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Simone de Beauvoir: “women as the other” PDF Print E-mail
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Friday, 07 May 2010 02:18

Simone de Beauvor was a French philosopher, novelist, and essayist, the lifelong companion of Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir’s two volume treatise. The Second Sex is among the most widely read feminist work. Her own life she documented in a monumental, four-volume autobiography. Beauvoir once stated.

“when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the “division” of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form”.

The book was addressed to the leftist intellectuals to abandon their elitist “mandarin” status, and to participate in the real world political struggle. Roman Catholic authorities banned it and Beauvor’s feminist classic The Second Sex, in which Beauvoir argued that “one is not born a woman; one becomes one”. Women are “the other”, the sex defined by men and patriarchy as not male, and consequently they are less than fully human. Judith Okeley has argued that Beauvoir in fact produced “an anthropological village study of specific women”, in which the village is that of mid-century Paris and the women are mainly middle-class. Critics have questioned de Beauvoir’s assumptions of the male as norm, but her views about misogyny in myth and literature have been extremely influential.

Where Beauvoir’s earlier works blurred the boundaries set up to separate the genres of philosophy and literature, her later writings blur the distinctions said to exist between the personal, the political and the philosophical. Now, Beauvoir takes herself, her situation, her embodiment and the situations and embodiments of those close to her, as the subjects of her philosophical unethical figures to make its arguments tangible, The Second sex grounds its analyses in Beauvoir’s experiences as a woman and in the concrete situations of other real women. Where The Ethics of Ambiguity speaks of mystification in a general sense. The Second Sex speaks of the specific ways in which the natural and social sciences and the European literary, social, political and religious traditions have created a mystified world where impossible and confliction ideals of femininity produce an ideology of women’s “natural” inferiority to justify patriarchal dominations.

Beauvoir’s self criticism suggests that her later works mark a break with her earlier writings. We should, however, resist the temptation to take this notion of discontinuity too far. Rather than thinking in terms of breaks it is more fruitful to see The Second Sex as a more radical commitment to the phenomenological insight that it is as embodied beings that we engage the world. Our access to, awareness of, and possibilities for world engagement cannot be considered absent consideration of the body.

Before The Second Sex the sexed body was no object of phenomenological investigation. Beauvoir changed that. Her argument for sexual equality works in two directions. First, it exposes the ways in which patriarchy exploits the sexual difference to create systems of inequality. Second, it exposes as a patriarchal ploy(cleverness of) Plato’s seemingly libratory argument in The Republic, that takes the premise that sex is an accidental quality to the conclusion that women and men are equally qualified to become members of the guardian class. So long as the standard of equality is the male body, the discriminatory sexual difference remains in play.

The Second Sex argues against the either/or frame of the woman question (either women or men are equal or they are different). It argues for women’s equality, while insisting on the reality of the sexual difference. Beauvoir finds it unjust and immoral to use the sexual difference to exploit women. She finds it un-phenomenological to ignore it. As a phenomenologist she is obliged to examine the ways in which women experience their bodies and to determine how these experiences are co-determined by what phenomenology calls the everyday attitude (the commonsense assumptions we unreflectively bring to our experience). As a feminist phenomenologist assessing the meanings of the lived female body and exploring the way these meaning affect our place in the world, she brackets these assumptions to investigate the ways in which they corrupt our experiences. For example, it is assumed that women are the weaker sex. What, we must ask, is the ground of this assumption? What criteria of strength are used? Upper body power? Average body size? Is there is reason to not consider longevity a sign of strength? Using this criterion, would women still be considered the weaker sex? A bit of reflection exposes the biases of the criteria used to support this supposedly obvious fact and transforms it from a fact to a questionable assumption. Once we begin, it only a moment to for other so called facts to fall to the side of “common sense” in the phenomenological sense.

From a feminist perspective what is perhaps the most famous line of The Second Sex, “One is not born but becomes a woman” introduces what has come to be called the sex-gender distinction. Whether or not Beauvoir understood herself to be inaugurating this distinction, whether or not she followed this distinction to its logical/radical conclusions, or whether or not radical conclusion are justified are currently matters of feminist debate. What is not a matter of dispute is that Beauvoir’s The Second Sex gave us the vocabulary for analyzing the social constructions of femininity and the structure for critiquing these constructions. From a phenomenological perspective this most famous line of The Second Sex pursues the first rule of phenomenology: suspend judgments, identify your assumptions, treat them as prejudices and put them aside; do not bring them back into play until they have been validated by experience.

Taken within the context of its contemporary philosophical scene, The Second Sex was a phenomenological analysis waiting to happen. Whether or not it required a woman phenomenologist discover the effect of sex on the lived body’s experience cannot be said. That it was a woman who taught us to bracket the assumption that the lived body’s sex was accidental to its lived relations, positions, engagements, etc. is a matter of history. What a phenomenological break was through was used in The Second Sex as a libratory tool; for by attending to the ways in which patriarchal structures used the sexual difference to deprive women of their “can do” bodies, Beauvoir’s phenomenology provided the criteria for declaring them oppressive. Taken within the context of the feminist movement, The Second Sex was an event. It opened the way for the consciousness-raising that characterized second wave feminism, it validated women’s experiences of injustice, it provided a program for liberation. What from the existential-phenomenological perspective was a detailed analysis of the lived body and an ethical and political indictment of the ways in whi9ch patriarchy alienated women from their embodied capacities, was, from the feminist perspective, also an appeal—an analysis (both concrete and theoretical) that called on women to take up the cause of their liberation.

Several concepts are crucial to the arguments of The Second Sex. The concept of the other is introduced early in the text and drives that entire analysis. It has also become a critical concept in many theorists that analyze the situation of marginalized people. Beauvoir will use it again in her last major work. The Coming of Age, to structure her critique of the ways in which the elderly are “othered” by society.

Beauvoir bases her idea of the Other on Hegel’s account of the master-slave dialectic. Instead of the terms “master” and “slave”, however, she uses the terms “Subject” and “Other”. The Subject is the absolute. The Other is the inessential. Unlike Hegel who universalized this dialectic, Beauvoir distinguishes the dialectic of exploitation between historically constituted Subjects and Others from the exploitation that ensues when the Subject is man and the Other is Woman. In the first case the Other experiences his oppression as a communal reality. He is part of an oppressed group. Here, the oppressed Other may call on the resources of a common history and a shared abusive situation to assert his subjectivity and demand recognition and reciprocity.

The situation of women is like the condition of the Hegelian Other in that men, like the Hegelian master, identify themselves as the Subject, the absolute human type, and measuring women but this standard of the human, indentify them as inferior. Women’s so called inadequacies are established as justification for positioning them as the Other and for treating them accordingly. Unlike the Hegelian Other, however, women are unable to identify the origin of their otherness. They cannot call on the bond of a shared history to reestablish their lost status as Subjects. Further, dispersed among the world of men, they identify themselves with the status of their oppressors (e.g., as white or black women, as working class or middle class women, as Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu women) rather than with each other. They lack the solidarity and resources of the Hegelian Other for organizing themselves into a “we” that demands equality. Finally, their conflict with men is ambiguous. According to Beauvoir, women and men exist in a “primordial Mitsein” There is a unique bond between this Subject “we” and take account of the Mitsein. The category of the Inessential Other designates the unique situation of women as the ambiguous Other of men. Unlike the Other of the master-slave dialectic, women are not positioned to rebel. As Inessential Others, women’s routes to subjectivity and recognition cannot follow the Hegelian script.

This attention to what Beauvoir, borrowing from Heidegger, calls a “primordial Mitsin” may be why an appeal to violence as sometimes necessary for the pursuit of justice similar to the one voiced in The Ethics of Ambiguity is absent from The Second Sex. Often criticized as a mark of Beauvoir’s is absent from The Second Sex. Often criticized as a mark of Beauvoir’s heterosexism, this remark (among others) is not made in ignorance of lesbian sexuality and is not a rejection of non-heterosexual sexualities. It is a recognition of the present state of affairs where heterosexuality dominates. If patriarchy is to be dismantled, according to Beauvoir, we will have to understand how heterosexuality works and learn how to undermine its alienations. To Beauvoir’s way of thinking, however, the institutional alienations of heterosexuality ought not be confused with the erotic of heterosexual desire. Thus “primordial Mitsein” must be taken into account: not only is it responsible for women’s isolation and inability to identify a common history, it is also responsible for the value and relationship that Beauvoir calls the “bond”, a situation specific articulation of the relationship of the appeal developed in The Ethics of Ambiguity.

The ways in which Beauvoir’s Second Sex deploys existential and Marxist categories to alert us to the unique complexities of women’s situation is best captured in a brief but packed sentence early in the text. It reads, “Thus woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because she lacks definite sources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity, and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other”. This phenomenological-existential statement needs to be read in the context of Beauvoir’s ethical-political question, “How can a human being in a woman’s situation attain fulfillment”?

Between the statement and the question we discover that the ethical-political issue of fulfillment does not concern a woman’s happiness. Happiness may be chosen or accepted in exchange for the deprivations of freedom. As others, women are returned to the metaphysically privileged world of the child. They experience the bad faith happiness of not being responsible for themselves, if not having to make consequential choices. From this existential perspective women may be said to be complicities in their subjugation. But this is not the whole story. If women are happy as the other, it may be because this is the only avenue of happiness open to them given their situation. Such a situation in which she lacks definite resources for establishing herself as a subject is not of her making. It is both material and ideological. Materially it concerns her economic dependence on men. Ideologically it concerns the myth of woman which naturalizes her institutionalized inferior status. Beauvoir’s existential charge of bad faith must be situated within her Marxist analyses of social, economic and cultural structures. The assertion that woman feels her necessary bond with man regardless of reciprocity, however, escapes existential and Marxist categories. It is crucial to Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s condition and draws on the notion of the appeal in making an appeal to others to join me in my pursuit of justice I validate myself and my values. Given that my appeal must be an appeal to the other in their freedom, I must allow for the fact that the other may reject it. When this happens, I must (assuming that the rejection is not a threat to the ground value of freedom) recognize the other’s freedom and affirm the bond of humanity that ties us to each other. In the case of women, Beauvoir notes, this aspect of the appeal (the affirmation of the bond between us) dominates. She does not approve of the way in which women allow it to eclipse the requirement that they be recognized as free subjects, but she does alert us to the fact that recognition in itself is not the full story of the ethical relationship. To demand recognition without regard for the bond of humanity is unethical. It is the position of the Subject as master.

Between the statement and the question the issue of women’s exploitation and liberation is determined to be historical, and therefore amenable to change, and existential, and therefore our responsibility to change. “Our” here refers to women. It is not a matter of appealing to men to give women their freedom, but a matter of women discovering their solidarity, rejecting the bad faith temptations of happiness, and discovering the pleasures of freedom. Further, though Beauvoir alerts us to the tensions and conflicts that this will create between men and women, she does not envision a permanent war of the sexes. Here her Hegelian-Marxist optimism prevails. Men will (ultimately) respond to the feminist appeal.

The last chapter of The Second Sex, “The Independent Woman” and the Conclusion speak of the current status of women’s situation – what has changed and what remains to be done. Without ignoring the importance of women’s gaining the right to vote and without dismissing the necessity of women attaining economic independence, Beauvoir finds these liberal and Marxist solutions to women’s situation inadequate. They ignore the effects of women’s socialization (the subject of volume two of The Second Sex), and of the ways in which the norm of masculinity remains the standard of the human. The liberated woman must free herself from two shackles: one is the idea that to be independent she must be like men and the other is her socialization in passivity which makes her adverse to risking herself for her ideas/ideals. Attentive to this current state of affairs and to the phenomenology of the body, Beauvoir sets two prerequisites for liberation. First, women must be socialized to negate the world. Second, they must be allowed to discover the unique ways in which their embodiment engages the world. In short, the myth of woman must be destroyed. So long as it prevails, economic and political advances will fail short of the goal of liberation. Speaking for the sexual difference Beauvoir notes that dismantling the myth of woman is not a recipe for an androgynous future. Given the realities of embodiment, that there will be sexual differences. Unlike today, however, these differences will not ground the difference between a Subject and his inessential other.

The goal of liberation, according to Beauvoir, is our mutual recognition of each other as free and as other. She finds one situation in which this mutual recognition (sometimes) exists today, the intimate heterosexual erotic encounter. Speaking of this intimacy she writes, “The dimension of the relation of the other still exists; but the fact is that alterity has no longer and hostile implication” Why? Because lovers experience themselves and each other ambiguously, that is as both subjects and objects of erotic desire rather than as delineated according to institutionalized positions of man and woman. In Beauvoir’s words, “The erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of the condition; in it they are aware of themselves as flesh and as spirit, as the other and as the subject”. The concept of ambiguity is embodied in The Second Sex where it is identified as a crucial piece of the prescription for transcending the oppression of patriarchy.


Last Updated on Friday, 07 May 2010 02:20
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