Euro Vision! Leah’s Video for Week 8, Day 2: Women’s Rights (Simone de Beauvoir)

Hello, Europeanists! Today we’re going we’re going to turn in a philosophical direction as we discuss Simone de Beauvoir’s iconic feminist treatise, The Second Sex. Our cat today is Dante. Beauvoir was a French philosopher and political activist who lived from 1908-1986. In the 1920s, she studied at the Sorbonne, which is France’s most prestigious university, as a member of the first group of women admitted to universities in France.

Beauvoir graduated second in her class, just behind Jean-Paul Sartre. The two would work together closely for many years. Sartre is most famous for founding a branch of philosophy called existentialism. This is a complex theory, and I’m just going to give you a basic sense of it. Basically, existentialism teaches  that we are all entirely free beings. Whatever we do, whatever we become, is up to us. If you don’t achieve what you wanted, you can’t blame God, because he doesn’t exist. You also can’t blame your nature, or your subconscious, or your external circumstances, because these are all things we can overcome. Thinking optimistically,

existentialism teaches that you can achieve anything you set your mind to, no matter what. Thinking pessimistically, though, it also means that if you don’t achieve things, it’s entirely your fault. For existentialists, we are judged solely by our actions, and only those who make authentic choices are worthy of respect.

Sartre developed this philosophy while he and Beauvoir were working for the Résistance during WWII. I encourage you to think about how that experience shaped his philosophical vision, and also how existentialism influences Beauvoir’s work.

There are a couple of existentialist terms that may be helpful to know. For existentialists, existence (how you live) precedes essence (what kind of person you are). The existent is a person in the world (someone who exists). An existent who is in a state of immanence is someone who has not yet defined themself through action. Transcendence is the process of defining oneself through action. To be stuck in a state of immanence is to be completely disempowered. These ideas play a major role in Beauvoir’s feminist philosophy.

Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, which was a transitional time for women in France and in Europe. As we’ve learned, women had been gaining rights steadily over the course of the 20th century. In much of Europe, women gained the right to vote in the 1920s, though in France they got it only in 1944. European women also entered the workforce en masse during WWII and many fought in resistance movements. By the late 1940s, governments and societies in Western Europe were pressuring women to return to homemaking, just as they had after WWI. In keeping with the turn toward private life that Mazower described, many women did so. But a substantial number were not content to return to a subordinate status and began pushing for greater equality. It was in this context of the early postwar negotiation of women’s role in society that Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex.

This is a hard text to discuss not in real time. I’m going to give you some questions that I hope will help you work through it on your own and through discussion on the blog.

Leah’s Discussion Questions

1. Beauvoir starts with the question, “What is woman?” In the first couple pages, she explores the idea that “female” and “woman” are not coterminous and ponderous the role of the ambiguous concept of “femininity” in separating them. Can you analyze how Beauvoir develops separate ideas of gender and sex here? What do those terms mean to her? How are they different? How does her understanding of sex and gender in 1949 compare to our understanding of these terms today?

2. For Beauvoir, it’s also significant that she asks the question “What is woman?” and not “What is man?” She says that in our society, because Man holds all the power, he has set himself up as the subject, the essential, the self (the Number One Person). Meanwhile, he has relegated Woman to the position of the object, the inessential, the other (the Number Two Person). Can you unpack her thinking in this passage? What does it mean for women to live in a world dominated by men, which forces them to think of themselves as an Inessential Other? How does this compare with your own experience, whether you identify as a woman, a man, or a non-binary person?

3. In their role as an Inessential Other, women share some similarities with other oppressed groups. On pp. 7-10, Beauvoir gives the examples of Jews, African-Americans, and the proletariat. Each of these groups has a way to assert a Subject position (to think of itself as a Self), except for women. Why don’t the strategies that work for these groups work for women? What economic, legal, and other factors keep women from asserting themselves as a group against men? Has she convinced you on this point? Why or why not?

4. The next section I asked you to read is the conclusion of Beauvoir’s account of the history of women’s oppression. This might remind you of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and I encourage you to think about that comparison. Like Woolf, Beauvoir points out that women have gained more rights lately. But, she says, they’re still hemmed in by a world created by men. Exceptional women are just that—exceptional. A woman has to be exceptional to have an impact, because ordinary women are too held back by societal norms to take action. Make a close reading of the second paragraph on p.151 and the one after it (in the middle of p.152). Can you restate Beauvoir’s explanation of this situation in your own words? What does she mean when she writes, “[Women] want transcendence to prevail over immanence in themselves as in all of humanity; they want abstract rights and concrete possibilities to be granted to them, without which freedom is merely mystification.” (Beauvoir 152) What would this look like in practice?

5. What Beauvoir is really talking about in this section is structural inequality, which is a term we’ve explored in other contexts this semester. Make a close reading of p.155. What structural inequalities does she highlight, which hold women back from genuine equality with men? Are these issues still with us today? What are some possible solutions?

6. In the section, on pages 266-274, Beauvoir explores what she calls the myth of the “Eternal Feminine.” What is this myth? What are the attributes of the Myth Woman? How does the myth work to keep women subjugated and keep men in a dominant position? How does the myth work to prevent the development of healthy relationships between men and women? Consider your own life experiences: If we accept Beauvoir’s reasoning about this myth, how does it affect the way you interact with your partner, friends, and family members?

7. Now we move on to women’s situation, which Beauvoir argues has a significant impact on the way they behave in their daily lives. She asserts that women tend to be passive rather than active—but this is because they are so disempowered that they don’t think in terms of action. She writes, “It is mainly because she has never experienced the power of liberty that she does not believe in liberation.” (Beauvoir, 643). Make a close reading of pages 643-645. How does Beauvoir build her argument that that women’s “foolish” behaviors are a result of their situation, not their nature? What would Virginia Woolf think of this argument? How does her belief in the supremacy of nurture (the environment) over nature (innate qualities) derive from her existentialist philosophy? Does she convince you of her claim? Or do you think that women themselves bear some responsibility for thinking their way out of subjugation?

8. On pp. 650-654, Beauvoir addresses the hypocrisy that men bring to the table. In public, a man is all about family values, but in private, he cheats on his wife, sleeps with prostitutes, and demands that his mistress have an abortion. She says women know this and basically play along, and she doesn’t blame them, because that’s their only way to survive. Has she convinced you that the game is rigged against women this way? Do we still see elements of this in our society today? If so, how can we change it? What are the implications for society if everyone’s relationships are built this way?

9. Beauvoir also brings economic class into the mix. She says that middle class women actually have at least some sphere of action, because they do real work in taking care of their homes, families, and shops. Upper class women, by contrast, sit around and do nothing. They are willing accomplices in the subjugation of women because they benefit from it. This gets back to her claim in the introduction that women do not feel solidarity with one another across boundaries. If upper class women really are “winners” in this rigged game, why should they fight against it? What reasons does Beauvoir give? What reasons can you think of? Or do you think they don’t need to fight it?

10. Beauvoir spells out her argument for why women must embrace solidarity on p.664. Can you unpack her argument here? Why must there be no  compromise? Is such solidarity really possible? Why or why not?

Those are my questions for you. I know this is a heavy reading, and a hard one to do on your own. I hope you will be able to read and consider all of it. But if you’re not able to do that, then please choose at least two of the excerpts I’ve given you and respond to those.

7 Replies to “Euro Vision! Leah’s Video for Week 8, Day 2: Women’s Rights (Simone de Beauvoir)”

  1. Im answering question number 2,

    I think I do understand where she’s coming from with saying that men have set themselves up as the number one in the world. When you refer to all people you refer to them as Man, it’s always since the dawn of man, all men are created equal, it’s always the term man which doesn’t make sense if you’re referring to an entire population of people. I think that’s what she’s getting at with this passage is that men have always made themselves more important just in their language and it’s never made a ton of sense. This obviously turns into feeling invalid or inessential as Beauvoir says in the reading, since the word man is so casually thrown about in our language this will eventually lead to some effect on women. Women are never mentioned as first, never even given a real space in the narrative and it’s just generally not fair and kind of confusing since there would be no man without woman. I identifying as a woman have definitely felt this in my life. Growing up with an older brother and constantly being compared to and put down by male peers, I understand the message here that women are just traditionally moved to second place with no real valid reasoning and it does make us feel like the ‘other’.

  2. Response to # 10:

    Beauvoir argues that women must embrace solidarity because men have “far more concrete opportunities to project his freedom in the world” (p 664). Since society has created a world with a patriarchal structure over hundreds of years, changing this is no easy and quick task. This is something that Beauvoir recognizes. She argues that since women do not have the freedom to do much of anything, they have no choice other than to fight for their freedom. To do this, all women must band together with all of their shared experiences to fight back. This means that those women must also recognize the differences between themselves as assets to the fight. Women from different backgrounds and cultures are discriminated against in different ways. Using these different experiences to create a cohesive movement is the most effective way to spark change.

  3. To respond to Question #9

    I’m of the feeling that questions 9 and 10 go hand in hand, even thought they talk about different things. Beauvior makes some excellent points when it comes to the mental split between upper and middle class women, and it’s something we can still draw parallels to today. In the time Beauvior was fighting for women, the women in the upper class were “winners” as she put it, but she knew that she needed every woman to fight if they had any chance. Not only for strength in numbers, but with a more diverse, unified force of women fighting, including those in families and positions of power, men would have no choice but to hear their arguments. This still happens today, as women’s rights continue to move forward, middle class women dominate the marches and things of that nature. But those events that make headlines occur when a women with high status makes an appearance or makes a significant state in support of other women. I think Beauvior understood this idea, and knew she needed as many women and as much power as she could get to achieve what she wanted.

  4. #1

    Beauvoir develops the argument that there is a difference between the terms “female” and “woman”. She presents the idea that those who are assigned to the female sex at birth do not necessarily identify as a woman in a modern gender understanding. She defines woman as someone who fits a traditional European feminine role, though it is evident that she finds not every female fits the social requirements of that role. Her thoughts and definitions are very similar to our modern understanding of gender and sex, though they are more defined in our modern context. Her idea that women are only defined through their relationship with men, not as singular constructs furthers her argument that sex and identity differ. While a societal gender role referred to as “woman” is dependent on the traditional role of a man, those that do not fit that mold but are still of the same sex, must belong to a different gender construct.

    I am convinced of Beauvoir’s argument. While I do not think every relationship or every man would have been constructed that way, that type of argument is a cheap way to ignore a significant societal trend. I think that we certainly see traces of this in society. I cannot speak with authority on a European situation, but in the American “traditional” and family values movement we see more than just an anecdotal abuse of morality. If men are to subscribe to a policy of morality and family values, women would not see a substantial pay-gap, restriction to reproductive health care, or a legal pink tax. We also see advertisements reaffirming traditional gender roles along with statistical inadequacies of women in STEM roles. Society suffers from an unnecessary lack of skilled professionals and from a population of incredibly undeserved women because of these facts. It would be prudent to legislate against sexist policy and to allow for individual gender roles to be defined by individuals.

  5. Question 8:
    I believe during the time when Beauvoir wrote “Second Sex” (going off the copyright date of 1949), the game was rigged more against women. With WWII ending, men were coming back from the war and need jobs. Populations need a boost from all the death that had happened. Thus, women were put back in the house and only being used to satisfy the needs of their working husbands. Women were primary care givers to the children they created and did much of the house work. Without jobs, the women were forced to stay with their husbands even if the husband had committed adultery. Such that the husband was the breadwinner and the wife had no job. There are definitely still elements of this in our societies today. Many households can be placed into three categories of households: Traditional, where the husband is the breadwinner and the wife has no job and cares for the children; Egalitarian, where the partners take equal responsibility of the household and children and both have jobs; Neo-traditional, where most of the household and child caring responsibilities are shared, along with both having jobs, however, one partner may take more responsibility than the other in one department. I know of plenty of families where the husband as a successful job and the wife stays at home to care for the children. The way to change this is for society to shift towards the Neo-Traditional household, and eventually, to the Egalitarian household, where all responsibilities are shared. The possible implications for society if everyone’s relationships are traditional as Beauvoir describes, is that the women would never truly be free from the grasp of men, and would continue to depend on men. To me, Beauvoir sees society as men are more powerful and meaningful than women, and that men are the structure and support of a society, whereas women are only meaningful in the household setting, and to satisfy men.

  6. 2.

    It’s important to see that Beauvoir’s work is strongly grounded on concepts rooted on Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”, a work that can on itself be understood as one of the pillars of Ontological Phenomenology, the philosophical branch from which Existentialism comes into action. According to this intellectual current, and as you said, Existence precedes Essence, such that the actions one develops as being-in-the-world determine the ontological configurations that once ago were thought to be predetermined by substantial categories previous to existence. Something really important in this context is the being-on-itself (the being as pure phenomenological fact) and the being-for-itself (the being whose determinations come as an active own force in the phenomenal world). The point is that most of people live on an on-itself state, doing “what people do”, thinking “how people think” and being “how people is”. This is a state that ultimately implies a nihilization of the being. We are all, at a certain degree, part of this, as members of society.

    To what extent are we willing to start exercising the freedom that comes with the fact of being purely non-essential beings? For instance, most of us try to avoid the “anguish” (Kierkegaard) that comes with avoiding the exercise of our freedom and reject the “for-itself” existence through what Sartre calls “bad faith”.

    In reference to the question I believe that the female condition is one of the greatest examples of how the existentialist critique gets exemplified, but can simultaneously be a good starting point for humans to reject bad faith. If women live in a world dominated by men, it is because our unfortunately substantialist society constantly needs pre-fabricated ontological categories for our minds to build sense. That’s where the concept of the male comes from and how the duality composed by the female arises. This is where the current female condition comes from, one where their living standards (born from pre-elaborated concepts, categories and moral standards) are given by a society where men choose the categories that ultimately define women, conceptually conceiving them as “the other”, the one being whose “substance” gets defined as to be “what man is not”

    Nevertheless, the fact that women can to a certain degree be defined as the “the inessential other” could potentially be the root for female liberation because essentialist thought is the root of the inauthentic “on-itself” way of living, and the lack of deeper ontological substantial determinations (in contrast with the conceptualized “male”) could be sooner or later be an invitation for women to pursue a “being-for-itself” way of living.

    Personally, I’m constantly conscious about the way on which the “male” condition on which I inhabit since birth (as many other substantial pre-determinations given by society) implies an oppressive category for society, for me, and specially for what for now we denominate women. From my role, I know the least I can do is try to make explicit the way on which those constraints work, try to exist outside the ontological categories given by the “on-itself” force that thrives in modern society, and be conscious on my very act of the responsibility implied over the pure freedom that permeates the human condition.

  7. I am responding to question #2
    Beuvoir’s thinking in this passage is that women are held back by all of these barriers in society at that time which was true in some cases. Women couldn’t vote or pen a bank account without their husbands. In that time period I would most certainly agree that women were the “second person” to men because they didn’t have all their rights afforded to them. She believes that men dominate every aspect of society because men have been the creators of every society and therefore “relegated themselves to the top position”. I would agree with that in that time period. However, in today’s time world I don’t think in most countries women have to think of themselves as an “Inessential Other”. I think women in most countries, ill just use America in this example because that’s where we are, have the same rights and opportunities as men. Everyone in America regardless of race or gender is guaranteed equal opportunity, we just aren’t guaranteed equal outcome. Men dominate certain job fields in America but so do women. There are significantly more female nurses and teachers. The “wage gap” in America is a byproduct of women’s choices not employers paying women less purposefully. I think at the time Beauvoir might’ve had a point because women weren’t afforded as many rights in that time period as men but today her point in most developed countries is moot.

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