| "Well, perhaps you haven't
found it so yet," said Alice; "but when you have to turn
into a chrysalis--you will someday, you know-- and then after that
into a butterfly, I should think you'll feel it a little queer, won't
you?" "Not a bit," said the Caterpillar. "Well,
perhaps your feelings may be different," said Alice; "all
I know is, it would feel very queer to me." "You!"
said the Caterpillar, contemptuously. "Who are you?" (Griffin
1992: 56 citing Carroll 1901:95)
Epistemology is the study of knowing. It is the basis for knowing
and how it is that people come to know what they know (Johnson,
1995, p. 97). Originating from philosophy, epistemology seems to
come to us from a number of disciplines, i. e.: sociology, psychology,
and political science, among others (Duran, 1991, p. xi).
These fields have all contributed to what is known as feminist
epistemology.. This occurred with the emergence of materials that
professed to spelling out what feminist accounts of knowledge entail
and what is implied by ways of knowing pertaining to women (p. xi).
The term feminist epistemology does not have a single referent.
Feminist theorists have used the term variously to refer to women's
"ways of knowing," "women's experiences," or
simple "women's knowledge" (Alcoff Potter, 1993, p. 1).
Therefore, the term feminist epistemology is a means of summarizing,
to some extent, and integrating women's knowledge and experiences.
Inherent in feminist epistemology is the "multiplicity of women's
voices" (Duran, 1991, p. xiii).
The recent literature on feminist epistemology revealed that the
word "epistemology" has been "reconstructed"
by feminists to include the broadest possible sense of the term.
This has been done by drawing attention to areas previously left
untouched by traditional epistemologies and research (Duran, 1991,
p. 73). Additionally, by creating "gynocentric epistemics,"
knowledge centered around women's realities, a new knowledge is
brought forth. The reason for these actions is the feminist desire
to have women's experiences finally recognized and legitimated.
Code (1991) does not agree that feminist epistemology is a means
of summarizing or integrating women's knowledge. She has concluded
that the question of "whether a feminist epistemology is possible
or desirable must be left unanswered" (Code, 1991, p. 314).
However, she believes that feminist can be epistemologists and that
the epistemologies that develop from feminism seem to require a
basis in assumptions about the essence of women and of knowledge
(p. 315). This would risk "replicating the exclusionary, hegemonic
structures of the masculinist epistemology, in its various manifestations,
that has claimed absolute sovereignty over the epistemic terrain"
(p. 315). Hence, Code argued that feminist epistemology, despite
its subversive potential, cannot alone provide the theoretical position
that is required to develop a true integration of knowledge (p.
The history of feminist epistemology is the history of the clash
between feminist commitments to "the struggles of women to
have their understandings of the world legitimated" and "the
commitment of traditional philosophy to various accounts of knowledge"
(Alcoff Potter 1993, p. 2). The history of epistemology has also
been one of inquiry into "whether knowledge was possible"
(Cartesianism) and "seldom into the conditions producing knowledge"
(Feminist epistemology) (Duran 1991, p. 3). Cartesianism assumes
the unproblematic generalizability of knowledge from its context
of discovery to a variety of contexts of use (Stanley Wise 1993,
p. 191). These approaches also see knowledge as existing independently
of the person(s) who produced it.
Feminist epistemology developed as a critique of traditional epistemology
and its dominant narrative. Feminist epistemology assume "that
those we deem to be knowers actually do posses knowledge" (Duran,
1991, p. 4). Today and in the future, feminist epistemology is comprised
of research programs that are moving beyond critique to reframe
the problematic of knowledge and unearth the politics of epistemology
(Alcoff Potter, 1993, pp. 2-3). Alcoff and Potter (1993) suggest
feminist epistemologies should not be taken as involving a commitment
to gender as the primary axis of oppression or positing that gender
is a theoretical variable separable from other axes of oppression
and susceptible to a unique analysis. (pp. 3-4)
If feminism is to liberate women, it must address virtually all
forms of domination because women fill the ranks of every category
of oppressed people. Feminist epistemology "seeks to unmake
the web of oppressions and reweave the web of life" (p. 4).
This is similar to what Code (1991) describes as standpoint epistemologies.
In her discussion, "Taking Subjectivity into Account",
Code argues that conventional, mainstream epistemologies create
the illusion of a universal "Truth" through the removal
of "unacceptable" points of view. These "unacceptable"
points of view are the experiences of the oppressed. Therefore,
according to Code (1991), the goal of feminist epistemology is to
overturn "perspectival hierarchies" (Alcoff Potter, 1993,
Research concerning feminist epistemogy, i. e.: Fox-Keller (1985),
Bordo (1987), and Harding (1986) uncovered themes in traditional
epistemology. Fox-Keller's (1985) analysis of Plato's philosophy
of sexual love and its link to metaphysics found a relationship
between androcentric epistemology and Plato's philosophy. Similar
to Fox-Keller's work, Bordo's 1987 study of Descartes Meditations
also found androcentric epistemology in traditional science. Harding's
1986 analysis offered the feminist responses to the androcentrism
inherent in science. All three theorists concluded that there is
a "masculinist, androcentric tradition that yields a hypernormative,
idealized, and stylistically aggressive mode of thought" (Duran,
1991, p. 8).
Harding (1987), in her analysis of the androcentric epistemological
assumptions of science, argued that feminist epistemology, particularly
feminist standpoint epistemologies, must "seek to epistemically
valorize some of the most discredited perspectives of knowledge"
that have been ignored (Harding, 1986, pp. 25-26). Harding identifies
herself as a feminist standpoint epistemologist. Yet, Harding does
not go as far as embracing relativism. She suggests that feminist
standpoint epistemologies will increase and strengthen women's ability
to achieve objectivity. Objectivity can be done through the use
of a methodology that involves (Harding, 1986):
starting thought, from the lives of marginalized people...this
will reveal more of the unexamined assumptions influencing science
and will generate more critical questions, thus producing less
partial and distorted accounts...this research needs to be undertaken
by everyone, not just by the marginalized themselves. (pp. 25-26)
Stanley and Wise (1993) disagreed with Harding's suggestion. They
advocated women as the knowers and the doers. Stanley and Wise also
viewed feminist epistemology a bit differently, defining feminist
epistemology as a "framework or theory for specifying the constitution
and generation of knowledge about the social world; that is, it
concerns how to understand the nature of reality" (Stanley
Wise, 1993, p. 188). Therefore, based on the definition, women's
realities differ from men's realities and feminist epistemology
is women's epistemology.
Feminist epistemology specifies what women's knowledge is and how
it may be distinguished from the knowledge which dominates men's
knowledge. This is done by specifying who are the "knowers,"
female or male. Specifying who are the "knowers," female
or male, specifies the type of knowledge utilized by the researcher/theorist.
Feminist epistemologies also examine by what means someone becomes
the knower and "the means by which competing knowledge-claims
are adjudicated and some rejected in favour of another/others"
(Stanley Wise, 1993, p. 188).
Stanley and Wise (1993) alleged that feminist epistemology is
fundamental to feminism, "for it is around the constitution
of a feminist epistemology that feminism can most directly and far-reachingly
challenge non-feminist frameworks and ways of working" (Stanley
Wise, 1993, pp. 188-189). They use, for an example, key areas of
the feminist research process that draw from feminist epistemology.
These key areas reflect such feminist epistemological assumption
as (Stanley Wise, 1993):
1. The researcher/research relationship
is a hierarchical relationship; this should not occur;
2. Emotions are aspects of the research process which,
like any other aspect, can be analytically interrogated;
3. Critically unpacking conceptualizations of "objectivity"
and subjectivity' as binaries or dichotomies, integration must occur;
4. The researcher's "intellectual autobiography" affects
their "understanding" and their "conclusions",
use the "intellectual autobiography" of researchers, that
is, know where the researchers is "coming from" to be
able to describe the process by which "understanding"
and "concluding" are reached;
5. There are different "realities", consider the existence
and management of the different "realities" or versions
held by researchers and researched;
6. There is those who hold authority and power in research, be
aware of issues surrounding authority and power in research;
7. There is authority and power in the written representation
of research, perhaps more crucially be aware of these issues that
affect research. (p. 189)
The above noted feminist epistemological assumptions are implemented
in theory and research in a variety of ways. According to Harding
(1986), there are three main categories that feminist epistemologies
fall into: feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint, and feminist
postmodernism (Harding, 1991, p. 106). Harding's categorization
of basic epistemological assumptions is based upon her view of feminist
epistemology as "feminist ways of knowing" or "feminist
critiques of traditional accounts of ways of knowing" (Duran,
1991, p. 81 citing Harding, 1986, pp. 25-26). Harding's (1986) first
category of feminist epistemologies is feminist empiricism, described
by Duran (1991) as offering:
an account of the functioning of the empiricist (and even
quasi-positivist) portrayals of knowledge acquisition as beyond
criticism has tended to focus on rather more straight-forward issues
of women's role within sciences, such as the number of women functioning
in scientific endeavors, and the effect that the training of greater
number of women would have on the sciences. (p. 81)
Feminist empiricism is an attempt "to bring the feminist
criticisms of scientific claims into the existing theories of scientific
knowledge by arguing that sexist and androcentric results of research
are simply the consequences of 'bad science'" (Harding, 1991,
p. 48). The emphasis of this category has been at the cost of examining
what other feminists, i. e.: Fox-Keller, have regarded as the underlying
issues in the structures of the sciences (Duran, 1991, p. 81). Harding's
second category of feminist epistemology is feminist standpoint.
This category has been described (Duran, 1991) as:
Feminist standpoint epistemologists argue that the problem of science,
research, and knowledge is more extensive. The dominant conceptual
scheme of the natural and social sciences have been cultivated from
"the experience that Western men of the elite classes and races
have of themselves and the world around them" (Harding, 1991,
p. 48). Feminist standpoint epistemologists also support the starting
of research from women's lives, which will result in a more inclusive,
less distorted explanation of social phenomenon. Here the term epistemology
is divorced from its use in the analytic tradition of what makes knowledge.
In this category, knowledge is viewed as a social construction and
those lines of feminist critique that have in general taken a
post-Marxist view of the division of labor on our planet, and
that have argued that women are privileged to have an epistemically
different perspective from males by virtue of the state of their
oppression and the tasks that, as members of an oppressed group,
they are asked to perform. (p. 81)
The third and final category is feminist postmodernism, or "those
strands of feminist analysis, influenced by such thinkers as Lacan,
Foucault, Cixous, Heidegger, and Derrida" (Duran, 1991, p.
81). The feminist works that fall within this category have been
described as (Harding, 1986; Duran, 1991) "fixed firmly within
the Continental tradition and that see the pretended unity of science,
society, and indeed Western culture itself as a shattered or fragmented
pattern that never had the authority it purported to have"
(Duran, 1991 p. 81-82).
Feminist postmodernism rejects foundationalism in all its forms.
Feminist postmoderns also reject all "grand narratives",
including feminist grand theory explaining women's conditions and
oppression (Stanely Wise, 1993, p. 189). Feminist postmoderism also
dismisses (Stanley Wise, 1993):
any notion of a representational, effectively one-to-one,
relationship between reality and textually based (written, verbal,
visual) accounts of it. Postmodernism claims to be the originator
of these epistemological claims. (p. 190)
Stanley and Wise (1993) do not concur with the rejections of feminist
postmoderist epistemology. Stanley and Wise argued that feminist
postmoderism partakes in colonizing activities, intellectual imperialism,
and "lay claim to these ideas as instead the common property
of a number of divergent intellectual traditions (Stanley Wise,
1993, p. 190). Collins (1990) also explored feminist epistemology.
She described a feminist epistemology that is encompassed in Harding's
feminist standpoint epistemology category. Collins (1990) examined
black feminist epistemology and describes this particular epistemology
as encompassing four defining attributes:
1. Concrete experiences are the criterion of meaning
and are predicated upon an assumption of the ontological basis of
2. Dialogic means must be used to assess knowledge-claims;
3. The basis of relationships between people is the ethic of
4. There is an ethic of accountability that is central to black
feminist epistemology. (pp. 201-220)
I would argue, along with Stanley and Wise, that these attributes
are the basis of all feminist epistemologies and are not exclusive
to black feminist epistemology. Stanley and Wise disagreed with
Collins and did not accept the existence of difference as a means
for a hierarchical relationship between the degrees of different
voices. Stanley and Wise also granted a view that contradicted the
privileging of feminist epistemology seen in Hartsock (1987), Jaggar
(1989), and Harding's (1991). These attributes also demonstrate
that there are no relationships between ontology, epistemology and
ethics. As Stanley and Wise (1993) stressed, "these have epistemological
consequentiality, such that the one is mutually subsumed within
the other: a perfect union" (Stanley Wise, 1993, p. 226). I
argue that the union of ontology, epistemology, and ethics is also
true for feminist theory, methodology, and pedagogy as well as for
As we have seen, feminist epistemology not only integrates ontology,
epistemology, and ethics, it integrates women's knowledge with their
experiences. As feminist have reconstructed epistemology in order
to incorporate women's voices, they have illustrated the inherent
connection between women's knowledge of the world and their construction
of realities within that world. Feminist epistemologists argued
and still argue that our "womanness" or "maleness"
affects how we view the world. The female view of the world is traditionally
ignored in the social construction of knowledge. Therefore, feminist
epistemologies are the "golden keys" that unlock the door
to women's ways of knowing, being, and experiencing. Feminist epistemology
illustrates the multiplicity of women's voices while integrating
their knowledge and experiences. Once this door is unlocked, a better
understanding of women's lives can occur and the end of oppression
may be plausible.
REFERENCES Alcoff, L. and
Potter, E. (1993). Feminist epistemologies. New York: Routledge.
Code, L. (1991). What can she know? Feminist theory and the
construction of knowledge. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University
Collins, P. H. (1991). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness,
and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge, Chapman
and Hall, Inc.
Durna, J. (1991). Toward a feminist epistemology. Savage,
Maryland: Rowman Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Griffin, G. B. (1992). Calling: Essays on teaching in the mother
tongue . Pasadena, California: Trilogy Books.
Harding, S. (1986). The science question in feminism. Ithaca,
New York: Cornell University Press.
Harding, S. (1991). Whose science? Whose knowledge? Thinking
for women's lives. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press
Johnson, A. (1995). The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology:
A user's guide to sociological language. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Blackwell Inc. Stanley, L. and Wise, S. (1993). Breaking
out again: Feminist ontology and epistemology. New York: Routledge.
Dr. Joanne Ardovini-Brooker is
an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University.