Reflections from the Future Directions in Feminist Phenomenology Conference

By Emma Ryman and Katy Fulfer

Phenomenology is often characterized as getting back to the things themselves, of describing the structures of lived experience by pushing past the assumptions we tend to bring to experience. But what specifically is feminist phenomenology? In an interview with Alia Al-Saji (McGill), the full text of which is forthcoming on the Rotman Blog, she explains that there are at least two sides to feminist phenomenology. The first side consists of philosophers who examine phenomenological texts and figures through a critical feminist lens. Such philosophers offer critiques of phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and Husserl, for assuming that the experiences they are describing are neutral, and for thus taking up a universal subject of experience, who is typically white and male. The second side of feminist phenomenology consists of feminist thinkers taking up and reinterpreting phenomenological texts and methods, and employing them for feminist purposes. Many feminist phenomenologists take up both of these projects to varying degrees.

Silvia Stoller (Vienna), in her talk “What is Feminist Phenomenology: Looking Backwards and Into the Future,” explains that feminist phenomenology is a relatively new field. Some date it as far back as the 1950s to texts like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, though neither of these figures identified as feminist phenomenologists at that time. Others date it back only as early as the 1980s, when work that was explicitly feminist and phenomenological became more visible, with key figures like Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, and Iris Marion Young. In particular, Young’s “Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality” (1980, Human Studies) is seen as a crucial text in the development of an explicitly feminist phenomenology.

In “Feminist Phenomenological Voices” (2010, Continental Philosophy Review), Linda Fisher (Central European University) notes how voice has been a powerful metaphor for women’s empowerment. Fisher also writes that phenomenology’s contribution here has seemed “soft-spoken.” This may be due in part to the marginalization of phenomenology in philosophy in the English-speaking world, or to the few number of women and feminists working within phenomenology. But, regardless of why feminist phenomenology may be soft-spoken, Fisher thinks it is worth investigating its distinctive voice.

Although, as we have noted, the discussion has moved beyond early feminist critiques of the phenomenological method as essentializing, universal, and inattentive to difference. But, Fisher writes, there are still tensions within the circle of feminist phenomenology:

Yet within the internal conversation of feminist phenomenology, that is, where the conversational participants are both feminist phenomenologists and phenomenological feminists, I sometimes wonder whether the feminist voice is being heard as clearly or as loudly as the phenomenological one. In a genuinely collaborative feminist phenomenology it would of course be optimal when both elements are having their say equally (not to leave aside the possibility of a truly integrated feminist phenomenology, in which feminism and phenomenology are not merely co-conversationalists but are intermingled, interwoven speaking, as it were, with one voice). But additionally, from the perspective of a feminist praxis that initiated critical interactions with established discourses—by provoking, critiquing, unsettling, as well as dialoguing—it would seem all the more important that the feminist voice be not only present, but amplified; at least for now. (Fisher 2010, 85).

Fisher urges feminist phenomenologists to turn-up the volume on applying phenomenological methods to feminist analyses of social and political questions about gender. To this list, we could add sexuality, racialization, class, ethnicity, and dis/ability. From the talks and discussion from the Future Directions of Feminist Phenomenology conference, it seems that two important features of feminist phenomenology are worth mentioning: the tradition of and commitment to the phenomenological method to describe social and political belonging, and the diversity of approaches and ways theorists may bring phenomenology to bear on issues of identity.

In the weeks that follow, some of us who attended the conference will be bringing you our reflections from it. In the talks we’ll be discussing, and in the interview with Alia Al-Saji, what is worth attending to is how phenomenological descriptions of lived experience open up new or alternative ways of understanding phenomena that structure our lives. As Stoller emphasized, feminist phenomenologists have moved beyond critiques of phenomenology to apply phenomenological descriptions to cognitive science, biology, and to identity categories distinct from just “consciousness” or “the body.” These thinkers have taken up Fisher’s call to turn up the volume, and we hope you stay tuned.