Feminist Philosophy at Waterloo

Dr. Jennifer Saul

Feminist philosophers work for a diverse and just world

When philosophy professor Jennifer Saul moved back to North America in 2019 after working in the UK for more than two decades, she chose the University of Waterloo “because there's almost nowhere else in the world with so many excellent feminist philosophers.”

While feminist thought has gained attention and importance in philosophy over the past 30 years, there are still many departments around the world without scholars specializing in feminist philosophy. But it’s not only academia that benefits from the diverse perspectives of feminist thought. Waterloo’s feminist philosophers walk the talk, making impacts both inside and outside the discipline.

Feminist philosophy in action

A broad goal of feminist philosophy is ending oppression and inequity‚ and this plays out differently in different parts of the field, Saul explains. For example, feminist political philosophers look at how political theories that claimed to be based on notions of equality actually served to oppress women and people of colour. Feminist philosophers of language might look at how our use of language can contribute to or combat oppression. And feminist philosophy of science shows how diverse contributors make better science.

Saul also points to the importance of intersectional feminism, stressing that philosophy of race, disability theory, trans theory, to name a few, are intimately interlinked and all these fields need to work together.

“There's a huge amount of work to do in this deeply unjust world, and feminist philosophy gives us important tools to do that work.”

Dr. Jennifer Saul, Professor and Waterloo Chair in Social and Political Philosophy of Language

Feminist philosophy at Waterloo

The Department of Philosophy is home to five faculty members whose research, teaching, and graduate supervision make significant contributions to the advancement of feminist philosophy and its goals. 

Dr. Carla Fehr — Better diversity means better STEM

“I explore how diversity promotes excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I want to know how communities and organizations can develop local cultures that help their diverse members flourish—live their best lives and do their best work. It is not a coincidence that women of colour are under-represented in computer science programs and the software development enterprises, and that we also find so many cases of sexist and racist bias in AI. The exclusion of women of colour from computing is both morally wrong and leads to the production of inferior products.

“I am particularly interested in how the social norms, structures, and practices of communities need to change if they are to genuinely work toward increasing diversity. I want to know how people in positions of relative power and authority, for example, straight white people, can do a better job holding each other accountable for changing the exclusionary features of their communities and relationships.” 

Dr. Katy Fulfer – Shaping a thriving pluralistic community

“I’m deeply influenced by Hannah Arendt, the twentieth century Jewish-German-American political thinker. Arendt views politics as something we, the members of a political community, do together to shape the world that we share in common. I’m especially focused on the seeming division between the private and the public spheres and how it excludes people from political participation.

“Another strand of my research is feminist bioethics, especially around the politics and ethics of surrogacy. Whether I am writing about regulating surrogacy or about refugee resettlement policy, I’m attuned to how individualistic values are privileged over relational concerns, which undermines a thriving and pluralistic political community.”

Dr. Patricia Marino – Expanding the feminist lens

“A lot of my work brings a feminist lens to contexts where it's been lacking, especially in areas that might seem too abstract to involve social issues. In philosophy of economics, I use feminist epistemology to analyze idealizations in economic models and to understand the kinds of discrimination that can arise in the now-ubiquitous use of algorithms. My work on "economics imperialism" considers the recent expansion of economic thinking to domains beyond money and wealth into topics like interpersonal dynamics, family life, and personal choices.

“I also use feminist philosophy to consider the complexities of sexual objectification: Focusing on social context, I show how objectification can be both a wonderful thing for particular people on particular occasions and also a widespread social harm.”

Dr. Katie Plaisance — Engaging socially diverse communities

“I aim to help change our disciplinary culture so that philosophers are able to collaborate effectively with individuals and communities outside our field. It’s essential that we teach students how to develop more self-awareness about their own social location, understand the various dimensions along which people differ — gender, race, personality, cultural background — and recognize the value of diverse perspectives. We need to ensure that members of socially diverse communities seek out and listen to diverse perspectives.

“I’ve conducted empirical research which shows that many philosophers of science value engaged work and think that our discipline has an obligation to ensure we have broader impacts. As part of this work, I illustrate how incentivizing and rewarding engaged work can attract more diverse scholars to our discipline.”

Dr. Jennifer Saul — Tackling toxic language and diversifying academia

“My research in feminist philosophy has been primarily on feminist philosophy of language, and on efforts to diversify philosophy in academia. I am currently working on the ways that speech can oppress or perpetuate oppression and spread toxic ideas.

“As an American and British person, I'm very much affected by living through the simultaneous rise of Trump and Brexit, and now the massive increase in dangerously false conspiracy theories. Manipulative language has played a huge role in all of these, and I find myself obsessed with figuring out how this happened.  I'm completing a book on this called Dogwhistles and Figleaves.

“In terms of diversifying academia, I've worked a lot on implicit bias, and I co-developed good practice guidelines for women in philosophy that were adopted by the British Philosophical Association and most of the philosophy departments in the UK. I've also done both theoretical and practical work on sexual harassment in philosophy, as a result of running the blog What is it Like to be a Woman in Philosophy.

Feminist futures at Waterloo

With its broad range of applications, feminist philosophy opens many pathways for academic and applied research. At Waterloo in particular, there is great potential for more philosophers to work at the intersection of feminist theory and areas we usually associate with STEM domains, comments Marino, who is currently chair of the Department of Philosophy. “With our amazing feminist philosophy and our internationally recognized programs in science, math, and engineering, there's the possibility for a lot of great collaborative and high-impact cross-disciplinary work.”

Interested in studying feminist philosophy at Waterloo? Explore our programs and learn how to apply.