The “f” word and qualitative inquiry

I’ve been reading Pip Williams’ novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words (2022). Situated around the turn of the 20th century in Oxford, UK, Williams’ novel explores the experiences of the middle-class protagonist, Esme. Esme contributes to the development of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in a patriarchal and classist society in which suffragettes are fighting for the right to vote. Yet as a woman of relative privilege, she struggles to recognize the labor of Lizzie, a maid entrusted with Esme’s care from a young age. Nevertheless, trained to define words by her lexicographer father, Esme embarks on collecting words from women and people she meets at the local market that are omitted from the official dictionary. As I read this novel, I marvel at the opportunities available to me that were not available to my own grandmothers, both of whom were young women at the time of World War I. The feminist movement has come a long way in the past century! But…

When I was in graduate school, one of the (well-published and feminist) professors mentioned to a group of graduate students that she never mentioned the “f” word when teaching. Apparently, back in the mid-1990s, there were still unsafe spaces for saying the word “feminist.” Brigette Herron* (2022) mentions in her recent article that feminist adult educators with whom she spoke in her research said a similar sort of thing when she interviewed them. She commented: “self-identified feminist adult educators claimed the word feminist for themselves in private and feminist-friendly spaces but described avoiding the word feminism if they felt it was politically sensitive or would be received negatively by others” (p. 8).

In my teaching, I’ve found that students are very frequently surprised to learn that their assumptions about how a just world should work align with feminist theories in ways that they had not considered, and that feminist theory takes many forms. Though some may disagree with these premises, feminist approaches to research assume that women encounter oppression in culture and society, and there is a need for change to bring about gender equality. Yet one should not mistake any particular form of “feminist” theory as representative of feminist work more broadly. Over time, I’ve found that I’ve taken excursions into different feminist scholarship while continuing to add to my understanding. And I still have much to learn.

Feminist projects have very different points of focus in different cultural contexts and countries (e.g., Enloe, 2000, 2004). Where a person grows up and in what historical context will have an impact on how one understands feminist thought. For example, I recall reading a copy of Belenky et al. (1986) loaned to me by a friend taking a course on women’s studies in 1991. At that time, the book was a revelation! Some years later, Gilligan (1993) provided another understanding of women’s moral development than I had gained from my undergraduate degree where we had studied the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, who Gilligan worked for as a research assistant. Then later in graduate school, I learned from Patti Lather (1991), Chris Weedon (1987), and Dorothy Smith (1987, 1990a, 1990b). I read Ann Oakley’s (1981) account of her interview practice, which has been massively cited as support for a “feminist” approach to interviewing. I later came to think more about how “feminist” research practice, although often associated with qualitative inquiry (Oakley, 1998, 2000), could employ multiple methods, including quantitative methods (Reinharz, 1992). The idea of “feminist interviewing” has lingered over the decades since Oakley’s chapter was published.

Brigette Herron’s article (2022) traces the idea of a feminist approach to qualitative interviewing over four decades from 1981 to 2021, identifying five feminist conceptual “moments.” These are “(a) experience and voice; (b) difference and positionality; (c) power sharing and collaboration; (d) creativity, listening, and reflexivity; and (e) ethics of care and safety” (p. 3). Herron’s article provides illustrative examples of how different scholars have emphasized these facets of feminist inquiry in the ways in which feminist interviews are conducted, analyzed, and represented to others. Herron asserts that current research continues to focus on these concepts, although “filtered through our current feminist political moments” (p. 6) and recent trends in qualitative inquiry, including post-qualitative inquiry, new materialist and decolonizing approaches to research, and the idea of “feminism for the 90%” drawing on the work of Arruzza et al. (2019). The latter approach argues for a “reimagining of feminism and gender justice that is anticapitalist, antiracist, antiimperialist, and environmentalist” (p. 7). Herron provides a range of ways in which researchers can take up feminist research for the 99% in ways that are inclusive of marginalized people, including individuals identifying as gender nonbinary, trans women, trans men, and disabled people (p. 8).

Herron closes her article with three suggestions for scholars using a feminist approach to interviewing. These are:

(1) know the moment that have come before you;

(2) speak to your current moment or become international about which feminist political issues are of deepest concern to your research community; and

(3) remain open to revision, ambiguity, and trying new combinations to inform your practice. (p. 8)

The feminist literature cited in this post is partial, highly selective, and historically situated in relation to the ways I’ve come to learn about feminist theories. In the last 30 years since I started reading about feminist theory and methodology, there have been countless contributions to feminist work that speak to the varied forms that feminist inquiry might take across the world. What about your sojourns in feminist approaches to qualitative inquiry? Where have you paused? What readings would you recommend? To whom? Please share your favorite feminist readings. I welcome your thoughts in the comment box below.

Kathy Roulston

*Note: I have co-authored several articles and chapters with Brigette, and served on her dissertation committee. I continue to follow her suggestions for reading. Arruzza et. al. (2019) is next on my list!


Arruzza, C., Bhattacharya, T., & Fraser, N. (2019). Feminism for the 99%: A manifesto. Verso.

Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice and mind. Basic Books.

Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Harvard University Press.

Herron, B. A. (2022). 40 Years of qualitative feminist interviewing: Conceptual moments and cultivating ecosystems of care. Qualitative Inquiry. Advance online publication.

Lather, P. A. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. Routledge.

Oakley, A. (1981). Interviewing women: A contradiction in terms. In H. Roberts (Ed.), Doing feminist research (pp. 30-61). Routledge.

Oakley, A. (1998). Gender, methodology and people’s ways of knowing: Some problems with feminism and the paradigm debate in social science. Sociology, 32(4), 707-731.

Oakley, A. (2000). Experiments in knowing: Gender and method in the social sciences. The New Press.

Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. Oxford University Press.

Smith, D. E. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Northeastern University Press.

Smith, D. E. (1990a). The conceptual practices of power: A feminist sociology of knowledge. Northeastern University Press.

Smith, D. E. (1990b). Texts, facts, and femininity: Exploring the relations of ruling. Routledge.

Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory (2nd ed.). Blackwell Publishers.

Williams, P. (2022). The dictionary of lost words. Random House.

One thought on “The “f” word and qualitative inquiry

  1. I just read the Dictionary of Lost Words and loved it! My dissertation work was framed around Belenky et al. – glad to see that included here,


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