Women's development theory
refers to the seminal work of Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule, published under the title "Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind" (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule 1986). This work describes the process of cognitive development in women as five knowledge positions (or perspectives) through which women view themselves and their relationship to knowledge.
Women's ways of knowing
Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) examined the epistemology, or "ways of knowing", of a diverse group of women, with a focus on cognitive development across a broad range of contexts including but not limited to the formal educational system. While conceptually grounded originally in the work of Perry (1970) in cognitive development and Gilligan (1982) in moral/personal development in women, the authors discovered that existing developmental theories at the time did not address some issues and experiences that were common and significant in the lives and cognitive development of women (Love and Guthrie 1999). While the developmental positions described in "Women's Ways of Knowing" overlap to a large degree with Perry's cognitive developmental scheme, the authors describe additional knowledge perspectives not observed in Perry's study (Perry 1970) and report gender-related influences on cognitive development in women.
The 135 women who participated in Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's study ranged from age 16 to over 60, came from rural and urban populations, and varied in socioeconomic class, ethnicity and educational history (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule 1986, Love and Guthrie 1999). As such, they represented a more diverse group than was included in Perry's 1970 study of male students at Harvard. The authors illustrated how the epistemological assumptions of the participating women were intimately linked to their perceptions of themselves and their relationship to their world. Each of the five "ways of knowing", or knowledge perspectives, represents a different point in the women's cognitive development, dependent on conceptions of self (self), relationship with others (voice) and understanding of the origins and identity of authority, truth and knowledge (mind) (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule 1986, Love and Guthrie 1999).
Ways of Knowing
is the name given to the first epistemological position, and describes women who felt disconnected from knowledge, the sources of knowledge and their relationship to knowledge (West 2004, Love and Guthrie 1999, Belenky et al. 1986). This knowledge perspective, while relatively rare in the women studied and not a necessary precursor to other positions, was absent in Perry's scheme (1970) and not represented in other cognitive developmental theories of the time (West 2004). Women describing this position were notable for their extreme sense of isolation and fear of authorities, their fragile sense of self, and feelings of being "deaf and dumb", i.e., having no independent voice. Women in this knowledge position were often young, of limited education, socioeconomically poor, and very often had experienced a history of abuse. These women viewed themselves as being incapable of knowing or thinking, appeared to conduct little or no internal dialogue and generally felt no sense of connection with others. Their "acts of knowing" involved only specific actions and behaviors occurring in the present (Love and Guthrie 1999). Notably, amongst these women, words were viewed as weapons used to inflict harm, to isolate and to diminish others (Belenky et al. 1986). Authorities of knowledge were viewed as all-powerful and experiences with authority were overwhelmingly negative for these women. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule emphasize that women who are characterized by the position of silence
were overwhelmingly raised "in profound isolation under the most demeaning circumstances" and that their feelings of being "deaf and dumb" originate in a profound lack of confidence in their own "meaning-making and meaning-sharing abilities", rather than a lack of intellectual endowment.
Received Knowledge: Listening to the voices of others
describes the epistemological position in which women in the study perceived knowledge as a set of absolute truths received from infallible authorities. The process of learning, as understood by received knowers
, involves receiving and repeating the knowledge and words of authorities. In this sense words are no longer viewed as weapons, and are seen as critical to the learning process, but the origin and meaning of words and knowledge remain external (Love and Guthrie 1999). Women characterizing this position lacked confidence in their own ability to speak and generally defined themselves externally, usually in relation to social norms, gender roles and expectations of others, i.e., cultural ideals of women as set forth by external authorities. Received knowers
tended to find disagreement, paradox or ambiguity intolerable (Love and Guthrie 1999) since these violated the black-and-white absolutist nature of knowledge. The authors note that in their study received knowers
generally had little experience with female role models in authority positions and often emphasized selflessness and care of others as their primary role in life. However, Love and Guthrie (1999) emphasize Belenky et al.'s finding that the experience of giving birth provided an important stimulus in moving women from a position of silence
to a position of received knowledge
Subjective Knowledge: The inner voice
is characterized by the recognition of the self as an authority. Subjective knowers
rely on their own subjective thoughts, feelings and experiences for knowledge and truth - the "infallible gut" as Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule refer to it. Women with this perspective at some point experienced the development of a "protesting inner voice" (Love and Guthrie 1999), which allowed them to make their own claims to truth and knowledge. Along with the nascent discovery of the inner voice, subjective knowers
showed a general distrust of analysis and logical reasoning (Love and Guthrie 1999) and did not see value in considering the weight of evidence in evaluating knowledge. Instead, they considered knowledge and truth to be inherently personal and subjective, to be experienced rather than intellectualized. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule state that subjective knowers
often block out conflicting opinions of others, but may seek the support and affirmation of those in agreement. The authors note that half of the women in their study occupied this position, but that they were spread across the full range of ages. Like women characterizing the first two positions, pervasive sexual harassment and abuse was evident in the personal histories of subjective knowers
, but unlike the first two positions, these women generally felt optimism and positivity towards the future. Love and Guthrie (1999) emphasize that the transition to subjective knowledge
was most often driven by positive changes in the personal lives of women (a shift to equitable, mutually-respectful and supportive relationships and away from abuseive relationships in particular), rather than experiences within the educational system.
Procedural Knowledge: Separate and connected knowing
reflects the recognition that multiple sources of knowledge exist, and that procedures are necessary for evaluating the relative merit of these sources. Procedural knowers
focus on methods and techniques for evaluating the accuracy of external truth and the relative worth of authority. The transition to procedural knowledge
was experienced by many women in the study as a regression or crisis of confidence initially, as the inner voice of subjective knowing became critical both of external authorities and internal subjective knowledge (Love and Guthrie 1999). However, what followed was the recognition that insights and information outside of personal experience could have bearing on knowledge. Procedural knowers
sought to understand authorities, focusing on reasoned reflection rather than absolutism (Love and Guthrie 1999) and the use of context-specific procedures to evaluate information that could be interpreted in multiple ways (West 2004). Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule describe two alternative modes of procedural knowledge: separate
knowing and connected
knowers tend to be adversarial and focused on critical analysis that excludes personal feelings and beliefs. Academic environments often favored this form of procedural knowledge
knowers on the other hand seek to understand others' ideas and points of view, emphasizing the relevance of context in the development of knowledge and the fundamental value of experience. Most procedural knowers
in this study were economically privileged, Caucasian, young college students or graduates.
Constructed Knowledge: Integrating the voices
as a position is characterized by a recognition of the interrelatedness of knowledge, knowing and the knower (Love and Guthrie 1999). Women with this perspective considered all knowledge as constructed, and understood that knowledge is inherently mutable, subject to time, experience, and context. They saw knowledge as "a constant process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction" (Love and Guthrie 1999). Women in this position generally came to it after intense self-reflection. They were able to engage in what Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule refer to as "real talk": the ability to listen, share and cooperate while maintaining one's own voice undiminished. The position of constructed knowledge
often involves enormous "empathetic potential": a capacity to feel connected with another person despite potentially enormous differences. Many women in this position nonetheless experience loneliness and discouragement, largely due to difficulty in finding companionable and supportive partners.
Relationship to Perry's cognitive development theory
The position of silence
is absent from Perry's scheme. Received knowledge
is comparable to Perry's dualism in that knowledge is viewed as black-and-white absolute truths handed down by infallible authorities. However, Perry's dualistic men aligned themselves with authority, while Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's received knowers
generally felt disconnected from authority (Love and Guthrie 1999). Subjective knowledge
is similar to Perry's multiplicity, in that both emphasize personal intuition and truth. However, Perry identified the typical age of the transition to multiplicity as early adolescence, while the women in the above study exhibited this transition over the whole spectrum of ages studied. Love and Guthrie (1999) also emphasize that, while this transition is relatively smooth for many of Perry's men, rejection of the past, sometimes including geographic relocation, was critical to this transition in many women in the Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule study. Procedural knowledge
shared similarities with Perry's relativism in its emphasis on context and situation-specific evidence. Constructed knowledge
is similar to Perry's commitment in the sense that both incorporate the role of the knower in knowledge, but differed in other important ways.
Writing of "Women's Ways of Knowing"
An important element of the study and writing of "Women's Ways of Knowing" was the shared process of authorship, which the authors describe in the 1997 10th anniversary addition of the book.
Patrick Love and Victoria Guthrie (1999): Implications of this research for student affairs professionals
- Recognize the potential need on the part of some women to reject their past.
- Recognize the role of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence in many women's lives and its subsequent influence on cognitive development.
- Recognize the potential disconnection from authority experienced by some women.
- Nurture voices of both separate and connected knowing and the integration of the two.
- Belenky, M.F., B.M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger and J.M. Tarule. 1986. Women's Ways of Knowing. Basic Books, NY.
- Love, Patrick G. and Victoria L. Guthrie. 1999. Women's Ways of Knowing. New directions for student services (88): 17-27.
- Perry, William G. 1970. Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY.
- West, Elise J. 2004. Perry's legacy: models of epistemological development. Journal of Adult Development 11(2): 61-70.