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Women’s Ways of Knowing


By Audrey Spencer;I was diagnosed with ADD after having been in counseling most of my adult life, having completed a master’s degree program and after having my 2nd and 3rd children (twins). In the four years since my diagnosis I have gone through many changes. I credit my growth to educating myself about ADD, to trying different treatments until I found the combination that works best for me.

Most of the literature on women with ADD revolves around diagnosis and treatment. I had not come across ideas or theories of how women with ADD develop socially and emotionally. Recently I learned about a theory of women’s development called Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, Tarule, 1986) that gave me another layer of understanding about myself and the influence of ADD. Although Belenky’s research did not focus on women with disabilities, I see a relationship and benefit to understanding their concepts as they relate to women with ADD. Belenky’s group analyzed 135 interviews of women from a variety of educational settings. In these analyses, they found a hierarchy of ways that women “know” information in the world, depending upon their level of self-confidence and emotional growth. They labeled these levels of knowing: silence, received knowing, subjective knowing, procedural and constructed ways of knowing.

Silence – the lowest level of knowing. Women in silence have little self-esteem and do not see themselves capable of learning. They remain silent, fearful of revealing their ignorance, fearful that they cannot understand much of the world.

Received knowing – a step forward. When a woman operates through “received knowing” she has advanced to a place where she takes the risk to learn new information, but takes that new information on authority, never questioning it. Frequently having a child helps women in silence to transition to received knowing out of their need to learn information that can help them in raising their children.

Subjective knowing. In this third developmental stage, a woman begins to listen to her inner voice, questioning the validity of some “knowledge” that is presented to her, but she thinks in a simplistic, black and white fashion. For example, she sees information as “good” or “bad”, as “true” or “false,” rather than being able to consider the complexity of a situation that may cause information to be partially correct, or to be likely to be correct, but not proven

Procedural knowing.

Separated knowing” is a level of knowing that is strengthened through developing problem solving skills. At this level, women begin to see that authority figures do not always have the answer. They begin to respect their own abilities to analyze, problem-solve and understand.

“Connected knowing”. In this stage of knowing, a woman respects her own views, feelings, and opinions, and at the same time focuses on understanding and appreciating the different beliefs and perspectives of others.

Constructed knowing. Women who reach the constructed knowledge stage are able to think in a very flexible and sophisticated manner. They understand that “truth” or “knowledge” is always “under construction.” In other words, what we know and understand is always subject to change as we learn more about the world in which we live. Their knowledge is always in a remodeling mode. They build one house or way of knowing and then tear down part of the structure to add on new ways of knowing. Constructed knowers integrate all parts of self in knowing.

Ways of knowing as a woman with ADD. Learning about Women’s Ways of Knowing gave me insight into why I was stuck in my social and emotional growth compared to women without ADD. Women with ADD have struggles with executive functioning – with how we plan, evaluate, understand, and problem-solve. Repeatedly, I found that I could grow a certain amount, but then be in a holding pattern because I could not thoroughly evaluate or think though my situation. How could I grow emotionally if I could not problem solve and work through one situation and then go on to tackle more difficult issues?

Without diagnosis and treatment for my ADD my understanding and ability to apply Belenky’s concepts would have been much more limited. Treatment for ADD allowed me to not only understand the concepts of stages of knowing and to recognize my own stage of development, but also increased my ability to learn strategies and apply them so that I could move on to a higher stage. Before, I understood that I needed to work on problem solving skills and organizing my thoughts, but could not get my brain to do it.

Women with ADD are hindered in their social and emotional growth. Despite my efforts to learn about myself I was stuck, hindered in my social and emotional growth, unable to move to higher levels of functioning and understanding. My journey in dealing with my ADD has enabled me to feel better about myself and my life. I believe that women with ADD need to develop a way of knowing that allows them to reach a place of understanding, acceptance, and growth, a place where we can respect our differences and understand the differences of others.

We no longer have to study and teach about the ways in which women do not measure up to a “standard”. Instead, we listen to alternative voices of development, the voices of women.
     (Cafarella & Olsen, 1993, p.126, as cited in
Taylor and Marienau, 1995, p.42).

Audrey Spencer is an at home Mom with 3 kids (9, 5 & 5). She has a master’s in special education and was an LD specialist in a disabled students program at a California community college. Currently she lives in Massachusetts and is taking courses in a master’s program at Northeastern University called college student development and counseling.


Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books.

Carfagna, R. (1995). A developmental core curriculum for adult women learners. In K. Taylor & C. Narienau (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: 65.

Goldbeger, N. R., Tarule, J. M. Clinchy, B. M, and Belenky M. F. (1996) Knowledge, difference and power: Essays inspired by women’s ways of knowing. New York: BasicBooks.


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