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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Rereading de Beauvoir 17: The Girl

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 2. The Girl. (352-93)

[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.]

Given what went on in the previous chapter, ‘Childhood’, it’s obvious this is not going to be pretty (so to speak). Girlhood is where “the future not only moves closer: it settles into her body; it becomes the most concrete reality”. (352)

boys-vs-girlsGiven (again) the socialization (indoctrination?) during childhood around the idea that “all important events happen because of men”, it’s not surprising that as SdB sees it, by the time The Girl is an adolescent, she’s convinced that it’s in her interest “to be their vassal”. Adding to the weight of all that societal muck, is the weight of her developing physical self: fragility/weakness (relative to…); periods; breasts; hormones; risk of pregnancy. There’s some discussion of reasoning and logic becoming subsumed by the passions (353-4), which felt rather stereotyped here. But maybe that’s the point. (That is, I’m not sure if SdB is seeing these tendencies as somehow objective… and I’m hoping not. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this.)

She contrasts this emotional girl with the violence prone boy: him entering his “apprenticeship in violence” as he affirms “his sovereignty over the world” at the same time as she is giving up her “rough games”, since violence is not permitted to her. (354)

I have to segue briefly here because as I read these chapters I keep thinking about the 6-volume memoir called My Struggle by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard that I’m reading (currently in volume 5). First, I was wondering if I would read such an epic if it was by and about a woman, and then I remembered that I just did, i.e. Simone’s 4-volume autobiography. But second, volume 4, which is called “Boyhood Island”, is all about this childhood period from (obviously) a boy’s perspective. I found it fascinating, mildly enlightening and depressing. That is, their (boys) attitudes toward girls and obsession with girls. I think I knew deep in my heart boys were this awful, but his account is so raw and detailed it’s not easy reading having my suspicions confirmed so brutally.

On the other hand, there is that sense that the boys are at the girls’ mercy, though not for anything important (like a friendship, say) only to the extent to which the girls will ‘let’ the boys touch them, look at them, and later fuck them. And that’s assuming there’s consent in any of this. In addition — and this is in keeping with the other side of sex-role stereotyping — Karl Ove endured a brutal and cruel father who insisted that his son, who was wont to cry at the drop of a hat, try harder to be a real man and subsequently beat him for not doing so.  Reading the Knausgaard has reminded me, too, of what a nightmare childhood can be no matter what sex you are: how easily you are humiliated and shamed over things you only realize much later were petty and trifling but which at the time are overwhelmingly important. (So much energy and emotion wasted on so little!) And, as a result, how much of one’s childhood life is organised around trying to avoid shame and humiliation. End of digression.

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Rereading de Beauvoir 16: Childhood

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 1. Childhood. (294-351)

[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.]

One of my readers (and there aren’t many, so you probably know who you are!) has had some trouble with the naming/numbering convention with these posts. I admit, it’s a mess. So the best thing to do is stick with the numbers, i.e. this is post no. 16, and it’s these numbers that follow the order of the book. At this point, it would probably muck with links and stuff if I changed the names. Yeah, I should have thought this through a bit better from the outset. Maybe a naming convention that was a bit more descriptive.

Anyway, with this post we begin Volume II of The Second Sex. As you likely know by now, the book comprises just two volumes, and this one, the second, is titled “Lived Experience”. (Volume I was “Facts and Myths”). And this is Part 1, Chapter 1, “Childhood”.

Oh, and be warned, this is a long chapter, so this post is correspondingly somewhat epic.

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.

Yes, this volume, part, chapter opens with undoubtedly the most famous line of the entire work: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” (294)

An oldie, but a goodie.

An oldie, but a goodie.

I realised as I read that, that it perhaps contradicts what I wrote in Post No. 15 (the immediately previous post) about how one is actually ‘born a woman’, and all that ‘femininity’ etc. stuff comes later. But, actually, I kind of think I’m saying the same thing, because by ‘woman’ in this quote, SdB means the lived experience of a woman in society. (She restates this elsewhere (319) as “she is a human being before becoming a woman”.) By ‘woman’, I meant, back then, being born a human with female sex organs. So, I probably should just have said that. (Or simply, just being born a human being.)  Either way, I intended to reinforce her ‘existence precede essence’ foundation, even if my terminology wasn’t quite in keeping with the book. Anyway, moving right along…

I think it’s worth including what immediately follows the famous “One is not born…” quote, since it is so rarely cited and makes clear(er) just what she means by it:

“No biological, psychical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine. Only the mediation of another can constitute an individual as an Other.” (293)

That great start is followed by a (to me) less interesting account of child development, from birth to weaning to awareness of body (“the radiation of subjectivity”). I don’t know enough about psychology/psychological theory to know if any of SdB’s account here is still or was ever a viable account. (At least some of it is Lacanian, since she cites his “Family Complexes in the Formation of the Individual”; plus some Freud, Adler et al.) It revolves around the infant’s separation from the mother (birth, then weaning) as lying at the heart his/her lifelong drama — his/her flight from freedom in an effort to  “lose himself within the whole” (294); “his desire for oblivion, sleep, ecstasy and death”; his desire to be whole or to get rid of the separated self (I think), which seems to be at the core of “the drama of one’s relation to the Other”. (294)

The child, who starts out as a subject, slowly — under the gaze of his parents — releases he is also an Other. He can only encounter himself in the world as this “Other”, this now alienated self.

Again, I’m not sure I fully understand her (and Sartre) here (since this is surely Sartre’s breakdown of being-for-itself vs. being-for-Other), but sometimes it’s useful to compare this ‘psychology’ with that of a non-human animal, which is never ‘alienated from itself’, is always purely its own subject (always being-for-itself, never being-for-Other), never has to encounter itself in an “alienated form”. (That said, most non-human animals also suffer the additional category of “being-dinner-for-Other”.)

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