had been written without invoking the words “feminist”, “feminism”, or “gender”! Nothing at all in the proposal argued that evil was gendered. (I have never made that argument, actually, and can’t imagine making it since evil doesn’t walk around embodied—except this one time, at a Starbucks, maybe). I sent the referee report to Linda. She emailed me back, told me that she had a similar experience once with a proposal, and instead of making a word of revision, she sent it right back out…and landed a Guggenheim. Upon her advice, then, I dusted it off and sent it to the NEH…and won an 8-month Faculty Award for the project.
The NEH was the launchpad my research needed and allowed me to experience the generosity of several host institutions. I presented at numerous conferences and, by that time, was being invited to campuses to give talks about my research on early modern women. Invaluable research was conducted at the Fondren Collection at Rice University, and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro granted me unfettered access to their “Woman’s Collection”, which hosts a trove of material that is unavailable online. It also allowed me the time to let the relationship between the atrocity paradigm and the early modern women I was focused on to simmer. It was clear that these women shared a focus on concrete evil and similarly (though with significant differences) were theists. But, I hadn’t figured out the link to addressing atrocities in the way that could satisfy the concerns Card and others present—which was a huge hurdle for me.
It might sound odd, but perhaps not to philosophers who have to manage households, kids, departments, committees, and students. My solution hit me as I was schlepping the girls to school. (We were on the I-10 overpass, actually, and I told my oldest daughter, “Quick, take out my phone, open OneNote, and start typing what I tell you!”) So, the transmuted goods reply to the atrocity paradigm’s problem of evil came to me literally on the I-10 overpass during mom’s taxi duties! The main two obstacles the atrocity paradigm presents to theism is the systematicity problem (that atrocities result from systems of power which we hold humans responsible for perpetrating and perpetuating), and the transmutativity problem (that atrocious harms have deleterious impact on human dignity and identity which cannot be trumped by some later, greater good). It seemed to me then (and now) that early modern women agree that both of these are a problem, but offer replies by how they think good and morality function in the world.
The book was almost complete by that time, and I actually had multiple contract offers for it (but hadn’t yet signed). When I contacted Routledge with an updated prospectus, they were kind enough to offer dual publication on their philosophy and religion lists, and to offer a simultaneous paperback as a way to allow graduate students to access the book. I did lose a brief skirmish over the title. Their suggestion, Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil: Atrocity & Theodicy, better reflects the fact that the book is, first, a book on early modern women and, secondarily, an engagement with contemporary ethics and philosophy of religion. It was published in the summer of 2016.
My current projects come out of the book. My journal articles delve more significantly into the transmutativity and systematicity conditions of concretized evil in specific early modern women. For example, I’ve just put the finishing touches on a paper that tries to resolve a paradox of transmutativity in education for Macaulay (preview: she argues that women should be given access to education because it allows them to improve, especially, in virtue; but, she argues that education in men frequently is accompanied by a perversion of power that turns into the subjugation of others. You’ll have to read it to figure out how to resolve the paradox!) I’m working on a book project that focuses on, and expands, the view I present in the book on transmuted goods and the problem of atrocities. My main goal is for theism to embrace the problem of concrete evil as a real problem, and to recognize that certain versions of theism are better situated than atheism to offer arguments for why we should prevent and limit atrocities in the world. Additionally, I’d like to propel the atrocity paradigm as a viable moral theory into the next century.
Both of these goals, and the new book project, require continued research into the enlightened work of early modern women who had previously been excluded from the conversation. For me, when we can stand on the shoulders of women who were minimized and rejected, and speak truth to problems that have contemporary and lasting import, we do more than reclaim their voices. We ensure that—in the very near future—when another person is deeply intent in her writing and looks up, she will not be one of one in the room.
Jill Hernandez (PhD Memphis) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she is also the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs. She specializes in early modern philosophy and ethics, and is the author of Gabriel Marcel’s Ethics of Hope and Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil: Atrocity & Theodicy.