The Feminist Standpoint Theory Explained


Different people have different experiences. Those experiences make us unique as individuals, giving us a specific viewpoint that is all our own. In the realm of education and science, many practice or learn based on the viewpoints of others, creating a knowledge gap between the experiences of the instructor and the experiences of the student.

The Feminist Standpoint Theory suggests that women or specific groups of women should be involved as instructors within various disciplines because their specific experiences make them better equipped to teach future generations. This is because women hold a different type of knowledge then what men hold.

This causes the theory to make three key claims.

  1. Whatever knowledge we are able to obtain is socially suited.
  2. People who are part of a marginalized group are socially situated in a way that makes them more aware of present circumstances, allowing them to ask questions that have more value.
  3. Research must therefore begin with those who are living their lives within a group that is marginalized.

What Is a Standpoint?

In the Feminist Standpoint Theory, standpoints are political achievements that are made by those who are part of a marginalized group. An example of a standpoint would be the passing of the American Disabilities Act, which allowed those with a disability to have better access to societal locations.

Women successfully fighting for laws that allowed them to vote with equal status compared to men would also be a standpoint.

Abraham Lincoln passing the emancipation proclamation would often be considered a standpoint for those in slavery within US borders.

Standpoints are often thought of as something that occurs within the government, but political standpoints don’t have to be government-based. When Martin Luther King, Jr. worked within the civil rights movement, news stories that promoted equality for people of all races would become standpoints that could be used to further the movement.

Feminist Standpoint Theory focuses on the standpoints that women can achieve in supporting and promoting other women when they are placed in a marginalized position within society.

How Do Women Hold a Different Form of Knowledge?

Women have often been forced to live their lives in a different role compared to men. Women in many societies are, in fact, treated differently than men are treated. Because of this, the Feminist Standpoint Theory suggests that women have a different form of knowledge. This makes it imperative for women to get out and teach other women – and men – this knowledge so it can be passed down to others.

This theory has a foundation in Marxist ideology, developed by Dorothy Smith from theories that were proposed in 1983 by Nancy Hartsock. The idea is that feminist theories can be developed from Marxism to criticize societies that are patricarchal in nature. Because women are often marginalized or oppressed, their subordination allows women to see the world in a different way.

This difference allows women to challenge what a society “knows” because their experiences are different than what men experience.

How Accurate Is the Idea of a General “Woman’s Experience?”

The Feminist Standpoint Theory was initially developed when feminism was a small, but growing movement within industrialized civilizations. Women had been given many rights by the time this theory had been developed, including the right to vote, but the terminology and attitude by society was still bothersome.

To women, they hadn’t been “given” anything. They had fought hard to earn the same rights that men had already been given for sometimes hundreds of years.

Since the 1980s, postmodern feminists have come to realize that there is really not a general set of knowledge that all women have. Different women also have different experiences, so it becomes impossible to construct one generalized set of knowledge that is gender-based. The lives of women are incredibly diverse and there is no way to generalize those experiences into one specific viewpoint.

This has led to an adaptation of the Feminist Standpoint Theory in recent times. Sexism can occur in many different systems. It can interact with other systems of domination, including racism, colonialism, and homophobia. This makes the theory more of a relational standpoint to the current society rather than a specific knowledge database that is only available to a specific gender.

Do the Differences Women Have Eliminate Their Similarities?

Some women are oppressed in certain situations, but other women might find themselves to be in a privileged situation at the exact same time. The Feminist Standpoint Theory attempts to solidify both of these experiences by creating multiple systems of domination. Hillary Clinton might be able to run for President, but there are people who won’t vote for her because she’s simply a woman.

Or a woman can become a CEO of a company, but she might be paid less than a man who holds the exact same job.

This has caused the theory to shift from a teaching standpoint in the 1980s, focusing on empowering women to support other women by challenging patriarchal societies, to the modern theory focusing on confronting oppressive power structures.

Even this stance with the theory, however, has its own form of criticism. In drawing women together, it automatically eliminates the similarities that privileged and oppressed women share because the focus is placed on their differences. This makes it difficult to create a broad-based community of women because consensus cannot be built.

Why? Because privileged women are not likely to give up their current role in society. In their minds, they also fought the establishment – but they came out with a victory. Oppressed women are going to keep fighting to obtain an equal status to the women who they see as being privileged. This creates circumstances that are naturally at odds with one another… and a house that is divided is a house that cannot stand.

Isn’t the Feminist Standpoint Theory Politically or Socially Dangerous?

Some critics charge that the Feminist Standpoint Theory offers a dangerous ideology because to creates conflict between genders, marginalized vs. non-marginalized, and other social groups. In reality, the foundation of this theory dates back to the time when masters and slaves were dominant social groups in what was considered a “modern” civilization.

The idea of a master controlling a slave is still very relevant today. Employers have employees working for them, under specific working conditions, under threat of consequence if the work is not performed to a certain standard. Now a business isn’t going to whip an employee for not performing adequately, but they might fire them – which means no income to support a family.

It is this relationship throughout all of society that Feminist Standpoint Theory wants to address. If equality is going to be offered, then it must be offered to all. The best way to achieve that equality is to allow people with relevant experiences become the instructors within that society.

Think about it like this. You walk up to a building and enter through the doors because you know it’s the entrance. You then conduct your business within that building, leave, and go about the rest of your day. A person in a wheelchair comes up to the same building, but can’t go through the entrance because there is no wheelchair accessibility. They are left to either A) not enter the building; B) ask for assistance to get into the building; or C) attempt to walk through the entrance on their own, even though they are bound to a wheelchair.

How we live life dictates how we perceive life. This is why millions of women can march all over the world, but others question the need to march in the first place.

The Application of Feminist Standpoint Theory Today

Only through struggle does it become possible to see an unjust social order begin to be created. This struggle also makes it possible to see how that unjust order was constructed and how it is currently being maintained. By emphasizing the feminist point of view, it becomes possible to encourage others who finding themselves in a marginalized system to begin fighting for better circumstances.

Yet the idea of standpoints and using personal experience as a teaching mechanism is not something that is strictly dedicated to Marxism, feminism, or any other theory. Each of us, whether we are marginalized or privileged, have experiences that can be shared with others. As long as the focus of these teaching moments is to create a standpoint that benefits all, it is a method of teaching that will eventually lead to societal equality.

The risk of adopting this method is quite high. In order to create standpoints, each teacher must adopt a position of being an outsider. Even if in a privileged position, one must see themselves as “different” because the creation of standpoints disrupts the given social order. This creates a dual perspective that can be immediately questioned by critics, which will then invalidate the knowledge that can be provided.

The foundation of the Feminist Standpoint Theory is inarguable. All people are created equal. It is how we achieve that equality which is up for debate.