In Women’s Ways of Knowing, an important study of the way women think about themselves and about life, Mary Belenky and her fellow researchers identified five ways women know things. One of them is called “received knowledge.” We all know things because someone told them to us. Most women have a large fund of received knowledge, a stash of facts and opinions they didn’t think up on their own, yet they accept. Women “know” how to use a washing machine and grow houseplants, and where to buy the freshest vegetables or find the best book bargains. They may also have learned to name some of the constellations and all the books of the Bible. They’ve spent their lives acquiring this kind of knowledge.
Surprisingly, many women limit what they “know” to what they have received from someone else. They look to an authority outside themselves for instruction in every area of life. An interior decorator tells them which home furnishings to buy. A hair stylist decides how they should wear their hair. A personal shopper chooses their clothes after a color analyst has given them a swatch chart of colors to wear. These women know a great deal and know that they know a lot. But they trust only what comes from outside themselves as “real” knowledge.
Sometimes such a woman faces a crisis. Perhaps an authority falls from grace or disappoints her. Or two equal authorities disagree. Whom can she believe? At that point a woman may move to a different way of thinking about herself and about her world.
In most cases, it takes some kind of crisis, a confrontation, a disappointment, or a disaster to move a person from unquestioning reliance on outside human authorities to a different way of thinking and knowing. We must make room for new learning. All of us do.