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).
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.