Rereading de Beauvoir 20: The Married Woman

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 5. The Married Woman. (451-536)

[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.]

Going by the length of this chapter (85 pages!) SdB has a lot to say about ‘The Married Woman’. Yes, I’m still hoping to get this all done by the end of the year (ahem!), at which time Three Wise Women can again offer up some contemporary commentary on contemporary shit. Meanwhile, sorry!  I’m pretty sure I’ve scared off the other two wise women from writing anything…drowning under a Beauvoirian tide.  Let alone scared off our zillions of readers. Oh well…

Sisyphus is a woman. Think "housework"!

Sisyphus is a woman. Think “housework”!

Anyway, here’s the first line: “The destiny that society traditionally offers women is marriage.” On reading that I thought, nah, it’s “motherhood” not “marriage”, so I skipped to the first line of the next chapter which is, yes, titled “Motherhood”, and in case you’re interested, here are the first lines of that chapter: “It is through motherhood that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation, since her whole organism is directed towards the perpetuation of the species. But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature.” (537)

I guess we can conclude from these two openings that as far as society’s “destiny” for us, it’s marriage and motherhood. But back to part one of that deadly combo: “marriage”.

At the time of writing, SdB saw that economic changes were upsetting the institution of marriage. “It is becoming a union freely entered into by two autonomous individuals; the commitments of the two parties are personal and reciprocal; adultery is a breach of contract for both parties; either of them can obtain a divorce on the same grounds.” (451)

All of which is a reminder that none of these things were previously true in the West. In New Zealand, grounds for divorce were different between men and women until the late 1800s. Men could divorce based on simple adultery committed by his wife, but for women, that was not enough, and further aggravating circumstances were required. Why? Because a man having a mistress was acceptable under the double standards that applied.  SdB notes that until recently (‘now’ being the late 1940s), a wife’s adultery was a crime, but (presumably) not so a man’s.

These double standards continue to be felt, even if some of the law protecting them has been stripped away: “Modern marriage can be understood only in light of the past it perpetuates”, and she points out that marriage “has always been presented in radically different ways for men and for women.” (451) The man may need her, as she needs him, but this mutual need has never translated into a reciprocity. Women are ‘given in marriage’ while men ‘take a wife’. And, of course, she takes his name.  SdB runs through all the differing roles of women and men within a marriage and notes that even if laws have rendered the pair more equal, marriage itself still retains its traditional form. And,

“it is still accepted that the love act is a service she renders to the man; he takes his pleasure and he owes compensation in return.” (456)

Her body is her capital, to be exploited. And given the limited professions that have been open to her, “marriage is a more beneficial career than many others”. (456)

“For all these reasons [I haven’t listed them all — Pohutu], many Old and New World adolescent girls, when interviewed about their future projects, respond today just as they did in former times: ‘I want to get married’. No young man, however, considers marriage as his fundamental project.” (456)

Catching a Husband: The Flypaper Method

Interestingly, she also points out that the conditions of modern life (less stable, more uncertain) have meant heavier responsibilities for the husband at the same time as the “benefits” have decreased, because he can easily live on his own and get sexual satisfaction. As a result, there is “less masculine demand than feminine supply”. (457)

I’m wondering if that is true today. And anyway how would you measure this? I don’t know! It would seem the ‘stay-at-home’ Mum option is surely pretty limited now in most Western economies.

“In France, as in America, mothers, older sisters and women’s magazines cynically teach girls the art of ‘catching’ a husband like flypaper catching flies; this is ‘fishing’ and ‘hunting’, demanding great skill…” (459)

SdB cites Stekel again, and then Freud. (My suspicions/doubts rise anew…I mean this Stekel guy is obsessed with ‘frigidity’) And argues that marriages are generally not based on love; marriage “is a matter of transcending towards the collective interest and not of individual happiness”. (461)  I wonder how she would have analysed the campaigns for (and their success!) for gay marriage? As someone who tends to agree with SdB and see official ‘marriage’ as an oppressive institution, I’d rather it were abolished, so it perplexed me on a lot of levels why gays would want it. But, of course, it does come with lots of legal and other societal goodies.

She also suggests that many men relish  female misery (pain of childbirth, e.g.) and rely on this God-given/natural suffering in order to accept or tolerate women’s frustrations. (Reminds me a bit of the anti-choicers and their ‘you had sex, you gotta pay!’ attitudes.)

SdB goes on to discuss the views of various writers on the problem of reconciling  marriage and love (which, at least historically, do not go together like a horse and carriage), including, this time, Kierkegaard. I like a lot about him and at one point did study him closely, but his mad-dog Christianity I don’t really understand, not to mention all the theories that surround his broken engagement to Regina Olsen. SdB quotes him, including this (from his In Vino Veritas):

“This is the difficulty: love and falling in love are spontaneous, marriage is a decision….”

Indeed, how many of us know people (mostly women, in my case, but some men) who ‘sow their wild oats’ while young, fall in love, but later when they want children, hunt around for a ‘good provider’, whom they marry yet also with whom (one secretly feels) they are not at all in love. True, they might love, or come to love the person — ‘in love’ and ‘loving’ being not necessarily the same thing. I have always felt a bit disappointed in that, since it seems to, as Kierkegaard suggests, turn it all into a carefully worked out calculation rather than something spontaneous. And is ‘interviewing for the best husband/father’ any worse than marrying “for love”? I don’t know.

Then there’s the whole ‘virgin until marriage’ notion, which often meant ‘ignorant until marriage’, and SdB refers to accounts of women who knew nothing of sexual intercourse until, uh, learning about it first-hand on their wedding night, not to mention widespread rape within marriage. (471-2)  It is surely progress that, in the West, the ‘wedding night’ is no longer really ‘a thing’, and pragmatic sex-before-marriage — let’s find out if we’re sexually compatible? — is common if not de rigueur.

Housework: ‘The Battle That Never Leads to Victory’

Just over halfway through this chapter, SdB turns to a discussion of ‘The Home’, “the material realization of the ideal of happiness [where] … the family … affirms its identity beyond the passage of generations”. (482) And it is woman who has traditionally been ‘the home’s’ primary champion. (A man’s home might be his castle, but she has to keep the castle clean.)

“Man has only a middling interest in his domestic interior [the home] because he has access to the entire universe and because he can affirm himself in his projects. Woman, instead, is locked into the conjugal community: she has to change this prison into a kingdom.” (483)

And it really is amazing how much SdB can write about bloody housework, “the battle that never leads to victory”. (487)  Sorry, but zzzzzzzzzzzz.

“Few tasks are more similar to the torment of Sisyphus than those of the housewife; day after day, one must wash dishes, dust furniture, mend clothes that will be dirty, dusty and torn again. … It is a struggle that begins again every day.” (487)


Housework and Sadomasochism

And this: “For [psychoanalysts], housekeeping mania is a form of sadomasochism… She would like everyone to stop breathing.” (488-9)  OMG, I have known a lot of these people. Don’t breathe, don’t move, don’t sit on the couch, you might make something dirty. And the people who leave their new sofas in the plastic wrapping. And no comment about my mother-in-law who was horrified when I used what turned out to be display-only towels to dry my hands.

There’s some discussion of what mass food production, automation (or at least, mechanization/technology?) has cost women stuck in the house: not having to go to the market and spent time haggling with the producers and sellers of the various items, where at least the got out a bit and engaged with others; not having to kindle the fire and learn the craft of making preserves etc. It sounds a bit stupidly bucolic, but I imagine there’s some truth to it — depending on one’s circumstances. E.g. going to the market and haggling over some good blueberries might be a nice break from the drudgery of dusting for a middle class hausfrau, but doubtless less fun for a poor mother of 8 (who can’t afford bread, let alone berries). For me, I can think of nothing worse than having to spend more on making dinner than the 15 minutes it takes to microwave something…I mean, that’s time I could be spending reading or, less impressively, watching some crap on Netflix.

SdB cuts more slack for cooking than, say, polishing a parquet floor, since at least cooking is less futile in that it’s keeping someone fed. (496) I think there’s a whole lot of anticipating Betty Friedan here (“the problem with no name”):

“The wife’s work within the home does not grant her autonomy; it is not directly useful to the group, it does not open on to the future, it does not produce anything. … far from enfranchising the matron, it makes her dependent on her husband and children; she justifies her existence through them: she is no more than an inessential mediation in their lives.” (497)

Boy, would that go down like a lead balloon with contemporary feminists, who have sought to reclaim the domestic sphere as a choice not to be set ‘beneath’ any other choice a woman might make, like becoming an engineer or a brain surgeon.

But actually, SdB isn’t talking about individual choice, but at all — she’s talking about how society sees and treats this role, and she’s right: “Regardless of how well she is respected, she [the housewife] is subjugated, secondary, parasitic.” (497)

The Bored Housewives of Moscow

SdB quotes at length here from The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, as an example of a bored housewife, though not just any bored housewife: a countess, of great means. Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt about what SdB called “empty freedom” (503):

“I cannot find anything to occupy me. He is fortunate because he is talented and clever. I am neither … It is not difficult to find work, there is plenty to do, but first you have to enjoy such petty household tasks as breeding hens, tinkling on the piano, reading a lot of fourth-rate books and precious good ones, and pickling cucumbers.” (501)

Snort! Poor little countess! Not that the answer to restricting women’s roles is to turn them back into overworked peasants. And not that marriage is only a problem for women. SdB writes that alongside all the female psychoses (those psycho-bloody-analysts again), “many masculine psychoses develop” also. “She [the wife] is a burden not an alibi; she does not free him from the weight of his responsibilities but on the contrary she exacerbates them.” (504)

It’s hard for me personally to relate to this. I’ve never been taken care of by a working man, mainly because I’m attracted to delightful dreamers and idealists who don’t make lots of money (but whom I consider irresistibly interesting). Often, they’ve been supported by me rather than the other way around. No problem, I never wanted it. But then again, I never wanted nor had kids either, so didn’t have much use for a breadwinner. But what about the breadwinner husband, anyway? Is there still an expectation that men will take on this job? Is this unfair? Is this something we can even talk about as feminists? Not really. It’s just too taboo and touchy a subject. I confess, under the protection of anonymity, to sometimes feeling irked that my ‘projects’ (writing, study, research) would not be sanctioned by society as breadwinner-worthy, while the project of motherhood is. But, OTOH, I wouldn’t trade my childfree life for being ‘breadwon’ for any amount of… bread. It’s just nice that SdB relatively honestly explores some of the suffocating shit that’s dumped on men as well as that which is dumped on women. We don’t seem to do that much anymore.

But then there’s the other kind of domination / subordination within traditional marriage, besides economic.  That “capricious imperialism” about who gets to decide what, whose opinions are primary, who has the ‘authority’ in the relationship. Traditionally, not the wife. “He is so convinced of his rights that his wife’s least show of autonomy seems a rebellion to him.” (512) And yet women find myriad ways to rebel, which SdB also discusses, from overt rebellion, to the more cunning, sneaky behind-the-scenes kind. And of course her “erotic attraction” is “the weakest of her weapons; it disappears with familiarity; and there are, alas, other desirable women in the world.” (518)

And to return to the Countess, as SdB points out: “It is easy to cast a stone at Sophia Tolstoy… but if she refused the hypocrisy of conjugal life, where could she have gone? What destiny awaited her?” (519)

Oooh, and this quote just because I love it:

“Woman is doomed to immorality because morality for her consists in embodying an inhuman entity: the strong woman, the admirable mother, the virtuous woman, etc.” (525)

Or as the great title of that Anne Summers book puts it “Damned whores and God’s police”. And this is pretty priceless, SdB quoting a book called “The Bold Chronicle of a Strange Marriage” by someone called Jouhandeau.

“ ‘One marries a poet,’ says Elise, ‘and when one is  his wife, the first thing she notices is he forgets to flush the toilet’” (525)

So what’s the solution?

For a relationship to work each must be free, i.e. have autonomy. And “only autonomous work can assure the wife an authentic autonomy”. (526) One can’t help but think that SdB sees hers and Satre’s relationship as something of a model here. Overall, she considers it night on impossible to have a free, autonomous relationship within marriage, but notes that this is changing. That said, modern couples might think they have equality but “so long as the man has economic responsibility for the couple it is just an illusion. He is the one who determines the conjugal domicile … she follows him…” (533-4)  SdB argues that marriage as a ‘career’ for women needs to be abolished. And women need the same rights, pay etc. as men so they can keep themselves, and their husbands should they so choose. Then there’s children and the responsibilities they bring with them. We all know to whom that falls. Tradition holds that it is motherhood that is supposed to assure the wife of a complete autonomy, of joy and justification. And it is to that claim and to ‘motherhood’ SdB turns next.

“If it is said men oppress women, the husband reacts indignantly; he feels oppressed: he is; but in fact, it is the masculine code, the society developed by males and in their interest, that has defined the feminine condition in a form that is now for both sexes a source of distress.” (535)



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