The 1980s and 1990s saw the debate around the establishment of a feminist epistemology come under a numb er of pressures from within and outside feminism. The ‘totalising’ tendencies of earlier feminist theorising was challenged from within feminism by marginalised, colonised and indigenous women, who objected to feminist theories which failed to address their problems. Alongside the critiques emerging from within feminism emerged a parallel range of critiques from the area of cultural theory challenging the basis of a feminist epistemology. As Halberg (1992:373) argues, ‘the contours of feminist epistemologies had hardly acquired a distinct identity when they were challenged by postmodernist/anti-foundationalist thinking’. As Halberg goes on to assert, postmodernism is particularly challenging for feminist thinking because it questions the very idea of a foundation for knowledge. Halberg maintains that what follows from these objections is the idea that the concept of ‘truth’ is always plural and situated, and that the very basis of epistemology has to be questioned. Both postmodernism and poststructuralism have assisted feminism’s attempts to take this debate forward through the concepts of ‘deconstruction’ and ‘difference’.

For poststructuralist philosophers like Derrida and Foucault, knowledge is produced discursively. Nash (1994:66) claims that ‘Within such systems reason and experience are themselves no more than discursive constructions legitimating certain statements and denying others authority.’ She notes how Derrida’s critique of ‘the metaphysics of presence’ has problematised the conception of experience as simple and ‘transparent’:

What this means is that experiences can never be isolated from the context in which they reveal themselves and every experience involves undecidability.. .Derrida’s work shows, how no two categories or cognitions are identical because of the way identities depend minutely on the contexts in which they appear.

(Nash 1994:66, 67)

This has important implications for feminists focusing on the construction of gender identity. Judith Butler (1990a) emphasises how gender identities are contested and subverted through repetition in very different contexts from those in which they have hitherto been used and considered appropriate. As Butler notes, there may be opportunities, and occasions for subversion, in everyday social practices.

Nash (1994:67) points out that Foucault’s work similarly abandons the aim of achieving transparent truth, though for somewhat different reasons. One of the most important aspects of his work for feminists is that which has been concerned with the way the modern body and subjectivity have been constructed. Nash comments that ‘Although, notoriously, Foucault has very little to say about the construction of the gendered body and gendered subjectivity’ (ibid.), his approach has been developed by a number of feminists working in the area (Diamond and Quinby 1988; Bartky 1990; Bordo 1990).

More generally, the importance given to detail and context in the theory and method of deconstruction (see Nash 1994:67) is valuable for feminism at a time when ‘feminism’s distrust of monocausal theories of women’s oppression’ is centrally positioned for feminist theoretical debates. As Nash (1994:68) notes, ‘the central categories of grand theories are both too abstract and also too fixed in their theoretical framework to allow the specific positions of women to be considered’. In addition, a ‘second important feature of deconstruction for feminism is the way it emphasises how the modern ideal of knowledge has always been closely connected with the desire for control’ (ibid.). Foucault’s influence in this respect has been particularly important. His work emphasises the way power and knowledge are inextricably linked in modern societies. Foucault shows how ‘the extension of truth is always an extension of power’, and he alerts us ‘to recognize the inherent danger of the assumption that knowledge is simply a disinterested reflection of reality and that the use of reason will lead to progress (Foucault 1980)’ (ibid.). Nash goes on to point out that ‘the Foucauldian emphasis on the interdependence of knowledge and power alerts us to the possibility that our formulations of women’s position may contribute to the techniques of normalisation he describes in his work (see Butler 1990a: 3-6)’. Feminism’s contribution to the normalisation of gender relations is clearly ‘a problem for feminist standpoint epistemology which privileges women’s special access to knowledge’ (Nash 1994:68). In this respect, such a position seems to contribute to ‘the regulation and reification of gender identities, a regulation and reification that feminism set out to disrupt’ (Nash 1994:69).

A final element emerging from debates around deconstruction is, as Nash notes, ‘the critique of knowledge as a reflection of the world in the reason and experience of the knowing subject’. From this perspective, ‘knowledge is not elaborated by a knowing subject as modern philosophy would have it; rather knowledge positions subjects within certain discourses by enabling certain possibilities and excluding or repressing others’ (ibid.). This fits well with the conclusions emerging from feminist epistemological critiques of knowledge produced during the last decade.

Feminist theorists who accept much of the postmodernist and poststructuralist critique ofWestern rationalism are critical of earlier feminist ventures. As McLennan (1995a: 16) notes, ‘Thus, to some people, earlier monistic expressions of feminism have resulted in a restricted frame of reference which looks increasingly outdated.’ As he goes on to note, ‘Feminist theory has become “a prisoner of gender” in that sense [Flax 1990b: 52] and the “essentialist” identification of women’s oppression as a uniform condition now looks precisely what is problematic’ (ibid).