, Volume 9, Issue 5, pp 801–820 | Cite as

Passing through the Needle's eye: Can a feminist teach logic?

  • Maryann Ayim
Dimensions of Critical Reasoning: Expanding the Horizons


Is it possible for one and the same person to be a feminist and a logician, or does this entail a psychic rift of such proportions that one is plunged into an endless cycle of self-contradiction? Andrea Nye's book, Words of Power (1990), is an eloquent affirmation of the psychic rift position. Although eloquent, I believe it is mistaken in certain serious ways, which I shall address in this paper.

Nye advances this position in her concluding essay to Words of Power (Ibid.). In brief, her position is that the logical enterprise is inherently self-contradictory for feminist thinkers. Feminists who attempt to use logic to demonstrate its shortcomings are doomed to failure; arguing against logical claims is self-defeating, for the critic will be sucked into the maelstrom of logical tradition. Hydra-headed, the logical monster will thrive rather than perish under the sharpened edge of argument; hence the critic succeeds only in strengthening the very endeavour whose shortcomings she attempts to expose. This is guaranteed to happen, according to Nye, because in entering the debate, one is thereby committed to the terms of the debate. The critic herself will be devoured in the process, for logic was constructed to eliminate the voices and concerns of women. ‘The feminist logician speaks from a script in which the master always wins' (Ibid., p. 180).

If feminists cannot use logic itself to attack the arrogant and unsupportable assumptions of logic, what are our alternatives? Nye sketches two alternatives - one is to simply turn our backs on logic, ignoring it in all of its masculine arrogance, and talk among ourselves in our own women's language about our own concerns. Nye does not recommend this alternative, for although it escapes the criticism of arrogance, it does so at the price of impotence. What she does recommend is the second alternative, that as feminists we direct our energy towards reading other people's work, including that of the logicians, and responding to it in ways ‘that can mortally wound’ (Ibid., p. 184) the authors; women, Nye believes, are particularly adept at reading. ‘It is a skill we have perfected’ (Ibid.) in the course of our oppression.

In what follows, I shall discuss Nye's proscription of logic as well as her perceived alternatives of a woman's language and reading. This will be followed by a discussion more sharply focused on Nye's feminist response to logic, namely, her claim that feminism and logic are incompatible. I will end by offering a sketch of a class in the life of a feminist teaching logic, a sketch which is both a response to Nye (in Nye's sense of the word) and a counter-example to her thesis that logic is necessarily destructive to any genuine feminist enterprise.

Key words

feminist logic arrogance reading racism sexism 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Adams, M. J.: 1990,Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. A Summary, by S. A. Stahl, J. Osborn and F. Lehr. Center for the Study of Reading; The Reading Research and Education Center; University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign.Google Scholar
  2. Apple, M.: 1991, ‘Teacher, Politics, and Whole Language Instruction’, in K. Goodman, L. Bird, and Y. Goodman (eds.),The Whole Language Catalogue, American School Publishers, Santa Rosa, California, 416.Google Scholar
  3. Ayim, M.: 1983, ‘The Implications of Sexually Stereotypic Language as Seen through Peirce's Theory of Signs’,Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 19(2), 183–197.Google Scholar
  4. Ayim, M.: 1987, ‘Wet Sponges and Band-aids: A Gender Analysis of Speech Patterns’, in J. Deely and J. Evans (eds.),Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Meeting of the Semiotic Society of America, University Press of America, New York, 29–43.Google Scholar
  5. Bereiter, C.: 1972, ‘Schools without Education’,Harvard Educational Review 42(3), 390–413.Google Scholar
  6. Bronte, C.: N.d.,Jane Eyre. Large Type Edition Complete and Unabridged, Franklin Watts, Inc., Publishers; A Division of Grolier Incorporated, New York, NY.Google Scholar
  7. Delpit, L. D.: 1988, ‘The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children’,Harvard Educational Review 58(3), August, 280–298.Google Scholar
  8. Dubois, B. L. and I. Crouch: 1975, ‘The Question of Tag Questions in Women's Speech: They Don't Really Use More of Them, do They?’,Language in Society 4(2), December, 289–294.Google Scholar
  9. Eakins, B. W. and R. G. Eakins: 1978,Sex Differences in Human Communication, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.Google Scholar
  10. Edelsky, C.: 1990, ‘Whose Agenda Is This Anyway? A Response to McKenna, Robinson, and Miller’,Educational Researcher 19(8), November, 7–11.Google Scholar
  11. Erickson, B., E. A. Lind, B. C. Johnson, and W. M. O'Barr: 1978, ‘Speech Style and Impression Formation in a Court Setting: The Effects of “Powerful” and “Powerless” Speech’,Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 14(3), May, 266–279.Google Scholar
  12. Giroux, H.: 1991, ‘Literacy, Cultural Diversity, and Public Life’, in K. Goodman, L. Bird and Y. Goodman (eds.),Whole Language Catalogue, American School Publishers, Santa Rosa, California, 417.Google Scholar
  13. Hirst, P. H.: 1974,Knowledge and the Curriculum, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, England.Google Scholar
  14. Lakoff, R. T.: 1975,Language and Woman's Place, Octagon Books, New York, A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Reprinted in 1976 by Special Arrangement with Harper and Row, Publishers.Google Scholar
  15. le Guin, U. K.: 1985,The Left Hand of Darkness, inFive Complete Novels, Avental Books, New York, 311–491.Google Scholar
  16. Martin, J. R.: 1981,Educational Theory 31(2), Spring, 97–109.Google Scholar
  17. McKenna, M. C., R. D. Robinson and J. W. Miller: 1990a, ‘Whole Language: A Research Agenda for the Nineties’,Educational Researcher 19(8), November, 3–6.Google Scholar
  18. McKenna, M. C., R. D. Robinson and J. W. Miller: 1990b, ‘Whole Language and the Need for Open Inquiry: A Rejoinder to Edelsky’,Educational Researcher 19(8), November, 12–13.Google Scholar
  19. Nye, A.: 1990,Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic, Routledge, New York and London.Google Scholar
  20. Pearson, J. C.: 1985,Gender and Communication, Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Dubuque, Iowa.Google Scholar
  21. Peters, R. S.: 1965, ‘Education as Initiation’, in R. D. Archambault (ed.),Philosophical Analysis and Education, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, England.Google Scholar
  22. Rhys, J.: 1985,Wide Sargasso Sea, inThe Complete Novels, with an Introduction by Diana Athill, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 463–574.Google Scholar
  23. Scriven, M.: 1976,Reasoning, McGraw Hill, Toronto.Google Scholar
  24. Shakeshaft, C.: 1987,Women in Educational Administration, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, Beverly Hills.Google Scholar
  25. Shakespeare, W.: 1911a,Julius Caesar, in W. G. Clark, W. A. Wright and I. Gollancz (eds.),The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Complete Notes of the Temple Shakespeare, Cumberland Publishing Company, New York, 52–81.Google Scholar
  26. Spender, D.: 1980,Man Made Language, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.Google Scholar
  27. Wharton, E.: 1913,The Custom of the Country, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maryann Ayim
    • 1
  1. 1.The University of Western OntarioAlthouse CollegeLondonCanada

Personalised recommendations