Rereading de Beauvoir 25: Woman’s Situation and Character

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 10. Woman’s Situation and Character. (653-80)

[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.]

Just by way of orientation, this chapter will bring to an end Part Two (“Situation”) and next up will be Part Three (“Justifications”).

SdB opens this chapter by listing some of the ‘negative’ characteristics attributed to woman (selfish, self-serving, actress, liar…) and noting that these are not predestined or dictated by nature, but are suggested by her situation. Here, she says, she wants to try to “grasp the ‘eternal feminine’ in her economic, social and historical conditioning as a whole” (653). [She puts this another way a few pages later, and I’ll include that quote here:

“Many of the faults for which they [women] are reproached — mediocrity, meanness, shyness, pettiness, laziness, frivolity and servility — simply express the fact that the horizon is blocked for them.” (658)]

Although the ‘feminine’ world can be contrasted with the ‘masculine’, she writes, it must be said that women “have never formed an autonomous and closed society; they are integrated into the group governed by males where they occupy a subordinate position” (653).

“The woman herself recognizes that the universe as a whole is masculine; it is men who have shaped it, ruled it and who still today dominate it; as for her, she does not consider herself responsible for it; it is understood that she is inferior and dependent.” (654)

“A syllogism is not useful in making mayonnaise or calming a child’s tears; masculine reasoning is not relevant to the reality she experiences.” (655)

Mayo Reasoning

Tempting here to come up with a mayo-related syllogism… but I’m too lazy. Too lazy to make my own mayo, too. (All people who don’t make their own mayo are lazy. I don’t make my own mayo, therefore I’m lazy.)

This discussion, which on its face seems negative with all its talk of where women focus their attention vs men, is actually somewhat pragmatic in pointing out that women will direct their focus to that which is relevant to them, and that in turn will be necessarily limited because they are excluded from so much. It leads on to an account of why women grant such respect (if not outright worship) to ‘heroes’ (or ‘strongmen’ etc.), and this is a bit more interesting since it starts to touch on some class issues.

For example, women who are part of the ‘privileged elite’ will revere heroes/masculine world’s laws because she profits from the social order they create/enforce and she “wants it unshakeable” (656):

“Among the Southerners during the Civil War, no one was as passionately in favour of slavery as the women; in England during the Boer war, and in France against the Commune, it was the women who were the most enraged.”(657)

She also suggests that in the face of defeat/destruction, woman’s reaction is resignation, since they know they are powerless against things (“volcanoes, policemen, employers or men”):

“This resignation engenders the patience often admired in women. They withstand physical suffering much better than men; they are capable of stoic courage when circumstances demand it: without the aggressive daring of the male, many women are distinguished by the calm tenacity of their passive resistance.” (657)

Aka: “She gives importance to little things because she lacks access to big ones.” (659) Sadly, too, this remains true, but perhaps increasingly of both men and women. As “politics” and “power” are ever further removed from the people, we distract ourselves with crap and clickbait and reality shows and health tips and celebrity gossip … and so on and on and on. It is indeed not that easy to find the meaningful in everyday powerlessness, and I can see why parenthood is attractive — it is a pathway to meaningfulness, and perhaps a little bit of power for the otherwise powerless.

I personally don’t feel it as meaningful, which is guess is why I never wanted to do it. I like reading and thinking … as meaningful activities … for me at least. And obviously these latter have no meaning whatsoever relative to the ‘outside world’ — but there’s the question. To be meaningful, does a thing have to be meaningful in the eyes of others? If it does: doomed!

This is clever:

“Her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.” (660)

Why Women Cry

But SdB’s next discussion — of why women cry (again, which women?) — raises many more questions than it answers. First, there’s an unstated assumption that crying is negative; to be avoided; a sign of weakness, etc., and that (all?) women do it more than (all?) men. These assumptions may well be true, but if so, why? SdB argues woman “cries so easily” because her life takes place “against a background of powerless revolt” and that she is “defeatist”. (663) And “the mother rarely has crying fits in front of her young children because she can beat or punish them.” (664)  She proposes Sophia Tolstoy as something of an exemplar of all this (based on what she wrote in her diaries). I’m not sure how representative Sophia Tolstoy nor, for that matter, whether SdB wants to extrapolate her experience to all women. But she does seem to.

I certainly don’t want to deny that the woman’s lot isn’t (hasn’t been) worthy of some major bloody tantrum throwing on our part. But the arguments here feel a bit Just So, or Just Weak, as the case may be.

Women and Suicide

There’s an unconvincing (I think) segue here to the subject of suicide: “There is only one solution available to the woman when rejection runs its course: suicide” (664), which leads into a further discussion of how come, if this is true, more men commit suicide than women. Well, she explains, more women attempt suicide than men… “this may be because they settle more often for play-acting: they play at suicide more often than man but they want it more rarely.” (664) Hmmmm.

There might be something cool that could be teased out from this comment (if I had the time, I might feel an essay treatment coming on…):

“In men’s hands reason becomes an insidious form of violence.” (666)

(And should I note that it’s on page 666.) There’s a very interesting discussion on 667 that follows on from the ‘hypocrisy of men’ SdB discussed in her chapter on prostitutes, where she describes how the man…

“pompously drums his code of virtue and honour into her; but secretly he invites her to disobey it: he even counts on this disobedience; the whole lovely façade he hides behind would collapse without it.” (667)

Here, too, SdB specifically talks about the hypocrisy of his opposition to abortion, his decreeing it criminal at the same time as he puts millions of women into the situation where they need and must have an abortion. Ditto the criminalization/condemnation of prostitution, hence:

“it is for her to shoulder all of males’ immorality…it is all the women who serve as the gutter to the luminous and clean palaces where respectable people live” (668)

(I wonder where she’d come down on the contemporary debate over decriminalisation/or not of prostitution.)

Willing the Oppressed to Fail

There’s a little bit of clarity here re her earlier assessment of women as parasites (see No. 24 in this series): “The woman has been assigned the role of parasite: all parasites are necessarily exploiters…” (668-9) And is worth re-stating this — and it’s one of her most important points, that:

“none of these traits [in woman] manifests a perverted essence or perverted original will; they reflect a situation.” (669)

She’s not saying these traits aren’t negative, she is saying they’re not ‘essential’ or ‘original’, which of course means they can be changed, if the situation that gives rise to them is changed, which is really the main point — and she comes back to it again and again — of this chapter (if not the book). Here she notes a particularly nasty aspect of the hypocrisy of the oppressor, which is his wanting her to exercise such negative traits, just as the colonist or racist might do the equivalent:

“American racists and French colonialists wish the black man to be thieving, indolent and lying: he proves his indignity, putting oppressors in the right.” (670)

To me, this is a bit of a scary question: the extent to which we feed this need for those we have shat upon to fail in ways that can exculpate us. I could spend way too much time, and far too many words trying to understand this. But never fear, I won’t do it here. (But it seems a bit apropos given I’m writing this on Waitangi Day. Ahem.)

This, just because:

“She has been taught to overestimate the value of her smile, but no one told her that all women smiled.” (670)


Oh yes! This:

“There is a justification, a supreme compensation that society has always been bent on dispensing on woman: religion. There must be religion for women as for the people, for exactly the same reasons: when a sex or a class is condemned to immanence, the mirage of the transcendence must be offered to it.” (674)

And of course, as she continues,

“it is to man’s total advantage to have God endorse the codes he creates; and specifically because he exercises sovereign authority of the woman, it is only right that this authority be conferred on him by the sovereign being.” (674)

That’s the cool thing about God, aka Imaginary Sky Father, you can get “Him” to say/endorse whatever code du jour you would like to see enforced. It’s instructive (enlightening?) to read the Biblical justification for slavery in the U.S. around the time of the Civil War; naturally, ditto (only still current) the subjugation of women.

Pages 674-6 are well worth studying for their biting analysis of the role of religion in woman’s life, why she might embrace it so eagerly…and among the many reasons, because “the passivity to which woman is doomed is sanctified” by religion, (675) making woman no longer inferior to man, but equal as ‘a child of God’. Through this she gets (some of) her dignity back. However, religion also, apparently, “authorizes self-indulgence” (677).

Here’s a bold statement…or a restatement of the point about woman’s traits being the result of her situation, but one that raises some pretty big questions about the extent to which woman can be free and/or responsible for her own actions/choices:

“It is clear that woman’s whole ‘character’ — her convictions, values, wisdom, morality, tastes and behaviour — is explained by her situation.” (677)

SdB applies some of this, also, to men — working men (“the employee, the shopkeeper and the bureaucrat”) who are stuck in jobs with bosses hence situations which rule their lives. She also says that in some ways woman has advantages over mean … “she can lie about in a housecoat in her apartment, sing, laugh with her woman neighbours….” And SdB also acknowledges the advantages, hence complicity, of upper class women, who “have always defended their class interests more stubbornly than their husbands” (679). All this leads to the welcome (for me anyway) conclusion that:

“All comparisons where we try to decide if the woman is superior, inferior or equal to the man are pointless: their situations are profoundly different.” (679)

This is welcome to me because analyses that lead toward or a built on some kind of ‘superiority’ of women wind up just as dangerous and repellant as those build on her ‘inferiority’. It’s interesting, though, that SdB also argues it’s pointless to try to decide if woman is ‘equal’ to man. Does that mean any comparison of she and him is pointless? Yes, according to SdB, because it’s their situations we need to compare, not their individual lives/actions/traits. This makes sense… and, yeah, she does go on to compare them, and concludes his situation “is infinitely preferable” (679)

Revolt! Now!

The last two paragraphs of this chapter, indeed this section, contain a tantalisingly short prescription for woman, which is that the only possible way she will be able to ‘authentically’ assume her freedom is to revolt; to fight for her own liberation. And this is something that can only be achieved collectively (the cynic in me adds, yeah, and that’s why it’s seemed doomed to failure) — individual salvation cannot succeed, though many have tried.  He she sets up the next three chapters which are three kinds of woman who try to attain individual salvation on their own.

“It is this ultimate effort — sometimes ridiculous, often pathetic — of the imprisoned woman to convert her prison into a heaven of glory, her servitude into sovereign freedom that we find in the narcissist, the woman in love and the mystic.” (680)

Stay tuned.


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