When I first picked up the 10th anniversary edition of Women’s Ways of Knowing, I was struck by a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle on the front cover of the book:
“This feisty, gutsy, controversial book will stimulate arguments for years to come.”
I initially wondered whether this piece of second wave feminism literature would indeed live up to this lofty review. After all, this book predates today’s third wave feminism and even my own existence. However, the San Francisco Chronicle’s statement remains just as accurate today, as Women’s Ways of Knowing remains a stimulating, controversial book that is a foundational piece for feminist scholars.
Women’s Ways of Knowing explores women’s epistemologies and intellectual development. Authors Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule argue that women have their own ways of knowing that may be different than those of men. Women’s self-perception and their relationship to knowing and knowledge are coloured by these epistemologies. Women’s Ways of Knowing was written to give a voice to women, whose perspectives were often absent from psychological research at the time (Goldberger, 1996). The authors explored these voices through the analysis of 135 interviews with women, in addition to drawing upon pertinent theoretical literature. The work is heavily influenced by Carol Gilligan’s (1982) work on moral development in women, and builds upon the work of psychologist William Perry (1970) who developed a framework for understanding epistemological development. A critique of Perry’s work – as pointed out in Women’s Ways of Knowing – is that Perry’s original study only used quotes from male participants, despite also interviewing females. Some of the authors had previously tried to apply Perry’s framework to women (e.g. Clinchy & Zimmerman, 1982), but found it was inadequate for exploring the epistemological development of women (Goldberger, 1996). In Women’s Ways of Knowing, Belenky and colleagues built upon Perry’s work, but did so in a way that allowed women to describe their intellectual development and experiences in their own words. Although the book is titled Women’s Ways of Knowing, the epistemological perspectives presented are not necessarily unique to women (Ruddick, 1996). While they arose from interviews with women, such ways of thinking could also be present in men.
Women’s Ways of Knowing proposes five epistemological perspectives through which the women in their study were found to view the world and themselves, as well as their relationship with authority, truth and knowledge. The first group introduced is Silent women who communicated a sense of voicelessness, and appeared to be disconnected from knowledge. The authors describe the second perspective, Received Knowledge, as relying on external and seemingly infallible authorities for knowledge. In the third perspective, Subjective Knowledge, women relied heavily on their inner voice and experience rather than external authorities. In Procedural Knowledge, the fourth perspective, the women acknowledged that multiple sources of knowledge exist, and intuitive knowledge can be deceptive. The authors found that the final perspective – Constructed Knowledge – contained the smallest number of women. In this perspective, women had come to see knowledge as a construct, and the knower as a part of knowledge. The authors propose that factors such as violence, family dynamics and attitudes towards knowledge can hinder or promote women’s development at any of these aforementioned perspectives.
A critique of these epistemological perspectives is that they can be interpreted as a developmental framework, although the authors overtly state that this was not their intention. However, the book’s organization and rhetoric lends to this interpretation (Ruddick, 1996). For example, the authors described a progression from Received Knowledge to Subjective Knowledge, which is often instigated by changes in a woman’s personal life. This could be interpreted as supporting a hierarchy of progression from “simpler to more complex, less to more adequate ‘ways of knowing’” (Ruddick, 1996, p. 252).
Women’s Ways of Knowing concludes with a discussion surrounding women and education. The authors draw upon Paulo Freire’s (1971) concept of educational banking whereby students are empty boxes in which knowledge can be deposited. Belenky and colleagues (1996) suggest that some teachers may find it difficult to escape this model, despite their best intentions. They posit this could be in part due to the educator’s thinking process being often hidden from view; the students only see an impermeable argument rather than the imperfect process that led to it. It could be difficult for students to find the courage to engage with these perfected thoughts, and could lead to students believing they are unable of producing such flawless ideas. The authors propose moving towards midwife teachers who would support students in giving birth to their knowledge and ideas. While this is a thoughtful application of some of Freire’s ideas, one must note that educational banking is only a small part of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire explicitly calls for a revolution; for the liberation of the oppressed. Although Women’s Ways of Knowing highlights many important issues that were – and continue to be – of great importance to women, it does not have the same revolutionary emphasis on liberation and equality for women.
Although this book does not claim to understand every way of knowing for all women, it is still important to note that it cannot be generalized to all women. For example this book may not resonate with members of the LGTBQ community (there is one lesbian noted within the sample, and her sexual orientation is mentioned in an arguably superfluous manner). Additionally, Women’s Ways of Knowing focuses more on issues of social class rather than race. Ways of knowing may differ amongst cultures. For instance, Patrocinio Schweickart (1996) describes how her Filipino upbringing taught her to view silence as thoughtful and intellectual, rather than silence being something imposed upon her. When reading this book it is important to read it for what it is; a representation of the perspectives of these women who were interviewed during the second wave feminism movement.
A further critique surrounds whose voices the authors chose to share. It is unclear how the authors chose to include which quotes, as stories appear throughout the book from the same group of women. The authors suggest repeated representation is due to reflection on past experiences, or growth over a period of several interviews. However, this further supports the critique that Women’s Ways of Knowing reads too much like a developmental model with greater and lesser ways of knowing (Ruddick, 1996). Furthermore, the participants who were featured multiple times may have been more articulate, making their transcripts more quotable. This could have silenced others who were less articulate, and perhaps at a seemingly lesser stage of knowing. This could further contribute to their silence.
Despite movement towards third wave feminism, Women’s Ways of Knowing remains a landmark literary piece in terms of its contribution to giving women a voice within psychology, as well as shining a light on violence against women. The authors also sampled women from invisible colleges rather than from just university populations. This means that those from the working class were represented within their sample, which was not common within this era. Furthermore, the controversy around Women’s Ways of Knowing not representing all women acted somewhat as a springboard into other areas of feminist research, such as issues surrounding race and sexual orientation (Maher & Tetreault, 1996).
The authors set out to add women’s voice to the field of psychology and, in essence, critique and expand on Perry’s work to include women (Goldberger, 1996). While contemporary feminism certainly looks different, there is no denying that the authors achieved their goal. The narrative format and direct quotes from the women interviewed makes the book an exciting and relatable read for even a contemporary audience. Women’s Ways of Knowing remains a stimulating landmark piece that every feminist scholar should read to understand the history and subsequent development of the field.
Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind (10th Anniversary Ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Clinchy, B., & Zimmerman, C. (1982). Epistemology and agency in the development of undergraduate women. In P. Perun (Ed.), The undergraduate woman: Issues in educational equity. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goldberger, N. R. (1996). Looking backward, looking forward. In N. Goldberger, J. Tarule, B. Clinchy, and M. Belenky (Eds.), Knowledge, difference, and power: Essays inspired by Women’s Ways of Knowing (pp. 1-21). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Maher, F. A., & Tetreault, M. K. (1996). Women’s ways of knowing in women’s studies, feminist pedagogies, and feminist theory. In N. Goldberger, J. Tarule, B. Clinchy, and M. Belenky (Eds.), Knowledge, difference, and power: Essays inspired by Women’s Ways of Knowing (pp. 148-174). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Perry, W. (1970). Forms if intellectual and ethical development in the college years. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Ruddick, S. (1996). Reason’s “femininity”: A case for connected knowing. In N. Goldberger, J. Tarule, B. Clinchy, and M. Belenky (Eds.), Knowledge, difference, and power: Essays inspired by Women’s Ways of Knowing (pp. 248-273). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Schweickart, P. (1996). Speech is silver, silence is gold: The asymmetrical intersubjectivity of communicative action. In N. Goldberger, J. Tarule, B. Clinchy, and M. Belenky (Eds.), Knowledge, difference, and power: Essays inspired by Women’s Ways of Knowing (pp. 305-331). New York, NY: Basic Books.