By: Ariadne Nichol
Inspiring the second-wave feminism movement in the 1960s, Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” captures the true extent to which women have been oppressed throughout history as a result of being categorized as the Other. Endeavoring to explain how this categorization has occurred, Simone de Beauvoir elucidates an evident duality in society: man represents the ‘Self,’ the essential, or the transcendent, and woman embodies the Other, the inessential, or the sex. Where does this dualistic nature of thought originate? To support her argument that “otherness is a fundamental category of man thought,” (The Second Sex, xvii) Simone de Beauvoir reaches back to the dark crevices of humankind’s origin myths in order to grasp this basic idea and bring it into the light for her readers to see.
Drawing on ancient creation myths and the Bible, Simone de Beauvoir shows how women are labeled as the Other by being viewed as secondary, less perfect beings in relation to men. In creation myths, like the ancient Greek story of Helios and Semele, the sun and the moon were usually personified as a male god and a female goddess, respectively, with the female figure representing darkness. In Genesis, Adam and Eve reside in the Garden of Eden until Eve eats the forbidden fruit, implying an association between women and evil. Women in these stories embody a dark, sinful side of being. Another example presenting the Other as the half of being that transgresses or goes astray is the Ancient Greek myth of Pandora. According to the story, Pandora is the first woman on earth. Zeus, the ruling god, gives her a sealed jar containing all the evils of the world for safekeeping. Yet, Pandora opens the jar when she gives in to her own unrelenting curiosity. As a result, evil spills out into the world and Zeus blames Pandora for it. In this myth, the woman is portrayed as she who gives in to weakness and is responsible for bringing evil into the world. By using literary evidence, Simone de Beauvoir establishes the perceived role of inferiority into which men have cast women throughout history by defining that Other as the darker, inferior side of humanity.
Her work then focuses on the struggle women face in liberating themselves economically, politically, and sexually from the status of Other. Given the mistrust of women in the cultural imagination, the liberation of women is a difficult undertaking. Simone de Beauvoir believes a woman should embrace her identity as both a woman and as a human being. The concept of women and men being equal, while still different, was revolutionary in terms of the history of feminist theory. In spite of this, many women still believe they must act like men in order to gain a position of influence in the public sphere. For example, women in politics tend to wear pantsuits and act tough so that men will take them seriously. Simone de Beauvoir firmly rejects the notion that women must emulate men in order to be treated as equals or to be in a position of power because she believes that the biological difference between men and women must be acknowledged: “Women simply are not men” (The Second Sex, xiv). She discourages women, especially feminists, from getting caught up in this abstract notion that women are human beings and therefore are not women.
However, she also discourages women from embracing their status as the Other in society and remaining complacent towards men. Continuing the example of women in politics, some female interns use their status as the sex or the Other to have men assist them in reaching their goals by sleeping with powerful politicians. There are countless stories wherein a woman aspires to a smaller goal than a man normally would and then uses her stereotypical role as a sexual object to have a man in power make her goal become a reality for her. In a less extreme way, a woman, by acting infantile, has a man take pity on her and ease her path towards relative success because it makes him feel like an essential or a positive being, since he is making a difference in her life. Simone de Beauvoir condemns women who remain attached to the benefits of being inferior to men because they do not have responsibility for their own lives and futures: “It is an easy road; on it one avoids the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence… Woman may fail to lay claim to the status of subject because… she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other” (The Second Sex, xxi). Women must resist the temptation to remain inferior by acting docile, complacent, or infantile.
Nonetheless, Simone de Beauvoir does not blame women for wanting to act in this manner. She places the blame on men because they are the ones who perpetuate this culture of Other. Men are the ones who rule in society. Look at our government and our businesses of today, and it is clear that men hold the positions of authority in overwhelming numbers. Therefore, women cannot possibly be held responsible for their actions because currently women are still inferior to men: “Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities” (The Second Sex, xxiv). Women have limited options available to them in their capacity to change the current structure of society. It is up to men to give women a place in the public sphere. Yet, Simone de Beauvoir makes it clear that is up to women to have something to contribute to the public sphere when that time comes for them to sit at the table with men.
Consequently, she calls on women to embrace their sexual difference and for men to give women access to the political rights and the economic opportunities they deserve. This two-fold process towards liberation for women is outlined in her final chapter on “The Independent Woman,” where she claims that women must seize their own liberation through enlightenment and be recognized in the public sphere as human beings distinct from men but equal to them. Only by embracing their differences will men and women create a state of equality and respect for both sexes: “by and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” (The Second Sex, 732).
This idea of brotherhood seems to be a resounding tenet of Simone de Beauvior’s idea of freedom. She references Heidegger’s word Mitsein, being as being-with others, many times throughout “The Second Sex” in an attempt to show the interconnectedness between men and women within which two distinct, intertwined experiences exist: “Male and female stand opposed with a primordial Mitsein… the couple is a fundamental unity” (The Second Sex, xix). As a result of the unifying concept of Mitsein, women liberating themselves enables others’ freedom: “To will oneself free is also to will others free” (Ethics of Ambiguity, 47). Simone de Beauvoir truly believes that through the liberation of women, men will also be liberated: “He would be liberated himself in their liberation” (The Second Sex, 720).
Simone’s de Beauvoir’s view on the necessary process of women’s liberation reflects the ideas she presents for both men and women more generally in her essay “Personal Freedom and Others.” In this essay she presents freedom as a state that can be achieved through enlightenment. As children find themselves “cast into a universe which [they] ha[ve] not helped to establish”, they realize their negative being and begin to question their perspective of the world (Ethics of Ambiguity, 39). By questioning their world, they realize their potential to become enlightened. And though they will never reach a state of enlightenment, they continuously engage with their own subjectivity in a lifelong struggle for enlightenment.
According to de Beauvoir’s analysis, women are currently still similar to children by being subject to a universe they did not create. Women only participate in a societal structure that men have forced upon them: “[Women] can exercise their freedom, but only within this universe which has been set up before them, without them… they can only submit to the law, the gods, the customs, and the truths created by males” (Ethics of Ambiguity, 37). Women therefore must find their own existence in the world by occupying a negative space in order for them to find their own individual human capacity: “To exist is to make oneself a lack of being; it is to cast oneself into the world” (42). However, Simone de Beauvoir differentiates women from children because women act complacent in relation to the world man has given them: “The child’s situation is imposed upon him, whereas the woman (I mean the western woman of today) chooses it or at least consents to it,” (Ethics of Ambiguity, 38). Finding solidarity in their oppression, women should come together to help liberate each other. In liberating each other, women can then gain their deserved freedom.
Simone de Beauvior understands freedom for women as willing themselves free by finding solidarity in others and resisting the temptation to remain ignorant of the possibility of their own liberation. She also grasps the complexity that arises in attempting to answer why women are continually held in a state of oppression by men: “the constraints that surround her and the whole tradition that weighs her down prevent her from feeling responsible for the universe,” (“The Second Sex, 713). Women are torn between embracing the role of the Other and becoming independent, free thinking women.
A woman who exemplifies this conflict is Maggie Tuliver, a character in George Eliot’s novel “The Mill on the Floss.” The novel was adapted into a BBC series, which brings to life Maggie’s story. Growing up in a debt ridden, upper-class family in the English countryside, Maggie struggles between becoming an autonomous individual and surrendering to the role of Other that society demands of her. In the beginning of the series, an old farmworker insightfully remarks how Maggie “has as much spirit as her brother,” subliminally referencing how men and women start out as equally capable individuals and are conditioned through their environment and upbringing to divide into two separate roles of the sexes (“The Mill on the Floss”).
Throughout her childhood, Maggie’s relatives try to force her into the role of the Other, as a docile inferior to man, by limiting her access to education and constantly dictating what she wears and how she acts. This pressure drives Maggie to reject the role of the Other and gain her independence. For example, in one scene Maggie passionately grabs scissors and chops off her hair, after her aunt tells her that she must brush it immediately because it looks so terrible. This fiery independence that Maggie demonstrates from a young age then makes her intimidating to many men, one of whom says, “She’s much too fiery for me, not my type of woman at all” (“The Mill on the Floss”). In addition, men look down upon her self-cultivated knowledge that she has gained by secretly reading her father’s books: “It is not good for her, the woman has no business being clever” (“The Mill on the Floss”). In one scene, Maggie visits her brother Thomas at his boarding school and asks him to teach her some Latin, and he responds, “Girls are never made to learn Latin, they’re too silly” (“The Mill on the Floss”). Maggie overcomes this oppressive view held by her brother and society by liberating herself through knowledge. Her discovery of freedom of thought enables Maggie to realize her own potential agency.
Simone de Beauvoir firmly believes the solution for women to fulfill their true potential is to find liberty: “what woman needs first of all is to undertake, in anguish and pride, her apprenticeship in abandonment and transcendence: that is, in liberty” (The Second Sex, 711). Maggie achieved this liberation by utilizing knowledge to free herself from the restraints society placed upon her. By finding their subjectivity, women can then participate in the public sphere with men, and not as the Other. Simone de Beauvoir calls on every individual in our society, male and female, to help make freedom a reality for all human beings.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. [1st American ed.] New York: Knopf, 1953.
de Beauvoir, Simone and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Citadel Press, 1976
Bergoffen, Debra, “Simone de Beauvoir”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/beauvoir/
Wheeler, Michael, “Martin Heidegger”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/heidegger/
Wilson, Ronald, et al. The Mill On the Floss. [England]: BBC Video , 2006.