close this bookTheoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development
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View the documentForeword
View the documentPreface
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentChapter 1:Why Theory?
View the documentChapter 2:Why Gender? Why Development?
View the documentChapter 3:Feminism and Development: Theoretical Perspectives
View the documentChapter 4:Feminist Theory and Development: Implications for Policy, Research, and Action
View the documentChapter 5:Alternative Approaches to Women and Development
View the documentChapter 6:The Women's Movement and Its Role in Development
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Chapter 1:Why Theory?

Chapter 1

Why Theory? Barbara Bailey, Elsa Leo-Rhynie, and Jeanette Morris


In this chapter, we examine the process of theorizing and learn to appreciate the dynamic and flexible nature of this process. Much of our understanding of the world, our societies, and ourselves, today, rests on theories and knowledge generated historically and predominantly by men of certain nationalities and economic classes. Male-dominated and culturally specific theorizing and knowledge have generally resulted in the exclusion of women and other groups from the process of formal theorizing and knowledge-building. When applied in research, policy, and action, such theories and knowledge not only ignore women’s contributions in all spheres of activity but also exclude consideration of issues particularly relevant to women.

Feminist scholars have argued that knowledge based mainly on male, culturally specific experience represents a skewed perception of reality and is only partial knowledge. The best way to correct this is to take women’s daily experiences and their informal theorizing into account and, on this basis, adopt feminist approaches to building theory and knowledge.


Theorizing and theory-building have generally been seen as the business of academics in ivory towers, yet all individuals make choices and decisions based on assumptions or theories about the world. These formal, mainstream (or “malestream”) approaches to theorizing are being challenged by various groups of women who have engaged in different approaches to the process of theorizing. These women are bringing their unique perspectives to bear on issues affecting their daily lives. Women have used these new perspectives to deconstruct traditional knowledge bases and build new ones. Such reconstruction of knowledge has influenced policy and action affecting the lives of women.


The objectives of this chapter are the following:

    To introduce the concept of theory; 
    To understand that theorizing is one way in which people use their assumptions to achieve, interpret, or impose meaning; 
    To understand how feminist theorizing has challenged mainstream theorizing; 
    To understand how diverse assumptions about the same phenomenon result in diverse explanations, theories, and power positions; and To understand how theory and knowledge are interrelated and how feminist theorizing and knowledge have influenced research, policy, and action.

What is theory?

Although we have no precise, universally accepted definition of theory, certain recurring elements appear in the literature, which allows us to roughly draw the boundaries of the concept. Theory is defined most commonly as scientific theory, which emphasizes a logically unified framework, generalization, and explanation. Ornstein and Hunkins (1993, p. 184) indicated that a theory is a “device for interpreting, criticizing and unifying established laws, modifying them to fit data unanticipated in their formation, and guiding the enterprise of discovering new and more powerful generalisation.” Common-sense understandings of theory often use the concept to describe the rules that guide action, opinion, ideals, or a particular philosophy. Stanley and Wise (1983) suggested that the majority of persons, particularly women, have been brought up to think of theory as something mysterious and forbidding, produced by clever people, most of whom are men. Nowadays, people are questioning this divide between experts and nonexperts and adopting a more inclusive approach to theorizing.

The nature of theorizing

The traditional, mainstream process of theorizing rests on the scientific method. This is summarized in the model presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The process of theorizing: the knowledge spiral.

The male-centred approach to theorizing has produced particular views of many issues, including those affecting women. These views rely on androcentric assumptions. An example of such an assumption is that women’s work is biologically determined and therefore is or should be home based and restricted to nurturing and domestic chores. Such assumptions provide the basis for hypotheses such as, in this case, the hypothesis that the waged workforce tends to be predominantly male and women work at home. The information gathered during the testing of such an hypothesis has traditionally been limited to quantitative data, which are used to support the general principles posited as offering valid explanations about this issue. Researchers have, for a long time, uncritically accepted these explanations as factual and have produced theories about women’s work based on questionable assumptions. Despite their questionable nature, such theories have also informed policy and action.

Some problems associated with mainstream theorizing are listed below:

  • Unrecognized and value-laden assumptions, based on the (male) researcher’s biases; 
  • Overemphasis on empirical and quantitative data and the denial of the validity of qualitative data; 
  • Lack of involvement of the researcher with the subject(s) of the research; 
  • Impersonal and detached nature of the process; and 
  • The supposed “objectivity” of the researcher and knowledge. 

Sandra Harding expressed the following view of the traditional, scientific approach:

Scientific knowledge-seeking is supposed to be value-neutral, objective, dispassionate, disinterested, and so forth. It is supposed to be protected from political interests, goals, and desires (such as feminist ones) by the norms of science. In particular, science’s “method” is supposed to protect the results of research from the social values of the researchers. 

— Harding (1987a, p. 182) 

When researchers use this traditional approach to theorizing, however, their biases can affect the process at every stage:

  • In the identification of the problem;
  • In the formulation of hypotheses and calculated guesses;
  • In the design of the research to test hypotheses; and
  • In the collection and interpretation of data.

Nonetheless, theories based on this approach have been a major force in shaping perceptions of reality.

An investigation of women’s work conducted by researchers with a feminist perspective would, in all likelihood, rely on a variety of assumptions related to their own experiences, as well as to the experiences of women in other situations. Such assumptions would differ according to factors such as race, class, ethnicity, and age. An investigation such as this would therefore be more likely to give the following results:

  • Some women do unpaid work in the home;
  • Some women do both unpaid work in the home and waged and unpaid work in wider society;
  • Some women work only in wider society and employ other women to work in their homes;
  • Women are found in a variety of occupations;
  • Women work at all levels in the workplace; and
  • Women, both in their paid and in their unpaid work, contribute greatly to the national economy.

Based on this wider view, the general principle would be that women’s work is not restricted to the home. Female perspectives and experiences would help to challenge the hypothesis (generated from the male perspective) that women’s work is in the home and show it to be invalid. Theorizing is therefore an important, flexible, and dynamic process.

We each have assumptions about people, events, issues, etc., in our everyday lives. We may explicitly state these assumptions or allow them to remain implicit in our opinions, attitudes, and behaviours. We each interpret things differently as we bring our assumptions to bear on a situation. We test some of these assumptions formally and others informally. Informal testing of our assumptions is, in fact, a process of hypothesis testing, and the results often cause us to change our assumptions. Sandra Harding’s views, reprinted in Box 1, are particularly interesting.

Box 1

Feminist empiricism

Though feminist empiricism appears in these ways to be consistent with empiricist tendencies, further consideration reveals that the feminist component deeply undercuts the assumptions of traditional empiricism in three ways: feminist empiricism has a radical future. In the first place, feminist empiricism argues that the “context of discovery” is just as important as the “context of justification” for eliminating social biases that contribute to partial and distorted explanations and understandings. Traditional empiricism insists that the social identity of the observer is irrelevant to the “goodness” of the results of research. It is not supposed to make a difference to the explanatory power, objectivity, and so on of the research’s results if the researcher or the community of scientists are white or black, Chinese or British, rich or poor in social origin. But feminist empiricism argues that women (or feminists, male and female) as a group are more likely than men (non-feminists) as a group to produce claims unbiased by androcentrism, and in that sense objective results of inquiry. It argues that the authors of the favored social theories are not anonymous at all: they are clearly men, and usually men of the dominant classes, races, and cultures. The people who identify and define scientific problems leave their social fingerprints on the problems and their favored solutions to them.

Second, feminist empiricism makes the related claim that scientific method is not effective at eliminating social biases that are as widespread as androcentrism. This is especially the case when androcentrism arrives in the inquiry process through the identification and definition of research problems. Traditional empiricism holds that scientific method will eliminate any social biases as a hypothesis generated by what men find problematic in the world around them. The problem here is not only that the hypotheses which would most deeply challenge androcentric beliefs are missing from those alternatives sexists consider when testing their favored hypotheses. It is also that traditional empiricism does not direct researchers to locate themselves in the same critical plane as their subject matter. Consequently, when non-feminist researchers gather evidence for or against hypotheses, “scientific method,” bereft of such a directive, is impotent to locate and eradicate the androcentrism that shapes the research process.

Finally feminist empiricists often exhort social scientists to follow the existing research norms more rigorously. On the other hand, they also can be understood to be arguing that it is precisely following these norms that contributes to androcentric research results. The norms themselves have been constructed primarily to produce answers to the kinds of questions men ask about nature and social life and to prevent scrutiny of the way beliefs which are nearly or completely culture-wide in fact cannot be eliminated from the results of research by these norms. A reliable picture of women’s worlds and of social relations between the sexes often required alternative approaches to inquiry that challenge traditional research habits and raise profound questions which are no longer marginalized as deviant.

 — Harding (1987a, pp. 183–184)

Activity 1

Making assumptions
Answer the following questions.

  1. What assumptions do you think are held by various groups across cultures about the following issues?
       (a) Parenting
       (b) Abortion
       (c) Violence against women
       (d) Marriage
  2. Identify and state assumptions that women could propose to challenge the assumptions you listed in answer 1.
  3. What are the essential differences between the assumptions in answers 1 and 2?


The differences identified in this activity can reveal the ways the perspectives of men and women differ, and these differences also relate to the problems experienced by men and women. As Harding noted,

Many phenomena which appear problematic from the perspective of men’s characteristic experiences do not appear problematic at all from the perspective of women’s experiences … . On the other hand, women experience many phenomena which they think do need explanation. Why do men find child care and housework so distasteful? Why do women’s life opportunities tend to be constricted exactly at the moments traditional history marks as the most progressive? Why is it hard to detect black women’s ideals of womanhood in studies of black families? Why is men’s sexuality so “driven,” so defined in terms of power? Why is risking death said to represent the distinctively human act but giving birth regarded as merely natural?

— Harding (1987b, p. 6) 

If we concede that men and women often view issues differently and have different experiences, it follows that we must consider a phenomenon in relation to the individuals who experience it. Harding therefore further suggested that

Reflecting on how social phenomena get defined as problems in need of explanation in the first place quickly reveals that there is no such thing as a problem without a person (or group of those) who have this problem: a problem is always a problem for someone or other. Recognition of this fact and its implications for the structure of the scientific enterprise quickly brings feminist approaches to enquiring into conflict with traditional understandings in many ways.

— Harding (1987b, p 6)

Feminists have challenged the view of women that has developed from male theorizing. Hilary Rose explained the nature of the challenge:

Increasingly, the new scholarship drew on the concept of gender to illuminate a double process of a gendered science produced by a gendered knowledge production system. Was the seemingly taken for granted androcentricity, even misogyny, of science, a matter of “bias” which good unbiased science turned out by feminists and their allies would correct, or was the problem more profound, one that only an explicitly feminist science could displace, so as to become, in the language of the enlightenment, a “successor science”?

— Rose (1994)

Feminist approaches to research and theorizing

Once we undertake to use women’s experience as a resource to generate scientific problems, hypotheses and evidence, to design research for women, and to place the researcher in the same critical plane as the research subject, traditional epistemological assumptions can no longer be made. These agendas have led feminist social scientists to ask questions about who can be a knower (only men?); what tests beliefs must pass in order to be legitimated as knowledge (only tests against men’s experiences and observations?); what kinds of things can be known (can “subjective truths,” ones that only women — or some women — tend to arrive at, count as knowledge?); the nature of objectivity (does it require “point-of-viewlessness”?); the appropriate relationship between the researcher and her/his research subjects (must the researcher be disinterested, dispassionate, and socially invisible to the subject?); what should be the purposes of the pursuit of knowledge (to produce information FOR men?).

— Harding (1987a, p. 181) 

The aim of feminist theorizing is to deconstruct and redefine concepts previously defined from a male perspective and generally accepted as factual. The deconstruction and redefinition of concepts, as well as the creation of new ones, have emphasized the following:

  • Women’s experiences and knowledge;
  • Conduct of research FOR women;
  • Problems that, when solved, will benefit both researcher and subject;
  • Interaction between researcher and subject;
  • Establishment of nonhierarchical relationships;
  • Expression of feelings and concern for values; and
  • Use of nonsexist language.

The result is the generation of theories from a view of the world through feminist lenses. The aim has been to change conditions adversely affecting women’s lives by critically analyzing existing theories and developing new policies and social action. Hilary Rose (1994) elaborated on this in her address entitled “Alternative Knowledge Systems in Science,” an excerpt of which is set out in Box 2.

Box 2

Feminist theorizing

The problem for feminist materialists is to admit biology — that is, a constrained essentialism — while giving priority to the social, without concluding at the same time that human beings are infinitely malleable … the very fact that women are, by and large, shut out of the production system of scientific knowledge, with its ideological power to define what is and what is not objective knowledge, paradoxically has offered feminists a fresh page on which to write. Largely ignored by the oppressors and their systems of knowledge, feminists at this point necessarily theorised from practice and referenced theory to practice. … thinking from the everyday lives of women necessarily fuses the personal, the social and the biological. … while there is general agreement that the first move is to challenge and overthrow existing canonical knowledges, the question of what we might replace them with produces broadly speaking two responses. The first is feminist standpoint theory which looks to the possibility of a feminist knowledge to produce better and truer pictures of reality; the second is feminist post-modernism which refuses the possibility of any universalising discourse but which argues instead for localised reliable feminist knowledges.

 — Rose (1994)


Feminist theorizing seeks to uncover

  • The pervasiveness of gendered thinking that uncritically assumes a necessary bond between being a woman and occupying certain social roles;
  • The ways women negotiate the world; and
  • The wisdom inherent in such negotiation.

The social roles and the ways women negotiate the world also differ among women in diverse contexts (cultural, social, political, racial or ethnic, religious, etc.) and with diverse personal characteristics (age, education, sexual orientation, etc.). The excerpt from Sandra Harding’s “Is There a Feminist Method?,” reprinted in Box 3, expands on this point.

Box 3

Women’s experiences

Notice that it is “women’s experiences” in the plural which provide the new resources for research. This formulation stresses several ways in which the best feminist analyses differ from traditional ones. For one thing, once we realized that there is no universal man, but only culturally different men and women, then “Man’s eternal companion ‘woman’” also disappeared. That is, women come only in different classes, races, and cultures: there is no “woman” and no “woman’s experience.” Masculine and feminine are always categories within every class, race, and culture in the sense that women’s and men’s experiences, desires, and interest differ within every class, race, and culture. But so too, are class, race, and culture always categories within gender, since women’s and men’s experiences, desires, and interests differ according to class, race, and culture. This leads some theorists to propose that we should talk about our “feminisms” only in the plural, since there is no one set of feminist principles or understandings beyond the very, very general ones to which feminists in every race, class, and culture will assent. Why should we have expected it to be any different? There are very few principles or understandings to which sexists in every race, class, and culture will assent!

Not only do our gender experiences vary across the cultural categories; they also are often in conflict in any one individual’s experience. My experiences as a mother and a professor are often contradictory. Women scientists often talk about the contradictions in identity between what they experience as women and scientists. Dorothy Smith writes of the “fault line” between women sociologists’ experience as sociologists and as women. The hyphenated state of many self-chosen labels of identity — black feminist, socialist feminist, Asian–American feminist, lesbian feminist — reflects this challenge to the “identity politics” which has grounded Western thought and public life. These fragmented identities are a rich source of feminist insight.

 — Harding (1987b, pp. 7–8)


In examining problems and carrying out analyses, feminists recognize that factors other than gender shape perceptions and understandings. Class, race, and culture are also powerful determinants and therefore create differences that must be taken into account. The category “women” is pluralistic, so treating women as a homogenous group results in a theorizing process no better than that of the traditional, androcentric approach.

To further accommodate these differences, feminist inquiry highlights the importance of placing the inquirer on the same “critical plane” as the subject of inquiry, with the aim of ensuring less bias and distortion. Researchers can then no longer hide behind the language of “objectivity”; they must situate themselves in their research. The excerpt from the work of Sandra Harding in Box 4 elaborates on this point.

Box 4

Feminist research

The best feminist analysis goes beyond these innovations in subject matter in a crucial way: it insists that the inquirer her/himself be placed in the same critical plane as the overt subject matter, thereby recovering the entire research process for scrutiny in the results of research. That is, the class, race, culture, and gender assumptions, beliefs, and behaviours of the researcher her/himself must be placed within the frame of the picture that she/he attempts to paint. This does not mean that the first half of a research report should engage in soul searching (though a little soul searching by researchers now and then can’t be all bad!). Instead, as we will see, we are often explicitly told how she/he suspects this has shaped the research project — though of course we are free to arrive at contrary hypotheses about the influence of the researcher’s presence on her/his analysis. Thus, the researcher appears to us not as an invisible, anonymous voice of authority, but as a real, historical individual with concrete, specific desires and interests.

This requirement is no idle attempt to “do good” by the standards of imagined critics in classes, races, cultures (or of a gender) other than that of the researcher. Instead, it is a response to the recognition that the cultural beliefs and behaviours of feminist researchers shape the results of their analysis no less than do those of sexist and androcentric researchers. We need to avoid the “objectivist” stance that attempts to make the researcher’s cultural beliefs and practices invisible while simultaneously skewering the research objects, beliefs and practices to the display board. Only in this way can we hope to produce understandings and explanations which are free (or, at least, more free) of distortion from the unexamined beliefs and behaviors of social scientists themselves. Another way to put this point is that the beliefs and behaviors of the researcher are part of the empirical evidence for (or against) the claims advanced in the results of research. This evidence too must be open to critical scrutiny no less than what is traditionally defined as relevant evidence. Introducing this “subjective” element into the analysis in fact increases the objectivity of the research and decreases the “objectivism” which hides this kind of evidence from the public. This kind of relationship between the researcher and the object of research is usually discussed under the heading of the “reflexivity of social science.”

 — Harding (1987b, p. 9)

Feminists have proposed various theories to explain their experiences on the basis of differences in their class, race, and culture. Substantial discourse among feminists has focused on these various theories. Discussing a paper by Amrita Chhachhi (Chhachhi 1988), Rawwida Baksh-Soodeen noted that

The variety of approaches within feminist theory reflect, on the one hand, divergent perceptions, and on the other, different social and historical locations in which feminists exist. From Chhachhi’s point of view, the rejection of all feminist theory as “western,” “eurocentric,” or “ethnocentric” results from a failure to distinguish between the application of feminist theories to the historical, political and socio-cultural specificities of black/Third World women, and the notion of all theory as “white.” She distinguishes … three levels of analysis in most contemporary social theories, including feminism.

  1. Basic concepts which are abstract and function as tools of analysis (e.g. relations of production, relations of reproduction, etc.);
  2. Intermediate level concepts (such as patriarchy, mode of production, etc.);
  3. Historically specific analysis of a concrete social phenomenon (e.g. slavery in nineteenth century Caribbean society, dowry in north India, etc.).

— Baksh-Soodeen (1993, p. 31) 

Chhachhi had argued that at the first level of basic conceptual analysis (that of basic concepts), little disagreement occurs between black and white feminists who share similar approaches. However, she noted that black–Third World feminists have encouraged an important sensitivity to the need for historically specific research at levels 2 and 3 (those of intermediate-level concepts and historically specific analyses). As Baksh-Soodeen remarked,

most often the limitations of Euro-American feminist studies lie at the second and third levels of analysis in that abstract concepts are imposed mechanically and historically, and hence become a substitute for an historically specific analysis which takes into account the complexities of social reality.

— Baksh-Soodeen (1993, p. 31) 

Let us examine how women from different social contexts might have divergent perceptions and explanations of the same phenomenon.

Activity 2

Considering poverty

In this activity, we consider the phenomenon of poverty — Why are people poor?

  1. State the assumptions you think the following women would have about this question:
       (a) The wife of a successful professional who does not work outside the home
       (b) A retired civil servant on a pension
       (c) A rural subsistence farmer
       (d) An executive from a donor lending agency
  2. Based on the assumptions you have identified, what explanation would each women likely give for poverty?
  3. Are there any commonalities or differences among these explanations?
  4. How do you account for these commonalities or differences? (The differences in the explanations you identify are due to the fact that each of the individuals considered in the above exercise occupies a unique position, role, and status in society. These positions are usually unequal. Some women exercise greater authority and power than others. As a result, their assumptions and interpretations are more valued than those of others with less authority and power.
  5. In your opinion, which of these four categories of women would have the most, the least power? Give reasons for your choice.


Hilary Rose’s comments in Box 5 illustrate how theoretical positions can also be used to exert power and influence over the lives of women.

Box 5

Biological determinism and patriarchy

The recrudescence of biological determinism during the seventies was committed to the renaturalisation of women; to an insistence that, if not anatomy then evolution, X chromosomes, or hormones were destiny; and to the inevitability of patriarchy. Such views fed upon the work of IQ advocates, whose views had become an important location for social and political struggle around issues of race and class. Within the U.S. these interventions were greedily taken up by a government looking for ways to justify the withdrawal of resources from the Poverty Programme, as a laissez-faire approach to welfare was more in accord with nature. Despite resistance by the Welfare Rights Movement, scientific racism helped justify cutting welfare benefits of poor — primarily black — women and their children, thus enabling more resources to be committed to the Vietnam War. In Britain, IQ theory was extensively cited by the racist campaign for immigrant restriction and fed racist sentiment that genetic inferiority explained high levels of unemployment and thence excessive demands on the welfare system by black people. The critical counter attack mounted by anti-racists helped prevent the new scientific racism spreading unchallenged.

In the prevailing political climate, the relationship between biological determinists — especially in the guise of the new sociobiology — and the New Right was a love match. In Britain, a New Right government happily seized on biological determinism as a scientific prop to their plan to restore women to their natural place, which at that point was not in the labour market. (By the mid-eighties the view changed and part-time women’s work became the ideal solution to achieve unpaid labour at home and cheap labour in employment. From then on we heard little about women’s natural market place.) No one put the government’s view in the early 1980s more succinctly than the Secretary of State for Social Service, Patrick Jenkins, in a 1980 television interview on working mothers: “Quite frankly, I don’t think mothers have the same right to work as fathers. If the Lord had intended us to have equal rights, he wouldn’t have created men and women. These are biological facts, young children do depend on their mothers.”

While it was perhaps overkill to draw on both creationism and biology to make his point, in the political rhetoric of government ministers and other New Right ideologues, the old enthusiasm for biological determinism was given fresh vigour by the fashionable new socio-biology. This at the height of the struggle of the feminist movement to bring women out of nature into culture, a host of greater or lesser socio-biologists, their media supporters and new Right politicians joined eagerly in the cultural and political effort to return them whence they came.

 — Rose (1994)


Activity 3

Learning from a case study

Read the case study of women’s work in the Philippines that follows (Case Study 1) and then answer these questions:

  1. What factual information about women’s work in the Philippines can you extract from this case study?
  2. What principles about women’s work in the Philippines emerge from these facts?
  3. Do these principles coincide with those obtaining in your own society?
  4. Have the facts in the case study caused you to change your assumptions about women’s work? How?
  5. Based on the data and your own experience, what explanation or theory would you develop of women’s work?


Case Study 1

Women’s work in the Philippines

In the mid-1970s, Gelia Castillo noted that about 60 percent of the women in the rural areas of the Philippines were engaged in agriculture or related activities, such as fishing, an increase from the 1965 figure of 53.6 percent. In roughly two decades (from 1956 to 1974), the proportion of all Filipinos in agricultural and related activities decreased from about 59 to 55 percent, and the proportion of all women and girls over ten years old decreased slightly more (from 48.1 percent to 36.6 percent). The overall decline in the proportion of women employed in agriculture coupled with the increased proportion of rural women in agriculture from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s could suggest that there were more opportunities for urban employment and/or fewer opportunities for non-agricultural rural employment. It is also possible that farm women were counted differently in the 1970s, if, as may people contend, agricultural women are generally underenumerated, the 1970s figures could reflect greater accuracy (Castillo did not address this issue in her study).

Of these agricultural women, the vast majority are crop workers in rice and corn farming, and the burden of the women’s work is in non-mechanized tasks such as weeding and transplanting. In one study carried out in the provinces of Bulacan and Tatangas, planting/ transplanting, harvesting, and post-harvest activities accounted for nearly 70 percent of the female contribution to farming those regions. These are activities that can be done in a relatively short span of time, so they are compatible with the major household duties for which the women are also responsible. The kind of work Filipinas do helps to explain why there are substantial seasonal variations in the agricultural employment of women. Castillo notes, for instance, that the percentage of women working full time in agriculture can increase between 6 and 10 percent between February and May.

A detailed study of time allocation in rural households in Laguna, a province of the Philippines, showed that mothers were less involved in agricultural activities than either fathers or children. On the average, the women in the sample spent slightly over one hour a day on pre- and post-harvest activities, vegetable production, livestock raising, and the like — men and children spent well over three hours a day on these same activities — but the 5 percent of the women in the sample who reported that their primary occupation was farming averaged about three and one-third hours a day on farming alone. Overall, farming and non-farming women in this rural area spent an additional seven and one-half hours on household work or home production.

As in most countries, rural women are among the most economically disadvantaged people in Filipino society. There are more unpaid family workers among women than among men, and almost 90 percent of all male unpaid workers in 1975 were in the rural areas and engaged in agricultural work. Despite this general condition, however, both rural and urban Filipinas are viewed by a number of scholars as having considerable status and power compared to women in other Asian countries, and Filipina influence extends to important decision-making roles in agricultural matters. Justin Green, for example, noted that women are better educated than men, and he has also argued that women have a good deal of behind-the-scenes or privately exercised power. People who think that the traditional method of reckoning kinship and the prevalence of bride price or dowry are indicators of male–female status might note that historically, Filipinos have traced kinship through both parents and bride price has been common (whereas dowry prevails in India). For rural Filipino women, a practical consequence of this relative equity is that the sexual division of labor is not as rigid as in many societies. Women can handle a plow if necessary, and a husband will do the cooking if his wife is away or do the laundry if his wife has just delivered a child.

— Charlton (1984)

Relationship of theory and knowledge

The theorizing process both uses and produces knowledge. Androcentric theories generate knowledge that embodies the assumptions of these theories and ignores the experiences and perspectives of women. One of the tenets of feminist theorizing is that knowledge should be formulated from a broader base of experience. Thus, a new, more comprehensive, more all-encompassing knowledge is built up through feminist theorizing. Such theorizing seeks to provide a more complete representation of women’s realities. As Sandra Harding expressed it,

Knowledge is supposed to be based on experience, and the reason the feminist claims can turn out to be scientifically preferable is that they originate in, and are tested against, a more complete and less distorting kind of social experience. Women’s experiences, informed by feminist theory, provide a potential grounding for more complete and less distorted knowledge claims than do men’s.

— Harding (1987a, pp. 184–185) 

Harding’s analysis represents a feminist-standpoint theoretical approach. Like others, feminist-standpoint theorists have their own assumptions. They assume there is an objective reality that can be made better if women’s experiences and knowledges are added to mainstream or androcentric epistemologies.

Postmodernist-feminist theorizing supports the investigation of women’s experiences and knowledges as a basis for creating new feminist-informed knowledges. This approach differs from feminist-standpoint theorizing in several ways. Postmodernist-feminist theorists do not assume there is a complete, coherent reality to which women’s experiences can be added; rather, they assume there are multiple realities and experiences. Postmodernist-feminist theorists see these experiences and their influence on the generation of knowledge as fluid, contingent, diverse, and historically and culturally specific. They do not argue that feminist claims are scientifically preferable, as they are more sceptical about the faith placed in rationality, objectivity, and science. However, they support the position that knowledge claims should be formulated from a broader base of experience and should recognize that women’s experiences will differ across race, class, culture, and sexual orientation.

Thus, there are diverse feminist theoretical approaches. Although they converge on the core issue of women’s subordination, they differ in their assumptions about the causes or sources of that subordination. These differences reflect the richness of women’s lives and the need to integrate the experiences and knowledges of women in the South, as well as all women in the North, if we are to move toward a more inclusive, sensitive theorizing about both women’s subordination and their power. Hilary Rose’s remarks in Box 6 illustrate some of the new thinking of feminists in the South and North.

Box 6

Feminists using theory

Staying Alive by Vandana Shiva is a marvellous example of the ways that feminists relate to theory, using it as a resource in the defence of both women and nature. First the book is written from within a struggle of the Chipko women to defend the trees on which their lives depend. While without the mass movement there would be no story, it is also a story in which her skills as a scientist are integral. Her account of the struggle is a story of transformation … of the people and also an exposition of the science (the definition, the analysis and explanation of the problem). She makes solid technical arguments about what is happening to the land and the water. Her training as a physicist — part of that universalistic highly abstract discourse so criticised by feminism — is both a crucial element within, and transformed by the struggle. She reports different ways of collecting data, organising in fresh ways, producing a holistic ecological knowledge specific to the locality and people. This careful rethinking of the environmental endemic generates a highly “situated and embodied knowledge” with strong claims to objectivity, out of the “universalistic and disembodied knowledge” of the physicist.

Nor are the activities she reports limited to new knowledge building, for she also describes and endorses essential myth making (which historically has often given energy to social movements of the excluded) but which unquestionably often makes their intellectual allies uneasy. Whereas Western feminists have mostly fought the notion that women are naturally nearer to nature, seeing that as a patriarchal cage, Shiva casts Indian peasant women (and the myths they construct cast themselves) in the role of the natural protectors of the forest. Essentialism is used as a source of strength. It is a dangerous move yet the situation is already a matter of staying alive. But the point I want to make is the extraordinarily divergent strands which Shiva weaves together. Nothing that can be made useful within a struggle is disregarded, she takes very different discourses and radically recycles them, adapting them with strength and imagination to political purposes. In Shiva I think we get something of a reply from a feminist scientist to Audre Lorde’s question, can the master’s tools be used to dismantle the master’s house? I think the reply goes something like this, providing we are prepared to select, to adapt, to use for hitherto unimagined purposes and weave them in with the entirely new, then yes, we can use the master’s tools. But in the process it is crucial to understand that the tools are themselves transformed. As well as tearing down the master’s house, that crucial preliminary act, a feminist science also begins to build anew, to construct a feminist science.

— Rose (1994)

This more comprehensive knowledge base enables a wide cross section of experiences and measures to inform policy and action. Chapter 4 will examine existing policies and those being developed, to illustrate how they reflect and satisfy the needs of women.


This chapter discusses theorizing as a process used to test assumptions about a number of phenomena in order to generate principles and theories to explain these phenomena. This chapter also points out that traditionally this process has been male centred and related to the cultures, nationalities, and dominant economic classes of the theorists, who did not take into account the perspectives and experiences of women or the problems and issues that affect women. Until feminist theorists began critiquing existing knowledges, these theories were used to produce programs and policies that adversely affected the lives of women.

The readings highlight the feminist challenges to the traditional, androcentric approach to theorizing and discuss some of the characteristics of feminist approaches. These approaches not only take into account differences in experiences of women and men but also recognize that women themselves do not constitute a homogenous group.

Using these approaches, feminists have deconstructed androcentric theories and knowledge and produced a comprehensive view of women’s multiple realities. The knowledges they have generated provide a basis for critiquing existing policies and determining alternative policies and activities to address the problems affecting women.

Recognizing that factors such as class, race, ethnicity, age, social status, and sexual orientation shape perceptions and experience points to the social character of gender and gender relations. In the next chapter, you will examine a number of theories on gender and development that have evolved from a process of both women’s and men’s theorizing in different contexts and situations.


Baksh-Soodeen, R. 1993. Is there an international feminism? Alternative Approach 24 (Summer), 22–32.

Charlton, S.E. 1984. Women in Third World development. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA.

Chhachhi, A. 1988. Concepts in feminist theory: consensus and controversy. In Mohammed, P.; Shepherd, C., ed., Gender in Caribbean development. Women and Development Studies Group, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados; Mona, Jamaica; St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. pp. 76–96.

Harding, S. 1987a. Conclusion: epistemological questions. In Harding, S., ed., Feminism and methodology: social science issues. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, USA. pp. 181–190.

——— 1987b. Introduction: Is there a feminist method? In Harding, S., ed., Feminism and methodology: social science issues. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, USA. pp. 1–14.

Ornstein, A.C.; Hunkins, F.P. 1993. Curriculum — foundations, principles and issues. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA, USA.

Rose, H. 1994. Alternative knowledge systems in science: can feminism rebuild the sciences? In Bailey, B.; McClenan, V., ed., Readings in gender, science and technology. Centre for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. pp. 1–6.

Stanley, L.; Wise, S. 1983. Breaking out: feminist consciousness and feminist research. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, UK.

Suggested reading

Harding, S. 1991. Whose science? Whose knowledge? Cornell University Press, New Yo


Theoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development

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