Until recently women played a minor role in the social sciences not only as theorists but also as subjects. The omission of women from research populations has been universally ignored when conclusions are drawn or theories constructed. When these theories are applied to women, scientists typically report on ways in which women conform to or diverge form the 'norm', often to the detriment of women.
Women's Ways of Knowing focuses on what women have to say about the development of their minds and their experiences as learners. Combining intensive interviews with case studies, Belenky and her colleagues used a research design that drew on a wider population than that used by earlier researchers in intellectual development. They studied 125 women from various ages, ethnic backgrounds and social classes; 90 drawn from the traditional pool of students in formal educational institutions and 45 from "invisible colleges"; family agencies that provide information about or assistance with parenting.
The reason for the second group was the contention that formal educational programs take little interest in preparing students for roles, such as parenting, that are traditionally occupied by women. "By exploring how women learn and think about learning in the invisible college," say the authors, "we hoped to cast light on less well known strategies for promoting women's education and development that are practiced in out-of-school settings".
Before asking a woman to participate, the researchers explained they were interested in women's experience because it had so often been omitted from efforts to understand human development. This point is a key one: feminist research has proceeded only by listening to women's voices and by giving credibility to women's experiences. What the researchers found was that the term "voice" emerged as more than shorthand for a person's point of view. It is a metaphor that applies very aptly to many aspects of women's experience and development: "In describing their lives, women commonly talked about voice and silence: 'speaking up,' 'speaking out,' 'being silenced,' 'not being heard,' 'really listening,' 'really talking,' 'words as weapons,' 'feeling deaf and dumb,' 'having no words,' 'saying what you mean,' 'listening to be heard,' and so on in an endless variety of connotations all having to do with sense of mind, self-worth, and feeling of isolation form or connection to others." Developing a sense of voice, then, is intricately connected to developing a sense of mind and self.
Belenky et al. took their departure from a widely respected study on men. William Perry's map (1970) charts men's intellectual development as an initial template and can be used to view intellectual development over time. Perry's schema shows a sequence of logical perspectives called "positions" progressing from basic dualism through multiplicity to relativism subordinate and finally to full relativism (see Figure 1). Belenky et al. posit a different sequence for women (Figure 2), grouped into five major categories: "silence, a position in which women experience themselves as mindless and voiceless and subject to the whims of external authority; received knowledge, a perspective from which women conceive of themselves as capable of receiving, even reproducing, knowledge from the all-knowing external authorities but not capable of creating knowledge on their own; subjective knowledge, a perspective from which truth and knowledge are conceived of as personal, private, and subjectively known or intuited; procedural knowledge, a position in which women are invested in learning and applying objective procedures for obtaining and communicating knowledge; and constructed knowledge, a position in which women view all knowledge as contextual, experience themselves as creators of knowledge, and value both subjective and objective strategies for knowing" (p.15).