Rereading de Beauvoir 6: History, Ch. 2

Part Two, History. Chapter 2 (78): The rise and fall of the goddess edition…

So, I realise that at this rate, I’ll be in a Zimmer frame before I get through the book, since the last post in the series was on January 18 of this year (and it was out of order.) I’m racing to do another chapter so I’ll at least have managed two posts in 2014. But it comes with one of those end-of-year pledges to Do Better Next Year. I’ll also mention here that I discovered a Kindle edition of this translation a few months ago, which I bought (having acquired the whopping hard-back in, of all places, Edinburgh the very week – or so – it came out back in 2009. I’ll use both and keep up with the page references to the hard back, details of which are in the First Post.)

Setting aside all groveling and uselessness about taking too long, this chapter, which has no title just a number, begins with a recap of woman’s role in “primitive” times before property, institutions, laws etc. when, although the demands of reproduction and work were great, no one apparently tried “to break [woman] down as will happen in paternalistic regimes later on.” (78). A clear target of this chapter is Engels and his notion that before private property (or at least agricultural societies) there was some kind of Reign of Women.



In setting up Engels’ claim, SdB runs through the myriad goddesses of antiquity – Ishtar, Astarte, Gaea, Rhea, Cybele, Isis (some are the same goddesses going by different names) to whom male gods were subordinate. While Engels saw the passage from this “veritable reign of women” as “ ‘the great historical defeat of the feminine sex’”, SdB argues no: “In reality this golden age of Woman is only a myth. To say that woman was the Other is to say that a relationship of reciprocity between the sexes did not exist: whether Earth, Mother or Goddess, she was never a peer for man. … Society has always been male; political power has always been in men’s hands.” (82) And she quotes Lévi-Strauss on marriage:

 “The relationship of reciprocity which is the basis of marriage is not established between men and women, but between men by means of women, who are merely the occasion of this relationship.”

Sounds about right when you consider what the Bible has to say about marriage and the family, and who rules over whom. For example, this corker from Genesis 3:16 “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’” (And most women who marry still change their names, just for starters.) So-called primitive man might well be a bit freaked by the “mysteries of Life, Nature and Woman”, but he still retains control, and exploits, controls, possesses Nature just as he does woman (see p. 84), a sobering and telling and prophetic comment in these secular end of days (ecologically speaking) in which man has tamed Nature to death. Here, SdB pretty much destroys any notions that reverence for goddesses, or the mother figure etc. suggest any kind of upending of the patriarchal order:

“The prestige she enjoys in the eyes of men comes from them; they kneel before the Other, they worship the Goddess Mother. But as powerful as she may appear, she is defined through notions created by the male consciousness.” (84)

There are lots of contemporary examples of this fake goddess worship, for example, the whole “women and children” schtick – the oft-expressed concern for the preciousness of same, the alleged obeisance paid by the father, the “into the lifeboats first” which doesn’t remotely challenge the order of things, but which is handy for those of all political stripes (left, right, red, blue, green) who can use it to burnish their equality credentials, not to mention its usefulness for myriad agendas, like law-and-order (conservative); expanding welfare (liberal-left); protecting “mother earth” (green); banning abortion (various) and so on. (Can you believe how long the previous sentence was? It’s probably ungrammatical but worth leaving to perhaps reflect the ranting stream of internal consciousness that goes on while I read this book.) The success of the political uses to which women’s subordinate position is put is closely related to – if not dependent on –woman’s complicity in her own oppression, but more on that some other time.

“Thus [contra Engels and others] the triumph of patriarchy was neither an accident nor the result of a violent revolution. From the origins of humanity, their biological privilege enabled men to affirm themselves alone as sovereign subjects; they never abdicated this privilege.” (88)

Hmmm, “biological privilege”? I’m a bit confused. If male dominance was not an accident, it must have been deliberate; but “biological privilege” doesn’t really sound like anything deliberate, unless SdB means the way pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing were somehow made to be not-privileged. But then we’re back where we started, asking how that happened? i.e. how did biological maleness become a privilege? (Who’s this Frazer she quotes – I love this – “Men make gods and women worship them.” Oh, it must be this guy.)

Yes, SdB seems to suggest it was a matter of biology (biology is destiny after all?) when she wonders “if productive work had remained at the level of her strength, woman would have achieved the conquest of nature with man…” (88). (It sure looks to me like, given half a chance, woman is just as eager to “conquer”, aka destroy, nature as men.) But then SdB goes on to say woman’s being “weak” doesn’t explain her exclusion. But (another one) she then seems to suggest (again) that it does: “The male will for expansion and domination transformed feminine incapacity into a curse.” (89, my italics) Anyway, it’s all over bar the shouting once “humankind reaches the stage of writing its mythology and laws”. Men write the codes and women don’t fare well.

“It is natural for them to give woman a subordinate situation; one might imagine, however, that they would consider her with the same benevolence as children and animals. But no. Afraid of woman, legislators organise her oppression.” (91)

Aside, sort of: What were/are they afraid of exactly, since they’d pretty much won a total victory by then? From the sacred and the fertile, SdB explains, woman became unclean, evil, a temptress (in all monotheistic religions, then some) … which might suggest part of an answer to the above. That is, man is not afraid of woman, he’s afraid of himself…he’s so easily “tempted”, apparently, he has to keep her in check in order to keep himself in check? (But keep him in check from what? It’s not like he doesn’t worship going to war and fighting and killing and being killed. So what is this temptation that scares him so much? And if he’s so powerful, why would it bother him?) So, weird questions aside, here’s how SdB ends this chapter:

“One of the problems he will seek to solve is how to make his wife both a servant and a companion; his attitude will evolve throughout the centuries, and this will also entail an evolution in woman’s destiny.” (92)


 [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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