Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology
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Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology

Theoretical and Applied Perspectives

Sara Cohen Shabot, Christinia Landry

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eBook - ePub

Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology

Theoretical and Applied Perspectives

Sara Cohen Shabot, Christinia Landry

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About This Book

Although feminist phenomenology is traditionally rooted in philosophy, the issues with which it engages sit at the margins of philosophy and a number of other disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. This interdisciplinarity is emphasised in the present collection. Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology focuses on emerging trends in feminist phenomenology from a range of both established and new scholars. It covers foundational feminist issues in phenomenology, feminist phenomenological methods, and applied phenomenological work in politics, ethics, and on the body. The book is divided into three parts, starting with new methodological approaches to feminist phenomenology and moving on to address popular discourses in feminist phenomenology that explore ethical and political, embodied, and performative perspectives.

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Chapter 1

Subject and Structure in Feminist Phenomenology: Re-reading Beauvoir with Butler

Beata Stawarska
Feminist phenomenology addresses questions related to gender and sexuality in terms of their experience and expression by concrete subjects situated within the social world. Its historical roots can be located within Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 groundbreaking study of women’s lived experiences as a socially subjugated “second sex.” However, Edith Stein’s earlier work on feminine and masculine types of consciousness,1 Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the importance of being born and natality,2 Iris Marion Young’s descriptions of female embodiment,3 and, finally, Luce Irigaray’s analyses of sexual difference as a prediscursive experience,4 all helped to establish feminist phenomenology as a recognizable subfield in contemporary continental philosophy. Its live status in today’s scholarship is confirmed by an increasing number of publications in edited anthologies, monographs, and special journal issues.5 Feminist phenomenology has become a significant voice in contemporary feminism and academic philosophy. Therefore, it may come as a surprise that I will argue that the alliance between feminist interests and phenomenological methods is as fruitful as it is fraught and needs to be examined anew. I will ultimately propose an understanding of feminist phenomenology guided by Judith Butler’s reading of Beauvoir that I believe opens up fruitful possibilities of future research while finding its ground in foundational texts.

Feminism and Phenomenology— Fraught Alliances

Phenomenology seeks to study human reality in a concrete sense, as it appears to the experiencing subject, emphasizing the bodily and socially modulated quality of lived experience and its expression. Phenomenology is therefore well suited to the feminist project of making women’s historically devalued experiences visible. Phenomenological emphasis on the embodied quality of experience is especially valuable to feminism. Natural sciences, including medical sciences, assume a natural or biological category of the body and lack the epistemic perspective of the concerned subjects themselves; they may contain unexamined biases; for example, medical sciences tends to pathologize women’s biological functions in pregnancy.6 Here the classical phenomenological distinction between the lived body (Leib) and the body-object (Koerper) offers a corrective, since it turns the woman’s gestating body into a site of valuable knowledge about its own functioning that precedes a detached and objectifying account. Additionally, this emphasis on a lived experiential body as an epistemic field has been taken up in an activist context; for example, it has been taken up by consciousness-raising groups that provide a forum for expression, sharing, and the recognition of personal experience of women by women. This dedicated social space helps women to actively assume the role of knowing subjects reflecting on and interpreting their condition. Such an epistemic shift was and continues to be a source of empowerment for women’s groups and may lead to women assuming a more agentive relation to their bodies: for example, by training women in the techniques of self-defense.
Despite the potential for a fruitful interchange between phenomenological and feminist goals, their relation is fraught insofar as phenomenology as an academic discipline historically assumed the category of purportedly neutral and ahistorical existence as its field of study and focused on the constitution of meanings within the sphere of consciousness purified of contingent empirical content. Categories of gender and sexual difference were not counted together with a temporal and intentional structure among the essential features of consciousness; even though being sexed received passing mention in the works of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, it certainly was not developed in depth, and the specificity of feminine embodiment was not mentioned.7 This is a significant omission considering that both philosophers regarded the body and social relations as inalienable features of subjectivity and as central problems in phenomenology. Such a lack of attention to gender could of course indicate a scholarly gap to be filled by new phenomenological studies that begin with a gendered as well as racialized (and shaped by class, nationality, and other significant markers of identity) conception of the embodied, socially modulated experience. Some critics argue, however, that the omission of gender is not a simple and easily rectifiable oversight but rather indicative of a deep-seated bias in favor of specifically male embodiment, universalized as generic human experience. For example, Butler critiques Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological description of sexual being in the Phenomenology of Perception for assuming an apparently genderless subject; she contends that Merleau-Ponty’s generic account not only “devalues gender as a relevant category in the description of lived bodily experience,” but that, inasmuch as the subject discussed in the sexuality chapter “resembles a culturally constructed male subject,” it also devalues not gender, but women.8
It is also the case that some great works in the phenomenological tradition such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology seemingly inscribe female sexual anatomy within a repugnant imagery of slime and gaping holes. Female sexuality is figured as the opposite of consciousness and value, a site available to as well as vengeful for male conquest (where the latter is directly associated with knowledge and consciousness). Sartre’s stereotypically sexed account was critically apprised by Margery Collins and Christine Peirce in their influential “Holes and Slime: Sexism in Sartre’s Psychoanalysis,” and even though the authors limited their critique to the psychoanalytic elements of Sartre’s ontology, others like Michelle Le Doeuff extended her critique to his phenomenological ontology.9
The phenomenological tradition also includes narratives that take up the feminine condition within a detailed descriptive account of the erotic and ethical life but tacitly assume and uncritically essentialize historically specific and highly stereotyped conceptions of femininity, such as Immanuel Levinas does in his Totality and Infinity. Levinas correlates femininity with the “absence of seriousness” and an “irresponsible animality which does not speak true words.”10 As Irigaray argues, feminine eroticism is envisioned by Levinas as a threat of excessive materiality to the ethical relation of transcendence enjoyed by a masculine subject.11 It is unclear if relations of sexual difference enjoy any ethical standing within Levinas’s philosophy.
A skeptic could therefore argue that classical phenomenology is not only irrelevant to feminist interests due to its pretend subject neutrality, but it is also de facto hostile to feminist interests due to its barely disguised masculinism. When the phenomenologists take on the feminine as a philosophical problem, their explicit goal is to identify a set of invariant essences within human experience at the risk of presenting a stock of gender stereotypes in the guise of universal and unchanging truths; one would search in vain here for an analysis of the ideological motivations and power structures leading to such stereotyped notions. If these gendered biases proved intractable, the only task left to a feminist scholar facing the classical phenomenological tradition would be the one already carried out in relation to the Western philosophical tradition as a whole, that is, developing a sustained critique of its ideological assumptions, exposing the concomitant dominant relations of power and privilege, and challenging “the universal voice” of philosophy and phenomenology, with its misplaced “view from nowhere.”12

Feminism and Phenomenology: Two Kinds of Interrelation

Such critical concerns need to be taken seriously if phenomenology is to help, rather than hinder, the feminist agenda. Still, the interrelation between phenomenology and feminism can assume forms of successful collaboration instead if not alongside external critique. Butler, who virulently critiqued Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception for its unexamined heterosexism and masculinism13 and Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for an assumed Cartesian dualism and Sartrean voluntarism,14 also recognized the emancipatory potential of phenomenology, especially in Beauvoir’s emphasis on a socially situated character of gendered identity and its connection to social practice.15 This tension between Butler’s external critique and a relation of borrowing from within raises an interesting methodological question of what happens when feminism becomes integrated into phenomenology or when phenomenology becomes feminist. I propose two ways of construing this interrelation, which I will term conservative and transformative.
On the conservative construal, the relationship between phenomenology and feminism primarily involves an expansion of the scope of phenomenology to cover previously uncharted territories (e.g., gendered embodiment, gendered desire, temporality from a deliberately gendered point of view, and other topics); this expansion leaves the classical methods (phenomenological and eidetic reduction) and the traditional academic goals of increasing objective knowledge unchanged. Alternatively, the relationship between phenomenology and feminism provides an opportunity to transform the phenomenological tradition itself. On the latter view, phenomenological methods and goals are tested and, if needed, revised in response to the new subject matter. This revision takes place in conversation with other relevant traditions of inquiry and empirical disciplines; it accommodates theoretical as well as activist aspirations and identifies itself as an emancipatory and not an exclusively epistemic pursuit.
Some feminist phenomenologists, most prominently Sara Heinämaa,16 adopt the conservative line of seeking to expand the scope of phenomenological knowledge without considering the possibility of methodological reform. This approach keeps phenomenology “pure,” that is, disconnected from empirical studies, and unrelated to the practical struggle for women’s rights.17 Heinämaa contends that the task of phenomenology consists in studying the signification or meaning of woman, feminine, and female via a phenomenological description of sexual difference, and not in a theory grounded in a sociocultural analysis of gender formation.18 Heinämaa claims that “the correct framework” for interpreting Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is to be found in Husserl’s phenomenology, and not in the “foreign ideas” such as the sex/gender distinction introduced by the Anglo-American framework in which Butler operates.19 Other scholars envisage the possibility of an internal critique and revision of phenomenological methods and goals. Eva Simms and I previously argued that feminist aspirations are better served by interdisciplinarity than methodological purity.20 Similarly, Helen Fielding writes, “To think the intersection of feminism with phenomenology is not to see the former as merely another branch of phenomenology. It is of course to consider how feminist theories have drawn on phenomenology, but it is also to reflect upon how feminist phenomenologies have challenged and also transformed phenomenology, sometimes at its core.”21
Most recently, Johanna Oksala reminds us that “feminist philosophy aims not just for better forms of knowledge, but also for better forms of society,” which requires attending to and altering the dominant power relations producing and organizing the social world.22 She concludes, “Phenomenology can provide a fruitful theoretical and methodological framework for feminist philosophy, but only if it is radically modified to the extent that it might no longer be recognized as phenomenology.”23 Specifically, she notes, “phenomenology can extend its analysis to the question of gender only if its method is radically revised.”24 This means that a phenomenological account of how gendered experiences are constituted must include normative cultural practices and structures of meaning in addition to embodiment, and that such an account can only be fragmented and incomplete. Ultimately, Oksala proposes a “po...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2018). Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology (1st ed.). Rowman & Littlefield International. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2018) 2018. Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield International.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2018) Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology. 1st edn. Rowman & Littlefield International. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Rethinking Feminist Phenomenology. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.