Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 6. The Mother. (537-584)
[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]
As noted in the previous post (“The Married Woman”), SdB opens this chapter noting that it is through motherhood “that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation … But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature.” Or, I guess one could say, who gives a crap about one’s “physiological destiny”. That’s for the birds — and other non-human animals…isn’t it?
I’ll say from the get-go that this chapter is one of my favourites and is of much more interest to me than some others because as a non-mother by choice, I very much notice (what I think of as) the societal mandate/pressure to have kids and the (related) mass media mythologising of motherhood. Also, as a pro-choicer, I have spent some years trying to understand the myriad hyprocrisies that surround female reproduction. But I’ll save any personal rants for now…just note that SdB never had (not wanted, it seems) children either. She did sign her name to a famous newspaper ad “I had an abortion”, it’s not clear whether or not she did. An abortion isn’t mentioned in her autobiography, so far as I recall, and she might have signed as an ally. Anyway, moving on…
She begins by pointing out that for more than a century, give or take, contraceptive methods have meant reproduction hasn’t been entirely a chance affair. And, yes, I think, this about sums it up:
“There are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibit more hypocrisy: abortion is a repugnant crime to which it is indecent to make an allusion. For an author to describe the joys and suffering of a woman giving birth is perfectly fine; if he talks about a woman who has had an abortion, he is accused of wallowing in filth and describing humanity in an abject light…” (537)
And despite our notions that we’ve moved on since then, nah. It’s still the same, just dressed in slightly more modern clothing. We’re still not able to talk about abortion in anything other than hushed tones lest we be considered callous, gauche, etc.; abortion is still wildly common, but treated as exceptional; as an outlier. Let’s see if SdB tries to get to the bottom of this curiosity. How much of hostility to abortion is about “life” as claimed by its opponents, and how much is a complicated soup of pro-natalism, control of women especially their sexuality, patriarchal resentment (over which sex gets to ‘create life’ or at least gestate it), the societal need to perpetuate motherhood mythology (or fewer women might want to do it, though I doubt that) …