Friday, April 12, 2024

Women’s History Month: Mary Magada-Ward strives to make philosophy inclusive

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Featured photo by Jenene Grover

Story by Jenene Grover

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Mary Magada-Ward began teaching at Middle Tennessee State University in 1993, and she became the first female chair of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department in 2020.

Not only is she the first female chair of philosophy at MTSU, but she is also the only female philosophy professor in the history of the department.

Magada-Ward said that philosophy is worse than physics when it comes to gender disparities in the field. At MTSU, her colleagues are incredibly supportive and are all feminists themselves.

“When I went to grad school, my favorite undergraduate philosophy professor told me, he said, ‘Mary, you’ve got to realize that a lot of people think a woman philosopher is a contradiction of terms,’” Magada-Ward said.

Because of her specialization in pragmatism and feminism, she focuses on making philosophy more inclusive, and her colleagues are a large part of that. 

Becoming chair was not that large of a difference for Magada-Ward, with the exception of meetings. Declaring herself as a lazy person, she said that her meetings are efficient and sometimes are simply not even called for. As chair, she also is incredibly happy to receive release time, which is allotted time for her to research.

“I suppose I hope to retain my curiosity and my gratitude,” Magada-Ward said. “I’ve had a good life. Hasn’t been a joy fest every single second, but, you know, I’m very—I have a really great family, I love my colleagues here, I love the students here.”

Philosophy was not originally even on Magada-Ward’s mind when she was younger, and neither was college. She planned to pursue ballet, but after moving to New York City, she learned that it was not something she was particularly serious about. Her dedication to ballet originally taught her that she always wanted to be serious about something.

She attended Bowling Green State University in Ohio for Psychology, where her parents and her grandfather taught. Her goal was to become a Skinnerian Behaviorist, inspired partially by the first “real” book she ever read. She had a lingering desire for technique from her time in ballet, and she saw behaviorism as a technique to make people better. In her sophomore year, a professor coaxed her into the Philosophy Department.

“I was recruited into philosophy with one of the best lines ever, which was, ‘Eh, don’t do psychology, do philosophy of psychology. That way, you can read all the interesting stuff, and you won’t have to do the boring stuff.’ And that sounded right to me,” Magada-Ward said.

Magada-Ward’s parents were feminists as she was growing up, so feminism was always something she was interested in. She and her mom attended a march in Chicago when she was 15 for the Equal Rights Amendment.

To her, philosophy is an extremely wide-ranging topic, allowing scholars to look broadly at the world and a topic before asking detailed questions. It allows people to learn why they think rather than simply what they think.

Her focus on feminism was crucial to her, especially to learn why, still, in 2024, the world is divided by gender. Magada-Ward said the gender divide is the root cause of human misery because of the impossibility of achieving true femininity and masculinity.

“We push young boys and young girls to act certain ways that, ultimately, it’s a losing proposition, so we set them up to fail and cause them misery,” Magada-Ward said.

She believes that sorting people by gender, similar to race, limits human growth and abilities. Men are tasked with acting a certain way, only being allowed to feel anger and banned from feeling sadness and fear. Women are forced to choke down anger, causing higher rates of depression.

“Life is hard enough,” Magada-Ward said. “It’s a grand adventure, but it’s hard. Life is hard. So why are we making it harder by sort of stunting people’s potential?”

Generation Z is helping to stop this pointless sorting, she said, because they reject it, especially with identifying as non-binary. She finds this opt-out incredibly optimistic for humanity, as it is crucial to not even play the game that sorts.

Within her philosophy classes, she finds the students incredibly interested in the topic. This semester, she is only teaching Introduction to Philosophy, but she plans on teaching Philosophy of Gender in the fall. Magada-Ward brags to other departments about how amazing her students are.

“Even still, I can never predict who’s going to write really beautiful, insightful papers, and that’s always, that’s like a gift,” Magada-Ward said. “I think it’s the students that are really fun, and, of course, people who take a class in philosophy, they’re kind of self-selecting.”

Education is an incredibly large part of not only her job but her beliefs. Magada-Ward believes the only way to end stereotypes of genders is through education and dialogue. Diversity in public education allows for different perspectives and allows people to understand different beliefs.

In her classes, Magada-Ward uses many real-life examples to help students understand various philosophical theories. She draws from not only her own experiences but also from the media she consumes. A show she frequently watches and references is “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

“I think it’s just cathartic, and this is terrible, but I think sometimes part of it is, you look at these women, and they spend so much time on their looks. And they don’t really look that great,” Magada-Ward said. “I don’t know, that’s such an awful thing to say.”

Other shows she watches include “Home Town” on HGTV, “Elementary” on Hulu and detective shows like “Law and Order.”

She kept up with Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, especially during the massive media debacle throughout the NFL season. Magada-Ward’s daughter goes to see Swift yearly, and her son knew the subject of Swift’s “Teardrops On My Guitar.” Even though she keeps up with their relationship and hopes Swift and Kelce marry, she dislikes the mean comments toward them.

“I think that the fact that you can post anonymously makes people mean,” Magada-Ward said. “And sometimes I kind of think, ‘Okay, this is just an outlet. You’ve had a bad day, so you’re going to write something snarky.’ But I do think that’s a problem.”

In her daily life, Magada-Ward makes a point of changing the anti-feminist language. She regularly curses, but she refuses to use sexist words. Some phrases she has altered, such as “have the balls to do something,” into “have the ovaries to do something.” Small changes in language help to change how women are thought of in society.

Jenene Grover is the politics reporter for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact News Editor Alyssa Williams and Assistant News Editor Zoe Naylor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, and follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on X and Instagram at @mtsusidelines. Also, sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

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