The Problem of Experience in Feminist Theory

The notion of experience in feminist theory has been a powerful and empowering one for many feminist women. For example, radical cultural feminist Sonia Johnson, in the introduction to her 1987 book Going Out of Our Minds: The Metaphysics of Liberation, argues that often, women do not see themselves as theorists, because “philosophy has been so mystified by the men” (p. ii). For Johnson, it is crucial that women see themselves as always already feminist theorists who “spin theory out of the strands of our lives” (p. ii). Johnson claims that

Feminist analysis, more than any other analysis of the human situation, has its origins in direct experience. All feminist theorists first observe and draw conclusions from their own lives; all feminist theory results from the transformation of that experience and observation into principle. But not all feminist theory reveals its underlying process, the specific experience and the analysis of it that led to the generalization. (p. ii)

Johnson calls for a “show your work” approach to feminist theory, and Going Out of Our Minds is an account of five years of lived experience that led to her conclusions.

Experience has been an important epistemological stance in opposition to the dominant practices of aligning oneself with and building upon the work of Plato, Kant, Heidegger, and other white, male, European philosophers. However, the impact of poststructuralist and postmodernist theoretical interventions led feminist theorists to problematize the authority of experience as evidence and epistemology. How can experience have any verisimilitude when two people, even two women, who are at the same place at the same time can give completely different accounts of it? Joan W. Scott (in her 1991 article "The Evidence of Experience") and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (in her 1992 article "Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience") both address this problematic, Scott with the goal of producing historical knowledge, and Mohanty with the goal of building a feminist politics.

Scott points out many problems that arise when using experience as evidence by citing texts by Samuel Delany, Raymond Williams, R.G. Collingwood, and E.P. Thompson in order to claim that we should change our object of study from events and “reality” to discursive systems that shape experience; for example, alongside studying the experience of American slaves in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, we should study the discursive systems of racism and capitalism that produced slavery as an effect. One of the problems Scott explains is the tendency of using experience as evidence to naturalize, or reify, discursively-produced identities such as gay, lesbian, woman, Black, and transgender. Such histories of difference “take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented and thus naturalize their difference” (p. 777). Another problem with experience-as-evidence is that it overgeneralizes group histories: Frederick Douglass' experience and Harriet Jacobs' experience can be taken to represent history from the slave perspective. Also problematic in experience-as-evidence is the way the historian's experience informs the interpretation of the object of study's experience and the salience of one kind of experience over another—in Thompson's book, Scott writes that Thompson studies workers as workers only, not taking into account intersectional identities (and experiences) such as being Black, white, a woman, a man, etc. If one is studying workers, one should study the concept of class and how it is discursively produced. Scott concludes by making the postmodern move toward calling for the study of the processes of subject creation, not just experience itself.

Mohanty approaches the concept of experience from a postcolonialist framework. She problematizes experience, especially experience in feminist politics as hegemonic white U.S. middle-class women's experience, by examining experience in two texts: Robin Morgan's “Planetary Feminism” and Bernice Johnson Reagon's “Coalition Politics.” She does this in order to argue for a feminist politics of engagement, based on the temporality of struggle and the politics of location. Morgan, Mohanty writes, bases her version of feminist politics on a notion of sisterhood, of universal women's experience as victims and truth-tellers, and such experience can be used as common ground on which to form a politics of transcendence. However, according to Mohanty, Morgan fails to account for imperialism (and women's participation in it). For example, very often U.S. feminist women wear clothes made in sweatshops by their “sisters” in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They benefit from and participate in systems that oppress their “sisters.” Morgan's argument rests on what Mohanty calls the “feminist osmosis thesis” of oppression and resistance: being feminist comes from female experience. Mohanty says that “[p]olitics and ideology as self-conscious struggles and choices necessarily get written out of such an analysis” (p. 80).1 Experience should not be understood as “simultaneously individual (that is, located in the individual body/psyche of woman) and general (located in women as a preconstituted collective)” (p. 82).


Mohanty prefers Reagon's approach to experience, which states that instead of thinking that women's experience can be the ground for a feminist politics (this creates only the illusion of unity), we should think of politics as informing experience. For Reagon, the experience of oppression is not the basis for coalition-building; the experience of survival is. Reagon and Mohanty express a desire to engage intersectionality: “it is the current intersection of anti-racist, anti-imperialist and gay and lesbian struggles which we need to understand to map the ground for feminist political strategy and critical analysis” (p. 87). She calls this way of thinking a “politics of location.” It is through a politics of location, a temporality of struggle (“an insistent, simultaneous, non-synchronous process characterized by multiple locations, rather than a search for origins and endings”(p. 87)), and a coalition-building based on survival that Mohanty attempts to solve the problematic.

* A Footnote: I cannot help but suspect that Mohanty is making a straw man out of Morgan's argument at times. For instance, I'm sure Morgan has read Dworkin's Right-Wing Women and has also seen a lack of resistance to oppression on some women's part. I would argue that Morgan's take on privilege and imperialism is faulty, to be sure, but based on what I know of Morgan, I'm inclined to question Morgan's invocation of the feminist osmosis thesis.