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Women's Ways of Knowing by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, Jill Mattuck Tarule (Basic: $19.95; 256 pp.)

September 07, 1986|Diane Kovacs | Kovacs is a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Monica. and

Before Betty Friedan, the ERA and the feminist movement, the highest praise for a woman to hear was: "She thinks just like a man." Men were the model of behavior. Even when studying human development, men were not only the primary investigators, but most of their research relied heavily on male samples. When in the rare instances scientists turned to the study of women, they typically looked for ways in which women conformed to, or diverged from patterns found in the study of men, the authors of this provocative book note.

Even if they were glossed over, there are gender differences in the quest for knowledge, to finding self. How many of us sat for long years in elementary school where the boys were the outspoken ones, more noticeable in the classroom, while the girls passively listened. What accounts for these differences is not only the quality of familial interaction but societal expectations in male-dominated schools and workplaces, the authors point out.

Women follow five paths in their intellectual development--from powerless silence to the fifth and most powerful, an integration of intuitive wisdom and the information we call knowledge. By indirection, "Women's Ways of Knowing" illuminates how women can find that fifth way, their own voice and, with their voice, power.

Women in the first path are powerless and voiceless. Responding to authority with unquestioning submission and obedience, they have been tamed by authoritarian fathers and submissive mothers. They are the "silent women," those who when asked to describe themselves "remain standing in their own shoes describing only what they see grazing outward from their own eyes."

One stage higher in the evolutionary process were the "received knowers," more sophisticated than the silent ones but with little confidence in their own ability to speak. They take in what others have to offer, passively accepting deposits of information. Reinforced by traditional forms of education, they come to believe only in the truths of others.

Shadowed by histories of sexual abuse and harassment, women on the third path of learning are "subjective knowers." They retreat from male authority to a more intuitive position. For those whom men have failed and disappointed, the inner process is more reliable. The authors liken these women to youths in fairy tales, setting out from the family to make their way in the world while at the same time discovering themselves.

Beyond "procedural knowledge," the acquisition of reason and objective thought, lies "constructive knowledge," an integration of intuitive sense and the ability to listen and attend to the words of others. It is the empathic way a mother truly listens to her child, the therapist to their client. It is the finding of both voice and self, a blending and balance of feelings and thought.

This scholarly, sometimes-dry book is most interesting in its final section in which the authors focus on the societal implications of women finding self, voice and mind. In moving beyond the state of silence and submission, women can significantly alter familial patterns. As the authors note, "Our stories . . . suggest the central importance of intellectual development if emotional difficulties are to be prevented or overcome."

Obviously the old, male dominated, authoritarian ways of teaching must be remade. The authors, all academics, propose a new approach to education, what they term the "connected class." This is a community, not a hierarchy, where uncertainty is accepted, where teachers are believers, where there is trust in the thinking of students and encouragement of the expansion of ideas. Such findings are not just relevant for women.

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