Rereading de Beauvoir 9: History, Ch. 5

Part Two, History. Chapter 5 (128-159):

It’s been nearly a year since the last chapter, partly because I’ve been extra busy, partly because I keep getting side-tracked down other Beauvoirian rabbit holes — and I mean ‘rabbit holes’ in a good way. I’ve just finished reading the three-volume autobiography, which my hoa tane bought me for my birthday. And why has that taken so long? More rabbit holes, of course. For example, I could hardly read SdB writing about the writing of each of her novels without reading them, could I — OK, some of them; and then she ended the second volume (“Force of Circumstance”) of the autobiography with an overwhelmingly sad and/or depressing section on getting old. So that, of course, sent me off to read her book on aging (which I haven’t finished yet, but will definitely write

Alice Duer Miller published this sarcastic column "Why We Oppose Votes for Men, in the National American Woman Suffrage Association around 1915.

Alice Duer Miller published this sarcastic column “Why We Oppose Votes for Men, in the National American Woman Suffrage Association around 1915.

about). Then, at the start of the final volume (“All Said and Done 1962-1972”), she explains that that overwhelmingly sad and/or depressing section was misunderstood by pretty much everyone. Well, I thought, that must include me, and I felt a bit chastened, like I’d been rapped over the knuckles by SdB and told I was stupid. Then I thought, bullshit. We didn’t misunderstand it! Nah, SdB is trying to re-frame it after the fact. Ahem! Yet I remain fascinated by SdB’s ongoing obsession with aging. I want to understand it, and particularly, to understand how and why a woman so smart about so much — especially when it comes to what is ‘essential’ about a person and what isn’t — couldn’t do a better job of transcending (is that the right word? Overcoming? Ignoring? Co-opting?) at least some of the societal mandates around aging. True, aging is an inescapable facticity (fact), but wouldn’t an Existentialist be the best equipped of anybody to respond to it in ways that challenge the status quo. I know, I know, you can’t just overcome facticity…

I digress. Back to Le Deuxieme Sexe!

This is the last of the chapters in the History section of the book, and it traverses how (and to some extent why) women have fared so badly from the time of the French Revolution (1789) until “now” , i.e. the 1950s (with some excursions into other centuries). Obviously, there’s a fair amount of French history, which is a bit of a relief, since lately I’ve had more than enough of miserable Anglophone history and politics.

Apologies, but if I might briefly digress again, but I swear it’s relevant…right at the end of that last volume of the autobiography (“All Said and Done, 1962-1972”) SdB revisits some of what she wrote in Le Deuxieme Sexe noting that she had thought the state of women and society would evolve together…and that “the game” had been won. By 1972, she’d changed her mind about that: “No, we have not won the game: in fact we have won almost nothing since 1950.”

So, OK, there’s that.  Back to the chapter at hand: It would be of little use — and would take up way too much space — to traverse some of the examples and details of the relatively recent (post French Revolution) history of oppression of women…as SdB does in this chapter. If you’re here, you’re likely well aware of all the social and legal and political and cultural restrictions placed on women over the past few centuries. It makes for dispiriting if not gobsmacking reading.

What’s of interest (to me anyway) is SdB’s discussion of why women didn’t successfully overthrow this state of affairs. As she sees it, and she makes this point at the outset with respect to the Revolution, it’s because women were disunited in a class sense. That Revolution was, she said, a bourgeois revolution, and because bourgeois women were so integrated into the family they couldn’t “find concrete grounds for solidarity with one another; they did not constitute a separate caste capable of forcing their demands: on an economic level, they existed as parasites” (129). She has hope, though, that once that other revolution takes place, i.e. The socialist/communist/worker revolution, “it will then be possible for the working woman to gain the capacities that the parasitic woman, noble or bourgeois, never obtained” (129). (In the autobiography, she corrects herself on this point, noting that she used to think the class war should take precedence over the struggle between the sexes. “Now I think that they should both be carried on together”.)

“The bourgeois woman clings to the chains because she clings to her class privileges, (132)” SdB writes. As true today as it was then, though we’ve expanded the “privileges” that so many of us cling to, particularly to include that of race, if we’re white. I do love the way SdB is clear and unequivocal. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve read any academic feminism of late. Or tried to. It’s stuffed so full of buzzwords du jour, it’s almost impossible to get to past them to find a point you can relate to. Not so SdB:

“While she [the bourgeois woman] might regret having her rights to private property subordinated to her husband’s, she would deplore even more having this property abolished…” (132)

Nuh uh, SdB doesn’t avoid talking about our less-than-impressive role in this shit.

In keeping with the above-mentioned hope that the rise of the proletariat will help usher in women’s liberation, SdB discusses the impact of industrialisation on the status of women and, of course, the thought of Marx and particularly Engels (think: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State) in this regard. With industrialisation somewhat levelling the playing field for women, who can work a machine as easily as a man can (no extra testosterone required!), all we need to do is make sure she sees that her interests and those of the proletariat coincide, then usher in that other revolution and, presto, she’ll be free.

Of course, we’re still waiting on both those counts, and as mentioned, SdB lost confidence that a worker revolution might bring about or necessitate the liberation of women. There was (still is!) the problem of various groups of workers being successfully pitted against one another — women, men, white, black. Plus, there’s women’s extra burden as the child producers and rearers, which leads her to a discussion about the rise of contraception and abortion. There’s some interesting history here, too, particularly the shift in focus (via Church doctrine) from the woman to the foetus. SdB notes that

“Roman law granted no special protection to embryonic life; the nasciturus was not considered a human being, but part of the woman’s body. … It was Christianity that overturned moral ideas on this point by endowing the embryo with a soul; so abortion became a crime against the foetus itself. ‘Any woman who does what she can so as not to give birth to as many children as she is capable of is guilty of that many homicides, just as is a woman who tries to injure herself after conception,’ says St Augustine.” (139)

Oh, and this is priceless:

“Nonetheless, one question arises that has been the object of infinite discussion: at what moment does the soul enter the body? St Thomas and most other writers settled on life beginning towards the fortieth day for males and the eightieth for females.” (140)

That stuff-they-just-make-up had some pretty real-world consequences given that the penalties were much harsher for abortion of an “animated” foetus, i.e. an ensouled one – so of of course you could abort girl foetuses much later into pregnancy than boy foetuses without the harsher penalties. Nifty what. And cue the long and depressing list of penalties for abortion across every age and every jurisdiction.

The industrial revolution coupled with a bit more fertility control, however, meant that pressure was mounting for women’s political status to change, and so came the rise of (liberal) suffrage and other movements seeking various rights for women. SdB traverses these movements, and though I shouldn’t indulge in too much long-quote lifting (and it’s hard not to), I rather enjoyed this section on all the delightfully paternalistic, or just plain hideous, excuses given as to why women should not get the vote, which will sound familiar to any modern-day reader re lots of post-suffrage issues like access to abortion, contraception, the military, ‘men’s work’, etc. etc.

“First of all come these types of gallantry arguments: we love women too much to let them vote; the ‘real woman’ who accepts the ‘housewife or courtesan’ dilemma is exalted in true Proudhon fashion; woman would lose her charm by voting; she is on a pedestal and should not step down from it; she has everything to lose and nothing to gain in becoming a voter; she governs men without needing a ballot; and so on. More serious objections concern the family’s interest: woman’s place is in the home; political discussions would bring about disagreement between spouses. Some admit to moderate antifeminism. Women are different from men. They do not serve in the military. Will prostitutes vote? And others arrogantly affirm male superiority: voting is a duty and not a right; women are not worthy of it. They are less intelligent and educated than men. If women voted, men would become effeminate. Women lacked political education. They would vote according to their husbands’ wishes. If they want to be free, they should first free themselves from their dressmakers. Also proposed is that superbly naive argument: there are more women in France than men. In spite of the flimsiness of all these objections, French women would have to wait until 1945 to acquire political power.” (144-5)

The closing section of this chapter begins with this: “Several conclusions come to the fore when taking a look at this history as a whole. And first of all this one: women’s entire history has been written by men.” (150) Here she discusses the absence of women from art, culture, science, politics — with the exceptions tending to prove the rule:

“Antifeminists draw two contradictory arguments from examining history: (1) women have never created anything grand; (2) woman’s situation has never prevented great women personalities from blossoming. There is bad faith in both of these assertions; the successes of some few privileged women neither compensate for nor excuse the systematic degrading of the collective level; and the very fact that these successes are so rare and limited is proof of their unfavourable circumstances.” (154)

In the end, what she calls “the new emerging civilisation” remains shot through with stubborn old traditions such that while woman’s lot might have changed in the past few centuries, her lot relative to man’s has not.

Next up, Part Three: Myths. Stay tuned. And, yeah, I vowed to be more frequent in 2015, of which there’s less than a day left. So why not vow to do better in 2016. Promises promises. Happy New Year!


[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.]

Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.






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