Social Foundations Of Education: Feminist Perspectives Essay

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Feminist scholars have contributed significantly during the past forty years to the interdisciplinary development of the social foundations of education through their teaching, writing, performances, and activism. Many philosophers, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists in the social foundations field have worked diligently to counteract the omission of women’s thoughts and work from teacher education programs.

The lack of emphasis on women’s issues and perspectives can be explained in part as reflecting the dominant male hegemony in the culture. Also, although the teaching of children and youth has been overwhelmingly a female profession, professorships in the social foundations of education were held primarily by men until recent years. Most coursework perpetuated study of the history, philosophy, and sociology of education from male perspectives.

Feminist writers and teachers seek to disrupt White, male, Protestant, Western European, heterosexual, middle to upper-middle-class domination of ideas and practices within education. They wish to heal dichotomies, such as the mind/body split and valuing the intellect and reason over knowledge gained from emotion, intuition, and imagination. Connecting issues of power and control to educational success or failure, feminist thinkers investigate systemic problems long institutionalized in schools. They urge that varied sources and kinds of knowledge be respected as legitimate within the teaching/learning process. In addition to recognizing the needs of girls and women in academic environments, the cultural wealth of diverse students from families and community connections contributes to the construction of new knowledge.

Feminist scholarship has recovered some of the writing and activism of teachers from past eras. Using insights from historiography, which critiques how and why certain histories are written, Kathleen Weiler documented the experiences of teachers in California during the early decades of the twentieth century. Similarly, Kate Rousmaniere preserved the effects of school reform efforts on teachers in New York City during the 1920s. In Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman, Jane Roland Martin examined the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, Catharine Beecher, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, three women whose work was instrumental in developing early philosophies of education.

Continuing the work of historical restoration, several scholars focused on women’s influences on the early development of pragmatism, as espoused by John Dewey and others. Pragmatism centered on integrating the needs and experiences of the students into the learning environment. Women whose work affected this movement include Jane Addams, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Elsie Ripley Clapp, and Alice Chipman Dewey.

Feminist theories also add emphasis on moral issues related to teaching and on the ways that women’s thinking differs from that of men. Writing by Carol Gilligan and by Mary Belenky and colleagues represent groundbreaking work in these areas. New curricula for girls in grades K–12 in mathematics and the sciences resulted from awareness of their different learning needs. Feminist researchers and writers also place importance on listening to the stories and learning from the experiences of diverse individuals. Many voices and stories from marginalized and oppressed people are now included in evaluating how public schools affect the teachers and the students.

As a feminist professor of the philosophy of education, Maxine Greene taught teachers to include the creative processes and products from aesthetic pursuits in their search for meaning. Embracing pluralism, she used many examples from literature and the arts to foster awareness of the role of the imagination in learning.

Also, feminist perspectives insist on opening even the processes and procedures within scientific research to critique. In challenging the objectivity and universality of traditional scientific research, Dorothy E. Smith, a Canadian sociologist, used women’s experiences as starting places for scholarly studies. She developed a new methodology called “institutional ethnography,” which focused on the social and political contexts of women’s subordinated roles. In Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking From Women’s Lives, Sandra Harding, a philosopher of science, also questioned research that omitted women as the subjects and objects of inquiry. Through her many books and articles, Patti Lather recognized the influence of researchers within qualitative research and urged that theorizing and meaningful research be combined to lead directly to needed school reform.

Feminist approaches to inquiry have altered and expanded methodologies, particularly in qualitative research. “Standpoint epistemology” recognizes the effects of the political and social positions of individuals or groups within communities or organizations. Race/ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation, geographic location, life experiences, and other factors shape people’s beliefs and actions. Having access to enhanced opportunities, such as excellent educational experiences, is often dictated by the power and privilege that diverse groups of people have within a society. Studies of teachers and students encapsulated the subjects’ opinions and feelings concerning the research questions and the research results.

Nancy Hartsock wrote that the domestic labor of women gave them certain insights into lived experiences that were not shared by most men. These standpoints should be used to protest and change the oppression of women in societies dominated by male values. Jane Roland Martin and Sara Ruddick examined the practices of mothering and their implications for education. Knowledge from the domestic sphere of life should be recognized for its contributions to the growth and development of individuals within a society. Adding that the personal was also political, Mary Leach proposed that the self does not represent one stable identity, but it shifts and exposes different aspects of personality in varied circumstances. Thus, educating people for successful participation in diverse activities should consider their multiple and often conflicting natures.

Fracturing the stability of “woman” as a single category for research and/or activism, female scholars of color emphasized the importance of race/ethnicity as well as gender. Situated as outsiders to White norms and values, Patricia Hill Collins and Gloria Ladson-Billings captured the perspectives of Black women teachers. Women of color who are immigrants added non-Western, third-world viewpoints to conversations about oppression and resistance. The writing of Gayatri Spivak, a postcolonial Indian theorist, and Maria Lugones, a Chicana philosopher and activist, serve as examples of subaltern women existing in multiple, conflicting worlds. Vietnamese professor, filmmaker, and composer Trinh Minh-ha views her creative work as opposing dominant power relationships through transforming self, others, and society.

As extensions of Nel Noddings’s “ethics of care” and Patricia Hill Collins’s work on Black women’s thought, “womanism” or Black feminism represents another standpoint epistemology. It asserts that the experiences and perspectives of African American women are normative and not deviant from mainstream White standards. “Womanist caring,” as espoused by Tamara Beauboeuf-Labontant, examines the teaching of African American women who nurture all children through natural instincts associated with mothering. With no guarantees of success, but often with a sense of spiritual mission, this teaching is constructed as political activism to fight the combined effects of racism, classism, and sexism.

Lesbians adopt a stance contrary to the dominant view of heterosexual women within the context of marriage and family settings. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua proposed that people cross all sorts of boundaries related to gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and so on that have been artificially constructed within societies. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler wrote that gender and sexual desire are represented as a continuum of possibilities that disrupt the male-female dichotomy. Educating students requires acknowledgment of the complexities of their physical beings.

Ecofeminisme, a term from Françoise d’Eaubonne, arose as a merger of the feminist and environmental movements. Karen J. Warren and Ynestra King apply feminist perspectives to the socioeconomic and political destruction of our natural world. They believe that sexism and ecological disasters stem from similar roots—male domination of both women and nature. Reacting to colonialism and other types of exploitation, people should protect and restore the environment to promote wellness for both human and nonhuman entities. Rebecca Martusewicz and Jeff Edmundson use ecofeminism in their social foundations coursework to connect democratic ideals within a pluralistic society to sustainability issues.

Scholarship and activism by many feminist intellectuals and authors from diverse fields of study have contributed to the pluralistic nature of the social foundations of education. They have enhanced philosophical discussions about the purposes of schooling and education in a democratic society through a much more inclusive approach. In locating and analyzing the work of earlier female scholars and teachers, historians have changed our understanding of educational history within the United States and internationally. The achievements and problems of the past can be used to determine directions for the future.

Women’s individual and collective thinking, experiences, and labor are sometimes recognized and valued as subjects for research and reform, as well as those of men. Educational sociologists, anthropologists, policy makers, and others focus attention on the relative educational success or failure of girls and students from minority backgrounds. Women of color, immigrants, and lesbian women have added perspectives on student learning through examining intersections of relevant factors, in addition to gender. Race/ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, non-Western cultural traditions, and other characteristics combine to affect teacher/student relationships and academic and social growth. Situating knowledge and learning within social, political, and cultural contexts allows teachers to assess their students’ abilities and needs with greater sensitivity and effectiveness. The social foundations of education can now offer pre-service and in-service teachers many diverse ways of understanding their professional lives within local, regional, national, and global settings.


  1. Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). Boston: Unwin Hyman.
  2. Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  3. Grinberg, J. G. (2002). “I had never been exposed to teaching like that”: Progressive teacher education at Bank Street during the 1930s. Teachers College Record, 104(7), 1422–1460.
  4. Lather, P. (1992). Critical frames in educational research: Feminist and post-structural perspectives. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 88–97.
  5. Palmer, J. A. (Ed.). (2001). Fifty modern thinkers in education: From Piaget to the present. London: Routledge.
  6. Thayer-Bacon, B. J., & Turner, G. M. (2007). What feminist inquiry contributes to philosophy and the philosophy of education: A symposium. Educational Theory, 57(3), 297–306.
  7. Weiler, K. B. (Ed.). (2001). Feminist engagements: Reading, resisting, and revisioning. New York: Routledge.

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