Friday, 20 August 2004

An Appreciation of Simone De Beauvoir's "The Second Sex"

An Introduction: 

The twentieth century has been particularly rich in writings which have disseminated ideas, both old and new, with far-reaching consequences. The century has also witnessed the emergence of many movements which have championed the emancipation of the under-privileged, subjugated classes. One such movement is Feminism which, in spite of its branching off into sub-ideological splinter groups, inspired several women writers who are pioneers in their own right. One of these is Simone de Beauvoir, the woman from France, who created quite a stir with her seminal book, The Second Sex, from which this piece is excerpted.

She belonged to the first generation of European women who received formal education on par with men. In 1929, while studying at the Sorbonne, she became the ninth woman in France to pass the prestigious “aggregation” examination in philosophy, coming second only to Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the greatest philosophers of the present century and the exponent of Existentialism. For Beauvoir critical encounter with Sartre, whose proposal for marriage she refused but whom she visited daily until his death in 1980, was a rewarding experience and she adored him. She said of him: “It was the first time in my life that I felt intellectually inferior to anyone else”.

The book, The Second Sex, deals with the oppression of women who live under patriarchal power structure. A woman is not born but is made by society whose institutions are patriarchal in character. The woman is made to realize that she is the “other” in relation to man. Through prolonged indoctrination, the woman from childhood onwards is made to identify herself with the patriarchal image imposed upon her. No wonder the book disturbed male psyche. It was greeted with outrage when first published in France in 1949. The Vatican proscribed the book and Albert Camus was angry with Beauvoir for making the French male look absolutely ridiculous. However that may be, it is arguably one of the overwhelmingly great books of our times.

Besides political and philosophical works, Beauvoir also wrote novels and edited a journal (Modern Times) with Sartre. Her four volumes of autobiography, which she wrote between 1958 and 1972, throw additional light on her personality. She died in 1986 at the age of 78.

An Appreciation:

Beauvoir contends that women, throughout history, have been marginalized. She is of the firm view that if one needs to change the world one has to be firmly anchored in it. But unfortunately even those women who seem to be firmly rooted in society are not free from subjugation. Besides, an extraordinary woman is held to be a monster. Only accidentally have a few women been able to prove themselves as capable as men and this is evidenced by the lives  of such personalities as Rosa Luxemburg or Marie Curie. Beauvoir argues that it is not that the women are inferior as such but they have been treated so all through history and this explains the reason why women, in history, have been represented as insignificant creatures.

Beauvoir cites the example from the realm of culture to establish her argument. In the fields of arts and letters, which lie at the root of culture, woman has been glorified. From the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, one sees the spectacle of woman being praised. She inspired poets, artists and others, who drew sustenance from a feminine referential frame which stimulated their inspiration and sharpened their ethical sensibilities. Woman became the centre of man’s world and this led her to achieve education which Beauvoir regards as “feminine conquest”. However, though a few women may have won certain privileges for themselves, the lot of the average woman has been a tale of suppression. This is because women did not actively engage themselves in various walks of life though they may have been glorified in art and literature. Paradoxically, art and literature, Beauvoir argues, are rooted in action. If women are always found to be on the margin of history, “how can they create anything new?” asks Simone de Beauvoir. When women are collectively suppressed, it is impossible for them to rise individually. Beauvoir reiterates that it is necessary for women to be rooted in history. Drawing a parallel between woman’s growth and genius, Beauvoir says that just as genius is achieved so is her freedom attained. But, unfortunately, the condition in which she finds herself is such that she is not able to achieve freedom.

The anti-feminists interpreting history, argue that though women had opportunities to develop their personalities they had not created anything extraordinary. Beauvoir refutes this argument. A few examples of successful women cannot be cited for all the women to prove that they are not suppressed. In her defence, she cites the names of such authors as Mill, Stendhal and a few more who maintained that women had not been given a chance to prove themselves. It is because of this that women demand that they be given a new status which recognizes that they too are human beings.

The situation today seems to be favourable, says Beauvoir. However, one can’t deny the fact that the world and its institutions are still in the hands of men. Women are still denied many rights. For example (at the time of her writing), women were not allowed to vote in Switzerland (the right was granted in 1971). In France, the law of 1942 (subsequently revised in 1965) favoured husbands. True equality between men and women does not exist today, according to Beauvoir.

This is mainly due to the pressures of marriage.  A woman bears the main burden of marriage and its attendant problems, though the laws are a little easy on birth control and abortion. Women have to look after the household, bring up children, and, in France particularly, it is deemed beneath the dignity of men to help women in these chores.

Being a worker is not the easiest thing for any one and least of all for a woman, especially if work is so burdensome that it is no more than servitude. Work becomes a thankless drudgery as it brings to women no social dignity, freedom of behavior, or even economic independence. When right to work becomes a burdensome obligation, marriage seems to be the only way out. But with increasing self-awareness and the knowledge that the job could free her from marriage, a woman is no longer willing to submit herself to domestic drudgery. Ideally a woman would prefer a reconciliation between her job and her family life that is not too demanding for her. To be able to achieve this calls for a great moral effort on the part of woman as there is always a temptation to submit to a convenient solution – “to sell herself to one of these privileged men.” The temptation is a dangerous obstacle because marriage is a kind of lottery where there will be only one winner out of thousands.

- Notes by Dr.V.Rajagopalan, MCC

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