Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Second Sex (Part 1) by Simone de Beauvoir

 Source of book: I own this.


Every March for the past eight years, I have read a selection for Women’s History Month. I have generally chosen works connected with Feminism. Although demonized by the Cultural Fundamentalist circles I was raised in (and sadly by an increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist Evangelicalism as well), it really shouldn’t be controversial. Feminism is simply this:


The Cultural, Political, and Economic Equality of men and women.


Of course, the problem with this for many is that this idea is anathema to them. Their worldview depends on a structural inequality of the sexes, one where men control the institutions of power and the money we use as a means of exchange. In order to justify this, they cling to ideas of a congenital inferiority of women (whatever euphemisms they use to deny this), whereby women are unfit for leadership, or even control of their own lives and destinies.


Here are my selections for previous years:


Are Women Human? By Dorothy Sayers (2014)

A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (2015)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (2016)

Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz by Barbara Babcock (2017)

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (2018)

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (2019)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2020)


You can also find these and other feminist books on my Women’s History Month page



The Second Sex is one of those great classics that you see referenced all over, occasionally quoted, but rarely actually read. There are, I am sure, a number of reasons for this. First, obviously, is that it was originally written in French, and we Americans tend to neglect works in translation generally. (Although I think that is improving in recent years, at least among literary sorts.) Second, it is long. My edition, the first complete and unabridged English translation (by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier), runs to 800 pages of very small print. Third, Simone de Beauvoir was, above everything else, a philosopher, which means that this book is best understood as a work of philosophy first, and feminism second. In particular, de Beauvoir discusses her ideas in the language of existentialism, which she contributed to significantly. 


[Side note here: because de Beauvoir was the lifetime partner of Jean Paul Sartre, her work as a philosopher is often overshadowed by his, which is unfair, if unfortunately the usual way things go for females then and now. She deserves better recognition as a philosopher, full stop.]


The net result is that this book is intimidating, and thus, while admired, not as well read as it should be. I will confess that it was not the easiest book for me either. Her writing is definitely dense and complex, and her sentences sometimes as long as those of Henry James. I also hadn’t read much heavy-duty philosophy recently, and found I had to refresh my memory of the terms used by existentialists and what they meant. Still, it was a rewarding read. 


I did make the decision that I was not going to read all 800 pages at once. Rather, since de Beauvoir split the book into two volumes, I would read one this year, and the second next year. I think this was the right choice, as it took some of the pressure to rush through it off. 


The first volume is entitled “Facts and Myths,” and takes a look at both the facts of sex - and of what it means to be a female throughout the animal kingdom, and specifically as a human - and also about the myths about femininity that pervade our culture - and indeed most cultures throughout history. 


The second volume is entitled “Lived Experience,” and apparently describes the actual experiences of female humans in society. I definitely look forward to reading that one next year. 


Simone de Beauvoir’s central thesis is familiar to me, because Dorothy Sayers said much the same thing in Are Women Human?, written at about the same time as The Second Sex. I suspect the idea was percolating in feminist circles for some time before that, but both of them expressed it in a systematic manner. The idea is this:


Human society has treated the male of the species as the “normal” human, and the female of the species as “the other.” This has had all kinds of (mostly negative) implications and results for the female. While Sayers briefly discusses the idea that women are fully human and should be treated every much as the default as males, her essays are short, memorable, but not particularly detailed. De Beauvoir goes into a LOT more detail, examines the evolutionary origins of the belief, and examines how it plays out in philosophy, literature, and other areas of thought. 


Trying to summarize, or even discuss this book, is a daunting prospect. I am glad I purchased it, because I would like to be able to look back and refer to things in it later. I am nowhere done thinking about her ideas, and I haven’t even read the second part yet. There were definitely passages that stood out, however, and I figured I could mention and discuss them in this post. 


First, the evolutionary ideas were fascinating. I actually have some partially completed blog posts on human sexuality in which I was thinking along largely the same lines - the specific biological realities of being a human female, particularly before birth control or modern medicine, gave rise to a number cultural necessities that have persisted even as the underlying circumstances have changed. For example, the fact that males are bigger is connected to specific situations in nature, including in most cases polygyny, battles for mating rights, and really rapey behavior by males. Likewise, high rates of death in childbirth led to women being seen as both necessary and expendable. Again, so much here, and much that was along the same lines. Ironically, it is the religious fundamentalists who most oppose a Darwinist understanding of life who most defend an essentially Darwinist view of sexuality. 


Also on that note, de Beauvoir was childless by choice, and displays a palpable hostility toward childbearing in general. She is not wrong, of course, that children do change things for women, often by a lot. However, I would say that here in 2021, the underlying realities are a lot different than they were in the 1940s, when she wrote this book. It is fairly normal for women to pursue careers and other goals while being parents. As a judge (and friend) said about the subject, for too long, it has been considered socially acceptable for men (and men only) to neglect their children. Fortunately, some positive change has occurred, and men of my generation and younger are embracing our roles as nurturers and caretakers of our children, and working to split the unpaid domestic work in a more equal manner. 


But the struggle continues. In so many religions, women are expected to obey men, as if they were children. Or, as de Beauvoir puts it, in legal terms, women are wards, subject to men as guardians. At the time she wrote the book, this was literally legally true of married women nearly everywhere. It wasn’t until the 1970s, for example, that here in the United States women could have their own bank accounts and credit cards without a husband’s signature. In order to justify this state of affairs, beliefs were created about female inferiority. (As with racism, the hierarchy and power came first, followed by the justification by sexist beliefs, not the other way around.) 


Lawmakers, priests, philosophers, writers, and scholars have gone to great lengths to prove that women’s subordinate condition was willed in heaven and profitable on earth. 


That’s an excellent way to put it. Justify the oppression of women by creating myths of their inferiority. And, of course, by making claims that the status quo is good for society. De Beauvoir makes a pithy remark about this as well:


If we examine some of the books on women, we see that one of the most frequently held points of view is that of public good or general interest: in reality, this is taken to mean the interest in society as each one wishes to maintain or establish it. 


And this is it exactly. “Women should stay at home because of society” really just means “this is how I want society to be.” That only works if you assume your preference is the only right one - and that the preferences of others, say women themselves, are irrelevant. 


As I noted above, de Beauvoir spends a rather long chapter discussing the biological data. She doesn’t undersell the reality: men are indeed, on average, physically stronger than women. But how much does that matter? Or, better stated, when does it matter? When is the last time you or I actually required the full measure of our strength for something? Was that occasion at your job? Was it as part of your daily life? Or was it - as it was in my case - during...recreation. For most of us, our lives, our jobs, our humanity, doesn’t depend on our maximum physical strength. (Good thing, because I have never been athletic.) Rather, in human society, “individual ‘possibilities’ depend on the economic and social situation.” Our limits are not the physical capacities, but the willingness of our culture to permit us to act.  


The next chapter is on the psychoanalytic point of view. Which means a lot of Freud, who was definitely the most influential writer on the subject at the time, more so than he is now. One line at the beginning really stood out to me.


Discussing psychoanalysis as such is not an easy undertaking. Like all religions - Christianity or Marxism - it displays an unsettling flexibility against a background of rigid concepts. 


Two things are great about that line. First, psychoanalysis is to a degree a religion - as is Marxism. Raymond Aron made this point as well. Anything where doctrine - orthodoxy - becomes rigid and more important than experience, is in effect a religion, whether or not it involves a supreme being. Second, this idea of an “unsettling flexibility” combined with rigid concepts is totally true. De Beauvoir goes on (at great length) about this, how meaning is so slippery even as the concepts are claimed to be rigid, timeless, and unchanging. This is certainly the case with Fundamentalism too. In many cases, the concepts turn out to be second to the intended result, which is - surprise surprise - the maintenance of the oppressive hierarchies. 


One more comment regarding this chapter is in order. I was rather surprised to find that I understood and resonated with Mary Wollstonecraft’s takedown of the philosophers of her day rather more than I did with de Beauvoir’s similar engagement with Freud and Jung and others of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Why would that be? Well, in thinking about it, I realized that my own background was the reason. Within Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism, it is surprising how little engagement there has been and is with ideas later than the Enlightenment. Seriously, Evangelicalism has been so caught up in fighting against Enlightenment values - and Darwin - that nearly two centuries of discoveries and ideas in psychology, philosophy, science, and so on are not even on the radar screen, so to speak. I mean, they were mentioned briefly, but dismissed summarily as “godless” and therefore obviously false and unworthy of engagement. Which, what?? Mark Noll, by the way, was right about this. So, just by virtue of the fact that so many of these “modern” ideas (even if 140 years old) were not really addressed, let alone wrestled with, means that I didn’t have a background with which to understand the arguments. (It also didn’t help that I never had a college undergraduate education, so I missed an overview of psychology. I did read up on philosophy on my own, but I still have a lot of holes.) Related to this was the fact that, since Fundies are still literally waging war against first wave feminism, the second wave ideas that started with de Beauvoir and others aren’t addressed much at all. (Other than a few strawman ideas such as “feminists hate men.”) Because Fundies reject modernity altogether, the great arguments of the last century and a half are not acknowledged or engaged with at all. 

The chapter closes with a tour de force. I’ll just quote it at length, because it is so good. 


We are shown woman solicited by two kinds of alienations; it is very clear that to play at being a man will be a recipe for failure; but to play at being a woman is also a trap: being a woman would mean being an object, the Other; and at the heart of its abdication, the Other remains a subject. The real problem for the woman refusing these evasions is to accomplish herself as transcendence: this means seeing which possibilities are opened to her by what are called virile and feminine attitudes; when a child follows the path indicated by one or another of his parents, it could be because he freely takes on their projects: his behavior could be the result of a choice motivated by ends. Even for Adler, the will to power is only a sort of absurd energy; he calls any project that incarnates transcendence a “masculine protest”; when a girl climbs trees, it is, according to him, to be the equal of boys: he does not imagine that she likes to climb trees; for the mother, the child is anything but a “penis substitute”; painting, writing, and engaging in politics are not only “good sublimations”: they are ends desired in themselves. To deny this is to falsify all of human history. Parallels can be noted between our descriptions and those of psychoanalysis. From man’s point of view -- adopted by male and female psychoanalysts -- behavior of alienation is considered feminine, and behavior where the subject posits his transcendence is considered masculine. Donaldson, a historian of woman, observed that the definitions “the man is a male human being, the woman is a female human being” were asymmetrically mutilated; psychoanalysis in particular define man as a human being and woman as a female: every time she acts like a human being, the woman is said to be imitating the male. 


Indeed, this belief that a woman acting like a human being is somehow going “outside of her lane” and imitating males is one of the most pernicious and harmful beliefs in our culture. 


Next, de Beauvoir moves on to discuss Historical Materialism - Marx and Engels and company. Who do not always come off well, although both had some strong points when it came to understanding the oppression of women within the factory system. Where de Beauvoir believes Engels goes wrong is in oversimplifying gender inequality as just an example of class warfare. Two quotes were really good here. The first is about why de Beauvoir, in contrast to Engels, does not believe that the development of tools should necessarily led to oppression of women. 


Woman’s powerlessness brought about her ruin because man apprehended her through a project of enrichment and expansion. And this project is still not enough to explain her oppression: the division of labor by sex might have been a friendly association. If the original relation between man and his peers had been exclusively one of friendship, one could not account for any kind of enslavement: this phenomenon is a consequence of the imperialism of human consciousness, which seeks to match its sovereignty objectively. Had there not been in human consciousness both the original category of the Other and an original claim to domination over the Other, the discovery of the bronze tool could not have brought about woman’s oppression. 


And this:


We have said in the introduction how different woman’s situation is, specifically because of the community of life and interests that create her solidarity with man, and due to the complicity he encounters in her: she harbors no desire for revolution, she would not think of eliminating herself as a sex: she simply asks that certain consequences of sexual differentiation be abolished. And more serious still, woman cannot in good faith be regarded only as a worker; her reproductive function is as important as her productive capacity, both in the social economy and in her personal life; there are periods in history when it is more useful to have children than till the soil. 


This also raises the question that Right Wingers prefer to avoid: if reproductive work is valuable, then why do we not compensate women for it? And not just in the “your husband will support you” sense - but in the sense that it is good and necessary for society as a whole, and should be rewarded and supported directly by society. Maybe because that would threaten the hierarchy? 


There is a long chapter on history, although it is a bit different, I believe, than the lived experiences of the second part, which is also historical. De Beauvoir looks at various societies, and the roles that women played - or were expected to play. As usual, a number of really pithy quotes that explained a lot about the beliefs Fundies push. I already was aware of a lot of the nasty stuff in the Christian tradition, as well as the status of women as chattel throughout most of history. Many religions - and cultures - though, seem to feel the need to consider women as somehow inherently evil or dangerous or the source of sin. But this too creates a problem. 


Man knows that to satisfy his desires, to perpetuate his existence, woman is indispensable to him; he has to integrate her in society: as long as she submits to the order established by males, she is cleansed of her original stain. 


The solution is not particularly freeing to women, of course. 


This very ambivalence of the Other, of the Female, will be reflected in the rest of her history; until our times she will be subordinated to men’s will. But this will is ambiguous: by total annexation, woman will be lowered to the rank of a thing; of course, man attempts to cover with his own dignity what he conquers and possesses; in his eyes the Other retains some of her primitive magic; one of the problems he will seek to solve is how to make his wife both a servant and a companion; his attitude will evolve throughout the centuries, and this will also entail an evolution in woman’s destiny. 


Ah yes, that is the problem. How to have a suitable and true (that is, equal) companion. But also a servant. It doesn’t really work. A few of us men, throughout history, have realized that having the servant is not really desirable - better to have the equal companion - they are a lot more fun. 


I haven’t really thought through all of it like I hope to, but I think de Beauvoir makes a great point in connecting the ownership of women and their reproductive capacity by men to the concept of private property. Once there was something to inherit - for males to obtain immortality of a sort by passing their possessions on to their children - controlling female reproduction became a mandate. Why give one’s property to the children of a stranger? This leads to pretty much every aspect of patriarchy. 


Since she is his property like the slave, the beast of burden, or the thing, it is natural for a man to have as many wives as he wishes; only economic reasons put limits on polygamy; the husband can disown his wives at whim, and society barely accords them any guarantees. In return, woman is subjected to rigorous chastity. In spite of the taboos, matriarchal societies allow great freedom of behavior; prenuptial chastity is rarely demanded; and adultery not judged severely. On the contrary, when woman becomes man’s property, he wants a virgin, and he demands total fidelity at the risk of severe penalty; it would be the worst of crimes to risk giving heritage rights to a foreign offspring: this is why the paterfamilias has the right to put a guilty wife to death. As long as private property lasts, conjugal infidelity on the part of a woman is considered a crime of high treason. 


The book also looks at the fact that the lack of property does in fact change relations. I think de Beauvoir misses some of the dynamics in low-income communities here, but there is some truth even in a time and place where patriarchal ideas are more associated with the lower than the upper classes. (Indeed, this is a case where things have shifted over time.) 


It is important to see that the greater the property owned by the husband, the greater this servitude: the propertied classes are those in which woman’s dependence has always been the most concrete; even today, the patriarchal family survives among rich landowners; the more socially and economically powerful man feels, the more he plays the paterfamilias with authority. On the contrary, shared destitution makes the conjugal link reciprocal. Neither feudality nor the Church enfranchised woman. Rather, it was from a position of servitude that the patriarchal family moved to an authentically conjugal one. The serve and his wife owned nothing; they simply had the common use of their house, furniture, and utensils: man had no reason to want to become master of woman who owned nothing; but the bonds of work and interest that joined them raise the spouse to the rank of companion. When serfdom is abolished, poverty remains; in small rural communities and among artisans, spouses live on an equal footing; woman is neither a thing nor a servant: those are the luxuries of a rich man; the poor man experiences the reciprocity of the bond that attaches him to his other half; in freely contracted work, woman wins concrete autonomy because she has an economic and social role. 


This is particularly interesting in light of history. Women, prior to the industrial revolution, did have more important roles in the economy than they did after, and economic power has always meant other power as well. I would also note that in cases where both spouses work, women are less likely to put up with shit from men. My own experience representing the victims of domestic violence is that the one single thing that would do the most good is to enable victims to support themselves financially. That is the greatest obstacle to leaving a violent and abusive situation. Whereas women who can support themselves rarely have any use for a useless and abusive man. 


As the Middle Ages gave way to modern, many of the most onerous restrictions on women from Roman times came back into being, and, along with that, the pernicious beliefs about female inferiority. 


The influence of Roman law, so condescending for women, can be perceived here; as in Roman times, the violent diatribes against the stupidity and fragility of the sex were not at the root of the code but are used as justifications; it is after the fact that men find reasons to act as it suits them. 


Again, as with racism, the oppression and hierarchy came first - the nasty beliefs arose to justify the oppression, not the other way around. Which is why “fixing the belief” isn’t going to work. The power structure has to be dismantled. 


Later, the book touches on something I have observed in a number of prior posts. The “purity” of “honest” women has always protected by the existence of an abundance of sex workers. This book, though, has a quote I had not seen before - from someone I did not expect it from. Here is the quote. Now guess the author.


“Remove public women from society and debauchery will disrupt it by disorder of all kinds. Prostitutes are to a city what a cesspool is to a palace: get rid of the cesspool and the palace will become an unsavory and loathsome place.”


Any guesses? Would you believe…..Saint Thomas Aquinas. (In De regime principium.) Yep, if people can’t shit in the toilet, they’ll shit in the hall. As I said, interesting history. 


Oh, speaking of interesting quotes, I was not aware of the long history (at least back to the 6th Century) of the belief that only males had immortal souls. De Beauvoir quotes the most recent claim, from an anonymous article published in 1744. 


“Woman created uniquely for man will cease to be at the end of the world because she will cease to be useful for the object for which she had been created, from which follows necessarily that her soul is not immortal.” 


Not fully human. Created merely as a benefit for males. No rights to self-determination. Here’s the next quote, from Chaumette:


“[Nature] has told woman: Be a woman. Child care, household tasks, sundry motherhood cares, those are your tasks.”


Stay in your lane. Leave the transcendent part of being human to the males. (That one is really personal to me, given the way my wife was treated in Jonathan Lindvall’s cult, and then later by my own family.) 


Because de Beauvoir was French, many of the authors quoted are also French, which is interesting. While not unique by any stretch, Frenchmen of a certain era were particularly bold in their flagrant misogyny. Here, for example, is Balzac, whose hilarity is great in his fiction, but in his writings about females, man, he’s terrible. (This is just one of many quotes that make it into this book.)


“Woman is a possession acquired by contract; she is personal property, and the possession of her is as good as a security -- indeed, properly speaking, woman is only man’s annexe.” 


And also, he advised that women should be “denied training and culture, forbidden to develop their individuality, forced to wear uncomfortable clothing, and encouraged to follow a debilitating dietary regime.” 


Any of that sound familiar today? That’s a pretty great summary of Christian Patriarchy, but it still persists in our broader culture. Particularly in what de Beauvoir calls “bourgeois society.” Here in 21st Century America, I would call it “white conservative middle class society.” Or perhaps “white evangelicalism.” 


It is easier to put people in chains than to remove them if the chains bring prestige, said George Bernard Shaw. The bourgeois woman clings to the chains because she clings to her class privileges. It is drilled into her and she believes that women’s liberation would weaken bourgeois society; liberated from the male, she would be condemned to work; while she might regret having her rights to private property subordinated to her husband’s, she would deplore even more having this property abolished; she feels no solidarity with working-class women; she feels closer to her husband than to a woman textile worker. She makes his interest her own. 


This is so true. On every point. This is why, in speaking to the question of “what does the American woman want,” Trump and his people could say with a straight face, “They want their husbands to have good jobs.” For the conservative white middle class woman, this is true. Not so much for the many women who have to work to support their families. Or the ones who want to do so. This is why the American white church is so invested in opposing Feminism. Class (and racial) privilege are tied inextricably together with patriarchy. 


Another case in which the church fathers do not come off too well is in the matter of contraception. I discussed this quite a bit in my post about Sex and the Constitution, which I believe is a must-read on the history of the regulation of sex in the United States. Arguably, the toxic view of sexuality and human reproduction dates back to Jerome and Augustine, and man was Augustine really fucked up. (Again, Sex and the Constitution spends a chapter on this history. I admire many things Augustine said and did, but his views of women are disgusting, and his treatment of his partner and child downright deplorable.) Anyway, keep this quote in mind whenever you hear Evangelicals today screaming about abortion:


“Any woman who does what she can so as not to give birth to as many children as she is capable of is guilty of that many homicides, just as is a woman who tries to injure herself after contraception.” 


It’s not just a duty to finish a pregnancy. She is to try to give birth to as many as she is capable of because that is her function and role in the world. To fail to use her body to bear children is murder. That is what is really at the heart of the abortion debate. (Well, that and the Religious Right’s calculated political ploy to guarantee white protestant votes to the Republican Party.) 


And, despite the increasingly shrill histrionics of conservatives, over the last couple of centuries, women have gained tremendous control over their reproduction. Far from the early humans, who had at best a rudimentary understanding of the link between sex and reproduction, a combination of knowledge and technology now makes it far easier to plan childbirth. Earlier, de Beauvoir notes that, unlike most mammals, who have periods of being “in heat” that naturally limit how often they get pregnant, humans have no such limitations and can give birth far more often than is good for their bodies, or society in general. (Hence the historically high rates of death in childbirth and also infanticide.) 


In spite of the prejudices, resistance, and an outdated morality, unregulated fertility has given way to fertility controlled by the state or individuals. Progress in obstetrics has considerably decreased the dangers of childbirth; childbirth pain is disappearing...With artificial insemination, the evolution that will permit humanity to master the reproductive function comes to completion. These changes have tremendous importance for women in particular; she can reduce the number of pregnancies and rationally integrate them into her life, instead of being their slave. During the nineteenth century, woman in her turn is freed from nature; she wins control of her body. Relieved of a great number of reproductive servitudes, she can take on the economic roles open to her, roles that would ensure her control over her own person. 


At the same time as this revolution was taking place, reactionaries were opposing women’s suffrage. And the arguments sound so familiar in France as they did in the US, and as they do now in Fundie circles. Yes, did you know many believe women shouldn’t vote? Let me quote at length. 


First of all come these types of gallantry arguments: we love women too much to let them vote; the “real woman” who accepts the “housewife or courtesan” dilemma is exalted in true Proudhon fashion; woman would lose her charm by voting; she is on a pedestal and should not step down from it; she has everything to lose and nothing to gain in becoming a voter; she governs men without needing a ballot; and so on. More serious objections concern the family’s interest: woman’s place is in the home; political discussions would bring about disagreement between spouses. Some admit to moderate antifeminism. Women are different from men. They do not serve in the military. Will prostitutes vote? And others arrogantly affirm male superiority: voting is a duty and not a right; women are not worthy of it. They are less intelligent and educated than men. If women voted, men would become effeminate. Women lacked political education. They would vote according to their husbands’ wishes. If they want to be free, they should first free themselves from their dressmakers. Also proposed is that superbly naive argument: there are more women in France than men. In spite of the flimsiness of all these objections, French women would have to wait until 1945 to acquire political power.


Again, if you think of women as fully human, every single one of these arguments falls to pieces. In this section on Feminism, it was great to run across The Declaration of Sentiments, better known as the “Seneca Falls Declaration,” one of the seminal documents of the Feminist movement. Also, it was written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the former of whom is the great-great aunt (if I remember the number of greats correctly) of a good friend of mine. The whole document is badass, and you can - and should - read the whole thing. One line in particular stood out to me, enough that I quoted it for one of my Sunday Thoughts on Facebook. 


“He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.” 


That is so perfect. Antifeminists aren’t just wrong. They are blasphemous. They have usurped the prerogative of almighty god, telling women that they - and they alone - know better than her how she should live her life. What her occupation should be. How she should dress. It is breathtaking arrogance to do this, and yet, it seems to come so easily to antifeminists. Seriously, though, read the whole thing. The good news is that many of the complaints have been addressed. Women have so much more freedom than they did. 


Another fascinating discussion in this chapter is that of Fascism and Communism. Keeping in mind the time in which it was written, the contrasts are definitely worth noting. Fascism was in the 1930s and 40s - and is now in every manifestation - a rollback of the rights of women. It is a strongly Right Wing, reactionary movement, with a totalitarian bent. Communism, in contrast, while every bit as authoritarian (I’m not a fan of either, btw) leans left, and Communist constitutions have tended to be explicitly egalitarian. Indeed, in practice, life for women has improved in measurable ways. (There is a reason that the USSR beat us with female astronauts by a couple decades.) For an interesting look at that, I recommend Wild Swans, which is about Communist China, in all its messiness. De Beauvoir mentions this as well, noting that there was still the problem of how to encourage reproduction along with feminist egalitarianism. 


The summary of the history chapter is excellent as well. Let me quote a bit. 


Several conclusions come to the fore when taking a look at this history as a whole. And first of all is this one: women’s entire history has been written by men. Just as in America there is no black problem but a white one, just as “anti-semitism is not a Jewish problem, it’s our problem,” [quoting Sartre] so the problem of woman has always been a problem of men. 


Moving on to the final large section, that of “Myths,” de Beauvoir spends a chapter on myths about woman from antiquity and how they affect the present. She then looks at five different modern authors (see more later) and how they write the myths, before closing with a chapter of philosophy about myth versus reality. 


Particularly strong is the discussion of creation myths, which in the Christian tradition include the idea that man was the default, and that woman was created from him and for him. Which reduces her to a not-quite-human. This is one of those realities that we who adhere to the Christian faith need to address. It is not the only word on the matter, of course, as there are other passages making a claim of equal humanity as well, but the creation myth has indeed be used as justification for subordination of women - and a belief in practice of their sub-humanity. And there is also this:


No man would consent to being a woman, but all want there to be women. “Thank God for creating woman.” “Nature is good because it gave men woman.” In these and other similar phrases, man once more asserts arrogantly and naively that his presence in the world is an inevitable fact and a right, that of woman is a simple accident - but a fortunate one. 


This is biologically backwards, of course. Although men may not exactly be a fortunate accident for women in our world. 


De Beauvoir also spends some time on the “motherhood” myth, the elevation of maternity to an idol. Particularly here in white America.


The American “Mom” has become the idol described by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers, because the official American ideology is the most stubbornly optimistic. To glorify the mother is to accept birth, live, and death in both their animal and their social forms and to proclaim the harmony of nature and society. 


Another myth that de Beauvoir takes on is that of female “intuition.” This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, for two reasons. First, as de Beauvoir unpacks, “intuition” is a way of making female wisdom and intelligence into something mystical, something they are born with, not a skill that they acquire. This allows, as she notes, men to “consult the oracle” without fearing a hit to their self-esteem. Rather than, say, admitting a woman is smarter or wiser about something, he can put it down to this inborn “intuition” that contrasts to his hard-earned intelligence. And this “intuition” can be seen as inherently irrational as well, so that a woman’s opinion can be disregarded in other circumstances. So, that’s part one. I dislike that it dismisses the way women are every bit as intelligent as men, and fully capable of rationality, leading to the disrespect and disregard of women’s opinions and assertions in cases where they should be considered.


Part two is the flipside. A belief in “intuition” also allows certain women to put forth uniformed opinions as “just my intuition.” Which is essentially a manipulation. It’s most pernicious form (as I have experienced it) is in the way that Evangelical women, denied equality, turn to the use of “intuition” or “spiritual discernment” to get their way. “God told me” is a conversation stopper, of course, because there is no response. But is is also a clever way to disguise one’s own preferences, which don’t necessarily come from careful thought, but often from petty jealousy, insecurity, and other problematic places. Sure, men act out of these too. But the disguise as “intuition” is a uniquely female response to a sexist culture. Perhaps if we were to treat women and their opinions as fully equal, the manipulation wouldn’t be necessary.


So many myths! Another is that of the magical woman, in harmony with the earth in a way males never can be. Poetry is full of this, for better or worse. The problem isn’t in the idea of magic - I find particular women to be magical in one way or another - but what happens when the myth runs into cultural reality. 


Man succeeded in enslaving woman, but in doing so, he robbed her of what made possession desirable. Integrated into the family and society, woman’s magic fades rather than transfigures itself; reduced to a servant’s condition, she is no longer the wild prey incarnating all of nature’s treasures. Since the birth of courtly love, it has been a commonplace that marriage kills love. Marriage rites were originally intended to protect man against woman; she becomes his property; but everything we possess in turn possesses us; marriage is a servitude for the man as well; he is thus caught in the trap laid by nature; to have desired a lovely young girl, the male must spend his whole life feeding a heavy matron, a dried-out old woman...But even when the woman is young, there is a mystification in marriage because trying to socialize eroticism only succeeds in killing it. Eroticism implies a claim of the instant against time, of the individual against the collectivity; it affirms separation against communication; it rebels against all regulation; it contains a principle hostile to society. Social customs are never bent to fit the rigor of institutions and laws: love has forever asserted itself against them. 


Again, the author is talking of the myth, not of the reality. For many of us, marriage has not killed love - or eroticism. But that is in large part because we do not own each other. And because we are best friends as well as lovers. Interestingly, C. S. Lewis wrote a whole book about courtly love - and why it was by definition adulterous. (The Allegory of Love, which I read before starting this blog - but it was an influential book.) 


The five authors de Beauvoir discusses are interesting. I am familiar with D. H. Lawrence, but haven’t actually read him. The one I have read is Stendhal. The others - Montherlant, Claudel, and Breton - are not particularly familiar to me. The discussions, though are fascinating, as the five have greatly differing views of women, all of them in some way mythical. 


Montherlant gets particularly reamed, and with good reason. His attitude toward women is that of contempt. He does give de Beauvoir a chance to give an epic description of toxic masculinity - a type that is so apparent in the Trump Movement today. 


The false hero, to convince himself that he goes far and flies high, always looks back, at his feet; he despises, he accuses, he oppresses, he persecutes, he tortures, he masacres. It is through the evil he does to his neighbor that he measures his superiority over him. Such are Montherlant’s summits that he points out with an arrogant finger when he interrupts his “mouth-to-mouth with life.” 


I won’t mention much about Lawrence other than to say that de Beauvoir focuses on his view of the will to live and eroticism as phallic, which makes women into a combination of a means to an end and a receptacle of male libido. Ugh. Maybe if I read him I’ll see something better, but that doesn’t appeal.  


Likewise, Claudel’s overt Catholicism doesn’t really resonate with me, and I don’t foresee reading his books, but the discussion was interesting. Some things, after all, overlap a lot with fundamentalist protestantism. 


In a way, it seems that woman could not be more exalted. But deep down Claudel is only expressing in a poetic way a slightly modernized Catholic tradition. We have seen that the earthly vocation of a woman does not cancel out any of her supernatural autonomy; on the contrary, in recognizing this, the Catholic feels authorized to maintain male perogatives in this world. If the woman is venerated in God, she will be treated like a servant in this world: and further, the more total submission is demanded of her, the more surely will she move forward on the road to her salvation. Her lot, the lot the bourgeoisie has always assigned to her, is to devote herself to her children, her husband, her home, her realm, to country, and to church; man gives activity, woman her person; to sanctify this hierarchy in the name of the divine will does not modify it in the least, but on the contrary attempts to fix it in the eternal.




That’s on point. 


Breton, the poet, I have already alluded to early. The relegating of woman to muse, to Beauty, to poetry, strips her of her agency and full humanity. 


Interestingly, Stendhal, while imperfect, comes off the best. I have only read The Red and the Black, so I wasn’t familiar with his numerous other works quoted here. But I did agree that Stendahl writes a good female character, and they are often more interesting than the men. And that is because they are allowed agency and feelings and desires and a life of their own. Here is what de Beauvoir has to say:


It is remarkable that Stendhal is both so profoundly romantic and so decidedly feminist; feminists are usually rational minds that adopt a universal point of view in all things; but it is not only in the name of freedome in general but also in the name of individual happiness that Stendhal calls for women’s emancipation. Love, he thinks, will have nothing to lose; on the contrary, it will be all the truer that woman, as the equal of man, will be able to understand him more completely. Undoubtedly, some of the qualities one enjoys in woman will disappear: but their value comes from the freedom that is expressed in them and that will show in other guises; and the romantic will not fade out of this world. Two separate beings, placed in different situations, confronting each other in their freedom, and seeking the justification of existence through each other, will always live an adventure full of risks and promises. Stendhal trusts the truth; as soon as one feels it, one dies a living death; but where it shines, so shine beauty, happiness, love, and a joy that carries in it its own justification. That is why he rejects the false poetry of myths as much as the mystifications of seriousness. Human reality is sufficient for him. Woman, according to him, is simply a human being: dreams could not invent anything more intoxicating. 


Leaving aside a bit of the mildly annoying existentialism-speak, I have to agree. Feminism doesn’t kill romance. (And whoever never met a happy feminist needs to get out more - or stop being such a dick that feminists flip them off…) And I find the equality with another human being to be intoxicating and romantic. 


In the final chapter on myths, de Beauvoir gives a rather profound meditation on myths generally. I decided to quote a paragraph. 


There are different kinds of myths. This one, sublimating an immutable aspect of the human condition -- that is, the “division” of humanity into two categories of individuals -- is a static myth; it projects into a Platonic heaven a reality grasped through experience or conceptualized from experience; for fact, value, significance, notion, and empirical law, it substitutes a transcendent Idea, timeless, immutable, and necessary. This idea escapes all contention because it is situated beyond the given; it is endowed with an absolute truth. Thus, to the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existence of women,, mythic thinking opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and fixed; if the definition given is contradicted by the behavior of real flesh-and-blood women, it is women who are wrong; it is not that Femininity is an entity but that women are not feminine. Experiential denials cannot do anything against myth. Though in a way, its source is in experience. It is thus true that woman is other than man, and this alterity is concretely felt in desire, embrace, and love; but the real relation is one of reciprocity; as such, it gives rise to authentic dramas: through eroticism, love, friendship, and their alternatives of disappointment, hatred, and rivalry, the relation is a struggle of consciousnesses, each of which wants to be essential, it is the recognition of freedoms that confirm each other, it is the undefined passage from enmity to complicity. To posit the Woman is to posit the absolute Other, without reciprocity, refusing, against experience, that she could be a subject, a peer. 


Man, so much good stuff there. We as humans experience some differences between men and women, reduce it to a mythical concept, then elevate it to absolute truth. Then, when the myth doesn’t match real women, well, the women are defective and have to be fixed rather than reconsider the myth. It’s like when Galen wrote about anatomy and for centuries people just decided all those human bodies were defective, because Galen couldn’t possibly be wrong. I really feel that this is at the root of all of the distaste I have for patriarchy and patriarchal theology. It doesn’t match real live women, but it is crammed down their throats as if it were coming from almighty god. (Again, the arrogating of that is nothing less than blasphemy.) De Beauvoir also nails it with the idea that in our actual experience, men and women are equally human, and the reality is felt in the authentic dramas of relationship. If we trusted that experience, rather than believing the myth, we could see that women are also subjects, not objects, and men and women are peers. 


Many problems flow from the myths. For example, men have used it to justify neglecting of female suffering. After all, those burdens are “intended by nature.” De Beauvoir specifically cites denying women the right to sexual pleasure and treating her like a beast of burden as direct results of this belief. 


She also touches on another of my pet peeves: men who claim to “not understand women.” This idea that women are mysterious creatures that men cannot understand is bullshit. This alleviates men of their responsibility to listen to women and understand them. 


Of all these myths, none is more anchored in masculine hearts than the feminine “mystery.” It has numerous advantages. And first it allows an easy explanation for anything that is inexplicable; the man who does not “understand” a woman is happy to replace his subjective deficiency with an objective resistance; instead of admitting his ignorance, he recognizes the presence of a mystery exterior to himself: here is an excuse that flatters his laziness and his vanity at the same time. 


This too causes men to lose out as well.


It is once again a matter of replacing lived experience and the free judgments of experience it requires by a static idol. The myth of Woman substitutes for an authentic relationship with an autonomous existent the immobile contemplation of a mirage...Man would have nothing to lose, quite the contrary, if he stopped disguising woman as a symbol. 


I do have to wonder how many relationships have been lost by this view of women as the mythical Woman. And not just male/female relationships. When patriarchists - women particularly - view other women not as autonomous individuals with full human value, worth, and self determination, but instead insist on making them into “true women,” the result is rarely the formation of authentic relationships  One final paragraph here, also on the problem of idolizing a certain mythology of Woman. This speaks directly to the antifeminist culture of Evangelicalism during my lifetime. 


“Woman is lost. Where are the women? Today’s women are not women”; we have seen what these mysterious slogans mean. In the eyes of men -- and of the legious of women who see through these eyes -- it is not enough to have a woman’s body or to take on the female function as lover and mother to be a “real woman”; it is possible for the subject to claim autonomy through sexuality and maternity; the “real woman” is one who accepts herself as Other. The duplicitous attitude of men today creates a painful split for woman; they accept, for the most part, that woman be a peer, an equal; and yet they continue to oblige her to remain the inessential; for her, these two destinies are not reconcilable; she hesitates between them without being exactly suited to either, and that is the source of her lack of balance. For man, there is no hiatus between public and private life: the more he asserts his grasp on the world through action and work, the more virile he looks; human and vital characteristics are merged in him; but women’s own successes are in contradiction with her femininity since the “real woman” is required to make herself object, to be the Other. 


Again, so very true in my experience. My wife, since her youth, has been seen as a threat, and certainly NOT as a “true woman.” Never mind that she is a devoted wife and enthusiastic lover. Never mind that she has given birth to and is raising five children. What she has refused to do - and this makes her problematic to many - is that she refuses to be an object. She is the subject of her own life, and she has and is pursuing her dreams because they are hers. She sees no need to consider her public and private lives in conflict. She asserts her grasp on the world through action and work. Were she male, this would be admired as virile and good and praiseworthy. It is only because she is female that others feel entitled to denigrate what she does as “unfeminine.” 


De Beauvoir ends the volume with a call for full emancipation of women - the freedom to live their lives, not in relation to men, but in relation to and for themselves - just like men have done and continue to do. Then she will fully be a human being. 


I really look forward to the second part of this book. I probably missed some of the philosophical points, I didn’t agree with everything de Beauvoir says, but this is a very thought-provoking book, superbly thought out and well written. De Beauvoir is underrated as a philosopher. Don’t mistake this book for a feminist tract - it is feminist to be sure, but it goes far deeper than that, into a fundamenta exploration of what it means to be human, what it means to be free, and how freedom relates to, but is not the same thing as happiness. And man, she can do a takedown of arrogant, misogynist men and their ideas. 

1 comment:

  1. I usually only read your blog through Feedly, and I don’t think I’ve ever left a comment before, but thank you for this book review! I took Women’s History in college 25 years ago, so I’m vaguely familiar with deBouvier. I’m so thankful I read this book review & I'm looking forward to going through your other “Women’s History Month” reviews (since I don’t think I’ve ever read them). Maybe (hopefully?) someday we won’t need a Women’s History month? Wishful thinking...

    (Also, side note, I truly don’t remember how I found your blog after 45 was elected, but I did. And my dad was born & raised in Oildale, so the fact that your my age & live in Bakersfield drew me in :) )