Simone de Beauvoir stands tall, even imposingly, at the centre of the Western feminist pantheon. She is generally regarded as a key figure in the Western feminist tradition and an influential forerunner to the second wave, post-1968 movement. Yet it may be reasonably asked, how useful is her existentialist approach to feminism for women today? Does her magnus opus, Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) carry the same relevance 57 years after its initial publication? The size of the topic, essentially the creation of woman, is indeed brobdingnagian. It may, therefore, be helpful to break Le Deuxième Sexe into two primary divisions; that which has been absorbed and that which has been resisted. Whilst some of Beauvoir’s ideas could be seen today as historical anachronism and others were lost in the, less than comprehensive, English translation of Howard Parshley, many of them remain just as useful and relevant today as they were in 1949.
Beauvoir’s precedent in writing Le Deuxième Sexe is the basic existential principle that existence precedes essence. This concept is introduced in the first few pages and remains a leitmotif throughout. Femininity or womanhood, she observes, is an abstract notion in society which can be embraced, rejected, thriving or in danger. She concludes, therefore, that, “every female being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity.” As womanhood is not a natural state but a social construct it can be critiqued and reinvented. Ultimately Beauvoir suggests that through challenging these social constructs women may, “make their escape from the sphere hitherto assigned to them.”
Beauvoir’s work marked the nascent stage of feminist existentialism. This was certainly a radical heterodox to the centuries’ old Christian tradition, which asserted that women occupy a ‘natural’ subsidiary role. Beauvoir also challenged the much more contemporary psychoanalytical theory. Although Freud’s work emphasised the developmental role of the infantile state as opposed to biologically ‘natural’ states, he maintains, according to Beauvoir, a phallocentric bias. Beauvoir is particularly incensed at the notion of female castration complex. She asserts that Freud is incorrect when he, “assumes that woman feels that she is a mutilated man.” Beauvoir’s existentialist critique of the Freudian paradigm rejects that woman are sexually inferior to men and asserts they should not be restricted to an inferior societal role.
Beauvoir’s feminist existentialism is indeed a powerful intellectual force as it counters several theories which used ideology as the basis of patriarchal legitimus dominatus. It may still be questioned, however, if this approach is still useful to women today. This question is perhaps difficult to answer because the concept of gender constructs is now largely accepted by mainstream society. With the feminist movement some 6 decades advanced, many of the struggles Beauvoir mentions may not be immediately relevant in a secularist Western setting. To suggest that women are defective men, either through religion or pseudo-science, would be seen as a backwards, archaic paradigm. So in this regard, Beauvoir’s theory of gender constructs is useful to modern women more as a historical point of reference than a relevant call to arms.
The approach of feminist existentialism is a direct counter to the Hegelian concept of biological essentialism. Yet Beauvoir draws strongly on the Hegelian notion of the ‘Other’ to explain the discriminatory position women occupy in patriarchal society. Hegel suggests that self-transcendence can be achieved through acknowledging the ‘Other’, then contrasting and ultimately recognising it as the inessential. Beauvoir insists that, hitherto, history has suppressed female transcendence by conceptualising woman as the ‘Other’ and man as the default subject.
Society had been conditioned to understand that history, philosophy, politics, even actions and ideas, are occupied in the male sphere; “a man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex.” It is, by contrast, an anomaly of sorts, when a woman makes a contribution to these fields. Beauvoir describes the frustrating position women find themselves in when expressing ideas. A man, she notes, may criticise feminine discourse by claiming, “you think thus and so because you are a woman.” If a woman retorts, however, “you think the contrary because you are a man,” it is by no means an insult. Beauvoir suggests the woman’s only defense is to claim, “I think thus and so because it is true,” as this method negates the concept of the male ‘One’ and the female ‘Other’.
The institutionalisation of female ‘Otherness’ is a source of immense frustration for Beauvoir. One of the primary benefits of this system is that the ‘One’, no matter how lowly and humble, can always take pride as the inherent superior of the ‘Other’. Beauvoir notes that, “the most mediocre of males feels himself a demigod as compared with woman.” This is not to suggest that all men are indifferent to the plight of women, however, “the most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend woman’s concrete situation.” The ‘One’ can never truly appreciate the experience of the ‘Other’.
Beauvoir notes that, “no group ever sets itself up as the ‘One’ without at once setting up the ‘Other’ over against it.” In this regard, women are in the same objectified condition as racial minorities such as Jews and Blacks. The critical difference is that women are not a minority. In many ways this makes the task of rejecting the ‘Other’ label all the more labourious. Whilst racial and economic groups can draw upon a common history or religion as a means of assuming a subjective constitution, women have been conditioned to identify themselves through the male sphere and thus, “lack the concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit.”
Again one wonders, in the wake of both waves of feminism, how potent is Beauvoir’s message today? Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner posed the question in 2004, are we living in post-feminist times? Proponents of the post-feminist theory cite glowing statistics about girls surpassing boys academically and making continual inroads with regards to politics and business. Yet the language of these reports suggest that the philosophical stigma of ‘Otherness’ still hangs tenaciously over women.
Why, it may be asked, is it a particularly newsworthy item when girls beat boys in the Higher School Certificate or any other test? Why is it an outstanding achievement for a woman to achieve the post of Prime Minister, Premier or CEO, but simply an accepted given when a man occupies these posts? Why does the Australian Labor Party, albeit with good intentions, need to institute a quota system to assure a certain number of female members of parliament? Beauvoir’s assessment of women as the ‘Other’ appears still to be largely accurate in contemporary culture. It would seem a priori that this dominant theme in Le Deuxième Sexe is still a useful concept for women today to engage with.
Despite the many advances women have made in education and employment there can be little doubt that they still struggle to find equality with males. Despite the increased employment of women most never rise above lower management. A comprehensive study of the gendered wage gap in Australia by the University of Canberra estimated an almost 8 percent difference in the male’s favour. Rowe-Finkbeiner notes that the glass ceiling still exists, it is not broken but merely cracked. Beauvoir describes this as a caste system within the economic sphere. Men, she claims, “hold the better jobs, get higher wages, and have more opportunity for success than their new competitors.” Beauvoir’s message, in this case, is certainly still relevant for women today as it is a call to action.
Some of Beauvoir’s more subtle examples of the objectification of woman also seem to have retained relevance. She notes that the very clothing designated as feminine is designed to cut the body off from activity. She explains this as a patriarchal attempt to institutionalise the gender binary. Whilst men monopolise the realm of action, ornamental attire is used to, “accomplish the metamorphosis of woman into idol.” For Beauvoir, this pattern continues in history from Chinese foot binding to Hollywood beautification; “paralysed by inconvenient clothing and by the rules of propriety – then woman’s body seems to man his property, his thing.”
This criticism, if it is believed, is as relevant now as it was in 1949. Many of the costumes and styles of today’s women restrict action also. Long nails and high heels, for example, augment immobility in much the same way as they did when Beauvoir was writing. Suggesting what should be done, however, is an altogether murky and contentious task. Beauvoir is critical of any fashion which affirms woman as the ‘Other’ thus restricting her freedom. Beauvoir’s critics, however, such as Mary Evans, Antoinette Fouque and Luce Irigaray, argue that her concept of freedom is essentially male and that she is not positive enough in her representation of woman.
This criticism suggests a possible weakness in the feminist existentialist approach; it negates the notion of a female essence. For many critics of Beauvoir, and critics of feminism in general, femininity and especially motherhood are beautiful, but importantly, inherent states. As such they tend to embrace the costumes and styles Beauvoir questions. Women, of course, have the freedom to dress however they please. Nevertheless, it is probably still useful for women today to consider Beauvoir’s theory concerning traditional female attire when choosing how to execute that freedom.
Being aware of Beauvoir’s theory can be seen as an enabler of freedom for women. Even if they reject her ideas, the very choice of rejection means they are in a position of action not passivity. The difference, Beauvoir would argue, is not outward but inner. If a woman chooses to dress a certain way, then she is executing freedom. If, however, she feels compelled to dress that way, she is acquiescing to man-made societal constraints and accepting her state of immanence.
The traditional gender binary not only divides men and women as active and passive but as rational and emotional as well. Again, in a modern, secular environment, it is unlikely anyone would state that women are chained to their emotions and yet it is possibly inferred in other ways. Margaret Simons notes that, “most philosophers, feminist and non-feminist alike, see Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical perspective as defined by that of her lifelong friend, Jean-Paul Sartre.” John Dalton questions this immediate connection. Why does, “the work of men stand apart from their biography, but not the work of women, which would mean that their work is not self-sufficient?” This could, perhaps, be further evidence of the ‘Otherness’ with which woman is still perceived. Whilst it is natural for men to create philosophical works, when a woman does so it is seen as a peculiarity and, as with all peculiarities, personal details about the creator are sought.
Beauvoir draws on examples from history to support her view that the ‘Other’ is a category men have always inflicted upon women, trapping them in immanence. She writes that, “in the past all history has been made by men.” This point, however, could be considered weak, even dated. Much like the feminist movement, history has also advanced and diversified greatly since 1949. Traditional adherents to the ‘hero in history’ paradigm not only tended to exclude women but also the vast majority of men. This approach focused primarily on kings and other leaders.
Since the time of Le Deuxième Sexe many prominent historians have turned their attention to the untold histories of ordinary men and women. Bruce Scates, for example, has led fascinating new research into the experience and contribution of Australian women during the First World War and explored the concept of emotional labour in The Unknown Sock Knitter. Melanie Oppenheimer and Mark Lyons have also been influential in researching the contribution of the, hitherto, largely ignored third sector. Many other examples could be cited but suffice to say, history is not stagnant and it is anachronistic to try and fossilise it in one particular period of time. That is not to say that Beauvoir’s theory of the historical objectification of women is false, only that it has a shaky foundation and is unprovable in any definitive sense.
When Le Deuxième Sexe was released it drew a plethora of responses. The source of anger and outrage for some, it breathed hope and inspiration into others. There are at least three distinct areas in which the book is useful and relevant to women today. Firstly, it marks the nascent stage of a new epoch. Even women who do not necessarily adhere to Beauvoir’s ideas, such as influential feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar, still acknowledge the historical significance of her 1949 work. Le Deuxième Sexe was a spark which helped ignite the feminist movement throughout the seventies and eighties. As such the work is useful as a point of reference in chronicling the history of feminism.
Secondly, Beauvoir’s approach of feminist existentialism is still useful to women today as it provides an ideological framework to challenge the notion of biological essentialism. As has already been explained, however, this is a two-edged sword. Women may want to conceptualise themselves as having inherent feminine qualities. Nevertheless, Beauvoir is still useful for providing an alternate theory which can then be rejected or accepted. Finally, Beauvoir’s concept of the female ‘Other’ is still relevant and, indeed, very useful to women today. Beauvoir challenges women not to settle for partial access to the male sphere but to expand the frontiers of the female sphere until woman’s dignity is elevated and she is seen as man’s fellow creature.
Determining usefulness over several decades is by no means an exact science and the task is made all the more complicated by the societal trend of evolving values, protocols and norms. Whilst Beauvoir may have seemed radical to her audience in the fifties, by the mid-sixties she seemed to some, rather passé, even irrelevant. Women today, historically alienated from the struggles women faced when Beauvoir was writing, would perhaps take for granted the increased freedoms and opportunities she advocated. Nevertheless, Beauvoir’s ideas are still useful as they marked the nidus of a new epoch in the conceptualisation of woman and suggest the direction the feminist movement ought to go.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre