SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR AND EXISTENTIAL FEMINISM Simone de Beauvoir wrote novels; monographs on philosophy, politics, and social issues; essays; biographies; and an autobiography. She is best known for her metaphysical novels, including She Came to Stay (1943) and The Mandarins (1954), and for her treatise ‘The Second Sex’, a detailed analysis of women's subjugation and the cornerstone of contemporary feminism. Written in 1949, its English translation was published in 1953. It embarks a feminist existentialism which endorses a moral revolution. As an existentialist, she adopted Jean-Paul Sartre's precept “existence precedes essence”; hence "one is not born a woman, but becomes one." She argues that women have been deemed aberrant and wayward historically and contends that even Mary Wollstonecraft accounted men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. De Beauvoir argues that for feminism to move forward, this attitude must be set aside. Her influence on the American feminists like Betty Freidan helped launch second-wave feminism. De Beauvoir's major contribution was to shift the focus from a biological substrate to the man/woman debate to a social one. She located gender as a social category rather than a merely biological one, arguing that women are socially conditioned, trained and prescribed so as to assume the role of ‘women’. In this de Beauvoir was one of the first feminists to turn to a social constructionist argument of gender where social conditioning, contexts and structures create specific roles based on the biological difference, but roles that are then seen as ‘natural’ and timeless. She argued that so-called non-political areas of one’s life such as family and relationships were influenced by the larger power structures of a society. Her book aimed at demonstrating the constructed nature of womanhood and thereby rejecting the same. She suggested that a woman would have to overcome her biology in her quest for freedom. Incidentally, this sharply contrasts with radical feminist positions that seek to celebrate women’s body. It embarks a feminist existentialism which endorses a moral revolution. As an existentialist, she adopted Jean-Paul Sartre's precept “existence precedes essence”; hence "one is not born a woman, but becomes one." Her scrutiny focuses on the social mechanism that views woman as the “Other”, which de Beauvoir identifies as rudimentary to women's oppression. The main argument of The Second Sex remains that women have been caught up in a relationship of long-standing oppression to men through their relegation to being men’s “Other.” Beauvoir contends that the self needs some otherness to ably define itself as a subject; hence, the category of the otherness, is mandatory in the creation of the self, as a self. Beauvoir’s aim was to investigate the initial emergence of this radically unequal relationship and to understand what structures, presuppositions and attitudes continue to provide life-sap to this social power. She argues that women have been deemed aberrant and wayward historically and contends that even Mary Wollstonecraft accounted men to be the ideal toward which women should aspire. De Beauvoir argues that for feminism to move forward, this attitude must be set aside. To gain this kind of independence, Beauvoir supposes that women will profit from “non-alienating, non-exploitative productive labor” in some measure. Simply put, women would benefit greatly from independent work. As far as the question of marriage is concerned, Beauvoir writes that while the nuclear family is damaging to both partners, it especially harms the woman. Marriage, like all truly authentic choices, must be an act of active and free choice. Beauvoir suggested that one must not pay undue attention to predetermined structures or constraints as an individual alone has the power to determine the kind of life he or she may want to lead. Taking from Beauvoir, existentialist feminism argued that an individual must take full responsibility for her life. They even went so far so as to suggest that the individual had full freedom to do so. While de Beauvoir began by emphasizing upon individual transformation as well as individual struggles, by the late 1960s she clearly identified herself as a feminist. She was also in the forefront of many feminist campaigns in France, particularly the movement to legalize abortion. The National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 was one of the largest coalitions that emerged from the second wave. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had been unsuccessful in rooting out workplace sexism, focusing only on racial discrimination. When the EEOC rejected the ban of gender-specific job posters, Betty Friedan formed NOW with other leading feminists of the time. NOW looked primarily to the law to institute gender reforms. But what is especially maddening for a number of readers of Beauvoir’s text is its oscillation between defining woman’s situation as one of oppression, on the one hand, and as one of complicity, on the other. 1) She served to highlight the innumerable ways in which women are made to exist as both second- class citizens as well as second-class human beings. 2) De Beauvoir argued in her most famous work, The Second Sex (published in French in 1949; English translation, 1984), that men are able to mystify women. This mystification and stereotyping, she argued, was instrumental in creating patriarchy. 3) She argued that women, in turn, accepted this stereotype, and were thus instruments of their own oppression. 4) Existentialist background. • Existentialism distinguishes free, conscious beings: subjects (Being for-itself, pour soi), from things, obeying deterministic causal laws: objects (Being in-itself, en soi). Social relations are affected by the self’s consciousness of the ‘other’ as ‘object’, and reciprocal awareness of oneself as ‘object’ for the ‘other’ as ‘subject’ (‘the Look’). 5) Relationality of ‘woman’. The concept of ‘woman’, and women themselves, are understood in relational, and functional, terms. Evaluation is related to relational and functional role of e.g. cook, matron, prostitute, bluestocking. “Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. Michelet writes: ‘Woman, the relative being ...’ And Benda...: ‘The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself...Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.” (xviii) She further argued that women were always the negative of the men, where man was the ideal, the norm and the woman the deviant or the Other, who sought perfection by trying to be as much like the man as possible. In asking, "What is woman?" Beauvoir argues that man is considered the default, while woman is considered the "Other". 6) Sexual dimension. Sexuality is especially prominent in the apparent function, or relational aspect, of women, and the concept of ‘woman’. A woman appears essentially as a sexual being. (cf. ‘la sexe’; ‘femme/homme’). “And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex–absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.” (xviii) 7) Asymmetry of gender terms: ‘man/woman’, ‘masculine/feminine’. These concepts look like symmetrical counterparts, like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’; but the former is both the ‘positive’ and the ‘neutral’. The terms that are gendered female give the marked case, that deviates from the standard. “A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity…. It amounts to this: just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, so there is an absolute human type, the masculine.” (xxvii) ‘The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being. This is symbolised in Genesis where Eve is depicted as made from what Bossuet called ‘a supernumerary bone’ of Adam.( 8) Women are measured by the standard of men and found ‘inferior’. This is the process of ‘Othering’ where women will always be seen(is always seen), not as independent or unique but as a variation and flawed version of the Male. Men and Women are, therefore, constantly engaged in this Subject–Other relation where the Man is the Subject and the Woman the Other. It is based on this myth of the woman as inferior Other that gender inequalities are perpetuated in society. 9) In the discussion of the above she draws upon the German philosopher Hegel’s distinction between self and the other. He argued that each conscious being struggles for recognition with every other conscious being and finally arrives at the conclusion that s/he is the essential subject or the self while others are inessential ‘others’. Things become clear, on the contrary, if, following Hegel, we find in consciousness itself a fundamental hostility towards every other consciousness; the subject can be posed only in being opposed – he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object. The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself... no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself. Similarly for Beauvoir man formulates his identity in opposition to woman, who is always the ‘other’. This attitude permeates human history and thought. She terms this differential relationship as Alterity and defines it as “the fundamental category of human thought.” The subject asserts itself as the essential and positions itself in opposition to the other which is defined as non- essential. The self considers itself as rational and the other is associated with all the negative traits and the inferiorities which the self discards. Her scrutiny focuses on the social mechanism that views woman as the “Other”, which de Beauvoir identifies as rudimentary to women's oppression. EXISTENTIALISM De Beauvoir's major insight was that there is no ‘essence’ of a woman, a woman is constructed as such by men and society. As she puts it: ‘One is not born a woman but becomes one’ (1984: 267). You don’t come into the world with a ready-made function that determines what you are, or ought to be. You have to invent yourself, by acting, choosing what you will be. In so doing you project yourself, transcend your circumstances, live authentically, in honest apprehension of the freedom of your choice and action. • Freedom brings anguish. In flight from anguish, you can pretend to be an object, with a pre-ordained blueprint; a thing that cannot choose what it does. That’s to act inauthentically, in bad faith. She thus argues that woman’s reproductive function is largely responsible for her oppression. SDB finds marriage an exploitative arrangement which reinforces inequality and ties women to domesticity. In asking the question, Are there women, really? ‘Every female human being is not necessarily a woman’, otherwise they would not be exhorted to be women. One need not exhort someone to be what they necessarily are. But first we must ask: what is a woman? ‘Tota mulier in utero’, says one, ‘woman is a womb’. But in speaking of certain women, connoisseurs declare that they are not women, although they are equipped with a uterus like the rest. All agree in recognizing the fact that females exist in the human species; today as always they make up about one half of humanity. And yet we are told that femininity is in danger; we are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity. (xxv) The contradiction in popular views about women—half of human beings are women, yet they are urged to be women—is resolved by (in effect) a distinction between sex and gender. Women (understood as a gender) are what they are only due to their (changeable) situation. Her greatest insight thus has been that feminity and the so-called ‘womanly’ quality in a woman itself is a cultural construct. Beauvoir acknowledges femininity as an internalized subjectivity. She denied the existence of a feminine essence or the presence of some essentially feminine qualities in a woman. The entire issue of sex and gender which informs feminist thought has its roots in the ideas of Simone Beauvoir. De Beauvoir's main thesis is that biological sex and social gender are not accidental: Patriarchy makes use of sexual difference so as to maintain an inequality between men and women. It (patriarchy) argues that, biologically speaking, women are unequal to men —an argument that naturalizes inequality as a pre-ordained condition of biology itself. De Beauvoir argues that while sexual difference is real and unalterable, it cannot be the grounds for injustice and inequality. Sex is biological, and includes anatomy and physiology. The reproductive systems of men and women are biological, but they are invested with particular meanings through a social process. Sex is biological, but the values and meanings associated with the female and male body are socially ascribed. Gender is this system of values and meanings. If sex and biology is nature, then gender is about the social and, therefore, culture. ‘Female’ and ‘male’ refer to the biological (anatomical and physiological) characteristics, while ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ refer to the social values assigned to these. Patriarchy makes use of sexual difference so as to maintain an inequality between men and women. It (patriarchy) argues that, biologically speaking, women are unequal to men —an argument that naturalizes inequality as a pre-ordained condition of biology itself. De Beauvoir argues that while sexual difference is real and unalterable, it cannot be the grounds for injustice and inequality. Women’s oppression. The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history A woman finds herself in the world as a free, autonomous human being, but compelled to ‘assume the status of the Other’, by those who want to ‘stabilize her as an object and doom her to immanence’. “The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other. The division of the sexes is a biological fact, not an event in human history. They are women in virtue of their anatomy and physiology. Throughout history they have always been subordinated to men, and hence their dependency is not the result of a historical event or a social change – it was not something that occurred. Male and female stand opposed within a primordial Mitsein, and woman has not broken it. The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible. Here is to be found the basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another.” (xxxi-xxxii) If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change [Material circumstances] The reason for this is that women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own; and they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat. They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands of Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women. [...] The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other. (xxxi) She concludes her work by outlining various changes necessary for woman's emancipation as well as the recovery of her selfhood De Beauvoir proposed that women must take charge of their own choice. Instead of being the negative, inferior Other, they must become Subjects in their own right. They need not be restricted by or to the roles and identities fostered or imposed on them by patriarchy. (NORA IBSEN – finally leaving her husband and children behind) As a true existentialist de Beauvoir was arguing a case for women being responsible for themselves— a process that might require some socialization among women. She argues that woman must be allowed to transcend via her own free projects along with all the risk, uncertainty and danger that this might entail. To ensure woman's equality, Beauvoir calls for changes in social structures around universal childcare, contraception, education and legal abortion and most importantly, around women’s financial independence from men. De Beauvoir thus offers feminism two key ideas: (i) (ii) the social construction of gender where women accept their men-ordained roles as women and the necessity for women to take responsibility and choose for themselves. When women choose for themselves they choose for the entire society. Thus, the woman's choice is about social transformation.