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Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex
Sally Scholz traces the major currents of Simone de Beauvoir’s main work.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was one of the twentieth century’s leading intellectuals, and certainly its most famous feminist. Her book The Second Sex radically challenged political and existential theory, but its most enduring impact is on how women understand themselves, their relationships, their place in society, and the construction of gender.
De Beauvoir’s existential ethics holds freedom as a universal – meaning that each project we undertake must either turn its back on freedom or open up freedom for ourselves and others. This requires people to achieve freedom, yet our temptation is to actually shy away from the responsibilities of our freedom, even to the point of wanting to be more like an object than a human being. Members of oppressed groups have an even more difficult time of achieving freedom. Their oppression limits their ability to act: projects are circumscribed by society, choices are limited, expectations are constraining. Their destiny may even be shaped by the appearance that oppression is natural.
De Beauvoir discusses many forms of oppression, including that of the working class by the bourgeoisie, that of blacks by whites, and the oppression of Jews, but it is the oppression of women which concerns her in The Second Sex. Women’s oppression differs from these other forms of oppression insofar as there appears to be no historical starting-point for it; nor is there any solidarity of economic interest, or even any ‘social location’ for this oppressed group. Women are oppressed as women, but separated from each other, and often have more in common with men of their social class than they do with other women from different classes.
De Beauvoir’s aim in the first part of the book is to explore why women are oppressed, why they are ‘the second sex’. Are females biologically inferior to males? Do women follow the path of subservience described by psychoanalysis? Is it a consequence of their role as mothers or potential mothers? After examining and rejecting purely biological, psychoanalytic and economic explanations, de Beauvoir turns to ontology. ‘Ontology’ means ‘the study of being’. De Beauvoir’s explanation for why women are oppressed is based on woman’s being, that is, what it means to exist as a woman. Girls growing up are taught by society how to be as women, ie, passive and object-like. A woman is a free being mystified into believing she is confined to particular roles, thus limiting freedom. Using existentialist language, de Beauvoir says that woman has been defined as Other. The cult of ‘the feminine’ or ‘the feminine mystery’ is used to maintain the oppression of women as the idea is passed down from generation to generation.
De Beauvoir uses the concepts of ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence’ to further explain women’s situation. Immanence is stagnation within a situation, while transcendence is reaching out into the future, through projects that open up freedom. At times these two concepts have been understood as ‘body’ and ‘consciousness’ respectively, but that misconstrues de Beauvoir’s philosophy. We are all embodied consciousnesses: this is the condition for the possibility of our freedom.
Although every ‘existent’ – every human being – is both immanent and transcendent, some social practices may imprison one in immanence such that one is unable to achieve transcendence (freedom). This happens in every case of oppression. Insofar as they work on meaningful projects that reach into the future men occupy the sphere of transcendence, while women ’s oppression relegates them to the sphere of immanence, until they may be no longer aware that they have free choice. De Beauvoir refers to the start of the menstrual flow as a reminder to a girl of her immanence. Menstruation is a monthly reminder of her attachment to the body as servant to the species via reproduction. This (among other things) marks women as ‘natural’, as opposed to being free. They are subject to the vicissitudes of their bodies in a way that men are not.
It is in part through men’s fleeing what is natural that women become the ‘Other’. De Beauvoir argues that man declares himself the ‘One’ or ‘Self’, and woman Other. The One is the standard, the norm. Any deviation from the standard marks you out as Other. It is important to note that the Self needs the Other for its identity. The Self is the Self in relation to that which is Other. Conversely, the Other gets its identity from the Self: it is prescribed.
In part it is the recognition of this relationship which compels the Self to maintain the oppression of the Other. In addition, man sees in woman that which he lacks, and he desires it. Thus he must subordinate her to possess that which he lacks via control or domination. But the Other also poses a sort of existentialist threat to the Self, because the Other is a living example of what could happen to the One. It is important to remember here that de Beauvoir does not think that women are the only oppressed social group. Blacks are oppressed in relation to whites, and the poor are oppressed in relation to the rich. Here whites and the rich become the norm and blacks and the poor deviate from the norm and become the subordinate Other. But in addition to the fact that women have always been oppressed there is another important difference between the oppression of women and oppression based on class or race. Women are complicit in their own oppression. In existentialist terms, women internalize the male gaze, and with it the expectations of the gender. They are conscious of how they are observed, and womens’ own thinking assimilates this awareness. Women then strive to live up to this model of the ‘eternal feminine’. In other words, they become just what they are expected to become: a transcendent existent trapped in the immanence of being. De Beauvoir offers a rich account of the ‘myths and idols’ employed to maintain the image of femininity that women are expected to emulate.
De Beauvoir’s famous line, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” serves as a pivotal point for the The Second Sex. It begins the second half, wherein de Beauvoir redescribes the life of women from birth to adulthood. This part of The Second Sex reveals many of the countless constraints inculcated since birth which inhibit a woman ’s ability to achieve transcendence/freedom. This is especially revealing when read alongside her account of existentialist ethics in The Ethics of Ambiguity. De Beauvoir first takes us through childhood, commenting on such things as the dolls girls play with which prepare them for their future role, into adolescence, where girls realize both that they are free and that their oppression sets up a situation where acting on that freedom is nearly impossible.
According to de Beauvoir, all women believe they ought to try to play the feminine role. However, in The Second Sex she discusses three kinds of women who play the role of ‘woman’ most clearly: the prostitute, the narcissist, and the mystic. The prostitute is the absolute Other, ie the object. She is also, however, the exploiter. She is a prostitute for both money and for the recognition of her Otherness she receives from the men. (As you might guess, this analysis met with no small amount of criticism from a variety of camps.) The narcissist is similarly unable to be a subject, that is, unable to freely pursue projects and goals for herself. She turns instead to her Otherness, and becomes an object for herself. The mystic tries to lose herself in God, to become identified in God. She seeks to be possessed rather than seek freedom.
As an existentialist, de Beauvoir denied there was any essence of woman: there is no natural or universal characteristic that defines ‘woman’. Her identity is socially constructed. ‘Woman’ has been constructed by men, by a society which maintains ideological systems prescribing her subordination, and by womens ’ own participation in those systems. This situation limits a woman’s freedom and determines her life projects. In other words, society keeps women blocked from freedom or transcendence. Therefore liberation is both an individual and a social transformation. Woman must see herself, like man, as subject and not object. She must embrace her freedom, and embrace projects which further disclose freedom. But women must also recognize themselves as a social group. Women must recognize their unity in their shared circumstances of oppression. Failing this assists in maintaining oppression.
Three strategies de Beauvoir suggests to aid women in their path to transcendence and subjectivity are:
(1) Women must go to work.
(2) Women must pursue and participate in intellectual activity (leading the change for women).
(3) Women must strive to transform society into a socialist society (seeking economic justice as a key factor in liberation).
Simone de Beauvoir’s monumental work on women ought not be underestimated. By describing in vivid detail the countless ways women experience the limitations of femininity, she opened the way for women all over the world to recognize the social and political import of their personal experiences. Her works ushered in a new wave of feminist activism because she had the courage to make women ’s social, familial, bodily, political, and cultural experiences public.
© Prof. Sally J Scholz 2008
Sally J. Scholz is Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. Her publications include On de Beauvoir (Wadsworth, 2000). She co-edited The Contradictions of Freedom: Philosophical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Les Mandarins’ with Shannon Mussett, and has published articles on violence against women, oppression, and just war theory, among others. She is former editor of the APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.