Of all her books, Simone de Beauvoir once remarked that Le Deuxieme Sexe was the one that brought her the most lasting happiness. Her uncompromising message was clear: motherhood and marriage alone can never make a woman happy. Paid work alone secures a woman’s independence. In the 1950s, however, her devastating critique of the oppression of women was too radical to be accepted by women thoroughly in the grips of patriarchal ideology.
She anticipated all the issues that became crucial to the feminist struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. There can be no doubt that Le Deuxieme Sexe remains the most important book of this century.
Le Deuxime Sexe is divided into two parts. The introduction to the first volume, Les faits et les mythes, outlines Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s oppression. Criticising the sexism of biology, psychology and historical materialism, Beauvoir concludes that these discourses cannot really explain why women are oppressed.
But the fact remains that they are, and accordingly she launches a dauntingly massive discussion of the history of women and women’s oppression from the earliest times until 1940, before finally examining some examples of the representation of femininity in literature written by men.
The second volume, L’experience vecue, deals with the education of girls, emphasising ways in which they are made to conform to dominant notions of femininity, and examines the social and psychological situation of the adult woman, before outlining three major-but ultimately successful-ways of manifesting female ambition within the strictures of patriarchy: narcissism, romantic love, mysticism.
This volume contains chapters on lesbianism, motherhood, abortion and contraception, prostitution and sexuality. The final chapter, La femme independente, offers a quick glance toward liberation.
This marvellously energetic book presents a wealth of information about women’s lives and history. More than a generation later, surprisingly (and disappointingly) little of Beauvoir’s material is out of date.
With her massive accumulation of facts and relentless debunking of patriarchal ideology, Beauvoir almost succeeds in making us forget that even after reading her 1-000-page effort, we still do not really know why women are oppressed. In this way, Le Deuxieme Sexe leaves us with the image of an oppression without a cause, as the French Feminist philosopher Michele Le Doeuff has shown.
It is as if the whole argument of the book is constructed around a central absence. The effect of this void is powerfully dialectical, Le Doeuff argues, producing the impression that patriarchy is desperately trying to fill a never-ending series of gaps and fissures. “Lacking any basis on the side of the involuntary (nature, economy, the unconscious), the phallic order must secure itself against every circumstance with a forest of props – from the upbringing of little girls to the repressive legislation of ‘birth control’, and from codes of dress to exclusion from politics.”
Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s oppression is based on two simple principles: (1) Woman in patriarchal society is defined as man’s “other”; patriarchal ideology defines her as immanence, passivity, negativity, object-being, and man as transcendence, activity, striving, subject-being. (2) There is no such thing as a female nature, no essence of womanhood. All theories of ‘eternal femininity’ are patriarchal mystifications. Beauvoir’s firm refusal of female essentialism is a logical consequence of her existentialist rejection of any kind of human essentialism.
In the case of women, Beauvoir assumes, any form of essentialism will in the end favour the patriarchal project of keeping woman in her “place.” But if “woman” has no essence, it follows that neither has she a “place” to which she can be confined. Beauvoir’s proverbial dictum is that one is not born a woman, but becomes one neatly encapsulates this aspect of her analysis.
Given Beauvoir’s philosophical starting point, Jean Paul Sartre’s L’etre et le neant, it is obvious that to her every consciousness is constantly reaching out to define the world, in relation to itself. There can be no sense in which women “spontaneously” seek to perceive themselves as other. Their “otherness” is forced upon them by society.
If some women come to collude in the patriarchal attempt to cast women as other (that is, as negative, inferior, dependent, and “relative” beings), they are not necessarily guilty of bad faith (that is presenting man-made myths as inevitable, natural, or God-given realities that cannot meaningfully be opposed), since many women have been effectively deprived of any chance of seeing through the patriarchal game. Women, explains Beauvoir, have traditionally been not only sexually and economically exploited, but also deliberately kept in a state of poverty and ignorance that objectively makes them dependent on men for their very survival.
Under such circumstances, it does not make sense to talk about women’s “bad faith” or collusion in their own oppression, any more than it make sense to claim that Blacks in the United States were responsible for their own enslavement. Having thus surreptitiously tacked a form of materialism onto Sartre’s tragic ontology, Beauvoir concludes that women will never achieve their freedom as long as they are not able to earn their own living.
But although she sees economic independence as the indispensable foundation of every other form of independence, it does not follow that economically independent women automatically achieve emotional and intellectual freedom as well; patriarchal conditioning is likely to be more recalcitrant than that. Beauvoir’s point is simply that economic liberation is the sine qua non of every other form of liberation.
The whole project of Le Deuxieme Sexe is based on the assumption that knowledge is both a value in itself and a powerful agent for change. But this knowledge must be expressed in language. Much like her lifelong companion Sartre, Beauvoir holds that the author writes to reveal a truth that in its turn will transform the world. For Beauvoir as for Sartre, truth or knowledge is always in visual terms: knowledge is “insight” or “lucidity”; to write is to “expose” the truth, to “throw light”, “illuminate” or “lucidity”.
Discovering and representing the truth is the double task of the intellectuals, and it is their specific form of action. Words are not to be handled lightly. As Beauvoir herself puts it: “I am an intellectual. I take words and the truth to be of value.”
However, her obsession with knowledge does not surface only in Le Deuxieme Sexe. Even in her first published novel, L, Francoise is driven by an intense desire to “know” what goes on inside her rival’s head.
To have knowledge is to master oneself and events; not to have it is to be powerless. Destruction is preferable to ignorance: Francoise ends up killing the opaque Xaviere.
The novel gains its impact from the way in which it poses the question of the existence of the other not simply as a philosophical puzzle, but as a concrete, emotional problem, an insoluble dilemma that drives the protagonist to an existential and emotional crisis in which murder suddenly seems to be the only solution.
No wonder, then, that Francoise is endowed with a quite exceptional power to “live an idea boy and soul.” If Beauvoir is fascinated by ideas, it is not because they are theoretical; on the contrary, Francoise argues: “To me, an idea is not a question of theory. One feels it or…it has no value.” There is little trace here of the traditional patriarchal division between intellect and emotions, mind and body, so frequently criticised by feminists. Indeed Beauvoir returns to the problem of the existence of others, this time focusing on our responsibility toward others, in Le Sang des Autres, one of the first novels about the Resistance to be published after the liberation of France. In her immensely ambitious novel, Les Mandarins, she problematises the issues of engagement and responsibility as they presented themselves to Left-wing intellectuals in France in the first post-war years. The same drive for knowledge, a knowledge that is never purely intellectual but always also a matter of emotional experience, made Beauvoir undertake the massive task of writing her autobiography.
According to many critics, the four volumes of her memoirs – Memoires d’une jeune fille rangee, La force de l’age, La force des choses, Tout compte fait – and her account of her mother’s death (Une mort tres douce) and of Sartre’s death (La ceremonie des adieux) together make up her most powerful and moving literary statements.
Behind this massive autobiographical enterprise is not only the desire to understand herself and her choices, but also the conviction that an honest examination of her own life will be of interest to others: Ïf any individual…reveals himself honestly, everyone, more or less,, becomes involved. It is not possible for him to shed light on his own life without at some point illuminating the lives of others.”
It would seem that she was right. Memoires d’une jeune fille rangee, in particular, the evocation of her childhood and youth in a stiflingly conformist bourgeois and Catholic family, and her subsequent break with her background in favour of a life of intellectual and emotional freedom, is considered by many to her most outstanding book.
Beauvoir’s memoirs present a fascinating account of the life of a female intellectual in the mid-20th century, in a country where leading intellectuals are not only unusually influential but also almost exclusively male. Moreover, they show that Beauvoir lived both ideas and politics “body and soul.”
After the war she declared herself a socialist and began an unending struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation.
Her account of her life in France during the country’s ignominious colonial war in Algeria conveys, together with her rational grounds for opposing the war, her visceral revolt against the nauseating climate of lies, immorality, and silence in which she found herself forced to live. In 1962 with Gisele Halimi, the victim’s lawyer, she published Djamila Boupacha, an account of the French torture of a young Algerian woman.
Beauvoir’s voracious appetite for knowledge and experience is reflected in the great scope and variety of her work: autobiography, philosophical essays, theatre, literary criticism, novels, short stories, and travel books on the USA and China. Her two massive investigations of women and old age, Le Deuxime Sexe and La veillesse, defy all generic categorisations. The scope of her essays indicates an intense thirst for “totality”, a desire to encompass the world in her own understanding and to leave her mark on it. Such an ambitious undertaking is singularly lacking in the traditional marks of femininity. There is no modesty, no domesticity, no emphasis on traditional female topics. As an intellectual, Beauvoir saw herself as a human being, not as a woman. There is something intensely liberating in discovering such limitless confidence and ambition in a woman.
Yet many feminists have been made uneasy by Beauvoir’s seemingly effortless escape from the female condition. Is she not simply embracing patriarchal values? Should she not have made a greater effort to praise the traditional domain of women? Does her exceptional life (no husband, no children, no permanent home until she was almost 50) somehow disqualify her from speaking “as a woman”? Or did she rather sin by not being exceptional enough (Was she not too subservient, too traditional, in her relationship with Sartre)? Are not her memoirs also full-fledged attempts to forge a model life for herself? And is Angela Carter not right when she claims that “one of the most interesting projects of the life of Simone de Beauvoir has been the mythologisation of the life of Sartre? Her volumes of memoirs are devoted to this project.”
Beauvoir’s works have proved no less controversial among feminists than among other politically minded readers. Mary Evans, for instance, has provided a searching – some would say ungenerous – critique of Beauvoir’s politics from a modern feminist perspective.
But such academic and intellectual disputes tend to mask a more important fact: almost from the start of her career Beauvoir made it possible to imagine a post-phallocentric world in which writing by women is no longer subordinate to notions laid down by men. Indeed her writings not only explored new themes and ideas; it also developed a radical new voice.
First Published in The Statesman in 2002