It is one thing to honour de Beauvoir for her brave and pioneering work in 1949. It is quite another to exalt her as a model thinker and source of inspiration now, fifty years later, when so much has happened in the world and in the field of feminist thought, including the rich influx of non-Western feminist thinking.
In a recent interview, Toril Moi, a distinguished figure in the contemporary re-launching of Simone de Beauvoir, confirms that there are two major ideas in de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. One idea is that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ The other is that “in all known societies, woman has always been looked upon as the other” (Wenche Larsen 2000: 82). This paper sets out to question and investigate the second statement. Is it really so that in all known societies woman is and has always been looked upon as the other, the second sex? Looked upon – by whom? Does it have to be so forever? That “woman = the second sex” is a firmly grounded idea in the Western world is not up for discussion. But what about other parts of the world? What about Africa?
The point of the discussion is not empirical.[*] The point is not to show whether places do exist where this a priori othering of women does not occur. The point is to open the mind to different ways of thinking about gender, and for different ways of analyzing gender relations. Freeing ourselves from old mindsets will allow us to envision new kinds of gender relations as we look toward the future – both the future of Africa and the future of ourselves as Western (men and) women.
Post-Enlightenment (i.e. modern) thinkers have described women’s position in all ages and in all places according to their own androcentric models, models which subordinate women. In this way, concepts rooted in the time and space of the thinker him/herself have been universalized. At the moment, both in Western feminist thought and in Western feminist politics, the idea that women are the second sex and that they are universally subordinated is very strong indeed.
The argument in this paper is not that subordination of women does not take place. Of course it does, and increasingly so, and clearly, subordination and oppression of women should be fought against. The argument concerns lines of thinking and analysis: how and from which vantage points, in what kinds of theoretical/conceptual contexts, are women’s lives conceived and conceptualized? And what consequences do they have for strategy and politics?
The Female Body a Handicap
However much de Beauvoir is quoted for her opening sentence to book 2 of The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” her work is in contradiction with itself on exactly this issue. On one hand she believes – and shows – how the conditions of women are socially determined. When women are squeezed, torn, and suffering, it is not because of menstruation and menopause, but because of the ways that society deals with womanhood. This is her official and conscious position:
I am convinced that the greater part of the discomforts and maladies that overburden women are due to psychic causes, as gynaecologists, indeed, have told me. Women are constantly harassed to the limit of their strength because of the moral tension I have referred to, because of all the tasks they assume, because of the contradictions among which they struggle. This does not mean that their ills are imaginary: they are as real and destructive as the situation to which they give expression. But the situation does not depend on the body; the reverse is true.” (SdB 1949/1997: 706)
On the other hand there is her whole attitude to and description of the female body. Its capacity for pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation is never seen as a positive potential, as a source of pleasure or pride, but only and always as a curse, a drag, and a burden. Toril Moi (whose reading of The Second Sex at this point corresponds to my own) gives a poignant summary:
For Beauvoir women are the slaves of the species. Every biological process in the female body is a ‘crisis’ or a ‘trial’, and the result is always alienation. Her list of troubles and pains experienced during menstruation is impressive, to say the least, ranging from high blood pressure, impaired hearing and eyesight to unpleasant smells, destabilization of the central nervous system, abdominal pains, constipation and diarrhoea (Second Sex 61). But the discomfort of menstruation pales in comparison to the horrors of gestation. [...] Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding all undermine the women’s health and even put her life at risk: “Childbirth itself is painful and dangerous [...] Nursing is also an exhausting obligation [servitude]; [...] the nursing mother feeds the newborn at the expense of her own strength” (Second Sex 62-63). (Moi 1994: 165)
The fact of the female enslavement to the species is a recurrent theme, especially of the first part of The Second Sex. The human male is free to create and transcend, whereas the female feels her enslavement more and more keenly, the conflict between her own interest and the reproductive forces is heightened. Parturition in cows and mares is much more painful and dangerous than it is in mice and rabbits [...] The woman is adapted to the needs of the egg rather than to her own requirements. From puberty to menopause woman is the theatre of a play that unfolds within her and in which she is not personally concerned. (SdB 1949/1997: 57, 60)
The idea conveyed here is “woman against her body”; from these descriptions it is abundantly clear that for women and their urge for transcendence the female body is a handicap. Obviously de Beauvoir cannot subscribe to Freud’s idea that “anatomy is destiny.” Thus she tries to convince herself that women’s situation does not depend on the body, and that the reverse is true — as indicated in the quote above. There is a shadow of doubt, however, as in the same context she confesses that “it is difficult to determine to what extent woman’s physical constitution handicaps her” (SdB 1949/1997: 706).
In my reading, de Beauvoir is insincere at this point. In her entire analysis, the female body remains a handicap which can only be overcome by minimizing it, which (fortunately) is increasingly possible thanks to (a) industrial development and suitable wage work opportunities for women, supplemented with child care facilities, and (b) contraceptives and other types of reproductive technology. If the contemporary possibilities of in vitro fertilization had been available, or even imaginable, in her time, I am sure that de Beauvoir would have embraced them as further steps on the road to female freedom. It is all contained within the logic of the female body as a handicap.
Regarding this model of female emancipation, socialism and liberalism by and large agree, as do large parts of the women’s movement that the notion that the female body is a handicap as persistent and pervasive as the idea of woman as the other. This idea is based of course on the assumption that the model body is male. But what if it isn’t? I assert, as do others with me, that it is time for feminist thought to overcome the phallocentric as well as the ethnocentric biases in this line of thinking.
[Extracts from a paper by Signe Arnfred]
[*] Yet, for some 'empirical evidence' on these issues, see, for example:
Poder no Feminino
The Great Wall of Feminism
Relendo Samora Pelo Pincel de Naguib (II)
A Menina que Nasceu em Cima da Arvore
Mais Uma Vez Revisitando Questoes de Genero
"Porque que Todo o Mundo?"..., onde se pode ler: Ou, apenas, por "nao terem nascido mulheres", estarem agora, na terceira idade do 'segundo sexo', a tentar "fazer-se mulheres"?
Mulheres de Domingo, onde se pode ler:
(...) Onde andavam certas mulheres, quando... ou quando me lancei por minha conta e risco em busca do entendimento possivel das almas de Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Yourcenar, Elsa Triolet ou Simone de Beauvoir… Ou ainda, quando, depois de todos os desencantos, descobri Noemia de Sousa, Maya Angelou, Julianne Malveaux, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Bessie Head ou Wangari Mathaai? (...)