Rereading de Beauvoir 7: History, Ch. 3

Part Two, History. Chapter 3 (93): How do they loathe us, let me count the ways:

By now, woman has been “dethroned by the advent of private property” (93) – keeping in mind that according to SdB she was never really on a throne to begin with – and inheritance is starting to kick in with a vengeance (where you might translate ‘inheritance’ as ‘man seeking immortality through his property’). It is property, SdB writes, that “was more important to him than life itself.” (93) Uh, “was”? Isn’t that still at the root of so much of our destruction of, well, everything on earth? As a result of his wanting to live forever through his property, man “strips woman of all her rights to hold and transmit” it, and so her children cannot “belong to her” but to him. (93)

Because she owns nothing, woman is not raised to the dignity of a person; she herself is part of man’s patrimony, first her father’s and then her husband’s. (93)

For women, this chapter (and this account is No. 6 in the series re-reading Simone de Beauvoir) a sorry tale encompassing not just the major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) but the Greeks and Romans. SdB includes some of the highlights of Greek and Roman commentary on women including these delights (cartoon version of same is immediately below:

Hesiod: He who confides in a woman confides in a thief.
Aristotle: The slave is entirely deprived of the freedom to deliberate; woman does have it but she is weak and powerless.
Hipponax: There are but two days in life when your wife brings you joy: her wedding day and her funeral
Pericles: The best woman is she of whom men speak the least
Menander: There are many monsters on the earth and in the sea, but the greatest is still woman. Woman is a pain that never goes away.

Greeks_on_WomanAs my partner pointed out, however, we only have this commentary because of the monks who decided to copy it all down, in lieu of photocopiers. It’s probably obvious why they might not have wanted to copy down what women were saying about men. I have a few ideas, though:

Greek_women

So, anyway, back to SdB: Reading this chapter, one has to admire the myriad nifty laws and customs and religious tenets men came up with to convince woman of her inferiority, and enshrine it in law, practice, habit. It starts to look as though, aside from preparing for and fighting wars, this is the thing they’ve put most time and energy into.

Oh, before I forget (you know how forgetful we are!), I did learn a new word: “gynaecium”: “a part of a building set apart for women in an ancient Greek or Roman house.” Which is the Greek/Roman equivalent of “harem”: “the separate part of a Muslim household reserved for wives, concubines, and female servants”. I was interested to note the benign modern dictionary usage of “set apart for” and “reserved for”, when really, it was more like “used to imprison”. SdB writes: “In Athens, the wife is shut up in her quarters, held by law under severe constraint and watched over by special magistrates. She spends her whole life as a minor…” (98)

So, there’s not so much philosophy in this chapter, but I’ll close with a couple of quotes I found interesting for the light they shed on not just then, but on now:

If society rejects the family by denying private property, woman’s condition improves considerably. Sparta, whre community property prevailed, was the only city-state where the woman was reated almost the equal of man. (99)

 

Here is an important fact that recurs throughout history: Abstract rights cannot sufficiently define the concrete situation of woman; this situation depends in great part on the economic role she plays. (103)

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[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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