By Hannah Calaman, Neha Soman, and Kazi Stanton-Thomas
Feminist epistemology is the application of feminist ideas and concerns to the theory of knowledge, including the way it is created, attributed, justified, and acquired. Rather than striving for ideals of objectivity, as mainstream epistemology often does, feminist epistemology emphasizes the importance of positionality in forming theory and understanding knowledge processes. It seeks to answer questions like “how do social identities impact who gets to participate in knowledge creation” and “how do social identities impact the way we view–and theorize about–the world”. Despite its name, feminist epistemology does not restrict its analysis to the impact of gender on knowledge, but instead takes an intersectional approach that considers all aspects of identity (Grasswick, 2018).
Being disadvantaged politically and socially, it should be no surprise that women are also disadvantaged intellectually through dominant knowledge practices. This disadvantage is manifested in a variety of ways. Women are often excluded from inquiry and stereotyped in ways that intend to delegitimize them as epistemic authorities, including through insults against thought processes and theories perceived as feminine. As a result, they are often not afforded the privilege to create knowledge and have it properly attributed to them. On the other side of knowledge practices, theories are often produced to represent women as inferior, dependent, or useful only as far as they are serving the interests of men. Similarly, many theories produced by the traditional ‘academy’ serve to diminish the existence and experience of sexism or represent the hegemonic authority’s experience as universal, leading to the sole production of knowledge that is not relevant or useful to marginalized people, including women. The goal of feminist epistemology is to counteract this intellectual and academic marginalization (Anderson, 2000).
Picture of Sara Ahmed created by herself, featured in Guernica in 2017
Feminist epistemology is practiced through the creation and expansion of theory, specifically that of feminist theory. It’s important also to state that while this knowledge is grounded in the analysis of gender structurally, personally, and socially, this gender analysis is based on the analyzer’s intersectional identity. Sara Ahmed provides an analysis of feminist theory in her writing, Bring Feminist Theory Home. Sara provides an increasing outlook on how feminism evolves, is popularized, and how people further their engagement in feminism. One of the primary points that she emphasizes within the piece is the deconstruction of colonialism, she constructs this point through the emphasis on intersectionality.
Sara cross-analyzes the feminist lessons derived from her Muslim aunt, Lahore, and the academic works of diverse feminists (Ahmed 2017). The knowledge of her Muslim feminist has taught her that the idea that feminism starts in Western, eurocentric, society and spreads outwards to the Global South and nations of color is incorrect and inherently racist. She frames her knowledge from “the East”, in which her sense of autonomy is increased, due to her mind “is not owned” (Ahmed 2017). She then immediately follows this analysis of ethnic ties in feminism with the work of bell hooks, specifically hook’s definition of feminism, “the movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression.” Making a powerful AND direct connection between feminism and anti-racism. Additionally, she then devalues the structure of feminism that lacks intersectionality or is blind to the racism within the feminist movement, which she defines as white feminism (Ahmed 2017). The creation of knowledge within this piece is that of structural analysis and structural critique. In the patriarchal sense of epistemology, this view of not only feminism but intersectionality and political/social advantage is not “objective”. Not because this occurrence is “untrue”, but because recognizing the occurrence of these concepts especially in an expansive concept that points at the elaborate faults of the systems of power in play. Additionally, by refusing this recognition patriarchal epistemology can be used as a tool to pit marginalized communities against one another. With this, Sara points to feminism being homework, active self-education, improvement, and consistent critique of the systems of power at large. She writes the importance of not intersectionality but where, structurally, it comes from, who is affected by it, and how feminists should engage with intersectionality to ensure an effective movement.
Some Points on “objectivity”:
The objectivity ideal of traditional epistemology deserves deeper discussion, because it is a sticking point for many theorists when it comes to the development of a feminist epistemology.
- Stereotypes: that women’s theories cannot be universal because women’s experience is not universal, and therefore they do not deserve academic attention. That women lack an objective view of the world and cannot be impartial, and therefore cannot create theories that hold up as “truth”.
- Feminist epistemology does not attempt to assert that women are in fact objective, impartial, or universal, but instead challenges whether these ideas are truly so essential to knowledge practices in search of “truth”.
- “Objective” is framed as being equivalent to the standards cishet white men, created through structures that devalue personal experience, descriptions, and qualitative observation (Toole 2022).
- “Objectivity” ignores the identity of the subject and the observer but does not ignore the bias that occurs.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. “Bringing Feminist Theory Home.” In Living a Feminist Life, 1-18. Duke University Press.
Anderson, Elizabeth. 2000. “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. August 9. https://plato.stanford.edu/
entries/feminism-epistemology/. Revised Feb 13, 2020
Grasswick, Heidi. 2018. “Feminist Social Epistemology.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. July 24. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-social-epistemology/.
Mehra, Nishta j., Ahmed, Sara. 2017. “Image of Sara Ahmed.” By Sara Ahmed. https://www.guernicamag.com/sara-ahmed-the-personal-is-institutional/
Toole, Briana. 2022. “Objectivity in Feminist Epistemology.” Philosophy Compass, Vol.17 (11).