Simone de Beauvoir occupies pride of feminist place in this blog space; I’ve referenced her no less than five times over the past four years. Acerbic, witty, audacious, provocative, and angry, Beauvoir writes with an intellectual prowess unmatched by any other feminist theorist I’ve come across (unmatched, indeed by almost any philosopher of the twentieth century). In addition to this, her writing and interviews demonstrate incredible self confidence.
Intellectual girl crush, you say? Absolutely. At one point, I owned three copies of The Second Sex.
But really, who better, to celebrate in relation to International Women’s Day? And there is so much Beauvoir to celebrate.
From The Ethics of Ambiguity:
“The notion of ambiguity must not be confused with that of absurdity. To declare that existence is absurd is to deny that it can ever be given a meaning; to say that it is ambiguous is to assert that its meaning is never fixed, that it must be constantly won.” (129)
And here, also from Ethics, an homage to existentialism….
“One can not start by saying that our earthly destiny has or has not importance, for it depends upon us to give it importance. It is up to man to make it important to be a man, and he alone can feel his success or failure.” (16)
“The idea that defines all humanism is that the world is not a given world, foreign to man, one to which he has to force himself to yield from without. It is the world willed by man, insofar as his will expresses hi genuine reality.” (17)
“… it must not be forgotten that there is a concrete bond between freedom and existence; to will man free is to will there to be being, it is to will the disclosure of being in the joy of existence; in order for the idea of liberation to have a concrete meaning, the joy of existence must be asserted in each one, at every instant; the movement toward freedom assumes its real, flesh and blood figure in the world by thickening into pleasure, into happiness.” (135)
Existentialism, of course, relies on the ability of the individual to make meaning of an otherwise wretched life. But as Beauvoir so incisively observed, women are unable to reconcile their bodily obligations to reproduction with their existential need to transcend. “Woman is her body as man is his,” Beauvoir has declared, “but her body is something other than her” (Second Sex 42). In Beauvoir’s thought world, humans are doomed to make meaning, but women are doubly doomed: tied to the species, they “abdicate [their individuality] for the benefit of the species that demands this abdication” (Second Sex 37).
My students hear Simone de Beauvoir’s name right from first year. I start simply, with her key idea:
“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. 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.” (Second Sex 293)
But they’ll hear her name and they’ll read her words many times over the course of their degrees. They’ll also – like the thinkers who have come before them – become part of her legacy. Simone de Beauvoir has influenced several generations of thinkers – from the radical feminist work of Shulamith Firestone, who dedicated her book, The Dialectic of Sex to her, to queer theorist Judith Butler, whose notion of performativity situates Beauvoir as its source.
Natalie Haynes offers her own meditation on Beauvoir in The Independent. Here’s what she asks her readers to consider:
“There are plenty of people who dislike Beauvoir, because she was angry. Anger, of course, is not considered a virtue, and nor is it ladylike. But anger can be intensely powerful: how would anyone fight injustice without being angry that it exists at all? There is a difference between anger – which can be clean and pure – and petulance. The latter makes us petty and mean-spirited, interested only in our own advancement and not in that of others. But life isn’t a zero-sum game. There isn’t a limited quantity of success or happiness, meaning that if one person achieves something, the rest of us take an automatic step backwards. So, if you decide to read Beauvoir on International Women’s Day, I would remind you that while anger may not be very ladylike, neither was she. Nor am I. And, hopefully, neither are you. And that’s not a bad thing at all. Anger doesn’t preclude joy or happiness, it exists in us alongside those emotions, ready for when we need it. It’s perfectly reasonable to be angry when you’re on the receiving end of an injustice, and it’s equally sensible to be angry when you see anyone else having an unnecessarily difficult time. Nothing changes unless we get angry occasionally: if the suffragettes hadn’t been furious about the injustice of their situation, we might not yet have the vote. And if it isn’t ladylike to get angry, that’s fine. I’d rather be a woman than a lady, any day.”
Chapeau, Madame de Beauvoir. Here’s to you.
And to all of you – Happy International Women’s Day.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Translate by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1948; 1976.