Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s Women’s Way of Knowing

Brief Overview

Belenky et al. created a theory of the process of cognitive development in women as five knowledge positions (or perspectives) through which women view themselves and their relationship to knowledge.

About the Authors

Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule discovered that women lacked confindence in their abilities to think and speak.  Following the work of Gilligan and Perry, they presented the book “Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind” in 1986.

Printable Summary (PDF)
Submitted by Emily Burgess and Marshall Anthony, Jr.
Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory

Stages, Levels, Phases, and Components of the Theory:  

  • Silence
    • Silence 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). 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.”
  • Received Knowledge: Listening to the voices of others
    • Received knowledge 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. 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.
  • Subjective Knowledge: The inner voice
    • Subjective knowledge 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 et al 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.
  • Procedural Knowledge: Separate and connected knowing
    • Procedural knowledge 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).
  • Constructed Knowledge: Integrating the voices
    • Constructed knowledge 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 et al. (1968) refer to as “real talk”: the ability to listen, share and cooperate while maintaining one’s own voice undiminished.


Application of Theory to Practice

This section is designed to provide student affairs professionals, staff, and faculty members with tips and tools to apply theory to practice.

Annotations of Associated Literature

Information submitted by Rod Kelley
Original Citation

Belenky, M.F., B.M. Clinchy, N.R. Goldberger and J.M. Tarule. 1986. Women’s Ways of Knowing. Basic Books, NY.

Additional Resources

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