What Is Feminist Epistemology?

Steven Symes

Feminist epistemology is the study of how a person’s gender, or specifically a woman’s gender, affects her personal body of knowledge. The theory states that men and women observe the world in different ways, leading to a difference in knowledge between the sexes. How women learn about the surrounding world is also studied under feminist epistemology.

Women may be hired to work in traditionally male-dominated fields in order to better reach female customers.
Women may be hired to work in traditionally male-dominated fields in order to better reach female customers.

How men view women’s knowledge of various subjects is also covered by feminist epistemology. Some men, and even women, believe that some topics are within a woman’s capacity for understanding or knowing, such as cleaning house or understanding fashion trends, while other areas are outside of her capacity, such as engineering principles or house repairs. For example, men might not give credibility to a female plumber, believing women can know little to nothing about plumbing.

Feminist epistemology studies how women learn about the world.
Feminist epistemology studies how women learn about the world.

The study of feminist epistemology also includes looking at how women might be barred from access to certain bodies of knowledge in a society. Scholars examine if women are allowed to make intellectual inquiries in a society, or if there are certain subjects or areas of knowledge that women are either not allowed to access or are discouraged from doing so. Educational systems of various types are also examined by scholars, who look for policies or practices that punish or penalize students who use feminine ways of thinking. Programs that have high ratios of female students are compared to programs that have low ratios of female students, helping to highlight differences and possible causes.

Empiricism is a part of feminist epistemology, which looks at how a woman’s different experiences provide her with knowledge not available to men. Feminists argue that the unique body of knowledge possessed by women should be recognized and valued in society. For example, a company such as an automotive manufacturer might take advantage of this knowledge, employing women engineers to design vehicles that accommodate the unique needs and preferences of women.

Postmodern theories have been applied to feminist epistemology as well, yielding different results. Most familiar to the public at large is the postmodern feminist critical view of inequalities between men and women in a society. The application of postmodern theory leads feminists to take a closer look at how the structures of a society and organizations that exist in a society contribute to inequalities between the sexes. The impact of word usages on how both men and women perceive women’s role in society, such as the use of the word “oppression,” are studied as a part of postmodern feminist epistemology.

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