Woman Manufactured: Simone de Beauvoir’s Subject and Objects
On July 30, 1943, a woman named Marie-Louise Giraud was guillotined in France. She had performed over two dozen abortions, and according to a 1942 law aimed at repopulating the country, abortion was a crime against the state punishable by death. Though the law would be repealed upon France’s liberation, abortion remained illegal until 1974.
Not until 1965 did French women gain the right to open a personal bank account or choose their own profession without spousal permission. They had to wait until 1967 for contraception in any form to be legalized and until 1970 for full legal rights to their own children. Twentieth century France, to our imagination a land of social experimentation and advanced political consciousness was, legally, a patriarchal bog every bit as dismal and inescapable as Miltown-fueled American suburbia.
But where there be dragons, there too be heroes, and France was to get its in the form of a philosophical prodigy, the youngest person ever to have passed the grueling agrégation exams, and not only to have passed, but to come in second place in her year, just under Jean-Paul Sartre himself. She was in her time a memoirist, essayist, novelist, and author of the most important work on gender theory since A Vindication of the Rights of Women: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986).
The book she hurled into the maw of male privilege, The Second Sex, unleashed hell upon its publication in 1949. Catholics could not decry its free morality and sexual ethics enough, while millions of women the world over gained a first harrowing glimpse at the millennium-spanning scope of gender’s social construction. By providing a historical account of the material and mythological pressures that patriarchal society employs through law, religion, and custom in defining women on terms most favorable to its sense of self, de Beauvoir showed definitively that liberation was not a matter of a law here or a courtesy there, but a fundamental rethink of civilization itself.
De Beauvoir’s book was so uniquely compelling because de Beauvoir herself was uniquely positioned to view European gender oppression from the personal to the historical scale. She was born to a free-thinking father whose family was once one of means but was so no more, and a deeply Catholic mother who opened her daughters’ mail and eavesdropped on all their conversations out of a massive fear of secrets. De Beauvoir lost her faith early and never regained it, priding herself on her academic excellence that came so easily, and pushed herself to conquer France’s most esteemed discipline: philosophy.
It’s hard for us to conceive of now, in an age when “philosopher” is just under “social media analyst” in terms of People Whose Opinion Absolutely Nobody Wishes To Know, but in 1920s France to become a high school philosophy teacher was to be a person of immediate importance, and those who ranked high on the agrégation exams which paved the way for that career were to be respected as a matter of basic French pride. A dozen women before de Beauvoir had passed the exams in spite of the government’s on-again, off-again willingness to let them even try.
And yet, de Beauvoir’s success was still an unlikely thing. Her mother had insisted on a Catholic primary school for her, the type where the mothers sat in the back row knitting while the children were taught all in one large room. The standard of education was deplorable, and when de Beauvoir was finally allowed to leave that institution, she was horrified to discover how much she didn’t know. From 1926 she raced to learn Greek and Latin at an academic level, to push herself in mathematics, and to absorb the advances in philosophy that her Aquinas-obsessed teachers had not bothered to mention. In three years, she not only picked up the knowledge base that her male contemporaries had taken their complete lives to master, but when it came time to take the exams, placed ahead of all of them save Sartre, who was three years her senior and was handed a topic tailored to his area of interest.
She was, from that moment on, a person of intellectual heft, treated with deference by her male colleagues and consideration by her peers. She and Sartre entered into an open relationship that would last until his death in 1980, an expression of their mutual devotion to the freedoms of existential authenticity. In short, she lived the argumentative, open life of a typical academic male. It wasn’t until after she had written her first novel and was sitting down to write her memoirs that she realized to write about herself, she would have to write about her experience as a woman. To do that, she would have to consider how it is that, in society, a woman becomes a woman, how gender is socially and materially constructed.
Seated at the heart of France’s philosophical machinery, de Beauvoir had a privileged perspective on how gender expectations are constructed and maintained. She attacked the problem of gender from multiple analytic angles, using the insights of Freud and Marx, the early work of Lacan, the concerns of existentialism, and the dialectics of Hegel to uncover how woman has been codified as mankind’s universal Other.
It’s a massive project that spans 900 pages of historical, philosophical, and literary analysis. In accord with the tenets of existentialism, de Beauvoir sticks close to humanity’s desperate condition of being mortal and having enough consciousness to realize it. That situation calls for a person to actively formulate their own purpose, something which requires a strong sense of subjectivity, of dynamic self. The problem is that the world is stacked heavily against self-actualization. From the moment we are born, we are bored into by the gaze of others who seek to construct and define us, and we internalize their perspective mightily. In the midst of all that definition and expectation from outside, finding a Self of any sort can be a difficult proposition.
What’s needed is to find another human, one who has enough personhood to have a gaze you recognize as human but not so much that they challenge your mastery and freedom. Somebody to meaningfully recognize your subjectivity but not threaten you with their own. And for millennia, men had a ready being at hand. Women were already, in de Beauvoir’s analysis, “slaves to the species,” weighed down with the biological responsibilities of procreation to a degree that she held to be unique among the animal kingdom. Tied to the circular duties of gestation while men were free to develop linear projects that seized upon nature and bent it to their will, woman was an easy target for Othering, defined increasingly as a being of pure non-creative immanence to allow men to self-designate as transcendent creators. Even when woman was worshipped, it was men who set the terms and who did so in precisely the way that produced Apparent Honor while actually tightening the chains of immanence.
And then came property. Once men found that, in addition to benefiting subjectively from the adoring gaze of a diminished human, they could also push back the chill of death and reinforce their selfhood by owning property and passing it on to legitimate heirs. The game was finished for women. Paternity became key, and women a means of achieving it. What had been a matter of myth-making and loose cultural definitions became a matter of law. Women were a means to a materially-transmitted immortality and had thus to become property themselves. Rigid regulations were set up to ensure that the transfer of ownership from father to husband proceeded seamlessly, and that, once enclosed within the husband’s home, a woman was harshly limited in her interactions with the outside world. Even her place of relative equality in the home as a creator of clothes, keeper of gardens, and teacher of the young was denied her as man discovered that slaves could do much of that work more efficiently, and with the added benefit of making the wife more gratifyingly dependent on her husband’s attention and munificence.
Defined by myth and religion as a qualitatively different and even fundamentally grotesque Other, robbed of meaningful work, and legally treated as a purchasable womb on legs, woman had become a creature whose chance at self-actualization was slim going into classical antiquity and all but crushed in the march of Christianity’s neurotic hatred of the body and its pleasures. And while the economic relationship of private property is, in de Beauvoir’s accounting, a primary source of woman’s denigration, it is also in economics that she finds hope, in women entering the workforce and making authentic choices for themselves. Made philosophically aware by the insights of existentialism and psychology and economically independent by the relentless logic of capitalism shading into socialism, women might at last find out what it means to be something for themselves.
What a free woman might look like de Beauvoir can’t say. Defined as subject instead of Other and entering relationships based on mutual regard for personal freedom, there is no telling what she will choose for herself, but having that option to choose and form existential projects is the entire game as far as de Beauvoir is concerned. Critics from the left would take her to task for not defining a positive feminine alterity, for being too male in her approach to freedom and championing of aggressive selfhood as the only means towards authenticity. In France, the identity feminism of the 1970s either ignored her or warned against her. As with Freud, unreasonable demands were placed on her omniscience–sitting down at the end of the Second World War to figure out a historical accounting of woman’s creation, she didn’t also happen to anticipate the nuances of a women’s liberation movement that wouldn’t surface for another thirty years. How dare she not create 1980s feminism in 1949?
But if we choose to listen rather than attack, there is so much to be gained by looking back at de Beauvoir and her patient courage. As somebody who realized and spelled out the danger of defining others into helplessness, she was reluctant to create new paradigms of womanhood that might in their time grow just as constrictive as those overthrown. In the face of philosophical systems that wanted to categorize and essentialize, her willingness to let the future unfold free of encumbrance was courageous, and a new wave of feminism has taken its cue from that boldness to forego definition in favor of choice, to the good of all.
Her first novel had made her famous, The Second Sex made her infamous, and the next decades solidified her as one of the world’s most famous woman voices. Her memoirs were best-sellers that threw a light on the exhilarations and frustrations of attempting to lead an existentially committed life in a world that embraces inauthenticity. Those were exciting, lonely years, when she wept openly in despair at the absurdity of life, drank heavily, and threw herself into a series of relationships with men and women that interfered maddeningly with her work but that she needed to fend off the solitude and dread of certain mortality. In the 1970s, she joined the feminist movement formally, having until then put her faith in economic progress to save women from their Otherness rather than concerted political action, and she was an important voice in that movement until her death in 1986, warning of the temptations of erecting new universals, of declaring, “that woman has a particular closeness to the earth, that she feels the rhythm of the moon, the ebb and flow of the tides… Or that she has more soul, or is less destructive by nature.”
Existentialism and determinism are uneasy allies, sharing similar concerns about the power of metaphysics to twist humans into caricatures of themselves, one while calling for freedom and the other for biology. But, positions about free will notwithstanding, both love honesty and both refuse comfort that comes at the expense of other living beings, and combining elements of the two in the name of untangling half of humanity was a powerful move in the history of philosophy, one we might undervalue from time to time, but will never stop benefiting from.
FURTHER READING: The Second Sex is essential, but beware: not all editions are equal. The Parshley translation you probably have on the shelf was a rushed and severely edited version, but was what we had until the Borde/Malovany-Chevallier edition of 2012. Meanwhile, as to books about de Beauvoir, the two to have are Deirdre Bair’s 1990 Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, which features important material from Bair’s interviews of de Beauvoir and her circle; and Toril Moi’s Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, which is less a biography and more a set of literary analyses book-ended by bits of selected biographical episodes. Bair for biography, Moi for philosophy—take your pick, or choose both, and that way when you want one book about de Beauvoir, you’ll have two!