By Cassie Hammerly
“Would the world seem entirely different if it were pictured, felt, described, studied, and thought about from the point of view of a woman?” Epistemology is the study of knowledge, and is primarily concerned with the conditions, sources, structure, and limits of what one can sufficiently know. Feminist epistemology studies “knowers” in relation to the knowledge they possess. It studies the content of what is known, they way it is known, and how this manifests in situations, perspectives, and behavior. This branch of philosophy addresses background beliefs, gender roles, gender norms, and performance/behavior. The meaning of “knowledge” can alter if it is subjected to the scrutiny of social context.
Society’s knowledge of women can shape the perception of women. “Impersonal knowledge is coded as “masculine” while personal knowledge is coded as “feminine.” The former enjoys higher prestige than the latter. This has the potential to affect the way women perceive themselves. In school, boys are thought to be better at mathematics than girls. The lack of sufficient statistics supporting this belief suggests this is not actually the case. There is no difference in performance before the age of seven. “Mathematics is considered masculine and therefore prestigious.” Because of the way they are socialized, girls come to believe they are inferior to boys mathematically. The self-fulfilling prophecy indicates that the expectation about a situation affects the behavior of an individual in a manner that causes the expectation to be fulfilled. The expectation that girls have regarding their mathematical performance is reflected in their efforts and resulting performance in later years of education.
At the collegiate and scholarly level, epistemological bias can slow the progression of academic research. In a study by psychologists M. A. Palundi and W.D. Bauer, their survey showed that the same paper was evaluated differently if the author was male, female, or of uncertain gender. If the paper was thought it be written by a male author, it was rated much higher than if it was believed to be written by a female author. The Modern Language Association instituted a blind review of papers submitted for meetings. The results showed that men’s papers were accepted at a higher rate than women’s. The implications of these two studies “show how male bias in the dominant epistemology underlying scientific research has slowed the progress of knowledge”, which degrades feminine cognitive styles and modes of knowledge.
The media plays a role in self-knowledge. For the projection of the ideal woman to be popular in social media, women must believe what they are seeing is a true reflection of what society believes women should look like. Images of the ideal woman projected by social media are internalized and reflected in women’s self-esteem. A feminist epistemic perspective would require one to examine the way the “ideal woman” is known socially. How has society come to possess this knowledge of what the ideal woman is? What women equate to “ideal” is founded in social opinion, which is subject to change. The knowledge of self, if representative only of social opinion, is founded in unsubstantiated stereotypes. If women form their self-esteem based on what they see in the media, they will cater to the shifting perception of the “ideal woman.”
Feminist epistemology considers how the social location of the “knower” affects what and how she knows. This is considered a branch of social epistemology, the study of the relevance of communities to knowledge. It examines various interests, including (but not limited to) power and politics. For example, consider the current political climate in the United States. Has society’s perception of women been an influencing factor as to why the United States has not yet elected a female president? Other political endeavors have the potential to advance because of the knowledge of women. Women offer insight into sensitive issues such as violence against women. “Women have derived epistemic advantage from the conceptual resources and clearer understanding of violence that has been afforded to them within feminist standpoints. In turn, this stronger understanding has flowed into social and political discourses to the extent that, at least in some parts of the world, violence is no longer considered acceptable or part of the normal dynamics of a marriage or partnership.” Studying the point of view women provides insight into the social influence of knowledge, which allows political progress.
Gendered knowledge affects the way one behaves and addresses the world. Gender can influence what people know (or what they think they know) about gender roles, performance, identities, and ideas they might have about gender, etc. Generally, gender norms are fitted to gender roles. It is then expected that men and women conform to those norms. The result reflects the way one behaves in social contexts. Women are expected to behave in “feminine” ways. This includes acting passive, emotional, or acting in nurturing/caregiving roles. Men are expected to behave in “masculine” ways that demonstrate power and leadership. Reflecting on the daily behavior of women, how many times do women apologize when they have nothing to apologize for? Studies have shown that women apologize more than men. “Sorry” becomes a synonym for “excuse me for asserting myself and/or taking up space.” The way in which women are perceived and expected to behave in society is reflected in their behavior.
A feminist standpoint comes from engaging in critical thought about one’s experience and its relationship to social and political structures. Knowledge reflects the particular perspective of the subject and indicates how women engage with society. How would the world change if the knowledge society operated on fully considered women’s perspective and potential for contribution?