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Centenary week: Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir was born on the 9th of January, 1908.

Toril Moi writes in The Guardian that all of us should read her masterpiece, The Second Sex (of which Random House has recently announced a new English translation to be published in the next few years, finally acknowledging long-standing criticisms of the only English translation thus far, by one HM Parshley, which excises approximately 15 percent of the original French text for a start).

Moi writes:

Beauvoir’s analysis of sexism is perhaps her most powerful theoretical contribution to feminism. In a sexist society, she argues, man is the universal and woman is the particular; he is the One, she is the Other. Women therefore regularly find themselves placed in a position where they are faced with the “choice” between being imprisoned in their femininity and being obliged to masquerade as an abstract genderless subject.

To explain what she means, Beauvoir gives an example. In the middle of an abstract conversation, a man once said to her that “you say that because you are a woman”. If she were to answer “I say it because it is true”, she writes, she would be eliminating her own subjectivity. But if she were to say “I say it because I am a woman”, she would be imprisoned in her gender. In the first case, she has to give up her own lived experience; in the second, she must renounce her claim to say something of general validity.

The anecdote warns us against believing that feminism must choose between equality and difference. As long as that “choice” takes place in a society that casts man as the One and woman as the Other, it is not a choice, but an insoluble dilemma.

Beauvoir argues ferociously against attempts to lay down requirements for how women ought to be or behave. To her, any imposition of “femininity” on women is an invitation to soul-destroying alienation.

The Second Sex provides a strong alternative to identity politics. For Beauvoir, identity is an effect of choices and actions in specific situations: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” Living under vastly different conditions, women are unlikely to develop the same political interests. Women often have stronger allegiances to their race, religion, social class or nationality than to their own sex, Beauvoir writes.

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writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

4 comments on “Centenary week: Simone de Beauvoir

  1. Moi’s article makes me want to reread Second Sex immediately. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy of my own. I read it in Polish translation, when it was re-issued in a de Beauvoir series with prefaces by Polish feminists.

    What moi writes about responses to de Beauvoir and about Helene Cixous is very close to my own sense of hesitation between the theories. There is still a specter of carving ourselves out of the space of dialogue in various disciplines and areas of life. Have we truly entered it as women? I think it is a topical question that has no certain answer. Geography plays an important role here as do so many other cultural factors.

    The holy grail of objectivity cannot be reached for by the Other. And it is still a holy grail in many academic disciplines, especially in hard science. Embracing female difference does not release us from the necessity of playing the larger game (career, scientific writing, existence in society organized as it is organized now), and embracing the difference can entail removing yourself from the playing field.

    I’m not saying that either position is “right” or “wrong,” only that we never get to start with a blank. Whatever the situation is, we, women, are entering it marked by our “difference.” The rules of the game have not included us, but they operate and can’t be dismissed.

    I am against tokenism, I object to women practicing it. But in my reading of de Beauvoir, that is not what she is arguing in favor of. She is saying that in order to enter the game and win respect for our position, we need to assume certain alien roles, a certain performed “toughness” (that might differ from our genuine “toughness”), a sort of a masquerade according to the rules we have not set. Now, how much is this a strategy of “doublethink” and how much a dangerous reduction?

    To work out an answer, I’d need to return to Second Sex with pencil in hand and would find, most likely, many points I disagree with.

    But the dream of a possible objectivity, the dream of the possibility of abandoning difference is not “wrong” or “evil,” even if it’s not your particular dream. It’s one of the visions of equality.

  2. I read Le deuxième sexe a few years ago, and I must say it’s a great way to expand one’s mind and certainly an indispensable introduction to feminism… yet, how about that (IMHO) awful chapter on lesbianism?…

  3. I’ll have to reread that, v01beta. I don’t especially remember it.

  4. Walking past my local second hand bookshop today, I noticed they had a copy of The Second Sex in the window, so I went in, asked how much for it, and it didn’t have a price in it so the guy gave it me for a measly £2, bargain!

    I’ll read it as soon as I finish Dawkins.

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