Rereading de Beauvoir 24: From Maturity to Old Age

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 9. From Maturity to Old Age. (633-52)

[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.]

I did a Google image search on "older women" and there was nothing interesting. But it's hard not to notice one important thing about what came up: they're 99.999% WHITE. This isn't actually relevant to what Beauvoir writes about in this chapter.

I did a Google image search on “older women” and there was nothing interesting. But it’s hard not to notice one important thing about what came up: they’re 99.999% WHITE. This isn’t actually relevant to what Beauvoir writes about in this chapter, but has to be remarked upon. I’ve read discussions elsewhere about Google searches and race. It’s pretty nasty! I’d love to read an in-depth analysis about “why” this happens, specifically. (Since, the obvious big picture answer is: racism.)

This chapter should be interesting, I thought, as I cracked open the book. As regular readers (ha ha) will know, I’m a bit fascinated by Beauvoir’s attitude toward ageing, and actually read and wrote about this chapter earlier, so it wasn’t wildly new material to me. She opens by noting that the history of woman depends much more than man’s on her “physiological destiny”, and the stages of her life are “dangerously abrupt”: puberty, sexual initiation, menopause. (And then there are the socially contingent stages: marriage (or not), motherhood, middle age, grand-motherhood, says me.)

“While the male growers older continuously, the woman is brusquely stripped of her femininity; still young, she loses sexual attraction and fertility from which, in society’s and her own eyes, she derives the justification of her existence and her chances of happiness: bereft of all future, she has approximately half of her adult life still to live.” (633)

So there you go. We’re fucked!

‘The Definitive Mutilation’

But, oh, SdB has some truly awful ways of describing ‘old age’. Like “the definitive mutilation”:

“Well before the definitive mutilation, woman is haunted by the horror of ageing.” (633)

And elsewhere as being “deformed” and “ugly” (640). Which certainly sounds like how SdB felt about ageing in her own life, going by what she wrote in her autobiographies.

She writes, and it seems to me this is (still!) indisputably true: for man, “the alteration of his face and body do not spoil his possibilities of seduction.”

“Man is engaged in more important enterprises than those of love”, meanwhile she “has to please” and “has not been allowed a hold on the world except through man’s mediation”. (634)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 23: Prostitutes and Hetaeras

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 8. Prostitutes and Hetaeras. (613- 32)

[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.]

girlsgirlsgirlsFirst, a definition, from the New Oxford American Dictionary, of “hetaera/s”: “a courtesan or mistress, especially one in ancient Greece akin to the modern geisha.” (And, surprisingly late in the chapter (626) SdB explains her usage: “I will use the word hetaera to designate women who use not only their bodies but their entire person as exploitable capital.” For SdB, this is not the same as prostitution, a (little) bit more on that later.)

SdB starts out this chapter focusing on ‘prostitution’, which she says is the corollary to marriage. “Man, out of prudence, destines his wife to chastity but he does not derive satisfaction from the regime he imposes on her.” (613) Prostitutes are treated as akin to the sewers necessary to keep the palaces sanitary (paraphrasing SdB paraphrasing the Church Fathers) or, as the Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville argued, “some women must be sacrificed to save others and to prevent an even more abject filth.” Aww, nice of them to be so concerned about keeping society clean and sanitary by sacrificing women.

And not just a corollary of prostitution? It is often said that marriage is actually a kind of prostitution:

“From the economic point of view, her situation is symmetrical to the married woman’s. ‘Between those who sell themselves through prostitution and those who sell themselves through marriage, the only difference resides in the price and length of the contract,’ says Marro.” (613-4)

And “Marro” would be an A. Marro writing on puberty in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 1901. (Wonders to herself if there was a Madame Marro and what she thought about this idea.)  The main difference between them, SdB writes, is that the married woman is oppressed as a woman but respected as a human being, but the prostitute “does not have the rights of a person, she is the sum of all types of feminine slavery at once.” (614)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 22: Social Life

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 7. Social Life. (585-612)

[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.]

1870_fashionIt is the woman who will organise the social life that is called ‘the family’, and it is through the family she is connected to the community. The man, meanwhile, is connected “as producer and citizen”. (In the 21st-century West, we would instead be connected to the world as “consumers”. Ugh!)

The opening pages of this chapter feel dated and pretty narrowly focused, though may well apply to some woman somewhere. They’re about what we’d call a stay-at-home mother, and a middle class one, who tries to express her social standing to the world by entertaining, and dressing up to go out, etc. It is his work/profession through which the man has standing; it is through the family and the family’s status/place that woman has hers. It’s not as though societies are no longer status conscious, but the roles have changed, and what woman gets to stay at home anymore?: either a poor woman trying to live of a state benefit or a wealth woman (?)  So it’s not too clear how this status-giving family applies anymore.

That said, there’s some great discussion of issues that transcend the economic/social organisation of the day, like how man “does not usually consider his appearance as a reflection of his being” (586), as does a woman. Editorial and unscientific observation: It strikes me that parity may be approaching in this regard, but not through any lessening of women’s focus on appearance, but through an intensifying focus on male appearance.

SdB goes on to talk about skirts and high-heels being so much less convenient and practical than, say, trousers and flat shoes. Yup. We knew that.

There’s some curious content about the relations that “lesbians” and “homosexuals” and “dandies” and “American blacks” have to clothes. But I’m not going there and/or I don’t quite follow SdB here. Also, what she says about lesbians dressing in a “masculine way” (assume that means “not-necessarily-feminine” way) applies to me and I’m straight, so: stereotyping much. Anyway, like I said, dated. Yet even though dress codes may have been a whole lot more rigid in 1940s-50s France than they are now, it may only be that they are rigid in different ways. So I need to correct myself here. Not dated in the sense that we’re all liberated now; dated in the sense that many of the rigidities and constraints have changed. (Just watch a crowd of young women on their way, e.g., to a New Year’s Eve concert… we’re talking big-time uniformity. And let’s not start in on mandatory pink-wear for young girls. Sigh.)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 21: The Mother

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 6. The Mother. (537-584)

[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.]

As noted in the previous post (“The Married Woman”), SdB opens this chapter noting that it is through motherhood “that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation … But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature.” Or, I guess one could say, who gives a crap about one’s “physiological destiny”. That’s for the birds — and other non-human animals…isn’t it?

If a Google image search for "motherhood" is anything to go by, mythologising mothers is not going away anytime soon. Ugh!

If a Google image search for “motherhood” is anything to go by, mythologising/idealising mothers is not going away anytime soon. Wow!

I’ll say from the get-go that this chapter is one of my favourites and is of much more interest to me than some others because as a non-mother by choice, I very much notice (what I think of as) the societal mandate/pressure to have kids and the (related) mass media mythologising of motherhood. Also, as a pro-choicer, I have spent some years trying to understand the myriad hyprocrisies that surround female reproduction. But I’ll save any personal rants for now…just note that SdB never had (not wanted, it seems) children either. She did sign her name to a famous newspaper ad “I had an abortion”, it’s not clear whether or not she did. An abortion isn’t mentioned in her autobiography, so far as I recall, and she might have signed as an ally. Anyway, moving on…

She begins by pointing out that for more than a century, give or take, contraceptive methods have meant reproduction hasn’t been entirely a chance affair. And, yes, I think, this about sums it up:

“There are few subjects on which bourgeois society exhibit more hypocrisy: abortion is a repugnant crime to which it is indecent to make an allusion. For an author to describe the joys and suffering of a woman giving birth is perfectly fine; if he talks about a woman who has had an abortion, he is accused of wallowing in filth and describing humanity in an abject light…” (537)

And despite our notions that we’ve moved on since then, nah. It’s still the same, just dressed in slightly more modern clothing. We’re still not able to talk about abortion in anything other than hushed tones lest we be considered callous, gauche, etc.; abortion is still wildly common, but treated as exceptional; as an outlier. Let’s see if SdB tries to get to the bottom of this curiosity. How much of hostility to abortion is about “life” as claimed by its opponents, and how much is a complicated soup of pro-natalism, control of women especially their sexuality, patriarchal resentment (over which sex gets to ‘create life’ or at least gestate it), the societal need to perpetuate motherhood mythology (or fewer women might want to do it, though I doubt that) …

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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)

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Rereading de Beauvoir 19: The Lesbian

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 4. The Lesbian. (429-48)

[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.]

So, actually, I recommend neither reading this chapter nor this post. But I read the damned chapter and tried to write a post. So here goes, and if it makes no sense to you, don’t blame me.

As SdB has already stated, biology is not destiny. And here, she makes the related point that biology does not determine sexuality either. Or, as she puts it “Sexuality is not determined by anatomical ‘destiny’” (429) or, another way: “anatomy and hormones never define anything but a situation and do not posit the object towards which the situation will be transcended”.

Basically, this chapter wades deep into the whole being-gay/trans-is-a-choice/is-not-a-choice swamp. But if you’re really an existence-before-essence Existentialist, do you have to take the ‘choice’ position? Or not? (I need to think about that.) Anyway, I think this is the chapter that has prompted some of the most vehement criticisms of The Second Sex. For my part, I find it problematic for perhaps different reasons, since I’m willing to allow SdB to be ‘of her time’ — somewhat.

For me, I feel like despite her commitment to ‘existence before essence’, she slips into its opposite at times in this chapter. There’s just way too much talk of what is and is not ‘normal’ for my liking. (I realise asserting some behaviour is ‘normal’ doesn’t necessarily mean she’s asserting it is ‘given’ or ‘essential’ or ‘natural’, yet I think she kind of does at times.)

So, yes, where was I? Early on, SdB writes (which surprised me) that “there is no rigorous biological distinction between the two sexes; an identical soma is modified by hormonal activity whose orientation is genotypically defined, but can be diverted in the course of the foetus’s development.” (429)

And here are a couple of definitions I needed for this:

soma (noun): the parts of an organism other than the reproductive cells.

genotype (noun): the genetic constitution of an individual organism. Often contrasted with phenotype.

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Rereading de Beauvoir 18: Sexual Initiation

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 3. Sexual Initiation. (354-428)

[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.]

So apparently “all psychiatrists agree” on the extreme importance a woman’s “erotic beginnings” have for her: “their repercussions will be felt for the rest of her life”.

A perhaps predictable illustration: Georgia O'Keeffe's "Blue Flowers"

A perhaps predictable illustration: Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Blue Flowers”

What’s more, to SdB, the male’s passage from childhood sexuality to maturity is “relatively simple” (compared with ours). For him, erotic pleasure is objectified, “with penis, hands, mouth, with his whole body, the man reaches out to his partner but he remains at the heart of this activity, as the subject generally does before the objects” (394).

And, how depressing, but you just knew this was coming: “Woman’s eroticism is far more complex and reflects the complexity of her situation” (395). Why do we have to always be so much more complicated? What’s more, it feels like a lot of this is coming close to the kind of essentialism the Existentialists disavow, that is, that something ‘essential’ about her character or being flows from the fact that the female is penetrated and the male penetrates. We shall see. (Be warned, I may be forced at some point, though not in this post, into a wee digression to take in Andrea Dworkin’s classic, Intercourse…)

Because I’m not sure what SdB means by the following quote, which comes in the context of a discussion of the “opposition of two organs: the clitoris and the vagina”, where the former has nothing whatsoever to do with procreation:

“The woman is penetrated and impregnated through the vagina; it becomes an erotic centre uniquely through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of rape.” (395)

See what I mean about the (possible) relevance of Dworkin. Anyway, there’s a bit of a discussion about whether there are any erotic zones in the vagina. SdB seems to reject this idea, but does say that “it is beyond doubt that vaginal pleasure exists” and in a footnote she lists the objects that physicians have found in vaginas or bladders, and surgically removed: “pencils, pieces of sealing wax, hairpins, spools, bone hairpins, curling irons, knitting and sewing needles, needle cases, compasses, crystal stoppers, candles, corks, goblets, forks, toothpicks, tooth brushes, pomade jars…hens eggs, etc.” (fn396). Quite a big part of that list is a whole lot like the lists of items women use to try to self-induce abortion, so who’s to say they were in there for erotic pleasure?!

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