Rereading de Beauvoir 5: History, Ch. 1

Part Two: History. Chapter 1: SdB opens this very short chapter like this: “This world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient.” (73) SdB points here, as she does throughout The Second Sex, (and as Existentialists do in general) to the fact that humanity isn’t a simple natural species like others in that “it does not Screen Shot 2012-12-03 at 21.13.21seek to survive as a species; … it seeks to surpass itself.” (75)

And yet, at least during so-called primitive/nomadic times, bearing and raising children was certainly not a means of surpassing one’s mere biological imperatives. OK, but before you know it, she’s made a quick and rather odd segue to housework (from nomads practicing infanticide to middle class women doing the vacuuming?). “Housework alone is compatible with the duties of motherhood,” she writes, and because of that fact woman “is condemned to domestic labour, which locks her into repetition and immanence”. (75)

Perhaps it’s a 1940s thing, but this isn’t too convincing: surely there’s more out there than housework that’s possibly compatible with the duties of motherhood, even in the 1940s? After all, nomads were mothers, as were women who toiled in factories, on farms, in jungles. I think I must be missing something – which is what I usually think when I’m just not getting it.

But moving right along, indeed headlong into another quibble, over this:

 The worst curse on woman is her exclusion from warrior expeditions; it is not in giving life, it is in risking his life that man raises himself above the animal; this is why throughout humanity, superiority has been granted not to the sex that gives birth, but to the one that kills. (76)

I have a note in the margin at this point that reads: “But a woman risks her life giving birth?” It seems that some kinds of risking of life are more monument- and praise-worthy than others. Or it is the risking of life + the killing that does it?

Mind wanders off and starts to wonder about abortion, and how come men get to make decisions about going to war and killing lots of people, then putting up monuments to it, while women are, nowhere on this planet, given free rein to make the abortion decision simply about their own bodies. Mind snaps back to task at hand. OK, so quibble with the women-aren’t-risking-their-lives claim aside, SdB claims she has the key to “the whole mystery” right here. Man is creating, shaping, changing the face of the earth, but woman is condemned (like a non-human animal) to simply repeating life.

It’s passages like this that are at the heart of lot of the criticism lobbed at SdB. I think the critics have some strong points, but I also think some of that criticism is rather “how we would like it to be” based, and not “how it actually is”. That is, in second-wave feminist efforts to re-value motherhood, which continue in the developed world today, we would like it to be the case that what woman-as-mother is doing is “the most important job in the world”. But we all know it is still largely given lip service when it comes to real power: money, economy, political power, etc. (If they say it’s the most important job in the world, we can be sure it isn’t — at least in their eyes.) And so, in a sense, SdB is correct, even if we wish she were not. Making decisions about, and going off to war will always be given so much more warrior/hero standing in the culture than will motherhood, even though more women will have died in childbirth (or from childbirth related problems) than in all the wars we’ve ever had combined. (I appreciate one can then raise the question: but do we really give a shit about warrior/hero standing? What’s that worth, after all? That’s not really the point SdB is making, though. Rather, it’s about being a creature committed to surpassing/transcending versus one forced to wallow around in the swamp of female “immanence”. The warrior/hero stuff is just an example of the difference.)

Confession: I made up that stat about more women dying in childbirth than do people in wars. I’ll see if I can find any actual info on that and get back to you. But either way, I think the point will still hold considering the maternal mortality rate the globe currently has, and has had in the past = not negligible. WHO says 800 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. (I don’t know if that means that there are more than that who die from unpreventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth…?)

And consider just New Zealand: At time of writing, 10 soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan, and each given a whole heckuva lot of coverage. There were 14 maternal deaths in 2008 and 8 in 2010. Suicide was the most common cause of these maternal deaths! No monuments, though. I suppose that would be inappropriate. But why isn’t it heroic?

But back to SdB. She then points out that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic (whereby the slave is the “other” dependent consciousness to the master), really applies better to man/woman than it does to master/slave. Here, and I find this intriguing, SdB says that this relationship between man/woman is not the same as one of oppression (she seems to consider the master/slave a “simple” oppression relationship), since the woman aspires to and recognises the values attained by the male.

In reality, women have never pitted female values against male ones: it is men wanting to maintain masculine prerogatives who invented this division; they wanted to create a feminine domain – a rule of life, of immanence – only to lock women in it. (77)

This is wild if you think about it. SdB seems to be saying that at least some of this motherhood stuff that feminism has committed itself to re-valuing was created by the male as a place to trap, to hold women.  It’s worth thinking about, no? Are we just playing into their hands with all our “it’s the most important job in the world” stuff?

I’ll end here with the last passage of the chapter, since in it, SdB sets up the next part of her inquiry:

Male activity, creating values, has constituted existence itself as a value; it has prevailed over the indistinct forces of life; and it has subjugated Nature and Woman. We must now see how this situation has continued and evolved through the centuries. What place has humanity allotted to this part of itself that has been defined in its core as Other? What rights have been conceded to it? How have men defined it? (77)

 [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.]

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