Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind


Pamela R. H. Bailey


George Mason University



























Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind

            “All women grow up having to deal with historically and culturally engrained definitions of femininity and womanhood…” (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule, 1986). A woman does not think or reason like a man nor does she look at those in authority the same way due to her experiences and interactions with parents, culture, and her economic situation. The parental aspect is complex, leading into religious and moral issues along with physical, sexual, and mental abuse. Belenky et al. (1986) conducted a project in the late 1970’s based on the study and analysis of topics and aspects unique to women revealing a model of intellectual development.

Overview of Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule Model

            The five year project conducted by Belenky et al. (1986) involved interviewing 90 women from educational institutions and 45 women from the “invisible colleges” or human services agencies. These women came from different ethnic backgrounds and social classes in order to analyze a broader range of voices. Interview questions revolved around the topics of self-image, decision making, relationships, education and learning, personal changes and growth and what encouraged them to initiate changes. The analysis of the interview responses revealed five levels or stages of a woman’s development or growth that include silence, received knowledge, subjective knowledge, procedural knowledge, and constructed knowledge.

Stages of Intellectual Development


A woman of silence is totally dependent on those in authority, not questioning or voicing an opinion (Belenky et al., 1986). Expressing her personal thoughts is very difficult as she lives in the present and normally speaks of specific concrete behaviors. A woman of silence usually has experienced physical, mental, or sexual abuse and feels that she is to be seen and not heard. If she should voice her opinion or ask a question, punishment is the most likely result. A woman of silence views decisions as either right or wrong with no room for reasoning.

Received Knowledge 

            Belenky et al. (1986) places a woman at the receiving knowledge level if she is listening but does not have the confidence to voice her opinion. As the receiver she will listen and pass knowledge on to others, shaping her thoughts to match those in authority. When asked about herself, the receiver of knowledge will reply with what other individuals have stated, unable to voice her feelings. Abuse is still prevalent in the life of a woman receiving knowledge.

Subjective Knowledge

            About half of those participating in the project were at the subjective knowledge level (Belenky et al., 1986). Something usually happens in a woman’s life to encourage her to go from a receiver of knowledge to progress to the level of subjectivity. The woman begins to accept that she has a voice, “an inner source of strength” lying within herself, and an opinion that is due to past experiences. She recognizes that she does not have to agree with the authority but is still cautious about voicing opinions. Truth is experienced within oneself but not acted upon for fear of jeopardizing the associations one has with others at the same level.

Procedural Knowledge

            Belenky et al. (1986) describes procedural knowledge as divided into two areas, separate and connected knowing. A woman in either area realizes that she has voice, is still cautious of others and their actions, however now she is not threatened and is more willing to listen to what is being said. A separatist will not project her feelings into a situation and is able to speak taking on the requested view. A connected knower empathizes with others and feels it is her responsibility to help them understand their situation so they might make the best decision.

Constructed Knowledge

            A constructivist realizes that one must speak, listen, share ideas, explore, and question, analyzing who, why, and how (Belenky et al., 1986). Speaking and listening does not remain within oneself but includes speaking and listening to others at the same time.  She wants a better quality of life for herself and for others.


Growth Stages of a Woman Compared to a Man

William Perry’s project of male students from Harvard University established four main levels of intellectual development: dualism, multiplicity, relativism, and commitment (Rapaport, 2006). Dualism is similar to a receiver of knowledge with the man identifying with those in authority whereas a woman is unable to do so (Belenky et al., 1986). William Rapaport (2006) placed multiplicity and subjectivism at similar levels. He states that a man has his opinion but has difficulty expressing it to authorities; a woman feels powerless to express her opinion (Belenky et al., 1986). Rapaport (2006) relates commitment and constructivism as similar with a man viewing knowledge as an ongoing unfolding activity whereas a woman brings her personal experiences and reflection into the integration of knowledge.   

Progression Between Stages

            Belenky et al. (1986) does not state that the flow from one level to another is linear, spiraling, or overlapping. Rapaport (2006) however alludes to the progression as a journey that can be repeated where one might be at different levels at the same time with respect to different subjects. William Peirce’s (2007) comparison of the Belenky et al. and Perry models reveals that both begin by accepting, without questioning, the knowledge of authorities. He goes on to state that both have a final position where a mature thinker seeks to fully understand an issue and is able to make up his or her mind. Both models agree that the progression to another level takes time and is not always easy but how one goes between the steps is also not always clear cut.


            The progression from one level to another for a woman is like the bloom of a Morning Glory. A woman will become more confident with her feelings and voice but under certain conditions might step back, reassess, and then go forward once more like the blooming of the flower. It is not that she will retreat permanently but will use her reasoning skills and her concern for others to determine the best route to obtain the goal. A woman is not always as delicate as the flower but can persevere through many situations to become a pressed flower, firm in her thoughts and expectations.

            Discussion of families and education at the end of the book evokes controversy (Belenky et al., 1986). It states that children are told to listen but not be heard. In some matters children are unable to make decisions and need to listen; this may also be called showing respect. Education is also referred to as the road to life changes. Is it the educational experience or is it a time that the woman is growing emotionally and learning more about herself? This leads to the non-inclusion of the working woman in the study. Women that get decent jobs and go on to have productive lives were ignored; why did they decide not to go on to school, if they were abused in some way, or their perspectives with those in authority were not studied.

The Belenky et al. (1986) project encourages one to think about how and why one may reason or voice an opinion. Looking back on the lives of family and friends one begins to also question and analyze actions and moral or religious issues. Why do I do what I do?







Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of

knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: BasicBooks, Inc.

Peirce, W. (2007). Understanding students' difficulties in reasoning: Part one, perspectives from

several fields. Retrieved October 13, 2007 from Prince George’s Community College web site: http://academic.pgcc.edu/~wpeirce/MCCCTR/underst06.html

Rapaport, W. J. (March 2006). William Perry's scheme of intellectual and ethical


development. Retrieved October 13, 2007 from State University of New York at Buffalo,


Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Department of Philosophy, and


Center for Cognitive Science web site: