Local hero, global heavyweight
The Oxford Writer, Spring 2006
In March 2006 WiO's membership secretary Donna Dickenson became the first woman to win the international Spinoza Lens Award. She is interviewed here by Rita Carter.
EVEN BY OXFORD standards Beckley village is unusually well-populated with intellectual heavy-weights. Now another Beckley inhabitant has been honoured with a globally coveted award – and she happens to be WiO’s membership secretary Donna Dickenson.
The Spinoza Lens Award for Ethics is not as well known as the Nobel, but it has a similarly lofty status. It has been bestowed on Donna not for her tireless work in chasing up WiO members’ subscriptions, but for her contribution to global ethics. These include devising a pioneering Open University course on ‘Death and Dying’ which helped secure more humane treatment for terminal patients, developing the country’s first MSc module in Global Bioethics and directing four major European Commission international research projects.
Donna’s writings on ethics are marked by a refusal to run with the academic tide. ‘I have never accepted the postmodern orthodoxy: that there is no Truth, only varying interpretations,’ she says. ‘This has made my career in academia quite difficult and precarious, so the award is comforting both on a personal level and for everyone who refuses to accept the mistaken relativist view that there are no right and no wrong answers.’
Donna arrived in the UK from her native New England over 30 years ago, to take an MSc in International Relations at the LSE. She was a staunch opponent of America’s war in Vietnam and in 1973 she decided, partly as a protest, to settle here. She joined the Open University in 1974, where she taught some of the most innovative and radical courses on the curriculum. She educated magistrates, and social workers on the Children Act of 1989; and she prepared a doctoral thesis on ‘Risk and Luck in Medical Ethics’. In 1997 Donna moved to Imperial College London; then in 2001 she was appointed to the John Ferguson Chair in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham in 2001, where she founded and directed the new Centre for the Study of Global Ethics.
Then, of course, there is her writing. Donna started this aspect of her career as a 19-year-old summer-vacation reporter in the frenetic Associated Press New York City newsroom. She had to produce pieces on demand, to a tight deadline ‘in the midst of tickertapes, pneumatic tubes whizzing messages overhead, constantly bleeping telephones, and the clacking typewriters of at least 80 other reporters.’ This taught her to write just about anywhere. And so she has: biographies of Emily Dickinson, George Sand and Margaret Fuller, a translation of Sand’s The Miller of Angibault, two poetry collections and assorted scripts. She is currently working on a novel about bigamy and moral relativism, Truth or Consequences.
The literary and ethical sides of Donna’s career have proved to be symbiotic. ‘I tend to explain my ethical positions by telling stories. That has a long tradition in philosophy – Plato did the same, with the tale of the Noble Lie, or the metaphor of the Cave. The reverse also works: in my biographies I have often been motivated by moral outrage, for example at the conventional treatment of George Sand. I start the biography by telling the facts of her life as if she had been a man. Rather than attracting scorn she would have been thought of as that amazingly generous and highly disciplined bloke who triumphed over an unfortunate early marriage, a series of grasping or self-absorbed mistresses. …’
Of her achievements, Donna singles out her early warnings about the potential abuse of women’s ova in stem cell research. Her concerns have been vindicated by revelations about faked research involving the stem cell pioneer Dr Hwang Woo-Suk. ‘When I began writing about the subject, you were thought a real Luddite if you said anything mildly opposed to stem cell research,’ says Donna. ‘You know: “Didn’t I want science to find a cure for Christopher Reeve’s paralysis?” – that kind of thing. So I’m now feeling pleased to have spotted the potential for abuse long before Prof. Hwang’s little scam alerted the world to it.’
The phrase ‘Renaissance Woman’ jumps to mind. The jury for the Spinoza Lens Award put it more eloquently. ‘Donna Dickenson’s work,’ they reported, ‘is characterized by commitment, openness and thorough philosophical knowledge.’ Next time you’re late with your subscription renewal, please try to remember: this woman does have other things to do!
© Rita Carter 2006
This article was first published in The Oxford Writer in March 2006. To listen to Donna being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, click here. (You will need RealPlayer which can be downloaded from the BBC website if you don't have it already).
For more about the award, vist the Spinoza Lens website and click on the Union Jack for an English version of the site.