The Significance of Gender in Adult Learning

Women as Learners: The Significance of Gender in Adult Learning

Guentzel, Melanie J

Women as Learners: The Significance of Gender in Adult Learning Elisabeth Hayes and Daniele D. Flannery San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 304 pages, $38.00 (hardcover)

In Women as Learners the authors have collected, analyzed, and synthesized studies focused on women’s narrative and personal stories about learning. Their work identifies themes in the literature and moves the reader through the theoretical to the practical and concludes with a perspective about what we still need to learn. This book builds on the work of scholars such as Carol Gilligan (e.g., In a Different Voice, 1982) who questioned the application of research on men to the experience of women and on the exploration of women’s learning that Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule (1986) began with Women ‘s Ways of Knowing.

The authors identified four purposes for writing Women as Learners including: assembling in one place knowledge about women and their learning; placing women’s learning experiences in the contexts where women live; promoting an understanding of women’s diversity; and finally to make recommendations, on the basis of critical appraisal of the existing literature, for future research and practice. This review will explore the theoretical framework of the book, summarize the contents, and offer a critique of the book.

The analysis of the literature in Women as Learners occurs within a post-structural feminist framework, which sets the stage for looking at diverse women in a variety of learning settings. The four basic tenets underlying the post-structural feminist framework are: the intersection of gender with other systems of oppression and privilege as essential to the construction of self; multiple versions of truth and reality based in personal experience; shifting identities within different social structures; and questioning binary opposites, such as the rational and the affective (Tisdell, 2000). For student affairs professionals comfortable with the premise that learning takes place in many contexts, that broad generalizations about a population can be a guide but not a rule, and that race, class, and gender are integral to identity development and learning, post-structural feminism is not such a stretch.

In the first chapter, “The Kaleidoscope” the authors place themselves in the research. Hayes and Flannery discuss their professional roles as professors of adult education and their interest in the learning of adult women in a variety of contexts. They characterize themselves as feminists, and explain three broad categories of feminism: psychological, structural, and post-structural, and identify the lens they used to interpret and make meaning of the literature. This chapter addresses the challenges the authors faced in gathering literature on women’s learning, how they finally came to focus on women’s narrative and personal stories of learning, and the themes identified in the book. Finally, the authors discuss how the kaleidoscope provides visual imagery for their research.

In the next four chapters Hayes and Flannery identify and elaborate on common themes in research on women. These chapters draw heavily on Belenky et al’s (1986) Women’s Ways of Knowing and essays included in Goldberger, Tarule, Clinchy, and Belenky’s (1996) Knowledge, Difference and Power: Essays Inspired by Women ‘s Ways of Knowing. Chapter two addresses the social contexts in which women’s learning occurs, and how every social setting can be a text from which people learn about themselves and relationships with others. The first setting discussed is formal education and its various elements, curricula, interpersonal interactions, and institutional culture. Other settings described include the workplace, the home and family, and the community. Identity, self-esteem, and their connections with women’s learning are the topics of chapter three. This chapter offers definitions of self-esteem and identity, broad theories on identity formation, the development of gendered identities and the effects of race and class on identity development. Chapter four considers the concept of voice, another familiar topic for readers of research on women. A frequent metaphor used in writing by and about women, voice is discussed in three commonly used meanings, voice as talk, voice as identity, and voice as power. The connections of voice to learning, the importance of gender-related communication, how women develop and express identity, and the individual and collective power that can be developed are explored. Another familiar theme of connection and connectedness is developed in chapter five. The author examines women’s connections with themselves, global processing, subjective knowing and intuition, and elaborates on women’s connections to others and the ways women learn through interaction and in relationship.

Chapters six, seven, and eight, each written by a different invited author, move from research to practice. Chapter six, written by Ann Brooks, explores transformational experiences in women’s learning, showing that narrative and the telling of personal stories can foster these experiences and develop women’s power by giving voice to subjugated experiences. In chapter seven Elizabeth Tisdell moves the reader into the area of feminist pedagogy defined as the interactive process of teaching and learning, especially as it facilitates women’s learning. The author shares her own story of development as a feminist educator and examines the psychological, structural, and post-structural models of feminist pedagogy. Finally in chapter eight, Jane Hugo describes perspectives on the practice of teaching women. Based on feminist interpretations of the literature, the author offers a list of action items related to changing how women look at themselves and how they interact with each other as learners. The author then discusses deepening practitioners’ commitment to women as learners by focusing on effective delivery of content, modeling ways of being, cultivating ways of thinking, seeking a better society and achieving self-efficacy.

In chapter nine, Hayes discusses creating knowledge about women’s learning. She begins with a caution about framing women’s learning in opposition to men’s learning and the dangers of essentialism. A major limitation in research on women’s learning is identified as a lack of gendered analysis and examples of gender-free studies and gendered analysis are provided. The chapter offers recommendations for giving more attention to diversity in future research including: overcoming the middle-class, White bias; being more inclusive of underrepresented groups; and developing theories that allow identified differences and similarities in women learners.

The postscript “Re-searching for Women’s Learning” is the book’s crescendo. Flannery suggests that women celebrate themselves, that they define themselves by naming gendered learning and social constructs. She recommends thinking about one’s own learning and women’s learning, promoting women’s learning, breaking silences, understanding racism and its effects, and working for social change.

For the most part the authors achieve their stated goals. The first goal of assembling in one place knowledge about women and their learning is amply met. The sixteen pages of references are enough to make any neophyte researcher giddy with delight. The book is essentially an elaborate review of the literature and an excellent place to begin researching women’s learning. For those with more experience in the area of women’s learning and development the information is not new but simply reframed in the context of adult education. The second stated purpose is to place women’s learning experiences in the contexts where women live. The authors identify the spaces where women learn beyond formal education and for the most part carry this idea throughout the chapters. Promoting understanding of women’s diversity, the third purpose, was probably one of the most difficult to achieve. The authors note that much of the research done is by and about middle-class white women and that to generalize these findings to all women is to deny the diversity created by the intersection of race, class and gender. Within the context of this book, the authors can only question the existing literature, point out literature that is pushing toward a greater understanding of the diversity of women and direct the reader to consider multiple viewpoints. However, it is necessary to be reminded that we are not casting the net broadly in research to include diverse populations, but are making generalizations about gender based on white, middle class assumptions. Their final stated purpose is to make recommendations, on the basis of critical appraisal of the existing literature, for future research and practice and this is accomplished specifically in the final chapters but also throughout the book as the authors identify challenges and drawbacks to the reviewed literature.

This book has the feel of a song that was meant for the congregation but will be sung by the choir. Those who have been actively interested in women’s learning and women’s development and are already familiar with the literature will most likely be excited to read this book. As noted, those readers already vested in women’s learning and familiar with the reviewed literature will not find much new on that topic. The strength of this book lies in the use of the research on women’s learning and development to engage readers who arc unfamiliar with or new to adult education and feminist pedagogical practice. Some appropriate audiences are those new to research on women as learners and adult educators exploring the incorporation of feminist practices into educational contexts. Student affairs practitioners interested in designing meaningful co-curricular experiences for returning adults or for diverse groups of women may want to consider adding this book to their list of resources.


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.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Goldberger, N.R., Tarule, J.M., Clinchy, B.M., & Belenky, M.F. (1996). Knowledge, difference and power: Essays inspired by women ‘s ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books.

Tisdell, E.J. (2000). Feminist pedagogies. In Women as learners: The significance of gender in adult learning (pp. 155-183). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reviewed by Melanie J. Guentzel, University of Iowa

Copyright American College Personnel Association Sep/Oct 2004

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