Today is the birthday of Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote the masterpiece The Second Sex. In many ways, no other feminist writer has influenced me as deeply, since she paved the way for the feminist writers who would come after her.
Today is also the birthday of Richard Nixon, an unlikely feminist hero. Still, he shepherded important legislation, most famously Title IX, that would change the world for so many of us. But that's a topic for a different post. Or maybe not.
I've read The Second Sex only once, back in 1985, when I was just about to turn 20. I knew it would be the kind of book I'd read only once, so I underlined carefully and took notes. It's intriguing to go back and read it now; in many ways, I meet my younger self on the pages. It's clear I was worried about marriage and motherhood and career. As I look at the book again, those passages still feel relevant, even though I'm not sorting out as many of those issues these days. I've put some quotes at the end of this post; see if you agree.
I was always impressed with the way that de Beauvoir and her lover, John-Paul Sartre, set up their lives. They lived apart, but saw each other daily. They supported each other as writers and philosophers. I suspect that they'd have written less important work if they hadn't had each other, although of course, I cannot prove that.
Simone de Beauvoir matters in so many ways, but her idea that we're formed more by our culture than by our biology seems her essential contribution to me. We can continue to argue that point, but The Second Sex makes so clear that culture forms us in so many ways, many of which we don't even perceive. It's a brilliant work.
I wish I could say that culture has changed and that her book seems dated as it discusses the western culture of the mid-20th-century, but I can't. We're still sorting out these issues, if we're lucky enough to live in an industrialized nation. We may have a few more options when it comes to career and/or childcare, but many of us don't--or the new options that we have are no more appealing than the options de Beauvoir had. As always, class trumps race and gender when we look at these issues. If I'm a woman with money, I have all sorts of options that women with much less money don't have.
And of course, women who live in non-industrialized nations face even grimmer choices. I cannot get the case of the young Indian woman who was murdered by gang rape out of my head. Her fate shows that the world will not always take kindly to women taking hold of more choices. But we must persevere.
The world is different now, to be sure. It's not as different as I would like it to be--but there is worldwide outrage over a young woman murdered brutally by gang rapists. The sorrow and outrage and demand for change in response to a brutal hate crime--that response will hearten me, even as I feel profound sorrow over the fact that we're still having to do this education, that we still have to make clear that it's not a rapeable offense to be a woman out and about after dark. Being born a woman is not a rapeable offense--a fight we're still fighting in so much of the world.
So today, as we enjoy aspect of our lives that de Beauvoir would never have imagined possible, let us say a thank you to our feminist foremother. Let us resolve that we will not rest until all women enjoy a plethora of choices, and that they're safe to make those choices.
Some quotes from The Second Sex, to give you a flavor of de Beauvoir's writing:
On love: "Genuine love ought to be founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties; the lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world. For the one and the other, love would be revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world" (p. 741).
On work: "It is through gainful employment that woman has traversed most of the distance that separated her from the male; and nothing else can guarantee her liberty in practice. Once she ceases to be a parasite, the system based on her dependence crumbles; between her and the universe there is not longer any need for a masculine mediator" (p. 755).
On embryos and children: "It must be pointed out that our society, so concerned to defend the rights of the embryo, shows no interest in children once they are born; . . . society closes its eyes to the frightful tyranny of brutes in children's asylums and private foster homes" (p. 542).
On religion: "In modern civilization, which--even for woman--has a share in promoting freedom, religion seems much less an instrument of constraint than an instrument of deception" (p. 691).