The emancipatory goals and epistemological assumptions of second wave feminism based on the interrelationship between knowledge and liberation can be clearly traced to the liberal humanism of enlightened modernity. McNeil (1993:149) maintains that

The women who gave birth to second wave feminism can be thought of as daughters of the Enlightenment in that they seemed to have inherited some Enlightenment assumptions. In its early heady days of the late 1960s and 1970s they created a movement which held out the promise of increased and better knowledge of gender relationships and through this knowledge, women’s liberation. Knowledge and liberation were regarded as incremental and inter-related goals: as women gained more knowledge of their position in the world, it was presumed that their power to transform it would increase accordingly.

(McNeil 1993:149)

The key strategies employed by second wave feminists were designed to expose

the nature of ‘patriarchy’ and ‘oppression’ and to establish ‘women only spaces’, new patterns of relationships between women through the practice of consciousness­raising. McNeil (1993:150) indicates that some feminists, notably Catherine MacKinnon (1982) (among others), saw this process as the ‘linchpin of feminism and the foundation of a distinctive feminist epistemology’.

In the 1980s and 1990s the debates surrounding the issue and form of feminist epistemology have taken a number of different directions. The view of the essential female experience has been criticised from within feminism by ‘women of colour’, lesbian feminists and Third World women. Other branches of feminism have explored more fully feminism’s intersection with psychoanalytic theory and cultural theory, particularly poststructuralism and postmodernism, and have questioned the very existence and relevance of a feminist epistemology. Halberg (1992) investigates the nature and feasibility of the feminist epistemological project; and in doing so, she raises obstacles of a theoretical and practical kind facing feminism in its epistemological quest. Halberg maintains that there are three inherent tensions in the feminist project which cannot be resolved at the theoretical level. These are the issues of objectivism versus relativism, that of women’s and men’s thinking, and of ‘difference’ in feminist thinking. Halberg recognises that there are also problems at another (practical) level, in terms of the applicability of the concept of ‘experience’ within the feminist project. While Halberg notes that the most obvious concept to draw on is ‘the common experience of women’, in practical terms the concept is too vague and differentiated to accommodate the theoretical demands required of it.

Writers like Walby (1990), while sympathetic with the notion of ‘experience’ as the basis for an alternative epistemology, are critical of the lack of a thoroughgoing analysis of the social and political contextualisation of experience, and argue for the need to combine elements of discourse analysis within a model of social and political change. Feminist debates in the 1980s and 1990s have highlighted the social constructedness and social locatedness of experience (Harding 1993).

The debate within some branches of feminism has developed around what are seen to be the competing concepts of ‘reason’ versus ‘experience’ as significant variables in the emergence of a feminist epistemology. Grant (1987) maintains that some feminists reject ‘reason’ as a basis on which to construct a feminist epistemology, on the grounds that it is ‘male’. This view of ‘male reason’ is highly problematic. Halberg (1992) argues that much of the feminist critique of ‘malestream’ science presupposes that modern epistemology is a product of a ‘male way of knowing’, which results from a specific male way of thinking. Halberg contends that the feminist view of knowledge and reason as ‘male’ emerges from the feminist view that the fundamental dichotomy of Enlightenment thought is rooted in the mind/body, male/female dichotomy. Halberg asserts that feminism

tends to see every idea (in, for example, philosophy or meta-theory) about

everything as male biased, as if the hegemony of dominant conceptions

were complete. Patriarchy appears free of conflicts and contradictions, totally

dominated by a unified masculinity.


She argues that there are ‘incompatible tendencies in feminist epistemologies’ (Halberg 1992:373) and, as a result, she cannot see any feasible way of grounding feminist epistemology. Halberg, while identifying the tensions involved in feminist epistemological debates, does not engage with the debates in any meaningful sense. Nor does she consider the implications of the increasing feminist ‘pluralism’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Halberg’s model of feminism, at least at her level of engagement, is a ‘univocalist’ model.

Further, for feminists the question of philosophy as outlined by Halberg has always been subordinate to social criticism. Consequently, feminists have begun by developing critical social and political perspectives and from there have drawn conclusions about the status of philosophy. The work of Linda Nicholson (1990, 1992), among others, is representative of feminism’s more plural, self-reflective stance in epistemological terms. Nicholson (1990) argues that feminists have understood and exposed the political power of the academy and of knowledge claims. They have, in this context, challenged the supposed neutrality and objectivity of the academy. In so doing, feminists have recognised that universal knowledge claims by the academy only really serve the interests of, and have value for, men of a particular culture, class and race. Nicholson further notes that the philosophical underpinnings of these views reflect an historically specific set of masculinist values. Thus, most feminists, in approaching the establishment of a feminist epistemology, have been motivated by the demands of a political practice not by an overriding concern with the status of philosophy. As Nicholson (1990:26) argues, ‘Women whose theorising was to serve the struggle against sexism were not about to abandon powerful political tools as a result of intramural debates in professional philosophy.’

Feminist responses, while varied in their approach, have sought to ‘develop new paradigms of social criticism which do not rely on traditional philosophical underpinnings’ (Fraser and Nicholson 1990:26). The crucial issue for feminism, in its consideration of epistemological debates, is whether, in addition to criticising ‘male ways of knowing’, feminism requires the articulation of a single alternative way of knowing.

Some second wave feminists were led, on the basis of political imperatives, to establish their own ‘metatheories’. These metatheoretical models formed very large social theories, encompassing theories of history, society, culture or psychology, which had a universalistic, cross-cultural application. As Nicholson argues, ‘Such theories share some of the essentialist and ahistorical features of meta-narratives. They are insufficiently attentive to historical and cultural diversity’ (Fraser and Nicholson 1990:27). The criticisms levelled at such feminist metatheories are based on the fact that theorising at this level presupposes some commonly held but unwarranted and essentialist assumptions about human nature and the conditions for social life. Critiques levelled at such metatheories have emerged from feminism’s own discourses, and from feminism’s intersection with elements of cultural theory, particularly postmodernism and poststructuralism.