An epistemology of gender or gender as a tool of analysis

Mariana Szapuová, Comenius University,  Bratislava, Slovakia



The central problem of the paper is the category of gender, its epistemological and methodological role in feminist theorizing and research particularly within conditions of transforming countries where these fields of study are only now beginning to develop. Concerning the recently emerged gender- skepticism various arguments, pro and against the category of gender as a tool of analysis are explored.

It is stressed that on the level of analysis gender  not only remains relevant and topical, it also continues to evoke new questions as the following: how is it possible to built a theory without a certain degree of "universalization"? Does the category of gender inevitably lead to homogenization and thus to simplification? If we reject the category of gender, are we not getting rid of a critical tool of analysis of an already existing cognition?.

While trying to answer these questions it seems to be important  to differentiate between the level in which this category operates as a tool of critical exploration of an existing cognition and the level in which it functions as a tool for building new knowledge/understanding. In the conditions of the lack of feminist conciousness and feminist theory the role of gender is especially important, but its functionality must be always viewed within the context in which it is used as well as within the framework of  intentions and goals of concrete research programs. It should be seen as a category  depicting certain resemblances  which enables us to avoid the sweeping  generalizations because these resemblances are not stable. Quite the opposite, they are viable to change and allow various  degrees (similarity in one sense does not have to mean  a similarity in all other senses, it can change in time or degree).


In comparison with the Western, especially the English-speaking countries, where the concept of gender has played  an important role in the feminist theory since the beginning of  the 70s, in my country and language the term gender” was used almost exclusively (until recently) as a grammatical category to refer to certain words, nouns and  personal pronouns as masculine or feminine. After the political changes, when feminist theorizing  was introduced to the intellectual and cultural spheres, the meaning of the word ”gender” began to change and extend. It is important to note, however, that this process is neither fast nor striking. For most people, the word ”gender” is still mainly a grammatical category and all human beings are characterized by their ”biologically given” sex.

One of the most serious problems following the introduction of feminist thinking in my country was the difficulty of finding the  adequate methods and conceptual tools for explaining the meaning and role of  gender issues at the academic level as well as in the wider cultural  context. Because of the lack of feminist tradition and different  social, historical, political and cultural conditions, at the academic level feminists have at first explored the conceptual and methodological apparatus which has been developed within  the Western feminist thought.  As one of the most  important conceptual tools for articulating women’s issues has been the  category of gender,  which was at a certain point a basic and perhaps most important element  of, especially Anglo-American,  feminist theoretical arsenal. It functioned as  a conceptual tool for grasping and articulating of the most  fundamental question of feminist thinking since the times of  Simone de Beauvoir: what is a woman, what it means for a human  being to be a woman.  So, it seemed to me  that  to understand and explain the goals and role of feminist theory one must consider its basic category, the category of gender. But paradoxically enough, it has been shown as  a not very easy task – within the courrent  feminist discourse, at least during the last decade, there are connected  with this category  various discussions , disagreements among theorists, even controversies. My aim in this paper is to outline  the way how I see  the problems with gender and to elaborate  the way of understanding it which is, or can be useful, as I hope, for feminist theory and research in my country. Because of the interconnectedness of sex/gender distinction with the epistemological role of the category of gender I would like to briefly outline the  basic philosophical and theoretical framework within which they have been operating..

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The distinction between sex and  gender developed within feminist theory was originally directed against the dominant traditional understanding of the  differences between women and men as "natural" phenomena connected with the biological distinction between "the sexes". As Linda  Nicholson pointed out, "feminists came to view differences  between women and men as having two dimensions:1. the biological  and 2. the social, with "sex" referring to the former and  "gender" to the latter" (Nicholson, 1998, p.289)

The concept of gender as a social, cultural, historical and political category in the  historical-theoretical context of feminist philosophy was  highlighted in the 1970s. Most theories and arguments have been based on the conceptual distinction between biological sex and  social gender. Many feminist arguments, based on this distinction and  showing that, generally  speaking, the different position of women and men in the network  of social and power relations is not a result of their  biological,  anatomical differences,  it cannot be deduced from or excused by them, are now so well known as to require little comment. Shortly speaking, "gender" began to  function as an effective theoretical tool which provided the  means to describe and explore a number of socio-cultural  mechanisms and instruments of production of  ”woman” or  ”femininity”. Moreover,  this distinction was also  seen as a conceptual tool for overcoming the so-called biological foundationalism or biological determinism (Nichcolson 1998, p.291, Kiczková 1997, p.167) as well as for shifting the  attention and emphasis to the socially and culturally constructed differences.

 The separation of sex and gender established a basic theoretical framework which has been frequently used to acquire new knowledge, to unmask some hidden forms of asymmetric  relationships or to raise new questions about the social relations  between women and men.

A number of theorists mainly in English-speaking countries have  considered the sex/gender distinction to be an important turn which occurred in feminist  thinking. Beginning with the initial stress on legal, economical  and social discrimination of women at the end of the 70s, the  Anglo-American feminist thinking moved to the analysis of the  influence of " of the gender organization of human life on  Western culture - on the literary, scientific and philosophical  canon that we call 'the Western intellectual tradition' ".  (Bordo 1988, p. 619). The analyses of gendered character of many aspects of human history, knowledge and individual or collective human experience have  revealed some types of cultural norms for masculinity and femininity  occurring in different spheres of human experience of the world.  " They cleared the space, described a new territory which  radically altered the male normative terms of discussion about  reality and experience." (Bordo 1990, p.137).

"Gender", as many feminist philosophers  thought, could serve as a good basis  for argumentation against one - biological, sexual - difference,  which has traditionally been regarded as essential, and at the  same time lead to highlighting of another - social, cultural,  political and power-based - difference. Since "gender" has been functioned  as a conceptual tool for grasping of the socially constructed  - in modern societies also power-based and power-regulated  - expectations and cultural symbols serving for reproduction of  "feminine" and "masculine" characteristics, stereotypes and  division of labor, the category of gender has been  used to express the  social, cultural and political differences. The above mentioned  expectations and symbols show what it means to be a woman or man on the empirical, normative and, what is of great importance, also on symbolical level.

For a more adequate understanding of the meaning of this distinction in the feminist theory, mainly Anglo-American, it is important to notice that the concepts of sex and gender has been frequently used in  two different ways which Heinämaa  calls the substantive and the  formal use (Heinämaa 1997, p. 30). Originally, this  distinction was considered in the mode of reality, which  means a differentiation of features and characteristics  belonging either to the category of sex or to the category of gender. American feminists usually defined gender by relating to the mental and behavioral features, while  sex was mostly defined by pointing at the biological  (anatomical, genetic and hormonal) characteristics. Later on, this real definition of gender and sex was replaced by the  formal or criterial mode which does not require naming of  features belonging to one or the other category, it only  provides criteria on the basis of which we can put the  individual characteristics to one or the other category.   ”'Gender' has came to refer to any differences between women and  men - be it mental, behavioral or anatomical - which have their  origin in society and culture"(Heinämaa 1996, p. 292). However, in  the light of both of these meanings of the sex/gender distinction,  the possibility that the bodily differences between the sexes  might have their origin in culture or society is ignored  (Heinämaa 1996, p.293). Moreover, as several theorists have  noted, this kind of thinking implies an assumption according to  which the gender difference is, in a way, rooted in nature or  caused by nature/sex. This assumption continues "to construe the  relations between gender and sex in causal terms. There is, it  seems, an underlying 'natural' manifestation of biological  differences in social ones." (Lloyd 1989, p. 15). This means that in the light of this distinction it was still possible to create monocausal explanations of the difference. Precisely this point became the one of the focuses of many criticism of sex/gender distinction. To put it briefly, in the late 80s many feminists began to see this conceptual framework as problematic and challenge the usefulness of that distinction (Nicholson 1998, pp.290,291., Heinämaa 1996,pp.293, 296). For many theorists the differentiation between sex and gender hides  ambiguity and confusion and often leads to controversial  attitudes. Furthermore, as some of them maintained, the category of gender itself is connected with  a number of problems and methodological difficulties which made  it a controversial term for many theorists. ”Consequently, what became central to feminist debate was less the question of the relationship between ´sex´ and ´gender´ and more the question: does ´gender´ - or the social construction of what it means to be a  ´woman´ or  ´man´- possess any unitary or ´essential´ element across cultures?”(Nicholson 1998, p. 292).

      In the context  of this second question  the problem of an epistemology of gender  arise, e.g. the problem of  its epistemological and methodological role in contemporary  feminist theorizing and feminist research, particularly within conditions, where these fields of study are only now beginning to develop. Besides other aspects, I see  the epistemology of gender as strongly interconnected with the question  of essencialism, e.g. with the question whether the category of gender leads inevitably to “falsely universalising” , essentialist theories and explanations. How we can build new theories using gender as an analytic category and at the same time not to homogenize the heterogenity among women and obscure diversity? But before goint to these points, I will at first  briefly outline some main lines of criticism of the category of gender, on the basis of which most of the recent discussion or even controversies are led. I will pay attention to some  lines of  those arguments which consider gender as a problematic  concept because of its supposedly essencialist charakcter. Many of these arguments were raised  by authors influenced by postmodernism  who showed serious  doubts about the adequacy of the category of gender as an  analytical tool. At this point , I think, it is useful to distinguish between two levels of study of gender: of gender as a category, or as a though construct that helps us to articulate of what means to be a woman or man in particular  historical  period, society and culture and of gender as a social relation, which is a specific relation of dominance and power (for similar point see Flax1990, p. 45). Speaking of an epistemology of gender I speak about the former level, about the gender as a though construct, as a  theoretical/philosophical category.  At this level "gender", as I have pointed out earlier,  operates as   a conceptual tool for grasping and articulating of ”women issues”. In accordance with  this assumption I want to focus my attention mainly on the  analysis of the question related to the adequacy and  productivity of this tool when  used for construction of  feminist theory and research. I will not follow the questions  regarding the social construction of female gender as a social  relationship or cultural symbol in detail, even though I am  aware that it is not possible to avoid them completely. The  ways in which gender is created through an asymmetrical, social  division of work and the difference between the sexes  - constructing the symbolic contents of masculinity and  femininity within the network of historically conditioned  cultural and political (power) relations - create a significant  field of feminist philosophy or theory in general.

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As indicated above, in the feminist philosophical discourse of the last  decade one can see a growing skeptical attitude towards gender.  Susan Bordo calls it   feminist or gender skepticism (see Bordo 1988, Bordo 1990, Bordo  1992), a skepticism "about the use of gender as an analytical  category" (Bordo 1990, p. 135). This skepticism does not form  a univocal or stable position that could be fully accepted or  rejected. It can rather be noted as a certain consonance of  warning voices, emerging from various fields of theory and  theoretical positions (Bordo 1990, p. 135). These voices say  that "gender" - even though possibly effective in revealing of  one type of difference (between men and women) - covers and  hides another, equally vital distinction, the difference among  women. This skepticism reproaches the category of gender, as it  is applied in the theory of gender difference, for its being  a universal and universalizing concept, for designating  a universal "woman" or woman in herself. Susan Strickland has described this situation as following: "Instead of 'Man' we  are now presented with a generic 'Woman', a term like the  universal 'man' or 'human' that hides or denies differences in  situation and experience, privilege and power - its content  based not on actual commonalities between people, but on the  experiences and interests of some who have the position and  ability to impose these terms and define what they mean for  themselves and other" (Strickland 1994, p. 265).

 Theories which thematized the problem of difference or otherness of women through "gender" were often criticized and blamed for unacceptable  generalization, for application of a ”unitary woman” violently homogenizing the diversity and  heterogeneity of women. Moreover, as it is  maintained, they oppress, silence  and exclude those subjects who do not want to - or  cannot - adjust to the universalizing definition of the female  gender. If any social analysis - including the analysis of  women's subordination - concentrates only on one element of a complex of relationships constituting the analyzed phenomenon or  situation, it suffers from methodological reductivism and  consequently leads to deformed results. In the case of  feminist theory, we do not only deal with a deformity in the  sense of inadequacy or falseness of theory, we also deal with  the fact that the results of such research are politically (from  the feminist political practice point of view) incorrect and  unacceptable because they are excluding, hegemonizing and  oppressing. According to Linda Nicholson, for example, "To try to identify unitary themes in the  experiences or perspectives of women may require the suppression  of voices different from our own" (Nicholson 1990, p. 6).

 The criticism or even rejection of the category of gender were often framed by the debate on the threat of essentialism. This debate has been concentrated on the question, whether  the category of gender has any common, universal, ahistorical basis, or, in other words, whether  the term “gender” (or “woman”i) has a unified universal meaning. As it  is said, every general claim about gender (or any requirement  raised in the name of women) is not only theoretically incorrect  and misleading but also ideologically unacceptable since such a claim do  not pay attention to the differences among women themselves and   lead to subordination and marginalization of a particular  group of women, who do not want  identify themselves  with the general, abstract subject of "we women". In this  respect, we can find an interesting argumentation of Judith  Butler who, while recognizing the political inevitability to  express her voice "as a woman" against those who oppress women  and deny the existence of their social subordination, also  stresses that "there is an internal imperative not to  subordinate, erase and colonize the diverse women who are  ostensibly represented by the term " (Butler 19922, p. 163).

This imperative is , without doubt, very important and feminist theorists would accept it. But on the other hand , from the theoretical end epistemological point of view we may also ask: how to build a theory, when all theorizing is in some sense generalizing? Jane R. Martin addresses her argument to those, who sees gender as an essentialist category and maintains that for to speak  only about diversity, all general terms need to be given up. ”Any naming or categorizing tends to call attention to similarities and to neglect differencies. In other words, the use of any general term…easily can give rise to the very consequence that feminist scholars have attributed to essence talk.” (Martin 1994, p. 636). According to her, to avoid generalizations means to limit feminist research to description of particularities in particular period of time. ”Taken to its logical extreme, the argument against general categories like women, gender…leaves feminist scholars in the lurch” she writes. (Martin 1994, p.637).

So, within the ”essentialist debate” the question of universalizing theories and generalizing, homogenizing concepts was primarily  discussed.  In  this paper I can not summarize all  various arguments in detail, be it pro or against the category of gender.  It seems to me that this debate culminated at the break of the 80s and the 90s. At this time it may appear that this problem has been solved, resp. overdiscussed. However,  I believe that on the epistemological and methodological level it not only remains relevant and topical, it also continues to evoke questions for those, who start with building their theories. As  most striking I consider the following: How  is it possible to built a theory without a certain degree of universalization or generalization? Does the category of gender inevitably lead to homogenization and thus to simplification? Does it necessarily lead a research in a bad direction? If we reject the category of gender, are we not getting rid of a critical tool of analysis of an already existing cognition? For example, as it is well known, ”gender” has functioned as a tool of critical analysis of our intellectual tradition, especially Western philosophy. How can we understand the gender biased character of our own discipline without certain degree of generaliztation? It seems to me that  the question of productivity and adequacy of this category has in such a way concentrated mainly on  the following two problems: First, the problem of gender specificity of individual areas of  knowledge and prejudices against women that are present in them. As an example to illustrate how the category of gender has worked as a tool of rethinking an area of knowledge I chose my discipline, philosophy, whose traditional concepts is deeply rooted in our language and thinking ( for  example the mind/body, nature/culture, subjectivity/objectivity dualisms etc.). While considering this point, maybe it is useful to differentiate between the level in which ”gender”operates as a tool of critical exploration of an existing knowledge and the level in which it functions as a tool for building new knowledge/understanding. I think that in the case of creating new theories using gender  we really should be very  cautious not to obscure diversity, but for me it should not mean to abandon this category in general in the name of heterogenity and diversity.. The second question is whether   "gender" can serve as an appropriate tool for articulating the problem  of difference (both between genders and within one gender  itself), or, in other words, whether gender skepticism is the only alternative.  In what  follows, I will concentrate on these two questions only with the aim to show that the above mentioned difficulties with the very concept of gender must not and should not lead us inevitably to resignation .

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 Numerous feminist critiques of Western philosophical  tradition were based on the category of gender. A spreading belief emerged in feminist theory that  the concept of gender can serve as a productive analytical  category. If we look at the concept of gender from the point of view of language, we can see it implies that the meaning of certain words  such as "reason", "knowledge", "science" as well as "body" or  "history", are conditioned by gender, or they hide  a gender specific bias (see Tanesini 1994). Most feminist  analyses of masculinity present in the history of Western  philosophy have been directed against one of the fundamental  assumptions of traditional philosophy, against the assumption, according to which philosophy is a product of objective,  universal and unhistorical reason, thanks to which the  philosophical reflection is able to achieve "god's eye  perspective" or to use  Thomas Nagel´s phrase,  "the view from  nowhere". According to this assumption, the question of  historical and cultural positioning of reason through its  "beholder" is not relevant because it does not touch the correctness and adequacy of particular philosophical  theories in any way (Grimshaw 1996, p. 734). Feminist criticism went on to undermine exactly this assumption by arguing that the question  of a social - gender, class, racial, religious - localization of  the knower (philosopher)  are  connected with the contents  of philosophical concepts and with the meaning of basic  philosophical terms. In the light of this criticism, it has  become clear that  the assumed gender neutrality of  the philosophical terms and concepts only covers up their  gendered nature and gender specific connotation, i.e. that their  meanings is always gender coded. It is in this sense that Susan Bordo talks about  the "maleness" of philosophy (Bordo 1988, p. 619).

Feminist philosophers, who based their analysis on gender,  have revealed (as they believed) behavior norms, types of  cognitive style and moral conduct that were evidently determined  by gender. Thus, they have created a new space which provides  a certain alternative to the predominant, gender neutral  discourse on human experience, a space that also enables  application of gender in contemplation on such "exclusive waters  of human intellect" as philosophy.  These theories also have led the focus of  attention to the fact that "the hierarchical oppositions of Western thought  have consistently been gender coded" (Bordo, 1988, p. 623), and  the way in which the logic of power and exclusion dominates  within the scheme of Western rationality. Feminist criticism of traditional knowledge has added a new direction to this investigation and it was the  category of gender that enabled thinkers to see the hierarchical oppositions of Western thought as well as the very knowledge/power relations as gender coded.

Feminist philosophers have looked critically also at  a number of special science disciplines in which they identified  the presence of gender specific norms and presumptions. The  application of gender as an analytical tool in feminist  epistemology, focused on questions how  gender norms influence on  the processes of cognition (see Anderson 1995; Webb 1995), have led  to a more precise definition of areas in which this influence is  active and clearly provable. Elizabeth Anderson has identified four  such areas: gender structured division of theoretical labor,  (among individual disciplines as well as within one discipline),  gender symbolism, (if it is a particular hierarchy in the field  of cognition or the contents of individual theories),  androcentrism, (of theories or research programs), and finally,  a direct and open or indirect, hidden sexism (Anderson 1995, p.  57,58).

Gender skepticism, as sketched above, is often  connected with the postmodern orientation of some feminists,  emphasizing the heterogeneity among women and pointing out the -  in their view - illegitimate of sweeping generalizations based only on a partial  experience of a particular group of women who, in this way,  homogenize heterogeneity. Of course, ”generalization can obscure,  homogenize and exclude, but they can  also reveal and illuminate, and an overemphasis on heterogenity can itself obscure the validity and possible utility of such categories for social critique” (Fisher 1992, p.175). Susan Bordo, even though being aware  that a certain degree of skepticism may help to correct some  simplifications, also warns against extreme skepticism and  willingness to give up the category of gender completely. She  warns against this because of practical-political as well as  theoretical reasons.

On epistemological level this category can function as a prism showing numerous social and cultural phenomena in a different light and thus enabling us to articulate them in a different ways. Feminist social analyses should not abandon this category if they want to keep the ”women’s point of view”. I would like to show this on the phenomenon of the  violence against women. It is important to point out that in my country relevant research regarding this phenomenon has only now started to develop. First attempts to reflect on this problem were made mostly from the psychological perspective. This perspective by itself, however, is not sufficient because it leads to the conclusion that the core of this problem is sought exclusively on the individual level. Only the ”prism” of gender enables us to see this problem from a wider, social perspective as a problem connected with the  gender hierarchy and  imbalance of power.

 It could be also stressed that the category  of gender does not  function only as a tool of theoretical analysis of various  fields of knowledge, but  it also helps to create and theoretically justify  the strategies of practical politics. It operates as a tool  for creation of practical political strategies focused on the  change of those social conditions which serve to close women  into their sex. Thus, if  "femininity" is connected with gender and gender  is  something  under creation,  changeable and flexible, if it is a result of the social, cultural and political influence, i.e. a social construct, then it is  obvious that we can no longer refer to the ”women´s nature”, to  women's natural place which  is still common  in my country.

If the category of gender can help us to unmask  the idea of  a common essential nature of women or their "natural" place in the  processes of reproduction, as I believe it can,   we, feminists working in  a conditions of lack of ”gender sensibility” should not abandon this conceptual tool. Moreover,   I can only agree with  Susan Bordo who argues  that  giving up the category of gender may mean that we "want to  delegitimate a priori the exploration of experimental continuity  and structural common ground among women" (Bordo 1990, p. 142).  The stress is , as I see it, on  a priori; and  the search for "experimental continuity and structural common  ground" does not mean necessarily the search for some common  essence.  With its help, however, we can articulate – to use the Wittgenstein´s term,  certain "family  resemblances" (Wittgenstein 1953, par. 67). It can help us to see "the complicated network of  similarities overlapping and criss-crossing" (par. 66), whether  we see them as similarities on the empirical or symbolic level  or as similarities among our ideas and ways of comprehending  what it means to be a woman or a man in a concrete cultural  environment.

 It seems to me that contemplating "gender" as a category depicting such resemblances enables us to avoid the sweeping  generalizations because these resemblances are not stable. Quite  the opposite, they are viable to change and allow various  degrees (similarity in one sense does not have to mean  a similarity in all other senses, it can change in time or degree).

 To conclude, I would like to note that functionality or dysfunctionality of the category of gender must be always viewed within the context in which it is used as well as within the framework of  intentions and goals of concrete research programs. Of course, feminist  thinking still has to deal with an acute task relating to the  problem of "degree" (Farkašová1992) of productivity of the  category of gender in the analysis of various aspects of social  life, position of women in the network of social, political and  power relationships as well as in creation of practical  political strategies.



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