In 1986, four academic women Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker
Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarule published a book
called "Women's Ways of Knowing." A couple of years later, I went to work
at a small business that would eventually become a worker-owned, feminist
co-operative. When I finally left that company after seven years, I'd
learned to curse Belenky et. al., along with a whole passel of other
feminist theorists, whose ideas, I believe, helped to make my workplace the
most poisonous and depleting I've ever encountered.
"Women's Ways of Knowing," like the more popular writings of psychologist
Carol Gilligan ("In a Different Voice"), claimed, in the words of two
followers, that "women's thought patterns are more contextual and more
embedded in relational concerns than those of men." Women are supposed to
be co-operative rather than competitive, more inclined toward empathy and
less toward seeking dominance. In opposition to "the rationalism,
separation and false 'objectivity' of masculinist models of knowledge,"
women were touted as caring more about personal experience, feelings and
intuition, which are felt in the body ("gut" feelings) rather than the
head. Even people who've never heard of "Women's Ways of Knowing" or
Gilligan recognize such ideas if only because they parrot traditional
notions of femininity, with the connotation neatly switched from negative
Depending on your politics, a democratically-managed, feminist co-operative
might sound intriguing, heavenly or nightmarish. People who have worked in
other "alternative" organizations tend to offer a knowing, sympathetic
groan of agony when I talk about that part of my past. My former workplace
suffered from a litany of woes that plague such idealistic groups, most of
which just boil down to childish behavior. The difference was, in our
organization the perpetrators had a ready-made ideological justification
for every tantrum and dropped ball, every passive-aggressive stratagem and
rank prejudice, the wheel spinning and the finger-pointing. It was all,
somehow, a more feminist and womanly approach, an attempt to topple the
patriarchy by defying its cruel, oppressive, rational standards of
behavior. That ideology, picked up in college Women's Studies programs and
various feminist books and journals, came courtesy of theorists like
Goldberger, Tarule, Clinchy and Belenky.
Now, with "Knowledge, Difference, and Power: Essays Inspired by 'Women's
Ways of Knowing,'" the four authors have anthologized writings by people
whose lives were changed by their original book although not,
unsurprisingly, malcontents like me. To be fair, reading it I learned that
many of the boosters of "Women's Ways of Knowing" have gravely
misinterpreted and simplified its authors' ideas. But I also learned that
this (deliberate or just plain stupid) misreading keeps cropping up again
and again. Students who read "Women's Ways of Knowing," as one contributor
to "Knowledge, Difference, and Power" reports, invariably "heard [the]
authors as praising 'connectedness,' a voice of one's own,
emotionality, 'embodied' knowledge and other characteristics," all
described as typical of women.
Our company ran a retail store and mail order business. Trying to
accomplish the necessary, nuts-and-bolts tasks of such an operation, while
appeasing those staff who demanded that the company emulate this
"connected" vision of feminism, felt like playing tennis underwater. The
authors of "Women's Ways of Knowing" don't seem to recognize that the
"female" style of behavior they champion is the direct result of women
having had very little power throughout most of history. It completely
fails us when we actually have some economic and social muscle. But many
feminists, like many leftists, have such a moral phobia about power that
they have no idea how to exercise it constructively.
at our company, this phobia took the form of talk-mania and
decision-avoidance. Big decisions required a majority vote of all
worker-owners (eventually, as many as 40 people, although for most of my
tenure around 20 to 25). These took place at general meetings where the
unfortunate person or committee charged with getting something done
presented their recommendation to the entire membership. Discussion ensued,
usually a stultifying, circular one, no matter how hard we tried to reform
our meeting procedures. Far too often, weeks worth of preparation was
scuttled when a member abruptly raised a feeble, last-minute objection, and
requested "more information" (despite having paid little attention to the
information already offered).
Since everyone in our company had an equal voice, such objections had to be
taken seriously, even if they were based more on feeling than fact no,
especially if they were. If the objector could convince enough members that
deciding immediately wouldn't be "fair" (not enough people had been
consulted, not enough options considered, someone disempowered might be
left out), the whole thing was postponed. It often seemed that, as a group,
we lacked the will to decide anything, because to decide would be to act,
to risk, to use the sliver of power we had. We might make a mistake, or
offend someone, or find out a better alternative later, when it was too
late to change our minds. Better to refrain, to stay as stationary as
possible and talk and talk and talk, which is what we, as women, were so
good at. Reading "Knowledge, Difference, and Power," I realized that the
biggest fans of "Women's Ways of Knowing" are teachers, therapists and
counseling social workers, people whose jobs consist primarily of talking,
of working on how people feel and think. They aren't, however, experts at
coping with, as one critic put it, "the intransigence of material
circumstances:" buying, selling, scheduling, accounting doing.
Vague protests on behalf of oppressed people sometimes racial minorities
(always depicted as a noble, unindividuated mass), but also the junior and
lesser-paid staff were a surefire way to bring action to a grinding
halt. Women of color made excellent excuses because they were
especially powerless, and therefore must be especially virtuous,
being even less able to do anything than we were. We could assign several
people to a committee to endlessly discuss "doing outreach" to poor
"communities of color," and since those communities didn't have much money,
we were assured that the effort wouldn't lead to anything compromising,
like profits, which might lead to something scary, like growth. However, to
be on the safe side, that committee somehow never managed to do much more
than insist that the staff undergo an expensive "diversity training."
The purpose of "diversity training," despite its name, is to make sure that
everybody thinks exactly the same way, or understands that if she doesn't,
she is a reprehensible racist/sexist/classist homophobe. One of the most
peculiar notions perpetuated by "Women's Ways of Knowing" and its ilk is
that feminist groups are accepting of differences. In fact, our group had
an unspoken directive: equality means uniformity. To be exceptionally
intelligent, motivated, able or talented was to make everyone else look
(or, more important, feel) inadequate. Excellence invited whispered
suspicions of "power-mongering" and hubris; it reeked of "hierarchy" and
testosterone. "What was the worst thing," a fellow escapee once told me,
"was the attitude that merit and competence shouldn't be recognized and
rewarded, but held back."
Based on their interviews with 135 women, the authors of "Women's Ways of
Knowing" professed admiration for the way that women reject the
"competition" rife among men. But women don't really avoid competing with
each other we usually just avoid admitting it, and that makes contests
more bitter. The purportedly "male" style of competition, while often
unnecessarily harsh, stays aboveboard and focuses on outdoing the rival.
Toeing the "nice girl" line means pretending indifference, while
criticizing the character and derogating the achievements of women who dare
to surpass the rest of us how unwomanly, how individualist, how selfish!
Social sorting deciding who are the good, respectable girls and who are
the bad has long been a task bestowed on women. In 1994, Daphne Patai
and Noretta Koertge published the book "Professing Feminism," an alarming
but in my case, all too familiar documentation of the deteriorating morale
in many university Women's Studies departments. They point to "Women's Ways
of Knowing" as a contributing factor to the departments' inability to
handle internal conflicts and the use of "sentiment as a tool of coercion."
Curious to see how the proponents of connected thinking would respond to
this critique, I found Patai and Koertge barely mentioned in "Knowledge,
Difference, and Power," and then briskly dismissed as "misapprehending" the
theory. In a particularly hectoring essay, Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay
Tetreault refer to them as "'feminists,'" with quote marks, implying that
Patai and Koertge's "credentials" have been revoked, even though the
two women are professors of Women's Studies who have worked in the field for
years. Feminists always agree, Maher and Tetreault imply, because if someone
disagrees with us, we declare her a non-feminist.
The main reason to avoid decision-making and enforce conformity is that if
you don't, someone's feelings might get hurt. The "Women's Way of Knowing"
crowd consider the empathy and compassion they see widely practiced by
women as exemplary, especially compared to the detached, impersonal
approach supposedly favored by men. They don't explore the possibility that
men might have developed that detachment because their life in the public
sphere exposed them to a greater variety of people and the possibility for
sharp conflicts over those ol' intractable material circumstances. Yes, the
body politic could use a lot more fellow feeling, but why make inevitable
disagreements even worse by taking everything personally?
"The personal is political," declares a famous feminist slogan, but take
that too far and you wind up with an incapacitating tyranny of the
emotions. In our workplace, one staffer felt so daunted each time another
informed her that she'd added up a column of numbers incorrectly that on
the third or fourth time it happened she began to cry. Tears always trumped
arithmetic in our workplace, so the two women involved, plus a conflict
mediator and a "support" provider for each, had to meet for hours to
discuss the problem. In another case, a woman applied for a promotion
although she'd already proven only marginally competent in her current job.
Her supervisor denied her request, but because the applicant was
sweet-natured and popular, while the supervisor was a prickly
over-achiever, several uninvolved staff members protested the decision and
even more meetings and unnecessary grief ensued.
I worked with women who were so "connected" in their thinking that they
agreed with whoever they last talked to. That lasted until someone with a
different idea came along. Clinchy writes that "the picture of the
connected knower as merely a jellyfish, clone, chameleon or wimp" is mere
"caricature." But I assure you, such women not only exist, they
congratulate themselves on their womanly and feminist sensitivity.
For some of us, the political dissolved completely into the personal, and
the co-op was held responsible for matters that, to my "separate thinking"
mind, belonged in a therapist's office. Staffers who felt insecure,
occupationally confused, or plagued by childhood traumas voiced their
"discomfort" and expected their co-workers to correct the situation.
"Alternative" businesses, ironically, tend to attract people who blame
their every difficulty on forces external to themselves exactly the
infantile mentality most unsuited to the demands of an unstructured
workplace. But only in a feminist workplace can people get away with
demanding to be made perpetually "comfortable;" never mind that growth and
learning don't often feel so cozy.
At its worst, this species of feminism gets outright invasive. At the
aforementioned diversity training, the weirdly synthetic-seeming
facilitators divided us into small groups. They instructed each of us to
tell the rest of our group about "your class background and your feelings
about it" for three minutes. You got three minutes whether or not you used
all the time, just to make sure that especially timid members didn't feel
rushed. When my turn came around, I said, "My class background and how I
feel about it are very personal things, too intimate to be shared with
co-workers I don't know that well. If stuff from my past is bothering me,
that's my responsibility. I think a lot of our problems come from putting
too much of our private lives in the workplace, not too little." Then we
sat for over two and a half minutes in decidedly uncomfortable silence.
"Silenced" is what the authors of "Women's Ways of Knowing" famously dubbed
women crippled by self-doubt; protesting that people had been silenced was
a popular, melodramatic complaint in our company. Under the tyranny of the
emotions, what do we call women pressured into talking?
In truth, the sorry brand of feminism that bedeviled our co-operative
is a drastic vulgarization of the ideas in "Women's Ways of
Knowing." But then, the picture the authors paint of "separate knowing"
(Clinchy states, ludicrously, that a computer could do it) is equally
crude. The most brilliant scientists have always paid tribute to the role
of intuition and emotion, as well as logic, in their work. They collaborate
as well as compete. Ultimately, all the best minds male and female
engage in "constructive knowing" as defined in "Women's Way of Knowing," a
flexible blend of abstract reasoning, received information, personal
experience, empathy and debate.
It's the small minds that cause the trouble, people looking for absolutes
and fool-proof formulas instead of the unpredictable, laborious business of
thinking for themselves. For every mulish fanatic who's passionate about
thinking unemotionally, there's a ruthlessly domineering enforcer of warm
'n' fuzzy connected thinking. Such people love their blinders. At our
co-op, we'd pat ourselves on the back for devising such a unique, superior,
non-corporate place to work, even though morale had obviously plummeted to
the earth's core. It was just so much easier to believe that we had it all
figured out, could and should run things better simply by virtue of being
women. And that's exactly what it was. Too easy.