The Feminist Standpoint Theory as laid out by scholars like Nancy Hartsock and Sandra Harding in the 1970s and 1980s places women’s experience at the centre of research, methodologies, and epistemology. Feminist Standpoint Theory challenges the dominant knowledge systems and practices that treat women’s epistemic advantage as subordinate, rule them out of research, and inquiry inter alia, and downplay the importance of women’s contribution to epistemology; all of which in turn intensifies the gender hierarchies.
There has been a default masculine lens over the traditional forms of research. The standpoint theories emphasise the meeting point of the exercise of power and knowledge production. Feminist standpoint theory has garnered its fair share of criticism that trivialises its importance as well as enthusiasm that focuses on its necessity.
The roots of the standpoint theory can be traced back to Marxist and Hegelian theories, where those from oppressed or marginalised sections have a special perspective and knowledge that those from the privileged sections might not have. So, to put things into perspective, this makes men the bourgeois and women the proletariat.
Feminist Standpoint Theory poses a challenge to various assumptions and generalisations regarding knowledge. The fundamental consideration of this theory is regarding the idea that knowledge systems are not neutral and instead, offer male biases.
It also posits that women are marginalised in epistemologies, science, research, methodologies, etc. Another stance of the standpoint theory is that one’s positionality, social, political, and historical context also influence their knowledge.
The idea that marginalised groups are placed in an oppressive socio-political context that makes them aware of things and gives them the lived experiences that people outside such marginalisations may not be aware of is also part of the feminist standpoint theory. This idea is known as epistemic privilege or advantage.
In the words of Sandra Harding, “Starting off research from women’s lives will generate less partial and distorted accounts not only of women’s lives but also of men’s lives and of the whole social order.”Feminist epistemological projects began as a criticism of the traditional forms of knowledge systems but have transformed to reevaluate and reform the problems of knowledge and the epistemological project themselves.
Feminist standpoint theories march towards an epistemic approach that has a sense of objectivity as a goal of exploration while simultaneously considering and adjusting the role of social location on knowing and knowledge.
The feminist standpoint theory also firmly believes that all knowledge is socially situated. What this means is that an individual’s class, gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity among other things have a role to play in the knowledge that they do acquire and the extent to which they can know.
As feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, who authored the book ‘Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace‘ puts it, the caregiving and nurturing attitude in women and girls is not maternal instinct but it is so because they are involved in caregiving and nurturing practices more than boys and men. This also makes them aware of the importance of the activity and men and boys unaware of its requirement.
A section of standpoint feminists believes that the knowledge from the standpoint of the oppressed or marginalised groups is more accurate, integrated, and complete than the knowledge of those from the privileged or dominant groups.
This is because the standpoint from the subordinate social location takes into account the perspective of both sections i.e, their own as well the dominant ones.
The “standpoint” in the standpoint theories is a place or location from which we view the world that then determines our field of vision, what we are able to see and what we are not able to see, what we are able to know, and what we don’t know.
So, from a Marxist perspective, the standpoint is an achieved collective identity or consciousness. Standpoint is not gained simply by being a woman but by gaining perspective and insight that stems from the experience of collective political struggle. So, a group’s standpoint that roots from experiencing socio-political inequality is way different from the group that is causing that inequality.
Even within the feminist standpoint theory, it is important to understand that not all women are the same, there is a great deal of diversity be it based on class, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc.
The feminist standpoint theory has evolved and is still evolving over the years. Initially, the vantage points that were being debated were only binaries of men and women. Over the years, it has come to include different gender identities and sexual orientations and has acquired a more intersectional lens that includes other facets of one’s identity like race, age, ability/disability, religion, etc.
So, a more holistic picture of one’s identities and how they coincide with power relations and knowledge systems gives us a more complete picture of the standpoint.
Also read: Understanding Feminist Existentialism