Treading the common ground: Collective consciousness in women’s autobiography

Abstract: The introductory article by Lalitha Ramamoorthy about “Treading the Common Ground: Collective Consciousness in Women’s Autobiography” sets the mood and theme of this issue of Samyukta. It defines autobiography both as a work of art and as a genre. After tracing the emergence of autobiography as a form of creative writing, she skilfully juxtaposes the traditional autobiographies in both the East and the West, and male and female autobiographical writing. She then analyses the various perspectives involved in women’s autobiography, including the continuous shifting of “feminist consciousness”, modes of self-expression, and the political agenda, which she hopes will “pave the way for the politics of women’s liberation”.

Keywords: autobiography, women’s self identification, ideological significance in women’s autobiography, sense of ‘self’, mirroring imagery, collective identity, strategy for political change

Autobiography as the attempt to write the self or give the self a narrative is deeply bound with questions of identity. Variously described as “that mixed and transgressive genre” by Mary Jacobs, and as “the monstrosity of autobiographical writing” by Barbara Johnson, the genre saw its expansion with the proliferation of women’s writing the world over especially after the 70s. Feminism and feminist thought have enhanced women’s consciousness and heightened their sense of awareness.

Traditional western constructions of the autobiography have been male oriented and have served to fashion a composite face of European culture. “Academically autobiography has been a male creation. Riding the tide of New Criticism, … Autobiography became the story of the male-self constructed by himself and recreating the metaphors of his life” (Huff: 1991). The autobiographies in which eminent men articulated their testimonies were held up as the model relationship between the individual and the social world. By conceding an authoritative position to the autobiographer, this analysis failed to accommodate any sense of tension, struggle or contestation between consciousness and environment, between people and their surrounding ideological world. The autobiographies of great men became the authentic data which established cultural certainties and provided points linking which the map of western civilisation was drawn. This interpretation viewed autobiography as something more than a simple presentation of individual existence.

Recent works on autobiography as a genre contest the generally held view that autobiography is a naked and transparent presentation of an individual life. It is now increasingly realised that all autobiographical statements engage in some process of mediation between the subject and the author and the ideological environment they inhabit. The social being is surrounded by ideological phenomena and by object signs of various types such as words, statements, religious symbols, beliefs, works of art etc. All these constitute the ideological environment in which an individual’s consciousness lives and develops. The autobiography, far from being a transparent outpouring of an individual, becomes a site where the writer sets out to “reassemble the scattered elements of his individual life and to regroup them in a comprehensive sketch” (Gusdorf). Hence the notion that the autobiographical art stands alone as a testimony to individuals, removed from their relationship to the social world, needs to be revised.

The emergence of modern autobiographical criticism runs parallel to the formation of different disciplines. In the context of theorising women’s autobiography, the insights of Freud’s psychoanalysis probing into the unconscious offered interesting points of reference. However recent feminist critics have used them with great theoretical sophistication to turn the major assumption of autobiography back on itself.

Freud in his seminal work entitled Preliminary Communication wrote that “hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences”. The reminiscences are not conscious but repressed and are displaced across the body as symptom or illness. He theorised a way of opening up repressed memory through the mediation of psychoanalytic interpretation. Freud affirmed that memories were not in fact actual events but fantasies constructed out of wishes and their repression. The neurotic was one who could not tell his or her own story. The story did not exist. It had to be constructed. The neurotic, according to him, experienced the present in terms of a repetition of the past. Freud later related hysteria to sexuality. All hysterical symptoms, according to him, stemmed from a conflict between instinctual impulses and their repressed forms. Hysterical attacks, like hysteria, revive in women sexual activity which existed during their childhood. The hysteric is one in whom the Oedipal complex and the acquisition of sexual difference have been imperfectly resolved. Freud’s analysis helps us to get an insight into the problem of femininity which is that women do not move simply into a female identity and role; nor is that identity natural or pre-given. The woman in the course of normal development represses her pre-Oedipal attachment to her mother. In taking on a feminine identity she abandons her mother, seeking to replace her in relation to her father. For Freud therefore a woman’s identification with and desire for, the mother cannot exist in the same place.

The contestation of these ideas comes from various angles. Linda Anderson (1996) sees the woman’s self within a different paradigm as both self and other, as both subject and object of desire. The process of becoming a subject carries within itself a return to maternal origins. The return can never be completed. However, recognising within herself the process of return, her own interiority, she can constitute herself within the symbolic. Modifying Freud, it might be said that the hysterical woman, instead of suffering from reminiscences, lives the necessity of remembering, of gesturing towards her own origins in order not to forget. This identification characterises a movement which is simultaneously outwards and inwards and is suggestive of the way memory can become self-creation.

A collection of essays entitled “Female Sexualisation” (Haug 1987) of the Socialist Collective, Hamburg and West Berlin, too counters the generally held view of the autobiography that childhood and adolescence are part of a logical sequence of cause and effect culminating in the adult personality. The German School argues that past experience such as moments of resistance to male authority are obtainable through memory once they have overcome the obstacles of patriarchal culture, which causes these experiences to be forgotten. Hence memory is an active process only in terms of the blocks placed in front of the recollection of past experiences. Ironically the ways of remembering provided by the dominant culture work only by repression or by transporting alien qualities into their selves. To have access to the omitted experiences, critical theorising of autobiographical remembering should combine emotions and self-reflexive theorising. The memory after all may not reconstruct all the experiences, for critically informed remembering, frees memory from the biases of dominant culture, thereby allowing us to see “events in the past in new and more or less unprejudiced ways (Haug 1987).

The autobiographies are creative writings emerging as products of history and culture and perhaps with ideological significance. Women traditionally conceived as passive are breaking the cultural code by choosing to reveal themselves. They have to posit a self that existed before writing. Since this self was and still is, socially conditioned, the self that narrates and the self that is projected are not unified and continuous. In fact the autobiography may provide her with an alternative site of identification created with formal awareness. This site of dynamics is situated between her past identity, marred by loss and absence, and a constructed one of what might be. Autobiography which marks the presence of a woman in effect encircles an absence, referring back constantly in its efforts to define itself. Her story, therefore, becomes an expression of the dynamics of self-becoming. The output is set in the ‘here and now ‘and ends in the figure of the subject who produces a sense of the self by telling her story in her own time. If the historical narrative allows her to give a complexity to her childhood, the childhood she recounts becomes the childhood of her imagination. “I could write it backwards indeed and you would still know it happened forward” (Steedman 1992).

Debates in current autobiographical theory suggest that new forms of autobiography are not merely a question of replacing one face with another. The constructions with mediation and obliqueness built into them are often imaged as a face through the surface of the text. These, in the postcolonial context, present the complexity of mirroring imagery – distorted mirrors, the anamorphic vision, the uneasy mirrors of race and identity and their disturbing reflections as in Patricia Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights – Diary of a Law Professor.

Women’s autobiographical writing differs from male writing essentially in its approach to the subject in question. Male writing focuses on a well-formed, well-integrated, fully developed self. An autobiography is expected to reveal the “hidden forms of inwardness”. Hence the question that crops up is whether a woman who is marginalised and is taught from her birth to be controlled and self-effacing can be expected to indulge in the luxury of self-exploration. In the words of Freidman, “A man has the luxury of forgetting his sex. He can think of himself as an individual. Women are reminded at every turn in the great cultural hall of mirrors of their sex”

A woman’s life, in both the East and the West, is made up of multiple selves that not only overlap but also override and contradict each other. She occupies a number of positions and enters into various relations from which she has to gather bits and pieces of her own self. There is a continuously shifting feminist consciousness. The outward structure of this may have the semblance of a unified whole but it contains gaps and blanks like the unresolved mysteries of an incomplete story. The subject of a feminist autobiography is ever in the making and is marked by a continued deferral of any final identity. A woman in her autobiography tries to define herself from the positions which are relevant to her existence:

a) The social self or the external self through which she relates herself to the society at large, and as an individual working in a certain capacity or for a certain social cause. It affords her a public image and occupies the visible, peripheral fringe of her existence.

b) The familial self in which she is inextricably bound to her parents. siblings, husband, children and other relatives. She looks at herself from an outsider’s point of view. This self occupies a major part of her life.

c) The private self forms the centre of her individual existence. At times she even fails to recognise, face and explore this self. To recognise this self is to arrive at self-realisation. Grasping this self, understanding it and evaluating it is the most important but the most difficult outcome of an autobiographical writing.

In contrast, a man’s autobiography is mainly concerned with his success story, his life achievements. Very rarely does it touch upon his private life consisting of his wife and children. “ Masculine mind is characterised by the predominance of the intellect, and the feminine by the predominance of the emotions … Woman by her greater affectionateness, her greater range and depth of emotional experience, is well-fitted to give expression to the emotional facts of life” (Lewes,1971).

Whether this difference is reflected in the form of women’s autobiography is debatable. The femininity of writing associated with disorder and looseness, instead of the order and tightness in men’s mode of writing, may be indicative of the informal approach set in motion by the constant exposure of women to homely chats and grandmother’s tales. The form the early women writers chose to write in was the diary. Historically it offered her an avenue for self expression without going public. It allowed the woman to remain hidden while providing her with a place to actualise her interiority, create for her an ‘other’ even if the other happened to be herself. The diary’s formlessness, its lack of continuity and its joining up of various areas of experience became the most appropriate form for a shifting, questioning subjectivity. Alice James began to keep her diary in 1889 at the age of forty and it was not published during her life time. Jean Strouse, her biographer, comments on how from her position as invalid, she cultivated a detachment which “enabled her to submit and resist at the same time.” Interestingly, she herself writes:

“ My circumstances allowing nothing but the ejaculation of one- syllabled reflections, a written monologue by that most interesting being, myself, may have its yet to be discovered consolations. I shall at least have it all my own way and it may bring relief as a ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins; so here goes my first journal !

The same pattern of introspection, memory, breaking the surface in what is seen as a movement of recovery in the work of Kate Millet. However Kate’s situation is different in many ways. It was in fact her success after the publication of Sexual Politics that made autobiography an imperative for her. What she experienced was an inability to reconcile inner and outer experience. In Flying and Sita she produces narratives which in their disjointedness are like a diary. In a sense woman’s autobiography is both a reaching towards the possibility of saying “I” and towards the form in which to say “it”. Writing in this sense becomes a quest and a process. Christa Wolf in her ‘Interview with Myself ‘writes into the space of what she has called “remembered future” and ends with the difficulty of saying “I”.

Another favoured mode of self expression in the present era is testimony as part of ‘speaking out’. As Shoshana Felman writes ‘Testimony has become a crucial mode of our relation to events of our times…” In the US Alice Keller’s An Unknown Woman (1982) ; in France, Marie Cardinal’s The Words to Say It (1975); In England, Ann Oakley’s Taking it Like a Woman (1984); in Bangladesh, Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja and in India Kamala Das’ My Story are examples of women’s confessional narratives. This shift from the self-consciousness of autobiography to testify details of one’s life has important implications for conceptions of the status and value of self writings. This leads one to the personal criticism in which an explicitly autobiographical performance is made central to the activity of criticism. This foregrounds the identity of the critic in recaptualising the nature of criticism itself. Felman argues that “we need to understand women’s autobiography, at this point in history, as missing.” She claims that unlike men who write autobiography from memory, women’s autobiography is what their memory cannot contain or hold together. She argues that telling the story of the self may be a way of killing aspects of that self or part selves rather than preserving them. Further, woman’s alienation from a totalised life-story means that their autobiography is to be found in other’s stories. This kind of autobiography therefore is mediated and displaced because they narrate a story which they do not know or cannot speak out. It makes a detour through theory, through fiction and through literature. Women’s autobiography may be marked as much by a resistance to the autobiographical as by an embracing of it.

Women’s autobiography in India is largely defined with reference to the traditional patriarchal set up in which it grew. However the consciousness enshrined therein often strikes a familiar chord among women elsewhere occupied with the definition of the “I”. Far from being a well defined, isolated “I”, women’s autobiography springs from an awareness of a collective identity. A woman does not write her autobiography as an isolated being, but carries a whole tradition of women’s writing within her. She sees herself as an extension of the collective consciousness of women’s subculture. It is noted that women’s identity is relational and their identity boundaries are very fluid compared to men’s. These facts of their gender identity influence the genre a great deal, in both form and content, making women’s autobiography discontinuous in form and personal in content. A deep sense of being discriminated against looms large over most of these autobiographies. The very first autobiography written by an Indian woman is that of the Marathi saint-poet Bahina Bai. Originally written around 1700, it gives expression to her sense of sorrow:

“Possessing a woman’s body, and myself being subjected to others, I was not able to carry out my desire to discard all worldly things …The Vedas cry aloud, and the Puranas shout that no good comes of a woman… I wonder what sin I committed in a former birth that in this birth I should be so separated from God. I am born with a human body , but in the form of a woman” (Ranjana, 4).

Indian women’s autobiographies are filled with real life incidents which may be true of any Indian woman’s life. Many narrate the unpleasant way they were received into the world. Writing in the early 1900s, Dhanvanti Rama Rau in An Inheritance (1978) tells us of how the dai assisting in the delivery used to charge less for a girl child’s birth, while Urmila Haksar in The Future that Was ( 1972) tells us how her nani “never could forgive me for my sex”. The birth of Indira Gandhi too was no exception as it is reported in The Scope of Happiness (1979) by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit : “Mother had not said a son is born but ‘it’ has been born. In the traditional way she could not bring herself to announce the birth of a daughter” (Ranjana, 6).

Ushered into an unwelcome world the women had a childhood which lacked growing space. The familial and cognitive map of the traditional family did not provide them scope for healthy development. Savithri Devi’s The City of Two Gateways: The Autobiography of an Indian Girl (1950) and Sharan Jeet Shan’s In My Own Name : An Autobiography (1985) tell us how they were constantly reminded of their temporary status in their parents’ family. They were born parai and hence discriminated against. Sharan’s mother would tell her son not to spoil his sister by sharing his food. “She is parai. She must learn to suppress her temptations.” The women writing autobiographies reveal the discrimination, deprivation and marginality of existence coupled with training to cultivate tolerance, meekness and suppression of self to please others. Maharani Brinda’s The Story of an Indian Princess (1953) gives vent to the frustration and claustrophobia of woman’s existence. However Durgabai Deshmukh’s Chintaman and I (1980) and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s Inner Recesses and Outer Spaces (1986) testify the influence of their mothers and grandmothers who were the early feminists. Other women writers like Nayantara Sahgal (1962), Tara Ali Baig (1988) and Renuka Ray (1982) record their happy childhoods and Yamini Krishnamurthi speaks of her life’s passion in Passion for Dance (1986).

The typical Indian autobiographies are often traditional as they depict only the surface level of experience and find fulfilment in projecting a socially acceptable image of the self. Only rarely writers like Kamala Das (1976) dare go beyond the pre-determined life patterns. Such bold writings defy all conventional models to retaliate against the worn-out social values and traditions which hinder and hamper the progress of women. They also have a cathartic value as asserted by Kamala herself. “I have written several books in my life, but none of them provided the pleasure the writing of My Story has given me” (Ranjana 8).

Women’s autobiography has an important political agenda too. Each such work registers an opposition and is radical in some way. The impact such works has made has opened up a whole new area for research. In this male-dominated genre, Simone de Beauvoir has received the critical acclaim rarely given to women. Her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1963) is a landmark in women’s autobiography. Till then, the outpourings, however powerful, remained as the life story of an individual. Life As We Have known It (1977) was another early text to draw attention to the relationship between the autobiographical statement, political movement and the process of collection of testimonials. This pioneering work put in motion a process which developed into a commitment within women’s movement and came to be described as the retrieval of absent and silent women’s voices.

1970 saw the publication of Dutiful Daughters edited by McCrindle and Sheila Rowbotham and continued the initiative of Beauvoir into a statement about the collective as well as the individual experience. If Beauvoir traced the process of rebellion in one life, that of a resisting middle class daughter, Dutiful Daughters implied that the resistance was by no means unique to one woman. The familial and logical pressures experienced might well be that of many others. It tried to show that shared individual experience is an important part of the social discovery of a common condition. Once we perceive what is common to women, change and transformation become possible and the cycle of guilt and personal recrimination can be broken. This initiates a political strategy in which writing and reading of the autobiography becomes part of conscience raising. This perception constitutes a common condition which forms a precondition for social and political change. Voicing her own experience of motherhood which turned out to be different from its idealised projection, Linda Peffer (MCcrindle 1977) initially wondered “Oh what is wrong with me?”. Later during her interaction with people who opened up, she realised that “ a hell lot of women have felt exactly the same as you, only they’ve just been so scared to say it…”. Once the recognition of shared experience is made, the possibility of freedom from guilt and liberation through social and political change seems possible. As she succinctly puts it, “The discovery was that the situation might be wrong rather than the person.” These key ideas have been subsequently used to arrive at a sense of shared experience and a common condition from out of a position of isolation, difference and alienation.

Truth, Dare and Promise published in mid 80s was by a committed group consisting of twelve women who grew up into feminism in 1970s. However it started showing cracks soon, the reason being that they did not share the common condition of oppression. Three years later Very Heaven – Looking Back at the 1960s by Sara Maitland set up, in terms of nostalgia, a golden age of political action and liberation. She justifies her venture thus: “I wanted to edit it rather than write it, because one of the most important things of the time was the liberating of individual voices into defining collective experience”. What is interesting here is the reference to a phenomenon of a perceived historical insignificance experienced by the contributors. The reason for this could be that the experiences recalled were in some sense “pre-feminist” and therefore did not carry with them an explicit feminist collective commitment. This collective identity, in spite of its negative consciousness, is progressive in the sense of a continuum of ‘herstory’ – progressive from Pre-feminist to feminist alongside a visible political movement. Surviving the Blues Growing up in the Thatcher Decade (1988) is another recent autobiographical collection edited by Joan Scanlon concentrating on contemporary political culture of the 1980s. It looks at the women’s movement in terms of the present reality of Thatcher’s Britain with a particular commitment to change, unclouded by false hopes and unrealistic expectations. Many of the autobiographers capture the tension in their testimonies.

The entry of feminism into the academy, however, registers an inability to bridge practice and theory as it is bound by the context of its practitioners. It is very difficult to communicate across differences. However, optimism regarding academic feminism lies with its ability to ask better questions. It recognises and acknowledges the differences between women not in terms of fragmentation and weakness of feminism but as parts of a great strength. Out of the recognition and understanding of the differences among universal sisterhood, must come a strategy for political change which embraces diverse categories such as Black-Women, working-class women, lesbians and others, conscious of the difference in their oppression as women. These women show an acute awareness of both what is specific to their individual circumstances and what is specific to them as members of a larger group including their gender group – women.

Such arguments inform and bolster up the project of using autobiography politically. In the ongoing analysis, two salient facts emerge. First, to activate any kind of political change, articulation of oppression is a precondition. Secondly, a collective testimony is one of the best means of achieving this. The autobiographical project therefore is not an individual one. If what is personal remains individual and does not lead to a collective, not much gain is to be expected. On the other hand, if the political agenda becomes inclusive and brings under its umbrage not only the full-fledged feminists but also the younger and different women’s perspectives, it will then pave the way for the politics of women’s liberation.


1.   Moira Montieth ed. Women’s Writing – A challenge to Theory. Sussex: The Harvester Press Ltd., 1986.

2.   Theorising Culture ed. Barbara Adam and Stuart Allan. London: UCL Press, 1995.

3.   Ranjana Harish. Indian Women’s Autobiographies. New Delhi: Arnold Publishers 1993.

4.    Julia Swindells, ed. Women and Autobiography. Lonodon : Taylor & Francis, 1995.

5.   “Studies on Hysteria” in The Complete works of Freud, Vol.II, London: Hogarth Press, 1955, p7.

6.   Georges Gusdorf. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography” in Autobiography : Essays – Theoretical and Critical ed. James Olney, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p 60.

7.   Simone de Beauvoir. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

8.   Cooperative Working Women, Life as We Have Known It, London: Virago, 1977.

9.   Jean McCrindle and Sheila Rowbotham ed. Dutiful Daughters : Women Talk About Their Lives, Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1977.

10. Linda Peffer in McCrindle and Rowbotham, 1977, p 359-96.

11. Sara Maitland ed. Very Heaven : Looking Back at the 1960s. London: Virago, 1988.

12. Liz Heron, ed. Truth, Dare or Promise; Girls Growing up in the Fifties. London: Virago, 1985.

13. Joan Scanlon ed. Surviving the Blues: Growing up in the Thatcher Decade. London: Virago,1988.

14. The Diary of Alice James ed. Leon Edel. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982. 15. Christa Woolf, “Interview with Myself  1966” in The Reader and the Writer. Berlin: Seven Seas Books,1977.

15. L. Marcus “Brothers in their Anecdotage” in M. Pointon ed. Pre-Raphaelites Reviewed, Manchester : University of  Manchester Press, 1989.

16. Linda Anderson .” At the threshold of the Self – Women and Autobiography” in Women’s Writing – a Challenge to Theory ed. Moira Monteith, 1986.

17. Huff, Cynthia.Delivery: “The cultural Representation of Childbirth” in Autobiography and Questions of Gendered. Shirley Neuman. London : Frank Cass & Co., 1991.

18. Lewes George H. “The Lady Novelists” in Women’s Liberation and Literature ed.Elaine Showalter. New York:       Harcourt Brace 1971.

19. Kamala Das. My Story. Delhi: Sterling, 1991.


LALITHA RAMAMOORTHY. Teaches at All Saints’ College, Thiruvanathapuram. Basically an ELT specialist, her areas of interest include literary criticism, women’s autobiography and translation. Recipient of the Best Teacher Award, she has a number of publications and two books to her credit.

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Lalitha Ramamoorthy
LALITHA RAMAMOORTHY. Teaches at All Saints’ College, Thiruvanathapuram. Basically an ELT specialist, her areas of interest include literary criticism, women’s autobiography and translation. Recipient of the Best Teacher Award, she has a number of publications and two books to her credit.

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