Volume II. Part Four. Towards Liberation. Chapter 14: The Independent Woman; Conclusion pp 737-82
[This is the final of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]
Chapter 14. The Independent Woman
“French law no longer includes obedience among a wife’s duties…” (737). So just in case you didn’t know that French law (and no doubt the laws of most/many Western countries) at one time did include obedience among a wife’s duties. Striking! SdB opens the chapter by pointing to all the ways thing have improved for women in recent times (that is, up until the late 1940s, when this was written), like no longer being legally obliged to be ‘obedient’, and she contends that
“It is through work that woman has been able, to a large extent, to close the gap separating her from the male; work alone can guarantee her concrete freedom.” (737)
It is through work, which breaks her dependence on the male, that woman “regains her transcendence”, affirms herself as a “subject”. But, SdB goes on to add that a job is not enough, that “work today is not freedom” and “only in a socialist world would the woman who has one be sure of the other” (work->freedom, that is).
“This world has always belonged to men and still retains the form they have imprinted on it.” (737)
Now, more than ever (as they say) is it clear that work, under capitalism, is far from a recipe for freedom. It strikes this contemporary reader that it’s just a ticket to be exploited as a worker as well as a woman. Or as SdB puts it, most women workers “are economically independent only within an economically oppressed class” (738) and they still have to carry out the ‘traditionally female’ domestic chores.
Furthermore, it’s hard for her to even get to the ‘work’/’professional success’ starting gate. For the male, “his vocation as a human being in no way contradicts his destiny as a male” (739) whereas “for a woman to accomplish her femininity she is required to be object and prey”. (739) Yes, the word “femininity” raises some flags, here. SdB argues that this “femininity” is “artificially defined by customs and fashion”, imposed on every woman from the outside, and that while it might change and evolve, this won’t change the core problem that “the individual is not free to shape the idea of femininity at will”. (740) Given that woman grows up inside this externally created/imposed “femininity”, it’s no use asking her to renounce it. She is “a sexed human being” (739) and that renouncing her femininity (sexed-ness, if you will) would mean “renouncing part of her humanity”. (739)
Rejecting the ‘feminine’ doesn’t mean you will acquire the ‘virile’/masculine, either. SdB writes: “even a transvestite cannot turn herself into a man: she is a transvestite”. (740) (I’m not going to go anywhere near that one with any commentary — i te mea he hamo pango, he whiore hume au!)
She continues with a discussion of how women are not seen as separate from their appearance (i.e. are judged on same), and much more so than men, who barely have to care about their clothes. (Still true? More true than not, I think, but this is certainly much less clear cut than it once was…I say this as a committed slob who has never worn a lick of make-up in her life, who hates fucking pink and dresses and … blah blah. A bit stereotypical of me, I know, but truly genuine…thinks back to her childhood…yup, same back then, too.)
I’ve always wondered why we do this to ourselves. But ‘choice feminism’ came along and, pako!, choosing to wear heels and all that jazz was part of our independence, or something? At this point, I’m thoroughly confused. Or was I always confused? Annoyed if not resentful at women-the-enforcers of these hideous “feminine” standards/traits. But would I impose my old tomboy standards if given a chance? Hell, maybe
It’s hard not to see SdB’s own choices reflected in what feels like her ‘approved’ choices for other woman. That is, if you dress ‘flamboyantly’ and say you’re doing so to suit yourself, you’re lying because you know you’re being a rebel. Really? (Am thinking of SdB’s middle of the road if not conservative dress… “if she does not want to look eccentric, she follows the rules” (740))
And I honestly don’t know what to think about this:
“If men were content to love a peer instead of a slave … then women would be far less obsessed by their femininity; they would become more natural and simple and would easily rediscover themselves as women, which, after all, they are.” (742)
There follows a pretty long discussion of sexual relations and I’m not going into it not, ahem, because I’m prudish, but because it’s stuffed full of so many scenarios (this type of woman, that type of behaviour, this type of relationship/liaison and so on) that I have trouble gleaning anything philosophically interesting from it. Also, I think a lot of it has been covered in other chapters in various discussions about various personas etc. (woman in love, the married woman blah blah blah.)
On p. 751, she turns to motherhood, which she describes as “one female function that is still almost impossible to undertake in compete freedom”. SdB is pretty negative about motherhood here, perhaps reflecting her own choice (not a mother). And still, it’s not easy/common for a woman (in the West anyway) to become a mother “without accepting the chains of marriage” (752), as SdB puts it. She goes on to talk about how hard it is for a woman to balance a professional/working life with motherhood — so that certainly hasn’t changed at all.
She also discusses the resentment a woman who is not a “parasite” (whose host is a man) feels toward the woman who is, noting that “the woman must constantly renew her decision” (754) to be independent unlike the man who “obeys and imperious necessity”. I think that applies — while fertile — to motherhood, i.e. that constant “renewing”, or perhaps even “justifying”, of one’s decision. This isn’t pretty, SdB can be delightfully severe about these things, but there surely is a tension, as has played out politically forever, between the so-called ‘stay at home’ mothers and others. Remember the cracks about university students who were there to get their M.R.S. degrees… Ouch! And was there a changing of places when it comes to “justifying yourself” from the woman who went out to work and be independent to the, ahem, “parasite”. (No, I wouldn’t use that word myself.)
But every time “we” come under fire for our complicity, SdB reminds us of the constraints we’ve been working under. Here, it’s how educators, even the well-meaning ones, expect less of female students, indeed how the education system is structured this way to such an extent that female students buy into the lower expectations of themselves. No news there, I guess. Still going on. Etc. etc.
And is there a parallel with non-white minority groups who may not “succeed” because they are forced to try to do so inside a culture/system hostile to or at least not in line with their own? All this “more women on boards” “more women heading companies” etc. The question feminists have asked for ages is, yeah, but who the fuck wants to achieve those things?! That these positions or “successes” are some kind of peak achievement is certainly not a given.
“The desire for a female destiny — a husband, a home, children — and the spell of love are not always easily reconcilable with the desire to succeed.” (758)
(She seems not to consider this “female destiny” can entail “succeeding”.)
And she’s pretty harsh on women who take up the creative arts but treat it as a hobby…especially those damned menopausal women (hand shoots up) who will “never be more than an amateur” (759), sob sob:
“The woman acquires a peaceful alibi in imagining she is a writer: but she must at some point make signs on the blank page, they have to have a meaning in the eyes of others. So the trickery is exposed.” (759)
SdB really feels like a school marm wagging her finger telling us all we’re lazy…unlike herself. You could all make it, like I did, if only you got off your pampered butts, and/or gave up your parasitic ways. And if you’ve read her autobiography — which you know by now I have — boy, oh, boy, did that woman work hard. Again, after taking away with one had, she does acknowledge what women have to overcome to get to the starting line at which men are automatically positioned, ready and waiting. For example:
“At eighteen, T.E. Lawrence went on a grand tour through France by bicycle; a young girl would never be permitted to take on such an adventure…” (765)
Still today, that 18-year-old woman would still face innumerable dangers and obstacles not faced by her male counterpart. And I can’t not mention her comment implying that being “ugly” was key to Rosa Luxembourg’s success because “she was never tempted to wallow in the cult of her image, to make herself object, prey and trap”. Oy!!! SdB then riffs on how Van Gogh couldn’t have been born a woman, how a woman could never have become Kafka… (766)
“Once again, to explain her limits we must refer to her situation and not to a mysterious essence … the free woman is just being born.” (767)
The conclusion opens with a discussion of the war between the sexes, not that SdB subscribes to that in it’s crudest sense. (Though she does say “All oppression creates a state of war”, 770). It’s not a war based on the physiology of being male vs. female, but on what we’ve been socialised to be. It is a “conflict will last as long as men and women do not recognise each other as peers, that is, as long as femininity is perpetuated as such”. (771)
That is a crucial point. In a liberal or post-second-wave or whatever feminism this is, it seems we’ve lots sight somewhat of sex-role stereotyping. I think SdB is absolutely correct in this…femininity as such needs to be eliminated. And masculinity, as such, along with it:
“man is consumed by the concern to appear male, important, superior; he play-acts so that others will play-act with him; he is also aggressive and nervous; he feels hostility for women because he is afraid of them, and he is afraid of them because he is afraid of the character with whom he is assimilated. What time and energy he wastes in getting rid of, idealizing and transposing complexes, in speaking about women, seducing and fearing them! He would be liberated with their liberation. But that is exactly what he fears. And her persists in the mystifications meant to maintain woman in her chains.” (772)
Speaking of our complicity (well, I was a while back, and it’s always interested me, in fact, I digress into mentioning that I wrote a Master’s thesis on this…zillions of years ago…that is, on the question of whether/how much the oppressed are complicit in their/our own oppression…)…so speaking of it:
“The fact is that men encounter more complicity in their woman companions than the oppressor usually finds in the oppressed; and in bad faith they use it as a pretext to declare that woman wanted the destiny they imposed on her.” (773)
Could be just a feature of the fact that men and women probably spend a lot more time together than other oppressor-oppressed peoples do? Maybe? But anyway, I can’t say I disagree that we’re well and truly implicated in all this! I have always rebelled against a feminism that sees or portrays us as wholly the victim. Though now with such towering hierarchies of oppression, I guess that’s no longer true — I’d add it’s no longer true for all the wrong reasons. Anyway, back to SdB, who argues each sex wants to blame the other, “but the wrongs of one do not absolve the wrongs of another”. (774)
She wonders what it would take to truly liberate women (and men along with us), whether it would be enough to change laws, institutions, customs, public opinion and the whole social context? (777) (As if one could?)
“One must certainly not think modifying her economic situation is enough to transform woman: this factor has been and remains the primordial factor of her development, but until it brings about the moral, social and cultural, etc., consequences it heralds and requires, the new woman cannot appear.” (777)
She imagines a girl being brought up with all the same opportunities, expectations, — all the same everything really — as a boy and how many things this would, in a kind of flow-on effect, change. Menstruation, for example, which “horrifies her only because it signifies a brutal descent into femininity”. (778) It’s not clear if she means the girl is to in essence become like a boy, i.e, is it simply a boy’s world that is to be offered the girl, which as readers probably know, is not necessarily what we seek. Or if there is some third way of equal/fair treatment that favours neither, but is new to both?
I think it’s pretty clear SdB, too, doesn’t simply want want woman making it ‘in a man’s world’, since she does note that “Virile aggressiveness is a lordly privilege only within a system where everything conspires to affirm masculine sovereignty.” (779) Meaning perhaps that if we at least begin by offering the girl all that boy is offered, that “system” itself would also begin change, would have to change, could not not change, since all the dynamics would necessarily change. What I mean to say is, how would you have anything akin to the master-slave/subject-object dynamic/dialectic if you couldn’t really distinguish who was to be the master and who was to be the slave?
“The revolt of the oppressed at times and changes in the privileged caste at other times create new situations.” (780)
Liberating women will not bring about sameness, either, or destroy interesting differences or usher in a reign of boredom. (And even if it did, should women pay with their freedom to keep men interested? Of course not.)
So here we are. While this isn’t the last paragraph of the book, it makes for a more powerful ending, in my humble etc. And is essentially what she says in closing, just two pages later, only better:
For all our differences: “The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the ame glory from their freedom; if they knew how to savour it, they would no longer be tempted to contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born between them.” (780)