is a feminist moral philosopher who caught the wave of the #MeToo movement in 2017 with Down Girl, her book on ‘the logic of misogyny’. Two years later, Prospect named her as one of the world’s top 50 thinkers.
Hannah Kowszun met her online on 23 March 2021.
Photography: Daniel Manne
The Guardian has called you ‘a once-in-a-generation mind’, and the feminist writer Amanda Marcotte has hailed you as ‘the Simone de Beauvoir of the 21st century’. Allowing for hyperbole, is that how you see yourself?
No. I’m very flattered, but I would never think of myself in those terms. That kind of individualism in highlighting one person at the expense of others is just not how I think.
I think my parents gave me a great gift, really, in treating me like a budding intellectual from a very young age. For example, car rides with my dad would often be him giving me mini-lectures on Russian history, or we would have really in-depth philosophical conversations. I wrote a lot of terrible, childish poetry with my mother. They gave me what a lot of girls don’t have, which is a sense that my mind mattered.
I had an extremely happy childhood, in a wonderful, nurturing environment.
Your father is of Jewish heritage. Did that help to form you at all?
Absolutely. He has a keen interest in the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust, and that was something I was very conscious of growing up. There was a real awareness within our household of the reality of racism – and that encompassed an increasing awareness of the plight of indigenous Australians. That was a frequent topic of conversation around the dinner table. Issues of social justice, and racism in particular, were always very salient to me growing up.2Her father, Robert Manne, was born in Melbourne to parents who were refugees from Europe. He was a professor in politics and culture until his retirement in 2012. In 2005, he was voted Australia’s leading public intellectual in a survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald. Her mother, Anne Manne, is a journalist and social philosopher.
Was your experience at high school also part of your ‘construction’?
I went to an all-boys school for two years, and the atmosphere of sexism and misogyny was eye-opening. I often felt humiliated and bullied. It provided a lifetime’s material for reflection
I mean, I thought of it more as a formative experience. I went to an all-boys school for my final two years, because I wanted to do the International Baccalaureate; and the contrast between what I’d come to expect at home, in terms of being respected and liked – as well as loved, of course – by my parents, and the atmosphere of sexism and misogyny at the school was incredibly eye-opening.
I often felt humiliated and bullied [at the school, which] embodied certain elements of male privilege that are endemic in Australian life. Ultimately, it made me interested in misogyny and other forms of systemic oppression that intersect with it. I think it provided a lifetime’s material for reflection, really.
You’ve said that your treatment there was so abusive, ugly and violent that you can’t go within 10 kilometres of that part of Melbourne without starting to panic. That suggests that it formed you in other ways than intellectually.
Yeah, I would say I’m someone who has – as many girls and women do – some history of trauma; and that has shaped me.
In your latest book, Entitled,3Entitled: How male privilege hurts women (Allen Lane, 2020) you tell many powerful stories of discrimination and harm to women, but you don’t relate any personal experiences.
It’s interesting, I often choose not to include personal anecdotes in my work unless it’s absolutely essential, and that’s for the following reason. I argue in my first book, Down Girl,4Down Girl: The logic of misogyny (OUP, 2017) that misogyny is partly a matter of women not being seen as entitled to take up moral space and command moral attention; and I link this to a hostility I often see towards female victims, particularly when they come forward about powerful male perpetrators who have social prestige or rank. That’s a feature of two cases I’ve been looking at in Australia,5The alleged rape of Brittany Higgins (see eg theguardian.com) and an alleged historic rape by Christian Porter (see wikipedia.org) where you see this intense hostility towards victims in terms of their not being believed, their being questioned, their not at least being adequately sympathised with.
And so I tend to think that it would be a bit distracting if I put myself at the centre of the narrative, because for many readers it would suggest that I am trying to draw attention to my own predicament historically, and that would tend to make me leap off the page not as an author and a commentator but rather as someone who’s trying to centre herself and it would be an extra layer of cost to what I’m doing.
That being said, you know, I occasionally will drop a footnote indicating some experience I’ve had, because I simply can’t find a substitute. So, for example, I did some research into how early on the phenomenon of strangulation starts. We know that this is a distinctively male form of violence and it’s a highly pernicious and domineering gesture that is strongly linked to an increased risk of homicide. I was curious because many misogynistic acts start surprisingly early on in life and I myself was strangled by a boy when we were both five. He wrapped a piece of wool around my neck and pulled until it was… until I… Yeah, well. So, anyway…
Horrible, but, I mean, what has to happen in society for such a young boy to be capable of that kind of violent act? He was far too young to blame, certainly far too young to have had the idea himself; it was clearly learnt behaviour. (I’m not saying that he was explicitly taught it, of course, but that he picked it up somewhere – possibly from being abused himself.)
We just don’t have the kind of control group we would need to assess the thesis that men and women are fundamentally different in certain ways
So, I put that little anecdote in a footnote because I simply couldn’t find the research to back up the idea that it’s a behaviour that can start surprisingly early on. I thought it was worth recording that we’re teaching young boys to engage sometimes in behaviours that are highly violent and disturbing and misogynistic well before they’re old enough to know better. This is the kind of damage that we do to boys, and girls – and also non-binary kids, of course – when we have boys growing up in a misogynistic society where they learn to emulate those behaviours from older men.
Perhaps some of the most important questions we should be asking ourselves are things we’re too afraid to ask.
Yeah, that is such a smart point! I think in some ways this points to the ways in which we’re all gaslit. Something I’ve been trying to think through in connection with misogyny is ways in which we’re all made afraid to ask certain questions and would feel not just ‘crazy’ but guilty or ashamed if we did. Like, questions about juvenile male violence [for] me are very awkward to raise. I hasten to say that I’m not necessarily blaming boys for engaging in these behaviours – they are just boys. However, they can do the damage of men, to paraphrase a line from Roxane Gay, who wrote in her incredible memoir, Hunger, about the boys who had gang-raped her when she was 12.6Hunger: A memoir of (my) body (HarperCollins, 2017) So, again, it’s not so much a question of accountability for the very young [as]: What are we teaching boys?
What is your fundamental understanding of human nature? I suppose that, broadly, there are three different conceptions: that we are created beings designed to live in a certain way; that we are evolved beings, with attitudes and behaviours hardwired into us by evolution; and that each of us is born as a blank slate and all our attitudes and behaviours are learnt.
I think that’s a perfectly fair tripartite characterisation. I would say my position is closest to the third that you outline; but I think primarily in epistemic terms, so I’m less interested in what human nature is than in what we can know about human nature at this point in our history. So, for example, when it comes to gender differences that are supposedly innate, my view is that it would be very difficult to know that, given how much gender socialisation we do know exists. We know that boys and girls are raised very differently – and the same is true for non-binary kids – and we just don’t have the kind of control group we would need to assess the thesis that men and women are fundamentally different in certain ways.
My position is close to that of someone like [the 19th-century philosopher] John Stuart Mill, who believes that women – and, I would add, this is true of men and non-binary people as well – are all kind of grown in a hothouse environment that artificially shapes our natures in ways that play up certain features and minimise others; and so until we had a group of people raised in a genuinely non-patriarchal society (which really hasn’t existed in large scale since the introduction of agriculture, roughly), we just wouldn’t be in a position to know if there are in fact these ‘natural’ differences between the sexes. And until that point I think it’s safest to assume that most of them are the result of socialisation.
I don’t think there’s a good answer to the question ‘Why be moral?’ that stands outside of morality itself – but I think the cry of a baby constitutes a moral claim on us to help inasmuch as we can
Why is it ‘safest’ to assume that?
Because that is often more conducive to fairness. So, treating people equally until proven otherwise is usually the fairest way to encourage individuals to develop their different interests and abilities, and also to help them with certain disabilities or issues, or different ways of being in the world that might require special accommodation.
So, roughly I think that the way to think about this is in terms of what we can know at the moment, and I don’t think we can know a whole lot beyond the fact many, many differences are heavily due to socialisation.
Is it inappropriate to look at other intelligent species and note that they relate to each other in fairly consistent ways? If elephants are matriarchal and gorillas are patriarchal, is that because they all teach their children to be so? Is it not something evolution has hardwired into them?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not that interested in those kinds of generalisations, because I think that, without being less than us, non-human animals of different kinds are very different from us (and from each other). I’m also very cautious about a potential for anthropomorphisation of behaviours that are often found, in retrospect, to have been, in effect, a projection of sexist biologists. I think we have to be sceptical that they come to this free of gender bias.
And, beyond that, we’re the only animals, as far as we can tell, that are heavily invested in normative thought, about what we ought to do – which radically changes the possibilities for human beings.
If you’re not religious, where do you go for your own sense of ‘ought’?
Well, that’s a great question. I mean, my bread and butter in terms of my philosophical training is metaethics,8The study of the nature, scope and meaning of moral judgement and there my view is, roughly, that the most fundamental moral imperatives are a matter of basic bodily imperatives, that cry out to others for some kind of relief or satisfaction. So, thirst and hunger, a need for belonging and shelter and social security, a need to avoid humiliation… A rough epistemological test is: Could you torture someone by withholding this from them? So, that’s how I think of the core of morality.
And then we have, very roughly speaking, many, many social practices that are essential to ensuring that everyone’s bodily imperatives are respected and satisfied. So, for example, we might say that one ought to tell the truth because in general that’s a social practice that is essential for people to live peaceably with each other.
Arguably, we are unusual as a species in our capacity to be consciously cruel. Most of us have felt both an urge to make other people comfortable and an urge to make other people suffer. Why ought we to prefer the first option?
Like many moral philosophers, I don’t think there’s a good answer to the question ‘Why be moral?’ that stands outside of morality itself. For example, if you’re faced with a crying baby who needs to be fed or changed or comforted and you wonder, ‘Why should I help rather than hurt?’, there’s no answer I can give that doesn’t itself just invoke those same moral standards. But I think that baby’s cry constitutes a moral claim on us to help inasmuch as we can.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I think I’m very lucky that I am in that genuinely rare thing, a gender-egalitarian marriage. It’s really a joy to co-parent a wonderful little girl who is the daily joy of our lives
It’s not an identity that I am particularly invested in, I think. I wouldn’t object to someone labelling me an activist (though it’s often, I suspect, said as a criticism). I’m certainly someone who’s motivated in my intellectual work by a sense of what needs to change and I’m usually most interested in questions that I think are related to pressing issues of social justice; but I’m not really at the coalface doing the most direct work.
I often think of the James Baldwin quote ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ Trying to get others to face the reality of gender injustice, particularly as it intersects with other systems of oppression and vulnerability, that’s kind of my main goal – at least, it has been up to this point in my career.
What role do you think men can and should play in challenging male entitlement and its effects? I see that the endorsements on the back of Entitled are all by women.
I mean, I think men can play a huge role in this. Not to say they usually do, but I think they can use their privilege for good and, in the first place, help us all to take these problems seriously and amplify the voices of those who historically wouldn’t have been as listened to. So, that’s a start. Also, of course, calling out instances of misogyny that they’re expected to be tolerant of – you know, so-called locker-room talk, which certainly happens in the halls of academia, too. Yeah, just kind of adopting a mentality of ‘How can I be an active bystander to people who would otherwise be marginalised or erased or unfairly blamed?’ Those are all good questions that a would-be ally (or, perhaps better, accomplice) can ask themselves from a position of privilege.
It’s often been noted over the last year that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, especially those with children. Has that been your experience?
I think I’m very lucky that I am in that genuinely rare thing, a gender-egalitarian marriage. Certainly we’ve had challenges, because we haven’t had any sort of child care for the duration of the pandemic – out of an abundance of caution, we’ve been caring for our now 16-month-old daughter exclusively ourselves. But one of the (all too rare) really wonderful things about this time for us has been that we’ve shared that equitably. It’s really been a joy to co-parent a wonderful little girl who, yeah, is the daily joy of our lives.
It’s also a lot of work, so I would be hopping mad if I was, like many, many women, saddled with an unfair proportion of that labour. But I also think that care-giving labour can be a wonderful thing to engage in, as long as it’s done equitably.
I read that when they test-screened On the Basis of Sex, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic,92018, dir Mimi Leder they felt that the audience didn’t believe that her husband, Marty, was as supportive as in fact he was and so they revised the script to make him a little less so. That seems like a missed opportunity to show what that kind of relationship can look like in practice.
Absolutely. You know, I tweeted shortly after she died that I was so grateful to have found my own Marty. It’s easy to underestimate how much a woman like her benefited from an utterly supportive partnership, both materially and emotionally. He also did a lot of emotional labour – he was the one who remembered those little details that women are so often tasked with remembering, and which if you’re Ruth Bader Ginsburg might not be realistic for you. Like, he was the one who remembered her clerks’ birthdays and would bake them a cake.
There’s a temptation to think of progress as linear, but a more realistic metaphor is the do-si-do dance. Just as someone takes a step forward, someone else takes a step backward as a reaction
That is the female role, supposedly, but I don’t think all women would naturally inhabit it.
Definitely not. I mean, it’s work. It’s work, you know, and some people do it better than others. There’s value in that attentiveness but at the same time, because of that value, it should be equitably distributed as a form of labour. I think that’s really important.
Your husband took your surname when you married. Was that a deliberate statement?
It was his idea and it was certainly a feminist act on his part. I was slightly more established in my field,10Daniel Manne was then in transition from practising law to academia. He now lectures at Cornell University on intellectual property and gender and the law. and he wanted also to do something counter-gender-normative.
I have to ask: Have you ever regretted your surname?
I choose to look at it more as a Jewish surname and evaluate it in that way. However, I do look forward to my forthcoming memoir (that shall never be written) called ‘Mannesplaining’. And I will, yeah, tongue in cheek, enjoy the irony.
You write eloquently in Entitled of the rights and experiences you want your daughter to feel entitled to. How hopeful are you that such a change might come about in her lifetime?
That’s a tough question to answer. The truth is, I’m not optimistic at all. In saying that, I want to recognise that she’ll also be the beneficiary of many unjust forms of privilege – so, she’s been raised in a position of class privilege, being white, having largely non-disabled parents and, you know, coming from a (at least on the outside looking in) typical ‘cishet’11A cishet person identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth and is attracted to people of the opposite gender. partnership between me and my husband.
I think the more realistic thing I hang on to is that it’s a fight that many, many of us are actively engaged in and I have no doubt that things will improve in certain respects. I’ve also no doubt that there’ll be ugly and toxic forms of backlash and pushback, and I worry, both for her and for more marginalised members of her generation, that we won’t make progress fast enough.
The veteran politician Tony Benn famously said: ‘There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle, to be fought over and over again.’ Have you been surprised at how much of the social progress made in the last 200 years now seems in danger of being rolled back?
There’s a temptation to think of progress as linear and, you know, we just kind of get better and better. The American sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has a more realistic metaphor of the do-si-do dance. So, it’s not even progress and then backlash in a kind of zigzag; it’s rather that just as someone takes a step forward, someone else takes a step backward as a reaction. So, there are simultaneous moments of social progress and a negative reaction [from] white supremacist and misogynistic social forces.
I don’t know whether that gives me hope…
Right. [I feel] the same, actually. I think probably I don’t feel hope as such – it’s the idea of the battle that keeps me going. I really like that [Benn] quote. The philosopher Kathryn Norlock has mooted that we are engaged in a kind of perpetual struggle where, even if we’re not optimistic about the outcome, we still owe it to ourselves and to the world to keep going, to try to make things better, even despite all the obstacles.
[In philosophy,] there is a culture of vigorous disagreement and that can be very liberating for women. At the same time, it means that they have to do something that is kind of socially forbidden
That’s not to say there isn’t [any] progress whatsoever. I mean, I wouldn’t be in my position if there hadn’t been tremendous social progress of a feminist kind in the 20th century.
How has your Australianness influenced you as a thinker? And how did you find it when you moved to the East Coast of the United States and immersed yourself in that culture?
I think I’ve always been a slightly uneasy Australian. In a way, our family culture was [more] of a piece with East-Coast progressive Jewish culture. North-eastern American higher-education institutions have all sorts of problems and limitations themselves but they are a rich source of the kind of nuanced and vibrant intellectual discussions that I’ve really been looking for my whole life. I’ve felt much more comfortable in my own skin in this environment.
I think our numbers are even a little bit worse than that. Around 17 per cent of tenured faculty are women, if I’m recalling correctly.
Why do you think that is?
I think philosophy is a very mixed bag. There is a culture of having vigorous disagreements – that’s kind of the lifeblood of the discipline – and I think that can be very liberating for women. Often in society there is limited space for women to vigorously disagree, particularly with male authority figures, whereas in philosophy you’re actually meant to.
But, at the same time, that means that in order to do philosophy women have to do something that is kind of socially forbidden, verboten, and that can be socially punished. So, I think women are often subject to a lot of misogyny within philosophy, in addition to the sexual harassment and other forms of workplace hostility that permeate the academy. Which, unsurprisingly, is very offputting.
We hold the opinions we do not just because there are good arguments for them but because our formation and temperament and life experience make us as individuals susceptible to those particular arguments.
When you’re developing a position, do you feel that you need to recognise and allow for such susceptibilities in yourself?
I mean, I certainly do. I think it’s really important in general to say, ‘I think proposition P – well, I would think that, wouldn’t I?’ and then to check your own arguments for motivated reasoning. And I’d like to think that I do that.
On the other hand, it’s good to remember that there is a role within epistemic communities for people who are highly sensitive to some particular phenomenon. The ability to detect misogyny is unevenly distributed across the population; but, you know, as someone who is probably over-sensitive to it, I still think of myself as being capable of playing a very valuable role because if something is misogynistic, in a subtle way, I’m likely to be one of the relatively few people who will pick up on that. And, of course, sometimes I’ll be over-sensitive and hence wrong, and others will rightly correct me.
Well, I’ve been kind of preoccupied by questions about gaslighting recently, and the way people are prevented from identifying the injustices they’re facing, both interpersonally and in broader political contexts. It seems to me that we all need tools to help us see our way out of a certain epistemic fog that permeates much of life and makes us feel defective, either rationally or morally, for questioning certain basic tenets of society – like the idea that we make steady linear progress.
Being able to question those narratives and not feel guilty or ashamed or crazy – I think that’s crucial. It’s hard for me to know what could be done about this on a broader social scale, but I see myself as arming people who want to combat these mechanisms with the information to do so – and to help others face those realities, too.
|⇑2||Her father, Robert Manne, was born in Melbourne to parents who were refugees from Europe. He was a professor in politics and culture until his retirement in 2012. In 2005, he was voted Australia’s leading public intellectual in a survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald. Her mother, Anne Manne, is a journalist and social philosopher.|
|⇑3||Entitled: How male privilege hurts women (Allen Lane, 2020)|
|⇑4||Down Girl: The logic of misogyny (OUP, 2017)|
|⇑5||The alleged rape of Brittany Higgins (see eg theguardian.com) and an alleged historic rape by Christian Porter (see wikipedia.org)|
|⇑6||Hunger: A memoir of (my) body (HarperCollins, 2017)|
|⇑8||The study of the nature, scope and meaning of moral judgement|
|⇑9||2018, dir Mimi Leder|
|⇑10||Daniel Manne was then in transition from practising law to academia. He now lectures at Cornell University on intellectual property and gender and the law.|
|⇑11||A cishet person identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth and is attracted to people of the opposite gender.|
Kate Manne was born in 1983. She grew up ‘on 20 acres of brush in Cottles Bridge, 45 minutes north-east of Melbourne’ (where she attended Ivanhoe Grammar School). She studied philosophy, logic and computer science at Melbourne University in 2001–05 and then moved to the US, to work for a doctorate in philosophy at MIT from 2006 to 2011.
In 2013, after two years of research as a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, she was appointed an assistant professor at the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University. She was promoted to associate professor (with tenure) in 2019.
She is the author of Down Girl: The logic of misogyny (2017), which in 2019 won both the American Philosophical Association’s biennial Book Prize and a Prose award from the Association of American Publishers; and Entitled: How male privilege hurts women (2020).
Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Review, HuffPost, the Times Literary Supplement and Politico among other publications.
In 2019, Prospect named her as one of the world’s top 50 thinkers (and a poll of its readers then placed her in the top 10).
She married in 2009 and has one daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 June 2021