[by Patrick Findler]
There were fifteen of us gathered around a square wooden table to talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, specifically the first two parts of volume I, “Facts and Myths.” This will be a record of some of the things said during that conversation, to give a sense of what it was like to be there.
We had read the first quarter of The Second Sex for our first meeting, with chapters on the situation of women from the points of view of biology, psychoanalysis, historical materialism, and history: the “facts” of the “Facts and Myths” volume. We began with introductions, and people discussed how they approached the book and their first impressions. All had heard of it before signing up for the seminar, but few had read it. It had a daunting reputation, or it was known to be important. Some spoke on its difficulty, or its erudition, or the power of her writing; or her importance and knowledge. Our Delve Guide, Satya Byock, gave us a question to follow as our theme How did women become “the Other”?
We began the seminar, after our introductions, with personal responses. One of us was impressed by the ambitiousness of The Second Sex as an undertaking, and its scope in scholarship, but another questioned it: if I was able to tell that some details were wrong, how does that impact how I should see the rest of the book, which is so full of details and rests on its command of them? Whatever the case on that question, the book, we said, brought women together over their fate, which was an achievement when it is so hard to find community and we are so fragmented.
After this, we began to examine the details of the argument. We appreciated the historical perspective The Second Sex brought, giving an overwhelming sense that this, namely the oppression of women, has been going on forever. Beauvoir points out that bourgeois women are not in solidarity with labor women, that women are fragmented between work and home. That women are scattered and are hard to organize politically. “Women, as a sex, lack solidarity,” in Beauvoir’s words.
It was noted that she saw marriage as a trap or a cage; we wondered whether that was a relevant view anymore. It seemed dated. Marriage has been changed. Women is a thinking person, with the power to choose, one of us said. Another countered, what about women elsewhere who do not have liberty?
We noticed that much of the psychoanalytic framework seemed to have been inherited by Beauvoir, while she questioned it as well. What was her relation to it? In psychoanalysis, there is a deterministic and fixed arrangement, like in desire. But in Beauvoir, there was choice and freedom. But being a woman, is one free to make choice? And modern discoveries in the sciences, like in genetics, does this undermine the consciousness of freedom?
We left this line of thought and returned to consider question: Why is woman the other? Beauvoir herself brings this up in the section on psychoanalysis, saying that it, as a discipline, was incapable of answering the question. One of us said that it was this caused an expanse of conflict and confusion all described from the point of view of the male observer.
Whenever we make choices, there is conflict there, there is always that tension in the choice. Woman is led to make herself an object. In developing consciousness, we project ourselves onto an object, onto something. We make that thing our other. But woman already is the Other; how to resolve that conflict? One of us recalled how when she was a child she came to associate having a penis with having power, because all the people who had power in her life had a penis. She thought that it was because she didn’t have a penis that she didn’t have power. Another didn’t discover any difference in witnessing the changing of diapers as a child or any other circumstance like that but saw that her brother, in the Boy Scouts, got to take an expensive trip to the Grand Canyon, while she, in the Girl Scouts, was making dolls out of ketchup bottles.
The penis, we concluded, in our discussion of psychoanalysis in Beauvoir, is about not power but the illusion of power. Many of us noted in life that the men who laid the most stress on it were the most insecure. As Beauvoir writes, “the most mediocre of males believes himself a demigod next to women.” We agreed that the kind of masculinity that hasn’t properly grown or embodied itself needs to degrade women more; but that when you realize, as one of us remembered happening to her in her late twenties or early thirties, that the ones who are arrogant or aggressive toward you are the ones who have the worst inferiority complexes, it’s freeing in a way.
We took a break here and chatted with each other for a few minutes.
We returned with a quotation from Beauvoir: “Several conclusions come to the fore when taking a look at this history as a whole. And first of all this one: women’s entire history has been written by men. Just as in America there is no black problem but a white problem, ‘anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it’s our problem,’ so the problem of women has always been a problem of men.” Men dominate culture, we reflected, and cause a double consciousness: women looking at themselves as if a man were looking at them. We wondered about the men in history who have contributed to women’s advancement. Why did they contribute? What was in it for them?
Beauvoir cites an eighteenth-century document from the church saying that the soul of women is not immortal. And although Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, before any man, it was said that this was because women tend to talk a lot and he wanted the news to get around. The treatment of women in the church was slightly ambiguous, however: how to understand Mary, idealized and elevated?
But we did not stay with old history. We wondered about the contemporary political climate. How would women be treated now?
We also wondered about Beauvoir herself. She writes, “The female, more than the male, is prey to the species; humanity has always tried to escape from its species’ destiny; with the invention of the tool, maintenance of life became activity and project for man, while motherhood left woman riveted to her body like the animal.” What is her attitude toward maternity? What did people thing? Is she too critical?
One of us responded, I didn’t take it that way. In ancient society, when women had more power, there was a more horizontal structure, when you would be regarded as maternal beyond your own, children, for the whole of the society. But another said she flips back and forth in her attitude.
A personal anecdote was shared. The teller has two adolescent grandchildren raised in the Church and they were shocked and blown away that any woman, much less their grandmother, would consider not having children, as she had done. But for Beauvoir, we wondered, did being independent financially, intellectually, require her not to have children? How many well-known artists are there who were mothers? Except for those who could afford to pay someone to take care of their children. Everyone has to make choices, but if you are a mother, some of those choices are made for you.
Beauvoir’s point seemed strong to one of us, that if a woman had a child, then she was cast in the role of caregiver to everyone and becomes dependent on a provider. We closed there.
We met again the following Saturday morning, gathered around the same square table, again fifteen of us, to discuss the “Myths” section of the part of The Second Sex called “Facts and Myths.” This is a record of that two hours of conversation. We began with a discussion of the paired terms Simone de Beauvoir uses so commonly, immanence and transcendence. What did they mean? We noted that they appeared to be found in tension everywhere in Beauvoir, that immanence appeared to mean remaining within oneself and transcendence going beyond, but that they showed up together in one and the same individual in one and the same aspect. We noted that masculine natures appeared more associated with transcendence and going beyond themselves, while feminine natures seemed to remain limited, within themselves, unable to break free.
One of us found a good introduction to the issue of immanence and transcendence and how they were tied on p. 159: “Once the subject attempts to assert himself, the Other, who limits and denies him, is nonetheless necessary for him: he attains himself only through the reality that he is not.” Immanence is like a bud, one of us said, that is not developed. You need exterior life to bring you out of your shell. Another of us returned to the gendered theme, and there was a brief exchange: A man could write a book or be a warrior; both are ways of transcending one’s immanence, to Beauvoir, but women are limited. On the other hand, there is nothing inherent about women, women develop over the course of their lives. But, for women, the essence is already defined, so it’s hard to overcome. There is a perpetual “state of dependence” that women seem to be in. It sounds like a life sentence.
We were struck by how various and contradictory the myths that Beauvoir catalogs are. In some women were idealized or temptresses but in others they were disgusting and to be avoided. Why is there this multiplicity? What does it set up? All the myths come back to serving men. Whether they are positive or negative, they make it harder to define women, because it all cancels out. She poses this enormous question, one of us said, and the deconstructs it, not to answer it necessarily but to understand something.
Someone observed that we are always living in some myth or other, the myths we are living in our own individual lives and what are imposed on us from outside. One of us took the perspective of the patriarchy for a minute, saying we want woman to be a certain way and we have to keep her this way, but then there is this other desire, which we hide and maybe has more power because it is hidden. On p. 164 an apposite quotation was found: “man’s revolt against his carnal condition is more general; he considers himself a fallen god: his curse is to have fallen from a luminous and orderly heaven in to the chaotic obscurity of the mother’s womb. He desires to see himself in this fire, this active and pure breath, and it is woman who imprisons him in the mud of the earth.”
It struck us that Beauvoir, in her work, was adopting this very male voice of authority. When she was writing there was male and there was female, and if you are writing you’re an authority and then you’re a man if you’re writing like Beauvoir. Is she trying to be a man? We struggled to find her voice. It was recalled that Sartre tried to compliment Beauvoir by saying “You think like a man” and she took this very badly. For most of human history, man has taken the role of thinking. She’s saying that there are many roles, many ways of speaking. When a girl in the fields is play-acting a warrior, she is not playing a boy’s game, she’s playing her game.
We changed the subject to how things appear to us in the present day. Perspectives change and women are better off, but some women are still not better off. We still have to fight for it. I’m still stuck living in a lot of myths, one of us said.
One of us recalled how she had to do intellectual somersaults to avoid asking herself the question of why everyone she admired growing up was a man. But now I see that these were the people who were able to have careers, who had wives to support them. This is why Virginia Woolf was so important, giving the economic perspective, the social perspective.
Myths are still with us, in a different form. The king of mythology has been replaced with the CEO, there is an ideal where you are equal but still above everybody else. A replacement of the mythology with a new corporate one. We were struck by what that myth leaves out and who. And what else was left out. One of us recalled that she grew up with conscious, hippie women and still had to find out what menstruation was on her own.
We found one of Beauvoir’s central points in this section on p. 266, “to the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existence of women, mythic thinking opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and fixed; if the definition given is contradicted by the behavior of real flesh-and-blood women, it is women who are wrong: it is said not that Femininity is an entity but that women are not feminine.” It’s true! one of us exclaimed.
We ended soon after this, thinking of the conflicts and burdens of women in society and within themselves.