Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Mary Belenky et al. publish Women's Ways of Knowing

This year, M. F. Belenky, B.M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger, and J.M. Tartule publish "Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind", a book based on their research of during the late seventies and early eighties. One hundred and thirty-five American women were interviewed from varying backgrounds, both rural and urban. The age range of the women was not stated, however it varies from approximately 14 years to 60 years. The researchers obtained their sample from colleges and universities (67%), and from family-serving agencies (33%).

In this research, the subjects were asked questions dealing with their background, gender, relationships, and "ways of knowing". In addition, the interviews included established interview schedules developed by W. Perry (1970), L. Kohlberg (1984) and C. Gilligan (1982). The work of these authors was chosen for their applicability in the areas of intellectual, moral, and ethical development. To assess ways of knowing, the authors explore how the subject knows what is right or true, reliance on expert's advice or knowledge, and if experts disagree, how the subject decides what is right.

Perry's work is quoted often throughout the book as a comparison. Since his work was based solely on interviews with men, his stages of intellectual/ethical development do not coincide exactly with those that Belenky et al, but are nonetheless adequate as a starting point. In analyzing the women's interviews, the authors categorized women's perspectives into 5 major epistemological groups: 1) silence; 2) received knowledge; 3) subjective knowledge; 4) procedural knowledge; and 5) constructed knowledge.

1) Silence

These women were among the youngest and the most deprived of those interviewed. Common themes were feeling "deaf and dumb", disconnected, obedient toward authorities, and extreme sex-role stereotyping. They tended to describe themselves by the actions they performed e.g. "I am a person who likes to stay home" (p.31) and reported childhoods of little play and dialogue.

2) Received Knowledge

Many of these women reported that experiencing childbirth as a major turning point in their lives. Words were central to the knowing process, as listening was the vehicle. The authors compare this perspective to that of Perry's dualism. Their moral judgments conformed to that expected in their society. They looked to others for knowledge of self or for socially constructed social or occupational roles. This often created high expectations because they saw the need to live up to others' views of them.

3) Subjective Knowledge

As a woman becomes more aware of her own internal resources for knowing and valuing, she begins to listen to the voice within her, and in doing so finds an inner source of strength. Half of the 135 women were in this category, regardless of education, class, ethnicity, or age. What linked these women together was their intuitive and private knowing. The majority of these women grew up in less advantaged, more permissive or more chaotic families. They often grew up thinking they were stupid and helpless. Another common thread was "failed male authority", sexual harassment and abuse. In fact, within Belenky's sample one of five college women reported a history of childhood incest. Also noted was an extreme anti-rationalist view - a stance rejecting the sanctity of science and sometimes equated with the male view. These women were characterized by their "walking away from the past" (p. 76). For instance, relationships were severed, obligations were rejected and women moved out on their own. Stubbornness was a characteristic of most of these women, as they usually knew they would face loneliness or other challenges, but were steadfast in their direction in spite of minimal forethought and reason. The authors compare these women to the male "youths in fairy tales" who set out on their own to discover the world and themselves. Most of these women experienced fluctuations in their sense of self, but they valued this quality as it enabled them to be open to change.

4) Procedural Knowledge

Most of the women in this category were students or had just recently graduated. The authors describe them as more humble and more objective than those in the previous category. They regularly practiced reasoned reflection. Most of them had knowledgeable "benign authorities" (p. 90) in their lives, such as a well-meaning art teacher, counsellor or father. These women articulated that knowing requires careful observation and analysis. They also were careful in their responses, knowing that their first instinct may be incorrect. Women in this group believe that everyone views the world through a different lens and that we all construe the world differently. Some practiced "separate knowing" (p.103) which is one type of critical thinking. Others practiced "connected knowing" (p.112) which is based upon personal experience and oriented toward relationships.

5) Constructed Knowledge

Women belonging to this epistemological group attempted to reclaim the self by integrating what they knew with the knowledge gained from others. Belenky et al describe this group as engaged in "weaving together the strands of rational and emotive thought" (p.134). Common to these women was a high tolerance for ambiguity or internal contradiction. They saw the knower as an intimate part of the known. In addition, they were able to see the contextual nature of knowledge and envisioned knowledge as a constructive process. These women are described as empathetic, seeking knowledge passionately, and attempting to stretch the outer boundaries of their consciousness.

The second section of the book, titled "Development in Context", gives further context to the familial relationships for each of the five ways of knowing, and offers some suggestions for women's education. It was found, for instance, that daughters (whether from happy or unhappy families) told similar stories. The most distinctive family patterns were derived from looking at how families within each epistemological group encourage or discourage certain kinds of discourse. The art of posing questions, particularly on the part of mothers, was seen as critical to the development of connected knowing among daughters.

The authors recommend several strategies to improve contemporary education for women. They make use of Freire's (1971) work in their rejection of the traditional use of the "banking model", which refers to teachers making deposits into the learning banks of students. Instead, Freire's approach of "problem-posing" is seen as more effective in counteracting the oppression of women. Further, they advise that education based on the connected learning model "would help women toward community, power, and integrity" (p.228). In conclusion, Belenky et al maintain that the goal of education should be to help women everywhere to develop their own authentic voices.

While this book offers some very interesting insights into the women interviewed, a few criticisms are in order. First of all, the authors seem very confident that they have been inclusive of all epistemological groups of women in their sample. Since the sample size was only 135, I do not share the same confidence. While they seemed to have sampled colleges and universities well, if one examines how the subjects not attending schools were recruited, there is a possibility that a whole section of society has been left out. Belenky et al state that they recruited subjects "seeking information about or assistance with parenting" (p. 12). From my work in public health, I know that those seeking assistance or information are only a very small percentage of those who really need it. There are large numbers of people who cannot access services, or who choose not to, for a variety of reasons. The authors may have found some other phenomena among these women; at minimum, the sample would have been more inclusive. Furthermore, the authors have seemingly married the acquisition of constructed knowledge with attaining higher levels of education. Higher education may certainly make women more articulate and may assist them with scoring well on an interview. Perhaps the women in the "silent" group could not articulate their thoughts as well as others. The lengthy interview schedules may have been intimidating for some women. Nonetheless, contrary to what Belenky et al discovered, I have found some very tenacious, knowledgeable women in my work with disenfranchised groups. For these reasons, I feel the authors have privileged their ways of knowing.

Secondly, the authors' suggestions for the improvement of women's education are logical extensions of their work. However, are they suggesting that women should have a different educational system from men? If so, I am not sure how this would assist women in co-existing with men. I realize that some branches of feminism would support segregated education, but I believe part of the learning we need to do is with men and in the company of men. Many of the recommendations made by the authors are approaches that would also be beneficial to men's education. In particular, the Freirian approach is one that transcends gender.

In reading this book, however, I enjoyed the diversity of stories the women told. It was enlightening to see the variation in experiences from those that were deemed "silent" to those having "constructed knowledge". The high rate of childhood incest and sexual abuse among subjects was alarming. This gives credence to the thought that current rates of sexual abuse may be vastly under-reported. In conclusion, I feel that "Women's Ways of Knowing" does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of family, relationships and education on the holistic development of the self and knowledge of the world.


Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., and Tarule, J.M. (1986) Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books.

Freire, P. (1971) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seaview.

Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1984) The Psychology of Moral Development. New York: Harper & Row.

Perry, W. G. (1970) Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Prepared by Angela Golabek (OISE/UT)

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