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What mother knows


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Nettlefold, GD 2002 , 'What mother knows', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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This thesis examines the experience of maternity as a lens through which to refract questions concerning women's knowledge and the relationship between embodied experience and knowledge. Much work in recent and contemporary feminist epistemology is devoted to showing that there is something special about women's knowledge, either because of a unique female social standpoint or because of the nature of women's bodies and the kinds of experiences they engender. Much of this work, I argue, essentialises women, fails to recognise the generality of women's epistemic powers, and involves a commitment to the view that mere sensory experience constitutes knowledge. This latter view, I argue, is the core error in this body of work: In the guise of allowing women a special kind of knowledge, it reinforces the idea that what is distinctive about women's knowledge is its primitive, sensory character. This in turn lends comfort to the disenfranchismement of women in pregnancy and childbirth and the assumption of an expert position by the medical profession. I argue that there is no unique feature of maternity that could issue in any epistemically distinctive feature of women. While this means that simply experiencing pregnancy and maternity does not give women any special privilege in these domains, it is liberative in that it restores the epistemic equity between the sexes.
I investigate accounts of maternal experience which promise to establish the special epistemic authority of mothers. I show that the Hegelian vision of experience as knowledge seeps into many contemporary feminist texts, through the work of theorists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Lacan. In particular, I show in chapter two that Iris Young's account of 'pregnant embodiment' inherits a private knowledge claim from Hegel through Merleau-Ponty. In chapters three and four I show how Lacan's work carries private knowledge claims into our understanding of maternal experience. In chapter three I show how this occurs in Kristeva and, in chapter four, in Hartsock's 'feminist standpoint epistemology'. In chapter five I draw on Bataille's revision of Hegel to put right a feminist generalisation about masculine knowledge based in sexual perversity. Finally, in chapter six I show that when we dismantle the Hegelian 'myth of the given' through a Sellarsian analysis of the relation between experience and knowledge, we regain a coherent vision of the nature of our epistemic authority about experience, one that explains why pregnant women are in an especially good position to know about pregnancy, but also why they are in just as good a position to know about a lot of other things besides.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Nettlefold, GD
Keywords: Motherhood, Feminist theory
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Copyright 2002 the author - The University is continuing to endeavour to trace the copyright owner(s) and in the meantime this item has been reproduced here in good faith. We would be pleased to hear from the copyright owner(s).

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Thesis (PhD)--University of Tasmania, 2002. Includes bibliographical references

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