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Reviewed by:
  • Women as Learners: The Significance of Gender in Adult Learning
  • Melanie J. Guentzel
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 Learnersoccurs 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 [End Page 578] 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...


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