Margaret Whitford, who died from ovarian cancer on 18 July 2011, was a feminist scholar in the vanguard of the interdisciplinarity we now take for granted within French studies. Trained as a philosopher, she taught in the French Department at Queen Mary, University of London from 1977 until her early retirement in 2006. She became well known throughout the anglophone world as the leading interpreter of the complex system of thought of the feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray. From the early 1980s, as a founding member of the Society for Women in Philosophy, she devoted extraordinary intellectual and organizational energy to its research activities; in 2000 she embraced the new challenge (both conceptual and personal) of a demanding part-time training as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist at the Lincoln Centre for Psychotherapy. She qualified in 2005 and began to take on her own patients, as well as accepting appointment to the panel of specialist translators of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Margaret was awarded a personal chair in Modern French Thought in 1994. Her inaugural lecture, which, with a forthright blend of critique and vision, addressed the difficulties of doing feminist research in the academy, took the structural shifts in the Queen Mary French syllabus — from the canonical, chronologically organized federal degree to the unit system built around conceptual or methodological pathways — as a starting point for her claim that the feminist researcher has no choice but to be interdisciplinary. In support of her argument for the importance to genuinely creative thought of making rather than destroying links (her main target was the ongoing policing of the boundaries of philosophy), Margaret took models of the mind and metaphors of communication from psychoanalysis, sociology, linguistics, and child psychology. As she put it in a throwaway joke before elaborating a parallel with attachment theory (the academy as avoidant or preoccupied mother in relation to feminist research as its toddler): ‘in a French department, almost anything one reads turns out to be relevant’. Margaret made her extraordinarily wide reading relevant to her research and teaching, but it was perhaps because she found herself in a French department that she was able to do so. French studies in the UK may well owe the privilege of Margaret's significant presence to the institutional resistance of the country's philosophy departments to both continental and feminist philosophy. Yet Naomi Schor's description of Margaret as a scholar trained in philosophy but ‘housed’ in a department of French, though in its context meant to situate her important work on Irigaray, hardly does justice to Margaret's professional and affective allegiance to the Queen Mary French Department. She played a leading role in opening up its BA and MA curricula to wider and more questioning perspectives (she was an early enthusiast of Caribbean and African francophone writing, for example, and was in demand as an examiner in this area), she enjoyed collaborative course design and joint teaching, she was a fine supervisor and mentor, and, from the moment of her arrival in the department in 1977, she forged some very close and enduring friendships.
Margaret grew up in Redruth in Cornwall and attended Cambourne County Grammar School. She was only seventeen when she began a degree in Philosophy with French at the recently founded Sussex University; presumably, she was attracted even then by its innovative disciplinary structures. She was barely twenty when she graduated with a First. She then spent a year as an English language assistant in Clermont-Ferrand before embarking, in 1968, on a PhD on Merleau-Ponty and Sartre at Darwin College, Cambridge, with supervisory arrangements that allowed her to benefit from the expert guidance of Colin Smith, a leading specialist of Merleau-Ponty based at the University of Reading. Although it was only later that Margaret would come to take gender as a crucial analytical category for philosophy in general and her own research in particular, it was as a postgraduate at Cambridge that she became actively involved in the local women's group; it was no doubt during two years spent as a lectrice in Amiens, where she taught in-service refresher courses for school teachers, that she experienced the French women's movement at first hand and extended her understanding of feminism. Margaret's PhD was awarded in 1975. A short period working in Muswell Hill Bookshop was followed by a University of Wales Research Fellowship at Bangor, and appointment in 1977 to a permanent lectureship in French at Queen Mary. Malcolm Bowie had been in post as Professor of French for just a year; in coincidental trajectories, he had been a postgraduate at Sussex when Margaret was an undergraduate, and a lecturer and fellow at Cambridge when she was a research student. Margaret appreciated the encouragement she had received from Malcolm ever since her time at Sussex, and she was lucky to have such a supportive Head of Department, himself immersed in Freud and Lacan, when she began working seriously on psychoanalysis. A first article drawn from Margaret's PhD was published in 1979 in French Studies (as were her earliest book reviews); in 1982 her revised thesis appeared in the French Forum monograph series as Merleau-Ponty's Critique of Sartre's Philosophy.
Margaret discovered Irigaray's work in the mid-1980s when she was invited to attend her seminars at the University of Bologna. Believing that the accounts of Irigaray's thought she had read to date were based on misunderstanding or sketchy knowledge (which tended to place her within a homogeneous group of exponents of écriture féminine), she sensed Irigaray's importance as a feminist philosopher and set herself the challenge of uncovering the internal logic of her system of ideas. She claims to have been fascinated almost despite herself, intrigued by a critique of rationality that appeared to go against her own intellectual training, and uncertain as to what would emerge. Her first articles, which appeared in 1986, were an important intervention in the reception of Irigaray that argued for not assuming too soon that her meaning had been grasped, and for taking the psychoanalytic dimension of her work seriously, in particular as it might inform the rhetorical strategies of her writing. Luce Irigaray: Writing in the Feminine (1991) was a rigorous and entirely unpretentious interpretation of Irigaray's texts, based on close readings that were informed, as they needed to be to contextualize and explicate Irigaray's project, by wide knowledge of Western philosophy and of psychoanalysis. Margaret's own project was to make Irigaray's thought accessible as a feminist resource, to promote an ‘engagement’ with its network of preoccupations and connections in a way that would be more creatively fertile than premature denigration or idealization of Irigaray herself. In addition to this influential monograph, which changed the terms of discussion of Irigaray and made it impossible to go on dismissing her as an ‘essentialist’, Margaret edited The Irigaray Reader (also 1991), which included pellucid introductions to David Macey's very fine translations (she collaborated closely in their production and was named as co-translator of two of them), co-edited Engaging with Irigaray with Carolyn Burke and Naomi Schor (1994), and delivered some thirty seminar and conference papers on Irigaray in a wide range of disciplinary settings across the world. Margaret was able to explain very complex issues with great clarity. Taken as a whole, these papers and publications on Irigaray were her distinctive contribution to feminist philosophy, their appearance framed by two broader collaborations with friends from the Women in Philosophy network: the programmatic Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, co-edited with Morwenna Griffiths in 1988, and Knowing the Difference: Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology, co-edited with Kathleen Lennon in 1994.
Margaret had a brilliant mind but was also down to earth; indeed, she was happy to apply her intelligence to the mundane. The example that remains with me is her ability to foresee the difficulties of the nervous negotiator of trains and street turnings leading to her house in Stratford or her flat in Forest Hill, and tactfully to provide utterly foolproof instructions. Margaret was thoughtful and very kind; she remembered small details you had told her and asked after your concerns. She was also very funny, with a fine sense of the ridiculous and an interest in people and situations that could drive conversation for hours. She lived surrounded by an extraordinary quantity of books and pictures. She had begun visiting private studios in the early 1990s and by the time of her death had built up a significant collection of contemporary art. She was guided in her choices by what elicited a strong aesthetic emotion at any given moment, and would often buy several works from the same artist, wanting to explore their perception of the world, and perhaps to understand her transferential response to their visual language. She would then follow their work with genuine interest, even if her own tastes and concerns changed over time, just as she did with so many others she had once known well in the various spheres that overlapped in her life.