Life-world and Lived Existence:
The Evolution of Gender Consciousness in Feminist Discourse

V. Bharathi Harishankar
University of Madras, Chennai

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Life-World (Lebenswelt) as the world which is directly experienced in the subjectivity of everyday life. Subjectivity and Experientiality blends into one of several binaries including those of sex and gender. The impact of phenomenology on different theories of feminism is readily apparent. This paper seeks to re-view a few feminist concepts by applying certain phenomenological paradigms. They have been outlined below:

1. Phenomenologists consider the first person point of view, that is I, as a crucial determinant in the description of Self and Other. In her seminal work, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir raises the question, “Why is woman the Other?” to explain the existing division of man and woman as Self and Other. Applying psychoanalysis to feminism, theorists such as Betty Friedan, Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan interrogate the relegation of women as Other arising out of the debate on biological difference vs social construction.

2. Feminists have repeatedly raised the clarion call “Personal is Political.” This idea can be explained using the phenomenological idea of Subjectivity, which is realised in the description of the first person experience. Both Husserl's “principle of principles” and Heidegger's emphasis on “recording the phenomena surrounding the perceptual object” offer useful frames to explore this concept. One important tenet of feminism is to revalue women's experience in order to highlight the socio-cultural, politico-historical biases. Kate Millet and Mary Daly foreground the informing contexts in the representation of women.

3.  The phenomenological idea of Intentionality puts forth the idea that experience has a constitutive and a constituted dimension. Merleau-Ponty's notion of “being-towards-the-world” can be used to interpret the corresponding feminist notion. Feminists argue that the power relations have been drawn in pre-conceived ways and they seek to re-examine them with changing experiences. The tenets of Black Feminism and Elaine Showalter's theory of “feminine, feminist and female phases” articulate the different positions occupied at different points in history.

4. Merleau-Ponty uses the idea of body scheme to arrive at the conclusion that “the boundary between my body and that which I inhabit are fluid.” Body as a constitutive domain is a thrust area in feminism. The fluid extension of body into the act of living is explored by Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick. By doing so, these theorists problematise the “accepted” notion hetero-normativity in order to project a gender continuum.

5. Feminists, like phenomenologists, emphasise the importance of perception and its articulation. In particular, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray put forward the notion of women's language (ecriture feminine) as a necessary tool to articulate women's experiences.

The phenomological framework provides a vantage point to re-view some high water marks in feminism. It is interesting that phenomenological paradigms enable the study of different feminists with different ideological bases together as the continuing link in feminism.