Pondering Beauvoir

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”

I just read an interesting piece about a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s classic and influential feminist text, The Second Sex.

The article by Toril Moi provides some insight into the way so much nuance and meaning can be lost in translation. But I won’t discuss that in detail here.

What I want to share is the following excerpt which neatly summarises Beauvoir’s key contributions to feminist thought:

In The Second Sex Beauvoir formulates three principles and applies them to women’s situation in the world. First is her foundational insight that man ‘is the Subject, he is the Absolute: she is the Other.’ Man incarnates humanity; woman, by virtue of being female, deviates from the human norm. The consequence is that women constantly experience a painful conflict between their humanity and their femininity.

The next principle is that freedom, not happiness, must be used as the measuring stick to assess the situation of women. Beauvoir assumes that woman, like man, is a free consciousness. In so far as the status of Other is imposed on her, her situation is unjust and oppressive. But with freedom comes responsibility: when women consent to their own oppression and help to oppress other women, they are to be blamed. The epigraph to the second volume is ‘Half victims, half accomplices, like everyone else’, a line from Sartre’s 1948 play, Dirty Hands. But Beauvoir’s true yardstick is concrete freedom: institutions and practices are to be judged ‘from the point of view of the concrete opportunities they offer the individual’. Abstract equality (the right to vote, for example) is not enough: to turn freedom into reality, women must also have the health, education and money they need to make use of their rights.

Finally, there is the insight that women are not born but made, that every society has constructed a vast material, cultural and ideological apparatus dedicated to the fabrication of femininity. Throughout The Second Sex Beauvoir attacks ‘femininity’ in the sense of patriarchal or normative femininity. To her, a ‘feminine’ woman is one who accepts herself as Other; ‘femininity’ is the badge of the unfree. For women to be free, ‘femininity’ must disappear. Taken together, Beauvoir’s major insights are the foundation of modern feminism. Whether they acknowledge it or not, all contemporary feminists build on Beauvoir’s achievement.

[extract from Toril Moi’s discussion in the ‘London Review of Books’ of a new English translation of Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’.]

I have a yellowing paperback copy of The Second Sex that I once picked up somewhere for 2 bucks. I’m hesitant to admit that I’ve not read it. I mean, I wrote a thesis about generations of feminism (well, kinda) and I haven’t even read one of modern feminism’s founding works?! What a charlatan!

Well, I’m just glad that there are wonderful academics like Toril Moi out there, who can translate the translations for me. 🙂

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As a bit of a side note, I’m thinking of adding a section to this new blog of mine where I’ll post about a particular person (perhaps feminist) whom I think needs to be talked about more, or who has influenced my understanding of feminism and postfeminism. It could be called something like “feminist of the week”, but I’d prefer something catchier and broader, while still sticking to the “of the week” idea so that I’m forced against my procrastinatory will to write at least *one* post a week. Suggestions welcome.

Perhaps this entry can be the first in the series. Feminist of the week: Simone de Beauvoir

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