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Bartky Feminism Essay

Sandra Lee Bartky, an influential feminist philosopher who argued that women were subconsciously submitting to men by accepting an unnatural cultural standard for the ideal female body — what she called the “tyranny of slenderness” — died Tuesday at her home in Saugatuck, Michigan. She was 81.

The cause was complications of intestinal surgery, said a colleague, Linda Nicholson, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bartky, who taught philosophy and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, contended that women suffer from self-loathing, shame and guilt — internalized oppression, she called it — fostered by cultural cues about their bodies that devalue them if they do not meet the prescribed standard.

Through the diminishment of dieting and by being undemonstrative, she said, women are encouraged to “to take up as little space as possible.”

“The body by which a woman feels herself judged and which by rigorous discipline she must try to assume is the body of early adolescence, slight and unformed, a body lacking flesh or substance, a body in whose very contours the image of immaturity has been inscribed,” Bartky wrote in an essay published in an anthology, Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance , in 1988.

She continued: “The requirement that a woman maintain a smooth and hairless skin carries further the theme of inexperience, for an infantilized face must accompany her infantilized body, a face that never ages or furrows its brow in thought. The face of the ideally feminine woman must never display the marks of character, wisdom and experience that we so admire in men.”

Constructed differences

In her books Femininity and Domination (1990) and Sympathy and Solidarity and Other Essays (2002), Bartky argued that women are also programmed to adjust their gestures, cosmetics, ornamentation and every other aspect of their appearance to comply with a dominant patriarchal power structure.

“These are not sexual differences, they are constructed,” she wrote.

“The disciplinary project of femininity is a ‘setup’: It requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined to some degree to fail.”

Bartky was a founder of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding member of the Society for Women in Philosophy in 1971 — the year after Doubleday published a dissertation by Kate Millett, a freshly minted Ph.D., that became an important feminist study, Sexual Politics .

Until then, similar manuscripts had been largely relegated to underground presses. But by the 1970s, the Second Wave of feminism was surfacing.

In Toward a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness (1975), Bartky wrote: “Women workers who are not feminists know that they receive unequal pay for equal work, but they may think that the arrangement is just; the feminist sees this situation as an instance of exploitation and an occasion for struggle. Feminists are not aware of different things than other people; they are aware of the same things differently.”

Inspiration to generations

Judith Kegan Gardiner, a former colleague at the University of Illinois, said Bartky had “inspired generations of feminist philosophers to understand oppression, femininity and domination.”

Nicholson, who teaches history and women’s studies, quoted Bartky as saying, “Clearly, if there were to be such a thing as feminist philosophy, we who are philosophers and feminists would have to invent it.”

“And invent it she did,” Nicholson said. “She described her own work as ‘a tale of the philosopher become exorcist of her own demons.'”

Bartky was born Sandra Lee Schwartz on May 5, 1935, in Chicago, the daughter of Dr. Harold Schwartz, an orthodontist, and the former Ruth Smith. (Her parents were both shot to death in 1980 in their Highland Park, Illinois, garage in a crime that appears never to have been solved.)

She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She was hired as an instructor in 1963, was appointed a full professor in 1990 and retired as professor emerita in 2003.

She is survived by her husband, Algirdas Vileisis, with whom she lived in Saugatuck, on Lake Michigan near Grand Rapids; and her brother, Jeffrey Schwartz. A previous marriage, to Scott Bartky, ended in divorce.

Evolving from a liberal to a radical, Bartky applied a feminist lens to the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s vision of how society imposes its discipline over individuals. — The New York Times News Service

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Sandra Lee Bartky

Sandra Lee Bartky, 81, professor emerita of philosophy and gender and women’s studies, died Oct. 17 at her home in Saugatuck, Michigan.

Bartky established herself as a pioneer in feminist philosophy during her UIC tenure, which spanned three decades from Navy Pier through Circle Campus to the modern-day UIC. Her main areas of interest included existential philosophy, phenomenology, critical theory, Heidegger, Marxism, postmodernism and feminist theory.

“She described and analyzed the effects of microaggressions 30 years before the idea came into vogue,” said Anthony Laden, professor and chair of philosophy.

She authored numerous articles, essays and books, including Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (1990) and Sympathy and Solidarity and Other Essays (2002).

The former book title is one of her most influential and cited publications.

“With a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, Bartky’s essays in this collection offer a composite portrait of what it is like to be a woman in a sexist society, analyzing those features to reveal the inner workings of an oppressive system,”
Laden said.

Bartky was a founder of the Society for Women in Philosophy and Hypatia, a leading journal in both philosophy and feminist studies.

She was initially hired at UIC as an instructor in the department of philosophy in 1963 and became an assistant professor the following year. She was promoted to associate professor in 1970 and professor in 1990. She continued to teach until her retirement in December 2003.

She was a founding member of UIC’s philosophy department and a key contributor in the planning of UIC’s first courses on women and women’s issues.

In collaboration with Judith Kegan Gardiner, professor emerita of English and gender and women’s studies, and others in the mid-1970s, Bartky helped to establish the women’s studies program at UIC, now known as the gender and women’s studies program.

She was “an inspiring and much beloved teacher, and a persistent fighter against sexism and for broad intellectual inquiry,” recalled Gardiner. “Her essays are still landmarks in feminist philosophy.”

Bartky’s legacy in the philosophy department continues today through courses such as “Philosophy of Love and Sex” and “Gender Roles,” both of which were her creations.

The department’s commitment to feminism as a central and uncontroversial way to approach philosophical questions, as well as its democratic culture, are a credit to her, according to Laden.

“She was a firm believer in the power of philosophy to effect justice in the world and the importance of supporting intellectual community, and her work and her writing managed to do both,” he said. “Among the many reasons I counted myself lucky when I was hired by UIC was that she was to become my colleague.”

Her work in the classroom at UIC was recognized with the Silver Circle Teaching Award in 1985 and the Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1991.

The philosophy and gender and women’s studies departments will host agathering to reflect on Bartky’s life from 2:10 to 3 p.m. Wednesday in 1450 University Hall.

Bartky earned three degrees from UIUC: bachelor’s in 1955, master’s in 1959 and Ph.D. in 1963. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by New England College in 1997.

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