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Women’s Ways of Knowing – Describing the Five Ways of Knowing (2 of 3)

We continue to consider the insights of Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattock Tarule. In the previous post I offered a description and overview of the book and now we will look at each “way” of knowing in more detail.

Categories of Knowledge

As you will recall, the authors suggest that all women will find themselves in one of the following 5 categories of “knowing”:

  1. Silence: mindless and voiceless
  2. Received knowledge: able to receive but not create knowledge
  3. Subjective knowledge: knowledge is known subjectively; it is personal private and intuitive
  4. Procedural knowledge: able to apply objective procedures to obtain and communicate knowledge
  5. Constructed knowledge: since knowledge is constructed and contextual, they can create knowledge, and they are able to value both subjective and objective strategies for knowing

Let us now look at each of these ways in more detail.


1. Silence

Deaf & Dumb

This way of knowing is characterized by a sense of voicelessness. Women were “deaf” in that they felt they could not learn from the voice of others and “dumb” in that they believed they did not have anything important to say. The purpose of words, in their understanding, is not to build up, nourish, or empower, but to tear down, diminish or separate others. They also experience a lack of self-dialogue.


Women in this way are isolated and have limited ability or language for representational thought. Whatever is “known” must be concrete, in the present moment, and specific. Significantly, there is no concept of “we.”

Obedience to Wordless Authorities

Those to whom these women gave obedience were those who established authority through force or violence, whether physical or otherwise. Moreover, such authorities were viewed as all-powerful, telling them what but not why. Consequently, this required blind obedience since asking “why?” is not only pointless but often impossible.

A Woman’s Place

These women are paradoxically characterized by fear of living independently from a man while also frequently living with violence enacted against them by the same man. Right and wrong are viewed in extreme polarities.

No Self-Conception / Identity

This way of knowing is characterized by a lack of identity. In fact, whatever identity a woman might hold derives from what others say about her. When asked, “how would you describe yourself to yourself?” the response was often “I dont’t know, no one has told me.” Likewise, they have no ability or framework from which to evaluate how they have changed and matured through life.

Seen & Never Heard

In addition to silence, isolation is another trait of this way of knowing. Effecting behavioral change in others is done through violence, not words. Because women in this way of knowing do not have the capacity for self-dialogue, they are unable to express their troubles and thoughts with others. They consequently never attain to a sense of “voice” in life.


2. Received Knowledge: Listening to the Voices of Others

While women in this way of knowing share many features with those of the previous one, there are distinct differences. In particular, these women identify childbirth and what they learn in this process as a distinct time of learning and source of acquiring knowledge. Where contact with health centers, friends, and other women is possible, such women find that the process of child rearing allows them to not only learn from others but then to also pass on that knowledge to other mothers.

Knowledge Through Listening

The focus of learning in this way is on words received from others, people who are typically viewed as “experts.” Like the previous way of knowing, there is rigidity in right and wrong, and these women assume there is only one right answer to a problem. While there is significant openness to learning from others, these women do not have confidence to speak on their own behalf or from their own authority.

Good Friends

The case of close friends represents an exception to the statement above. In this relationship(s), if it is available, reciprocity, equality, and mutuality contribute in small ways to finding one’s “voice.” However, these women generally assume that friends have the same thoughts and share the same experiences as they do.


The source of truth for these women tends to be “experts” and “authorities” since they are the ones who posses knowledge. Moreover, it is assumed that “experts” fully agree with one another since disagreement would be unthinkable. A key trait to this way of knowing is the ability to receive knowledge but not to create it based on one’s own experience or thoughts. Not surprisingly, it is impossible for such women to generate original research or ideas in an academic environment.

Language Used 

Women characterized by silence say things like “mine,” “I want,” “I had to,” and “they made me.” Women characterized by received knowledge say things like “should” and “ought” instead of “would” and “have to.”

Selflessness & Learning

When it comes to conflict, women of this way of knowing feel constrained to choose between themselves or the other person, but there is no possibility of a solution amiable to both. In the way they view the world, self-development only occurs at the expense of others. The exception to this is if self-development somehow serves as a means to help someone else at the same time. In fact, helping others becomes the impetus to increase their knowing and loving of others. It is in this process that a semblance of “voice” is obtained.

Development & Growth

Because knowledge is received by women of this way of knowing, much depends on other people. Due to the black and white nature of “truth” and “knowledge” these women are essentially prevented from growth and development, or “becoming” someone. However, if an “expert” or “authority” happens to praise and seek out a woman in this way of knowing, it often has a lasting and significant impact on how she perceives of herself.


3. Subjective knowledge: Inner Voice & the Quest for Self

The key characteristic of this way of knowing is that knowledge and truth are interior, personal, and private. Instead of receiving knowledge from others, it is intuited from one’s own life and reflection. These women are much more independent and autonomous but still maintain a dualistic or black and white view of right and wrong.

Failed Authority

Women who experience this way of knowing statistically do not come from “healthy homes.” In fact, it is almost universally a failed male authority who triggers the transition from received knowledge to subjective knowledge. The failure frequently entails sexual harassment and/or abuse. One respondent described it as a decision to “walk away from the past.” Surprisingly education only plays a minor role. As a result of the failure of the male authority, distrust is shifted to men in general.

In the void left by failed male authority, these women generally find another woman to fill this role. Often it is an older woman, such as mothers and grandmothers, or a friend. Whoever the support person ends up being, they offer reassurance and confirmation that she can think for herself.

Multiplicity & Absolute Truth: How Men & Women Respond Differently

A particular dilemma is encountered when the shift occurs from “received” to “subjective” knowledge. Absolute truth is eroded because those who were formerly viewed as “experts” and “authorities” have failed. Since these failed figures formerly represented the source of truth, their untrustworthiness implies that truth itself is now untrustworthy, or better, must derive from another source. That new source becomes the self and what one believes. Truth begins to loose its dualistic nature of being black and white, and inevitably one’s opinion carries as much weight as anyone else’s.

According to the research of William Perry, when such a thing occurs in the lives of men, they take upon themselves the power and authority that they once placed in the “experts” to whom they once looked. They, instead of the experts, become the source of authority and defy the authority claimed by others.

By contrast, the authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing found that women respond more cautiously. The primary reason is attributed to the connectedness that women find in others and the fear of isolating themselves through conflict. In other words, women desire to maintain and protect their connectedness to a greater degree than to assert their newly found self-authority and risk hurting others they care about. In addition, the now perceived flexible nature of truth implies that it is somewhat arbitrary and thus not worth ruining connectedness. As such they become polite listeners.

The difference between men and women might be expressed this way:

    Male: I have a right to my opinion

    Female: It’s just my opinion

Beginnings of Voice

All of this transition leads to the emergence of one’s voice. Truth is more felt or intuited than objective and constructed. “Truth” is described as feelings when it derives from within, and when it derives from an external source it is referred to as ideas. Because there is a certain level of assurance in one’s inner subjective truth, there is greater tolerance to hear diverse ideas from others.

Distrust in the Objective

A corollary to this development is the distrust of the logical, abstract, analytical, and even language itself. Science and scientists are rejected because they are viewed with distrust. If a woman is in college at this stage of life, she will even switch majors from the sciences to the humanities or arts. One reason for this is the desire to protect connectedness as mentioned above and the sciences which purport to be objective require distance from the topic of investigation, i.e. the severance of connectedness.

Foggy Existence

A necessary but paradoxical component of the transition from received to subjective knowledge involves the complete destruction of connectedness with the failed male authority. Consequently, these women separate from their loved ones and forge a new path on their own. While new connections are certainly made, the level of success and health realized by a woman at this stage is highly dependent on the extended familial and educational environment surrounding her. Additionally, these women consistently describe the future as “foggy” in light of the severed connections which at one time gave them a sense of stability.

Comparing Concepts of Self

One’s identity in the way of received knowledge is derived from outsiders. In the transition to subjective knowledge one’s identity is in flux because the connectedness to the person(s) who gave the woman her identity is now dissolved and being reestablished by new relationships. Thus, women at this stage use the metaphor of death and rebirth. If new healthy relationships are established, the woman is on her way to “gaining a voice.”

In unhealthy situations, the woman becomes what Perry called “oppositional multiplist,” i.e. belligerent, oppositional, and argumentative. Or, they can become isolationist and depressed.

A kind of existential loneliness and despair pervaded the interviews of these few women who had not found bridges back to other people. One depressed college sophomore told us about her discovery that there were multiple truths and multiple realities. She had concluded that, since no one could know anything for sure and each person was locked in her own world, there was no way and no reason for people to try to reach each other or communicate. She believed that “it’s a case of knowing too much… My question to you, Why do people live?”1


4. Procedural knowledge

The trigger or cause for the transition from subjective knowledge to procedural knowledge is not known, but there are a variety of possiblities.

  • Old ways of knowing were challenged by someone or some experience
  • The dualistic view of truth and knowledge gives way to a third by merging the views of others with subjective knowing
  • They realize that authorities do not tell others what to think but instead offer guidelines on how to construct answers
  • Authorities ideally do not “judge” the opinions of others but rather evaluate arguments which must be substantiated and defended well

Women who are in this way of knowing are characteristically more humble, but evince a more powerful voice.

Comparing Subjective & Procedural Knowledge

In contrast to subjective knowledge, truth is not simply intuited or known, but rather must be sought out. There is a distinct emphasis on methodology and a distinction between means and ends. The extreme adoption of this way of knowing can lead to “methodolatry” wherein strict adherence to a particular methodology prevents new discovery since it limits the questions or perspectives on a given issue.

In contrast to women in the way of subjective knowledge who consider the views of others as equally valid as their own, women in the way of procedural knowledge do not believe that all views are equal. In fact, all views must be defended and grounded in the object or topic under discussion. As one person put it, “A bad interpretation contains too much of the reader and too little of the poem.”2

The focus then is not so much on the knowledge as held by the individual but the way or method people follow in forming their opinions. There is a recognition that adopting a variety of methods will lead to a variety of truths or perspectives on a given issue. The validity of the views, however, depends on how well one’s views are articulated and defended.

Two Ways of Procedural Knowing 

A fascinating trait of procedural knowing is that women take one of two paths: separate knowing or connected knowing.

Women who follow the separate knowing way of procedural knowledge feel that they have violated femininity. A likely reason for this feeling is the fact that they do not allow for connectedness in their knowing. Doubt is an integral trait of this way of procedural knowing to the point that such women assume everyone, including themselves, may be wrong due to an oversight or misstep in method. In fact, they are suspicious of what feels “right.” This is in stark contrast to subjective knowing wherein everyone’s views are right.

While doubt can be a positive thing in keeping one humble about one’s views, these women often struggle with engaging in critical discussion because doubt hangs over them. Or, they fear damaging relationships. By contrast, men generally insist that arguments are between positions not people and readily enter debate. Nevertheless, if connectedness is present, these women are more apt to engage in debate while still being careful not to damage the relationship.

Separate knowers are also able to protect themselves from authorities through self-extraction. That is, the separate knower distinguishes between how a given authority views them as a person and how their work is assessed. However, these women often feel as if their work is irrelevant because it is just a “game.” In reference to writing assignments, they often feel as if “it” (i.e. the method) wrote the paper, not themselves.

If they follow connected knowing (women generally gravitate in this direction), they play the “believing game” instead of the “doubting game” and insist that one must experience something to truly know it. That is, they consider a topic not as an outsider as the separate knower would do, but as an insider. As such there is a concerted effort to understand other points of view and they appeal to vicarious knowledge. Additionally, they refuse to judge others choosing to empathize instead.

Here’s a quick comparison of the two ways:

Separate knowing: disconnected from object of study and in a posture of mastery over it; the personality of the researcher is intentionally removed because it “slants” research; enters debate without the need to “know” the other person or people; morality is impersonal.

Connected knowing: a connection is maintained with the object of study; the personality of the researcher is retained as an enriching element to research; criticism is only offered once a relationship is established and it is given in a supportive manner; morality is established through relationships.

Leaving the System

Under procedural knowledge, whether one is a separate or connected knower, the only way to criticize the system is on the terms established by it. As such, women at this stage resemble chameleons who adapt to the new system and its associated methodology. Consequently, it is necessary to “leave the system” entirely in order to know at the next stage where integration of all the types of knowing is experienced.


5. Constructed knowledge

Women at this stage of knowing realize that humans are “engaged in the construction of knowledge.”3

Describing Constructed Knowledge

A significant “jump” outside of our frames of reference (institutions, systems, methodology, etc) is required to arrive at the way of constructed knowing. This jump sometimes involves a geographical move while other times only involves “psychological movement.” The type of jump involved is similar to the one that subjective knowers make when they break away from the person or thing which had previously defined them under received knowledge. The difference between these two jumps, however, is that these women have a much more mature sense of self at this stage and is fully integrated in the process of knowing.

The Position of Constructed Knowledge

In all the previous types of knowing, the knower is “under” someone, something, or some method. In constructed knowledge, the knower is now “above” these since all knowledge is fabricated or created.

To see that all knowledge is a construction and that truth is a matter of the context in which it is embedded is to greatly expand the possibilities of how to think about anything, even those things we consider to be the most elementary and obvious. Theories become not truth but models for approximating experience; as one woman said, theories are “not fact but educated guess work.”4

A senior honors student in science said, “In science you don’t really want to say that something’s true. You realize that you’re dealing with a model. Our models are always simpler than the real world. The real world is more complex than anything we can create. We are simplifying everything so that we can work with it, but this thing is really more complex. When you try to describe things, you’re leaving the truth because you’re oversimplifying.”5

As a result, while procedural knowers work well within systems and methodologies, constructed knowers are able to transcend them and use them to their advantage.

Implications of Constructed Knowing

Constructed knowers are able to distinguish between “didactic talk” wherein mere reporting occurs and “real talk” wherein cooperation, reciprocity and the effort to construct knowledge occurs. When a women in the way of constructed knowledge believes others are not listening well, she will fall silent. In the realm of morality, nearly every issue is characterized as “shades of grey” whereas others will often see it as “black and white.” Additionally, context becomes very important for adjudicating moral dilemmas and they avoid generalizations. When it comes to commitment and action, the constructed knower must learn to mix idealism and realism.



Closing Comments

In the next post, I will consider how the insights gained from the various ways of knowing can help us in our own growth and development as well as in the way we teach and connect with others.



1 Women’s Ways of Knowing, 84.
2 Women’s Ways of Knowing, 98.
3 Women’s Ways of Knowing, 133.
4 Women’s Ways of Knowing, 138.
5 Women’s Ways of Knowing, 138.

Published in Personal Growth


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