Simone De Beauvoir: Existential Feminism

Updated: Apr 18

"To Beauvoir, it is not as easy as just breaking domestic chains to achieve freedom but instead dismantling each link individually."

Words: Fin Quinlan

The Future Is Female protest poster
The Future Is Female | Lindsey LaMont on Unsplash

Note: This is part three on a series in existential philosophy, with the previous posts ‘Becoming Free: How Sartre Shows Us Freedom’ and ‘How To Be Happy: The Existential Way’ available for viewing on our blog.

The Second Sex was published in 1949 by feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir and would be seen by many as a forbearer to second-wave feminism. It still would be 21 years until the Equal Pay Act of 1970 was established in the United Kingdom, 19 years until abortion was legalized (under circumstances) in the United Kingdom and 31 years until a female head of state was elected.

While first-wave feminism was primarily concerned with women’s suffrage and property rights, the second-wave broadened horizons, looking at sexuality, workplace, and reproductive rights. Beauvoir looked at what it is to be a woman through an existential lens. She takes the ever-famous existential calling card “existence precedes essence” and subverts it to “One is not born but rather becomes a woman” in The Second Sex. It is in this moment that Beauvoir makes a radical leap from the common thought of the time by acknowledging a philosophical sex-gender distinction, arguing that biology does not determine what makes a woman and instead it is something that is thrust upon you through patriarchal superstructures. To Beauvoir, women are not born oppressed. Instead, all the forces of society are conspiring to make women non-essential, secondary citizens. Everyone, regardless of gender, is a subjective being that is oppressed, not through a cosmic thought but through human choice, culture, and circumstance.

If this sounds familiar, that is because it is. It’s hard to talk about Simone de Beauvoir without bringing up her long time open 50-year long relationship with Jean Paul Sartre. The pair were lifelong devotees to their work and always read each other’s drafts and publications. One of Sartre’s main concerns was the idea of freedom (something we looked at in ‘Becoming Free: How Sartre Shows Us Freedom’) and the idea of bad faith and we can see how the pair bounced off each other throughout their careers.

It would be common sense to assume that someone taught their entire life how a woman should act and what femininity is would have this effect their sense of freedom. How can a woman ever be free if they are unable to shake free the chains of being the second sex? Constantly living under the assumption that you must act a certain way or choose certain life choices changes how you perceive your own freedom. As a result of this, women can live in a discordant contradiction, a woman’s desire to be themselves and their "destiny" to become the socially constructed female. Societally we are taught to see women who reject the passivity that is imposed upon them as being like a praying mantis who eats her lover immediately after intercourse. We are taught to look at women who strive to be free as nagging, demanding too much from life and a lover that withholds her body. Any woman who threatens male supremacy is accused of cannibalism. It is all too clear – women are punished for putting their freedom before their femininity. Beauvoir writes:

"If the definition provided for this concept [of the eternal feminine] is contradicted by the behaviour of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine."

To Beauvoir, what we think of as feminine traits are a social construct, created to ensure the enslavement of women to men. Femininity as a concept serves the purpose of removing the subjectivity from women and instead objectifying them. Look at the dolls that women are given as children. Beauvoir comments on how these dolls just foreshadow the life of the woman it has been gifted to. Your job is to look pretty, have your hair looking nice, and keep quiet in the corner before bending to the will of whoever wants to play with you at that moment.

But how did this begin? In the Facts and Myths chapter of The Second Sex, Beauvoir discusses the historical factors that have allowed for the oppression of women writing:

‘[T]he whole of feminine history has been man-made. Just as in America there is no N**** problem, but rather a white problem; just as anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it is our problem; so the woman problem has always been a man problem.’

The phrase ‘history is his-story’ comes to mind. Almost all notions of femininity are originated in a male definition, the female voice has been silenced historically and the male narrative insists on female mediocrity. Take for example the fact that an accurate representation of a clitoris only became available in 2009. Something that half of the population has, was completely unknown for thousands of years, because history is written though the male experience. Beauvoir brings to light an extract from the British Medical Journal in 1878 in which someone writes: "It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women." Commentary on menstruation is a clear example of a male dominated narrative of femininity. Menstruation is for some reason seen as shameful, inconvenient, and embarrassing to talk about even though everyday there are 800 million people menstruating. It was not until the 1st of January 2021 that the tampon tax was abolished, announcing that that menstrual products are finally declared as essential. Men dominate society, to Beauvoir, through an oppression of self. Women are declared to be the other instead of being the subject. Through all language and socialisation, we are led to believe that women are inessential, and we must treat them as such.

Beauvoir wants us to acknowledge that this oppression is not always done consciously. In a section of her book she takes various authors throughout history who have enforced the oppression of women and showcases the ways that they have enforced the myth of femininity through their writing. She writes about how Andre Breton (the founder of surrealism) presents the world as being bleak and unbearable but made worth living because of women “the problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in all the world”. Breton celebrated and appreciated women, yet to only as an object. Breton has imposed an expectation of women as an objectified being. Women are at the heart of art and culture, yet only as an other, as a muse or an erotic presence to admire from afar. To De Beauvoir, not only have men made women inferior through art and culture, but women have let this happen.

Understandably, this can be read as victim blaming: how can a woman allow her own oppression? Simone was well aware of this potential interpretation and makes it clear that this is not the case, writing:

"Woman is shut up in a kitchen or in a boudoir, and astonishment is expressed that her horizon is limited. Her wings are clipped, and it is found deplorable that she cannot fly. Let but the future be opened to her, and she will no longer be compelled to linger in the present."

In Beauvoir's view, women accept the oppression inflicted upon them simply because it is easier than to resist the social norms. This is a result of Sartre’s theory of bad faith, it is easier for to accept passivity because accepting freedom involves being labelled by the patriarchal society as a praying mantis, cannibalising and destroying the society that lays before you. To Beauvoir, it is not as easy as just breaking domestic chains to achieve freedom but instead dismantling each link individually because of how inherently interwoven the oppression is.

“But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s drama lies in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence?"

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