Martha Nussbaum Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Women's Rights, Religious Freedom, and Liberal Education: Conversation with Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago; September 14, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Professor Nussbaum, welcome to Berkeley.

Thanks very much, Harry. It's really great to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York City but then soon after that we moved to suburban Philadelphia. I grew up on what was called the "main line" in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Well, I didn't really like Bryn Mawr. I thought it was elitist and snobbish, and so I got an interest in breaking out of that and looking at the wider world and thinking about inequalities of race and class, and so on. But also, in a more positive way, my father was a very determined, hard-working person who had brought his way up from poverty to be a partner in a big law firm. He was a tremendous influence because he loved to work hard and he thought you should get the maximum out of whatever abilities you had. He taught me to never let down and always get the most out of whatever you're doing.

And your mother?

My mother was a very unhappy woman. She had given up a career as an interior decorator and she was very bored and unhappy. She was a very loving woman and I feel that she was a great source of love and emotion. In fact, once I wrote a philosophical dialogue that my parents figure in, and she's the one who speaks for the emotions. But I also learned that women who are forced to give up their careers don't always have happy lives, and that was important to me.

Before you went off to college and your training, your education made you think that you might want to be a philosopher. Or did that only come later?

I went to this intense feminist school where we fought a lot about ideas, and I had great, great teachers. I didn't call it philosophy at the time. I thought about literature, but I wrote about Dostoevsky, I wrote about Shakespeare, I was thinking about a lot of the same issues that I think about now, about emotions and vulnerability. I was also reading Greek tragedies. So, it was very continuous with what I'm doing now, but I didn't hear the word "philosophy" very much for a long time because I first went to graduate school in classical literature and I switched to philosophy only during graduate school.

Just out of curiosity, were you a debater as a young person?

No, I was an actress. I did a lot of acting and I wanted to be a professional actress and actually, [for] two summers and then one whole year I did professional repertory theater acting. It was only when I realized that I really wanted to think about the plays and not to act in them that I went back and finished undergraduate school. But I got a lot out of that. I still enjoy performing my own scripts, but as a lecturer you can write the script yourself!

Your admirable style as a lecturer really comes out, and this may point us into an understanding of how that came about.

In teaching I always try very hard to dramatize the philosophical issue and make it seem like a real human problem that people are actually worried about. I think philosophy can seem to undergraduates very dry, but it isn't. It's the most urgent questions about human life, and so I feel some dramatic ability helps when you try to bring that out.

As an undergraduate you majored in theater arts and then literature? Was that your path?

I was in the School of the Arts for one year at NYU. I [had] left Wellesley for this acting job, [then] I went to NYU School of the Arts, then I just went back and I majored in classics, and then I went on to graduate school at Harvard in classics but very quickly got into the philosophical side of it because that was where the excitement was right then, at Harvard.

Was that because of the instruction you were getting or it was just what attracted you?

The people who were teaching tragedy were not really intellectually challenging and they weren't interested in the ideas in it. G.E.L. Owen, a great scholar who worked on Plato and Aristotle, was challenging and exciting. It was the whole circle around Owen that was very rigorous, very challenging. I got into that circle, but I still felt that there was something, talking about emotions, talking about ethical issues, that was missing. When Bernard Williams came to Harvard to teach for a year, I saw that that's possible to do that within philosophy, and that's what I really wanted to do.

What I wanted to do was not to talk about these things in the way that a classical scholar did, just editing the text, or whatever was being done at the time. I wanted to talk about the philosophical issues, about moral dilemmas, about the emotions, and so on. Williams gave me a tremendous sense of possibility and permission in the sense that if he could do that within philosophy then it could be done within philosophy. At the time it was tough because if you talked about emotions or even about friendship, especially if you were a woman, they thought, "Oh, you softie, you're not really a philosopher." But Williams was an iconoclast, and because he was so respected he gave other people permission to follow and do that.

This would have been in the seventies, so it was an ideal time for a woman to be entering philosophy and raising these issues. Is that a fair statement, or was it still a struggle?

It was a struggle. I've written a piece for a volume of memoirs of women in philosophy. There were a lot of problems about sexual harassment, and I certainly encountered that; there were a lot of problems about childcare. I had a child when I was only 25, when I was in my third year of graduate school. No on knew what to do about that. All the department colloquia were held at just the hour when the childcare centers closed and no one understood that. So, I felt that I was the first one blazing the trail for these issues, and it was very, very tough. I was tired a lot of the time and I did encounter a tremendous amount of discrimination but probably less than other women at other places because some of the people at Harvard, like Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, and so on, were extremely fair minded and great voices for women. So was Bernard Williams. Long before there was the term "sexual harassment," he was telling women to protest when men on the faculty harassed them.

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