Sally Haslanger (1955-present) is one of the most influential feminist philosophers in contemporary philosophy. She is one of the pioneers of social philosophy and works to make the field of philosophy more inclusive.

She has some interesting life experiences, to say the least. Haslanger was born in 1955 in Connecticut, but moved to Los Angeles in 1963, where Jim Crow laws legalising racial segregation were still in effect. Moving from an unsegregated to a segregated part of the US as a child had an impact on her philosophical interests.  

Her mother and grandmother were Christian Scientists, a small sect of Christianity that doesn’t believe in modern medicine, and she grew up attending their church. Later, her family moved to Texas where she attended an Episcopal boarding school, and started college before she had finished high school.  

In a Q&A with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT), Haslanger says that her interest in feminist philosophy was catalysed when she was sexually assaulted as an undergraduate student at Reed University. Afterwards, she became involved in feminist activism, especially during her time as a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. Later in life, she and her husband adopted and raised two African-American children. Haslanger says that these life experiences have played an important role in directing her philosophical interests.  


What is race? What is gender?

While these seem like straightforward questions, Haslanger has spent a large part of her academic career trying to answer them. Race and gender are categories that allow us to group people in particular ways, predominantly based on physical characteristics. However, she doesn’t believe that the categories of race and gender refer to just physical characteristics, they also refer to social positions. Social positions refer to where someone fits into their society: they could be in a privileged position or a more marginalised one.  

On my view,she said, both race and gender are social positions that individuals occupy by virtue of their body being interpreted a certain way.”

In 2000, Haslanger published what is now one of her most well-known and controversial papers: Gender and Race: (What) are they? (What) do we want them to be? In her paper, one of the things she tried to do is find a characteristic that all women have or experience. The characteristic she finds and defends in her paper is systematic subordination. On Haslanger’s view, to be a woman is to occupy a lower position in society because of the way that her body is interpreted by others.  

Her definition sparked controversy amongst transgender rights activists. Some people identify as women, but are not necessarily perceived by society as women. Haslanger’s definition of a woman excludes these people, namely, trans women who have not yet transitioned.   

Since the paper was published, Haslanger has taken on a lot of the criticism and worked to make her definition more inclusive. However, she still holds that gender and race refer to more than physical characteristics; they also refer to positions within society.  


Advocacy and inclusivity

Haslanger feels strongly about promoting feminist causes outside of the field of philosophy. During the 2016 US presidential election, she wrote about some of the ways Hillary Clinton’s campaign was being undermined by sexism. 

“As long as ‘being presidential’ and ‘looking presidential’ are about being and looking masculine, we will be unable to address what is ripping [the US] apart as a country.”

Within the field of philosophy, she is a strong advocate for inclusivity and making the field a more inviting space for women and people of colour. Now, as a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Haslanger predominantly teaches courses in social and political philosophy, feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, and history of philosophy.  

To boost participation from traditionally underrepresented groups in philosophy, Haslanger worked to create a summer program alongside a few other philosophers in 2014. Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute (PIKSI) creates a space for underrepresented undergraduate students to work in more formal areas of philosophy (such as logic and metaphysics) or in areas that may be seen as less important and rigorous (such as the philosophy of gender and race).  

Haslanger is also the founder of the Women in Philosophy Task Force (WPHTF), which is a group of women who work to coordinate initiatives and intensify the efforts to advance women in philosophy.  

“Philosophers spend a lot of time worrying about the mind: what is it? How does the mind relate to the body? They can hardly get a handle on the mind, so the social is completely out of reach. I’m a little impatient. I’m not going to wait until the mind is figured out to figure out the social world.”MIT Q&A

Sally Haslanger has had a considerable impact on inclusivity in philosophy. Her work has encouraged philosophers and activists to investigate and question what we thought we could take to be truths about race and gender. Her work today continues to facilitate important discussions on how society functions and what we might be able to do to make it more equitable.