Simone du Beauvoir was born 100 years ago this week, on January 9, 1908, and so European media, in particular, is featuring articles about her life, most of which, based on my brief skimming, are of limited interest to those of us who are committed to the well-being of women, some of which are positively offensive and depressing. I wonder whether what we have to look forward to as radical feminists from now on is mainstream culture all the way to self-identified feminists rhetorically bludgeoning our feminist leaders and foremothers into oblivion. I promise you I will never be part of that. I hope there are a few besides me!
Anyway, I really liked Toril Moi’s essay of January 12 in the Guardian. Here are some excerpts:
Everyone who cares about freedom and justice for women should read The Second Sex. Long before Amartya Sen, Beauvoir argued that abstract freedom (the right to vote, for example) will make no difference to women who are deprived of health, education and money to avail themselves of such rights.
Beauvoir’s analysis of sexism is perhaps her most powerful theoretical contribution to feminism. In a sexist society, she argues, man is the universal and woman is the particular; he is the One, she is the Other. Women therefore regularly find themselves placed in a position where they are faced with the “choice” between being imprisoned in their femininity and being obliged to masquerade as an abstract genderless subject.
To explain what she means, Beauvoir gives an example. In the middle of an abstract conversation, a man once said to her that “you say that because you are a woman”. If she were to answer “I say it because it is true”, she writes, she would be eliminating her own subjectivity. But if she were to say “I say it because I am a woman”, she would be imprisoned in her gender. In the first case, she has to give up her own lived experience; in the second, she must renounce her claim to say something of general validity.
The anecdote warns us against believing that feminism must choose between equality and difference. As long as that “choice” takes place in a society that casts man as the One and woman as the Other, it is not a choice, but an insoluble dilemma.
Moi’s book, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, is being reissued this month by Oxford University Press. Moi is a brilliant feminist and has done fine work; if you were not familiar with her, now you are! 🙂