The denial of women’s capacity for knowledge

This post is based on an essay I wrote for a Women in Philosophy class I took at a California college and I wanted to share it here. I plan to read the rest of Miranda Fricker’s book when I get my hands on a copy; I loved this chapter reading because it provided me with new language to describe phenomena I have experience of, and that’s always exciting!
With thanks to Emily Gable for her teaching and insights.

Content notes: intimate partner violence, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse.

“Women are crazy”

A central tenet of sexist, male supremacist thought is: women – as a gender class – are “crazy.

This is, I would argue, one of the most prevalent and impactful cases of gender power, a form of social power (see The power to affect others below) used to cause credibility deficit and the questioning of women’s capacity as “knowers”.

Owing to this persistent cultural trope, anyone considered feminine is more readily doubted or dismissed than believed or heeded.

Tweet by umami skeleton (@Merman_Melville): "1870:
Man: My wife, whom had 4 babies and 0 orgasms this year, and is not allowed to vote, cries a lot
Doctor: Obviosuly she is insane."
Tweet text: “1870:
Man: My wife, whom had 4 babies and 0 orgasms this year, and is not allowed to vote, cries a lot
Doctor: Obviously she is insane.”

A key concept influenced by this collectively imagined quality of women, despite no longer reflecting medical belief, is “hysteria“. Coined and used for a hundred years to explain emotional outbursts and generally unaccepted female behaviours, based on an ancient Greek idea that the uterus could roam around the body, it has come to stand for emotional instability or extreme reactions in general, sometimes regardless of gender (McVean, 2017).

While many claim the misogynistic roots of hysteria are irrelevant to its current and continued use, I disagree, and suggest that it actually reflects persisting biases against women’s capacity for thought, the relevance and reality of women’s pain, and our freedom – often women’s but also everyone’s (see “boys don’t cry”) – to express emotion without being belittled.

This characterisation of mad, unreliable women manifests in many ways, such as the “crazy ex” trope through which men are absolved of all potential relationship failings; its end or general dysfunction instead blamed on a woman’s implied mental illness or behaviour that’s supposedly indicative of it.

Taking an intersectional view, i.e. incorporating other forms of social identity power, we should also consider the trope of the “angry Black woman” through which Black women are pressured to conceal or modify their emotions and behaviour (particularly anger or aggression), casting their demeanour in opposition to white women’s beauty standards, reflecting and promoting stereotypes; all of these things and more are known as misogynoirdiscrediting people not just because they are female or Black but because they are both. (Fisher, 2018).

An exemplar, linked with the traditional classification of women’s emotion as some physiological malfunction, is PMS; both dismissed as unreal and used as an excuse to ignore women now and in the past (see Kreyenbuhl-Gardner). This is despite the fact that hormonal fluctuations likely have a permissive effect on mood rather than creating irrational or intense moods out of nothing; similar to the action of testosterone as summarised by Sapolsky (p. 40): “testosterone isn’t causing aggression, it’s exaggerating the aggression that’s already there”.

Ugh, I remember guys at uni loving this one.
“Women – Never trust anything that bleeds for 5 days and doesn’t die”

Unequal treatment of women in medicine is an expansive topic; women frequently report experiencing their pain being dismissed, medical research favours the use of male subjects (human and other animals) while conditions specific to bodies housing a uterus such as menopause, PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), and endometriosis are relatively neglected, and female sexual pleasure continues to be portrayed as both mystifying and dysfunctional. For comparison, around five times more studies have been carried out into erectile dysfunction than PMS. 

The message always seems to be: women’s emotions and often our very bodies are unimportant, unreliable, untrustworthy; because/therefore we are all mad

What kinds of effects might these assumptions have on young people (of all genders) as we are constantly exposed to them through popular entertainment, peers’ “jokes”, throughout our education, and when we try to access vital services?


Why doesn’t she just leave?” – a common refrain when domestic violence is discussed, if indeed it is discussed at all. I also dislike this minimising term; the “domestic” modifier is often used to silo families away as if this kind of violence is separate from all others, shielding perpetrators as if it’s more “their business” than anyone else’s, and preventing victims from finding help. There are many reasons someone might stay in an abusive relationship.

People often prefer to ignore cases of intimate partner violence (IPV) due to personal discomfort or a wish not to “pass judgment” on rumoured or accused perpetrators; an example of social agents co-operating to allow the continuing exercise of gender power both by abusive agents and institutions (police, judiciary, marriage, religions, families…) that fail victims.

Perpetrators are often aware of this social tendency to receive the benefit of the doubt while women’s claims are automatically questioned, and this allows for the isolation, dismissal, and continued victimisation of the abused.

Pesta highlighted an example for CNN recently:

“Fifteen years ago, Brianne Randall-Gay might have stopped one of the most prolific sexual predators the world of sports has ever known — if anyone had listened.”

Many more exist with respect to child abuse, from global cults such as the Children of God*, the richest religion in the world (Catholicism), to media moguls (Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile), and arguably the statutes of limitations themselves.

Fricker notes that power as a capacity holds sway even when it is inactive. Organisations working with victims and promoting awareness of abuse publicise that it is both the active forms of abuse (when one partner harms another physically or mentally) as well as passive forms, such as ongoing threat and worry over repeated and escalating incidents that a victim comes to live with, which combine to keep people in such relationships.

Fricker says “power is always dependent on practical co-ordination with other social agents” (11) and we see this in operation when, for example, a girl or woman reports abuse to a friend or the police and is not taken seriously (in contrast, social stigmas around masculinity rather than approaches to victims may deter men from reporting, though data is both poor and sometimes conflicting, some having interpreted it as men being more likely to report and less likely to be disbelieved; either way, there is no question that toxic masculinity helps to shield people who abuse men and boys).

Why aren’t women believed?


Testimonial injustice is leverage in one particular kind of abuse, which women face in many relationships be they romantic, friendly, professional or other. To gaslight is to psychologically manipulate someone so that they doubt their own memory, perception and sanity. Perpetrators use false information; lies, questions, and even acts like setting up objects and situations to present a false narrative. It is named after a fiction that is the epitome of the phenomenon, best known as the 1944 American film Gaslight, which was itself adapted from the 1938 play Gas Light by English writer Patrick Hamilton.

Interestingly, it is being referenced more frequently now.

I tried to find out who/which org created this but never succeeded – let me know if you know!

In the plot, the lead’s husband gradually manipulates her, through his words and actions in their house, into believing that she is losing her sanity. Now that discussing abusive relationships is more common, the term is more popular in searches:


Graph: Worldwide Google search term popularity of gaslighting and emotional abuse from Dec. 2014 to Oct. 2019 (Google Trends). Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular.

The major peak in Nov. 2016 – Jan. 2017 corresponds to Donald Trump’s appointment as US president, and the June 2018 peak to release of an FBI report on the “e-mail” claims about Clinton’s campaign, as well as an incident in the TV show “Love Island”; “Women’s Aid says Collard’s behaviour towards fellow contestant Rosie Williams shows ‘clear warning signs’ of emotional abuse” reported Mumford in The Guardian. These peaks also correspond with the publication of two widely-read articles describing Trump’s behaviour as gaslighting in the headline and main article body (Duca, 2016 & Sargent, 2018).

Looking at a “past 5 years” version of the same query in mid-2020**, we can see the trend has continued upwards:
Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 14.26.45

This increased usage (while the related, more general term “emotional abuse” fluctuates minimally) at least online seems both influenced by and resulting from political events in the USA and reportage. We are now witness to more examples of women’s undermined credibility (for example, during and after H. Clinton’s campaign), and literal dismissed testimony (e.g. Professor Christine Blasey Ford‘s); admitted and credibly accused sexual criminals can be elected both to the office of the US Presidency and Supreme Court regardless, because women’s capacity as knowers of their past and actions of others is dismissed.

This affects us emotionally as we witness the kinds of abuse we and/or those close to us have experienced in our own lives reflected in these cases, where the abusive men in question hold immense social power over us. Not only gender power, but also political in the results of elections and appointments, economic in the results of acts taken by those given that power, and more.

It is beyond my scope (and likely your attention span!) to analyse further examples of testimonial injustice here, one of which I would submit is “mansplaining” (see Rothman), which describes a tendency of men to assume greater knowledge than women they meet and speak with and to proceed to condescendingly explain things already known to them, relying on a stereotype; an assumption that women have less capacity as knowers, are less educated, or are less interested in knowledge generally.

This is why it is neither “sexist“, nor applicable to use “womansplaining“; men are not socially stereotyped as less able to know things (quite the opposite), have not been systematically excluded from education, and are not typically assumed to be less knowledgeable on a subject by women speaking with them (some men will always contest this, again denying women’s experience en masse).

Ongoing examination of the social effects of testimonial injustice as are manifesting for the women, girls, people of colour and LGBT+ people of North America and the wider Western world, in terms of continued male dominance, misogyny and sexism, and gender injustice throughout our shared cultures would no doubt be worthwhile. Of course these problems are not limited to the West and other axes of power and discrimination such as race, disability, wealth and class are also always relevant.

We are obligated to listen to feminist philosophers, campaigners, activists and politicians across cultures and support their work.

The power to affect others

I originally opened the post with this but I don’t think you need to read it first and perhaps it put some people off continuing, so now it’s at the end!

Miranda Fricker was the first to describe injustices against people “specifically in their capacity as a knower” as epistemic injusticeEpistemology is essentially an examination of the phenomenon of knowing.

In the first chapter of her 2007 book “Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing”, Fricker breaks down the concept and workings of power, stating on p.14:

“wherever power is at work, we should be ready to ask who or what is controlling whom, and why”

She covers several forms of power that are relevant to our capacity for and methods of knowing.

Social power is defined as “a capacity we have as social agents to influence how things go in the social world” (p.9). One form is identity power, which enables some to control the actions of others (often together with other forms of social power) and relies on collectively imagined facets of identity in societies; stereotypes that often manifest as prejudices. From p. 16:

“Identity power, like social power in general, may be agential or purely structural; it may work in the interests of the agent whose actions are so controlled, or again it may work against them”

This can lead to testimonial injustice; a “dual epistemic and ethical dysfunction… perhaps the most ethically and socially significant moment of identity power’s impact” (p.17) meted out to members of a particular social group, in which their credibility is typically understated to their detriment. Women have been subject to control through of a combination of men’s identity power and centuries of testimonial injustice.

Fricker calls testimonial injustice an “ethical poison” (p.22).


I focused in on gender identity power in this piece and my aim was to show how it acts in the ways Fricker describes to discredit, silence, and harm women on both agential (individual) and structural (institutional/dispersed generally in society) levels, both actively and passively. I related this to examples of current events and lexicon, and what I perceive to be a growing understanding of emotional abuse in Western society.

I hope to have demonstrated the relevance of Fricker’s concept of testimonial injustice as manifesting in our society with these examples of the perception of women as “crazy”, abusive manipulation of partners into believing it of themselves, and in men’s power overriding their criminality to bestow more and ongoing power at women’s expense.

Here’s a short video I found about the concept of Epistemic Injustice:


Extra links

Footnote: I have concentrated on abused women since they are most often victimised, and most often by men, in these ways: “The overwhelming global burden of IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] is borne by women. Although women can be violent in relationships with men, often in self-defence, and violence sometimes occurs in same-sex partnerships, the most common perpetrators of violence against women are male intimate partners or ex-partners (1). By contrast, men are far more likely to experience violent acts by strangers or acquaintances than by someone close to them (2).” (World Health Organisation, 2012) – this does not mean men are never victims or that they do not deserve the same justice. All abusers are at fault, and all victims deserve support.

**Looking again at the terms in mid-2022, the popularity of ‘gaslighting’ continues to climb:

Popularity of the terms Gaslighting (blue/top line) and Emotional abuse (red/lower line), from January 2016 to June 2022 (Google Trends)

I dedicate this post to a friend who sadly took her life in December 2019, having been failed by so many institutions that should have protected her.
We love and miss you, Eli – rest in power.

7 thoughts on “The denial of women’s capacity for knowledge

  1. Pingback: Generic Dating Profile™ – Purely a figment of your imagination

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      1. Hey, M., glad to see you here (seems like your most recent post was in August?) -this is actually my front line account, but I’ve now also followed you from my main account, found you on Mastadon, will comment further on one of your earlier posts…

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