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Power, Resistance, and Science: A Call for a Revitalized Feminist Psychology

By Naomi Weisstein - 1992.

(Note: Naomi Weisstein rocked the psychology establishment with the 1968 article "Psychology Constructs the Female" This 1992 article was part of a series of articles commemorating her feminist classic.)

I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the comments on "Psychology Constructs the Female" (PCF), and I welcome this opportunity to participate in a new discussion about the article and to suggest new directions for a feminist psychology. When I wrote PCF in its original form in 1968,[2] the second wave of 20th century US feminism had begun to sweep the country. Transformation charged the air. Women like myself, who had been too intimidated to speak in public, were delivering fiery orations to wildly enthusiastic audiences. Women who had previously considered same-sex sex a crime worse than strangling one's baby declared themselves lesbians. Even the resentment that women of different classes and races usually felt for each other was temporarily muted. We were creating an alternative social context which, in turn, redefined who we were. Thus I was writing from direct experience when I said in PCF, "A study of human behavior requires first and foremost a study of the social contexts within which people move, the expectations as to how they will behave, and the authority which tells us who they are and what they are supposed to do."

But an understanding of how important the social context is in determining behavior seems now to have faded from consciousness. We have a psychology which is still "depoliticized," "individualized" and "decontextualized' (Sandra Bem), still "mired in essentialist views about the differences between men and women' (Rhoda Unger). An area that calls itself feminist psychology averts its eyes from the larger barbarism of the social context in which we operate. It chooses instead to put forth a notion of female difference which, while no longer biologically based, is nevertheless essentialist, or at least highly decontextualized (e.g. Gilligan, 1982; Ruddick, 1990.) Feminist psychology has also claimed that females have a different way of knowing, or know different things than men do, and therefore that science, a male pursuit, is largely irrelevant to the study of gender (e.g. Ros Gill, Una Gault, Oonagh Hartnett and Jane Prince; see also Harding, 1991.) In this paper, I will suggest, in total agreement with Sandra Bem and Rhoda Unger, that we feminist psychologists open our eyes once more to a larger social context and begin to focus on questions of social change. This means that we should return to an inquiry into power and how people resist power. Then, I will suggest that my focus on social change puts me at odds with the current post-modernist feminist obsession with the limitations of science, an obsession which is essentially conservative.


We feminist psychologists need to study power (cf. Sandra Bem; Rhoda Unger; Kahn and Yoder, 1992.) It is clear to me that if we are ever to replace our gendered, genocidal world with a less barbaric, more just and generous one, we must understand how "cultural, institutional, situational, interpersonal and psychological power" (Sandra Bem)--and, I might add, economic power--sustain the current brutality. Sandra Bem summarizes the task perfectly in her question to feminist psychologists: "where is psychology's analysis of how [power and privilege operate to maintain the status quo with respect to gender, sexuality, race, or class... how power gets into the heads of both the marginalized and the powerful alike?" I would add two other questions as well: (1) where is psychology's analysis of the brutality that accompanies power?; and (2) are some of the ugly and violent behaviors associated with gender limited to gender alone, or do they crop up whenever power is unequally distributed?

I would be particularly interested in studying these last two questions. Gender is a most complex and intricate phenomenon, but at the interpersonal level I think that a good portion of the oppressiveness of gender arises from the fact that one person has enormous power over the other. Especially when they are relating to women, and especially when they are "in love," men have been observed to be arrogant, insensitive, unsympathetic, punitive bullies (Hite, 1987; Kitzinger et al., 1992; Spender, 1990.) At the same time, women, especially when they are relating to men and especially when they are "in love," have been observed to be mild, sensitive, empathic, forgiving pussycats (Hite, 1987; Kitzinger et al., 1992; Spender, 1990.) How does this dynamic between men and women arise? Does it need a specifically sexist ideology to hold it in place, or will any power-justifying ideology do? I suspect the latter (Snodgrass, 1985; Wood and Karten, 1986). But this can easily be tested. In Skrypnek's and Snyder's (1982) elegant experiment an individual acted in accord with an unseen partner's gender expectations regardless of the individual's own sex. This paradigm can be modified so that the partner has assumptions about types of power that the other individual may have in addition to is/her gender. Then we can ask whether the behaviors I mentioned also show up regardless of gender when differences in power are assumed to be present.

Consider also the hatred, sadism and violence that men direct against women everywhere. Two and a half decades of feminist research, analysis and agitation have shown us the incredible violence that women suffer all over the world. More than one hundred million women who should be part of the earth's population are missing from it (Sen, 1990.) Where are they? Rape, child molestation, wife beating, female genital mutilation, torture, female infanticide and murder are the dark underside of male power over women. Eruptions of male violence are considered "random," "inexplicable," a product of "male rage, out of control." But are they? Certainly, such action is not just random, but is rather to be understood within the context of a sexist ideology, which permits and promotes it. However, beyond that, this kind of violence seems to happen to every marginalized group: violence against the powerless seems to accompany every hierarchical culture that I know about. I am convinced that violence is an inevitable accompaniment of the interactions between the powerful and the powerless, regardless of gender. The question, "Is it the power locked up in gender, or is it power itself?" is a researchable one. Using approaches such as those taken by Stanley Milgram in his studies of obedience to authority (see PCF), feminist social psychology can experimentally manipulate power and study such dependent variables as a rise in sadism and/or violence against another person.


As long as men have power over women, our gender oppression will continue. As feminists, we need to oppose male power in all its cultural, institutional, situational, interpersonal and psychological forms. As feminist psychologists, we need to understand how resistance arises and the circumstances under which it is effective. This leads to a variety of questions dealing with: individual agency despite gender hegemony; individual defiance versus collective resistance; the dynamics of collective resistance.

I would begin with Rhoda Unger's brilliant exploration of the paradox of feminist dissent: if we are so deeply aware of how socially constructed our world is, what enables us to defy the social order? (Una Gault raises a related issue in a slightly different way when she talk about the need to recognize individual agency in the construction of social forms.) Unger accounts for this paradox by showing how a non-conscious sexist ideology made conscious loses its effectiveness; and by describing a feminist epistemology which is able to tolerate contradiction. By investigating these issues, Unger and Gault increase the sophistication of our social constructionist theories, exploring the slippage between a monumentally overdetermined gender imperative, and the sheer stubbornness and quirkiness of individual defiance.

But if we are to have social change, we need more than individual resistance. This may occasionally start things rolling, but it cannot change the relations of power by itself. The status quo is a social conspiracy against the powerless, and nothing is more feeble against a social conspiracy than individual defiance. We have to oppose power with power--it is as simple as that; we need collective resistance. As anybody who has ever tried it knows, it is extremely difficult to oppose power and authority. How, then, do we persuade substantial numbers of people to do it? In other words, how do we develop collective resistance? And how do we maintain it? Part of the answer is that collective resistance sets up an alternative context which, in turn, maintains that resistance. But it is a tricky business, and it often does not work. We need to use our arsenal of social psychological concepts and techniques to figure out how collective resistance develops and thrives. Now is the perfect time to study collective resistance, at least in the USA, where militant women's groups have begun to form again.


Feminist psychology has to a great extent abandoned a concern with subjugation and sedition and has begun to focus reflexively on issues of methodology and epistemology. So, for instance, Una Gault and Oonagh Hartnett and Jane Prince accuse PCF of narrowly questioning the scientific validity of the methods psychology uses to study women, when it should be questioning whether scientific methodology in general is a useful approach to the study of gender. Ros Gill goes even further and implies that PCF reverse science with a capital "S". At first, I was perplexed by this. PCF criticized a sexism in psychology that cloaked itself in the authority and grandeur of science. What better way to criticize this pretense than by showing that the sexism had nothing whatsoever to do with the science? But now I get their picture of PCF. It is as if internationally known gangsters are meeting in the most elegant resort in Monaco, and I stand outside wearing my science-nerd beanie hat with the airplane propellers on top of it, screwing up my little face, purple with indignation, and yelling, "You guys are not telling the Truth! You promised to tell the Truth!" In other words, how could I have been so naive as to think that Science could have told us anything in the first place? Science, according to such feminist epistemologists as Harding (1991), is a "western," "bourgeois," "imperialist," "androcentic project", whose knowledge is "embedded in social relations." (In the old days, we used to call this "pig" science [Weisstein et al., 1976].) Science describes not ultimate reality but merely the relativist and subjective reality of those who serve it and whom it serves.

I agree with much of this characterization of science. I speak from 30 years of experience as a neuroscientist who has done insurgent research in vision and cognition that has often been infuriating to the scientific establishment. Science does not get us to the noumena--our ideas are filtered through our cultural and social categories, the ongoing social context and our social rank--but filters do pass information, and science is one of the intellectual procedures that holds open the possibility of constructing a model of reality that works and predicts. I believe science can not only change our relation to the natural world (think: penicillin), but it can also change our social world. (For instance, if we really could figure out how resistance to power arises and is maintained, then we could begin to dismantle patriarchy.) Science affords prediction and control, and therefore it can give actual recipes for social change, providing us feminists with a kind of countervailing power.

Moreover, science has its own internal momentum which makes it partially independent of the social relations in which it is embedded. Arrogant, dogmatic, and bullying as science is, the ideas of science do change when the old paradigms are found to be inadequate. Even scientific ideas wedded to existing power relations can be overturned. "Male science" can indeed be coerced into demonstrating "female" truths. (For example, see Rhoda Unger's discussion of my neuroscience research; also Weisstein, 1970, 1973 ; Weisstein and Maguire, 1978.) I should add that if, due to our social location, there actually is a difference in the structure of female or feminist thinking, (an hypothesis I entertain on alternate Wednesdays, just barely) then Science needs us as much as we need science. The old positivism and behaviorism of "pig" science is breaking up. A new more humanistic mind is now needed for the study of the brain and human behavior.

I'm still wearing my beanie hat, aren't I? I don't think I can take it off. Feminist epistemologists would argue that, although the scientific method may eventually lead to recognition of dissenting information within its domain, the domain itself is highly limited. But the domain is in fact practically unlimited. Science (as opposed to the scientific establishment) will entertain hypotheses generated in any way: mystical, intuitive, experiential. It only asks us to make sure that our observations are replicable and our theories have some reasonable relation to other things we know to be true about the subject under study, that is to objective reality.[3] "Aha!", feminist epistemologists might cry, "there is no objective reality. We are all too different from each other to know anything but our own subjective realities, and certainly men and women are too different from each other to agree on some universal truth." But here the argument stops cold. Whether or not there is objective reality is a 4000-year-old philosophical stalemate. The last I heard was that, like God, you cannot prove there is one and you cannot prove there is not one. It comes down to a religious and/or political choice. I believe that current feminist rejection of universal truth is a political choice. Radical and confrontational as the feminist challenge to science may appear, it is, in fact, a deeply conservative retreat.

Ros Gill mentions the "tentativeness," "anxiety" and "paralysis" of postmodernist poststructuralist counter-Enlightenment feminism. Of course, there is paralysis: once knowledge is reduced to insurmountable personal subjectivity, there is no place to go; we are in a swamp of self-referential passivity. Poststructuralist feminism is a high cult of retreat. Sometimes I think that when the fashion passes, we will find many bodies, drowned in their own wordy words, like the Druids in the bogs. Meanwhile, the patriarchy continues to prosper.

It has been my experience that, in times of no movement, reality itself falls into question. In times of dynamism, change and movement, people abandon doubts about reality, properly seeing them as part of the conservative past which they are rejecting. The fog lifts. The fact of movement gives us a clearer picture of what is really out there--what we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. We need a feminist scholarship which will, once again, be infused, revitalized, and renewed, by movement. Women are subjugated all over the world, and with the consolidation of corporate male rule, our situation will continue to deteriorate. Let us return to an activist, challenging, badass feminist psychology. More than one hundred million women are missing from the face of the earth. We can help to insure that future generations of women will not suffer this holocaust.

[1] As I am in poor health with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, I am particularly grateful for the support, both intellectual and logistical, of Edith Hoshino Altbach, Virginia Blaisdell, Aleatha Carter, Judith Rich Harris, Amy Kesselman, Jesse Lemisch, Catherine Rose, Rhoda Unger and Elizabeth van Hoerenberg.

[2] After its first presentation to an audience of feminist activists at Lake Villa, Illinois, in October 1968, this paper was presented as "Kinder, Kuche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association at the University of California, Davis, in November 1968. The paper was published, more or less as delivered, by the New England Free Press and, with revisions, in a dozen other places leading to the revised version of 1971, which is the text offered here. (The 1971 version has been reprinted about two dozen times.)

[3] I should note that I am delighted with the new feminist methodologies as ways to develop better hypotheses. Biography, emphasis on the experiential, and the requirement that those gathering information must be empathic, egalitarian and participatory are all, I think great advances in our ability to know the world. But all these methods have their own pitfalls: biography and accounts of direct experience are subject to the fictions that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Una Gault's suggestion that observers can only be fairly observed by like-minded observers may make sense in some areas. But no interpersonal interaction is free from the distorting expectations of the participants .


  • Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Harding, S. (1991) Whose Science, Whose Knowledge? Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

  • Hite, S. Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress. London: Penguin.

  • Kahn, A.S. and Yoder J.D. (1992) (eds) Women and Power: Special Issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly 16 (4).

  • Kitzinger, C., Wilkinson, S. and Perkins, R. (1992) (eds) Heterosexuality: Special Issue of "Feminism and Psychology" 2 (3). Ruddick, S. (1990) Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. London: The Women's Press.

  • Sen, Amartya (1990) "More than One Hundred Million Women are Missing", New York Review of Books, 20 December.

  • Skrypnek, B. J. and Synder, M. (1982) "On the Self-Perpetuating Nature of Stereotypes about Women and Men", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18: 277-91.

  • Snodgrass, S.E. (1985) "Women's Intuition: The Effect of Subordinate Role on Interpersonal sensitivity", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 49: 146-55.

  • Spender, Dale (1990) "Reflecting Men Twice Their Size", paper presented at the International Women's Studies Conference, Hunter College, City University of New York, June.

  • Weisstein, N. (1970) "Neural Symbolic Activity: A psychophysical Measure", Science 168: 1489-91.

  • Weisstein, N. (1973) "Beyond the Yellow Volkswagen Detector and the Grandmother Cell: A General Strategy for the Exploration of Operations in Human Pattern Recognition", in R. Solso (ed.) Contemporary Issues in Cognitive Psychology: The Loyola Symposium. Washington, DC: W.H. Winston.

  • Weisstein, N. and Maguire, W. (1978) "Computing the Next Step: Psychophysical Measures of Representation and Interpretation", in E. Rise and A. Hanson (eds) Computer Vision Systems. New York: Academic.

  • Weisstein, N., Blaisdell, V. and Lemisch, J. (1976) The Godfathers: Freudians, Marxists, and the Scientific and Political Protection Societies. New Haven CT: Belladonna Press.

  • Wood, W. and Karten, S.J. (1986) "Sex Differences in Interactive Style as a Product of Perceived Sex Differences in Competence", Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 50: 341-7.

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