English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, Chapters 10-11 (1949)

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Along with Betty Friedan's later book The Feminine Mystique, French author Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is among the most important feminist works yet written. This supplementary essay will provide a brief analysis of our (Fall 2002) reading selections from Chapters 10-11. Beauvoir is concerned at the outset to explain how male writers have generally dealt with the female characters in their works. The striking similarity among the major authors she discusses consists in their setting up "Woman" as an absolute Other--she becomes something by which men may define themselves. The problem with that male scheme, of course, is that the woman exists only as a man's destiny--there is no room within it for female self-discovery or appropriation of her own destiny. One is reminded of Milton's phrase in Paradise Lost describing the relationship between Adam and Eve: "He for God only, she for God in him." It is the Adams of the world, according to authors like Montherlant, Claudel, and company, who relate directly to the higher things, while the Eves participate in such higher things--if they do so at all--only through interaction with men. Beauvoir sees this kind of scheme as revealing men's underlying insecurity about their place in the world; she underscores the gap between men's world view and their "egotistical dreams." She is a handmaiden to male ideology and wish-fulfillment.

Beauvoir does not make her criticism a blanket one--it is hard to miss her real admiration for the texts of Stendhal, in which women are construed as free and equal human beings capable of engaging in reciprocal relations. Stendhal's ideal mistress helps him attain a unity of destiny that he would otherwise not be fully able to reach. Nonetheless, as class members pointed out, this pleasant-sounding state of affairs is still something constructed to suit the needs of Stendhal and his male characters; ultimately, in his work, too, woman has man for her destiny; she may not be a myth, but she is man's crucible for fulfillment and change.

What, then, is the "myth of woman" that Beauvoir wants to analyze and dispel? It is the lore of the Eternal Feminine--a term that most all of us have come across at one time or another. I think we are familiar with the standard qualities of this abstraction: women are said to be irrational, sensitive, more erotically inclined than men, passive and earthy while men are all intellect and action, and so forth. At the same time, the Eternal Woman may be considered an almost angelic being, above sexuality, kind, motherly, and so on. Whether women are spoken of and treated in a degrading or exalting manner, implies Beauvoir, the operation is the same: men have generalized from concrete relations with women and set up an empty, yet controlling, myth called Woman. Against this static benchmark men can then judge actual women living in the real world, and if the women do not conform to the set of abstractions judged proper, they are deemed wrongheaded, unwomanly, unnatural. Real relations between human beings must be reciprocal, but a relation between man and myth is vapid, with the man understanding himself as essential and active and the woman not being understood at all. She is not a creature subject to history and true intersubjectivity, but a walking Mystery. What we label a mystery, Beauvoir says, there is no need to understand or explain since it is an empty, false essence. The term "mystery," as applied to women, is a means for failing to perceive actual human beings in their everyday lived reality.

If to men this mysterious creature is so by nature, if she and her condition are thought to be purely natural, it follows that no changes ought to be made in the way actual women live. If they suffer and get the worst of every social bargain, it's only natural. Alexander Pope sums up this use of the term "Nature" in his verse, "Whatever is, is right." The point is not to change what is natural, but rather to accept it as a condition of existence. There may be some truth to the saying that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, but if that particular foxhole is occupied, "nature" makes a pretty good second choice.

Why have such relations between men and women held sway over many centuries? Because it is necessary to a male-centered social order. Beauvoir explains that once social relations "congeal" into a relatively stable hierarchy, with patrimony being distributed among the males, women must accept their passive, submissive lot--to bear the children, manage the household (the locus of a man's property) and generally serve the men. The setting up of the Myth of Woman generates ambivalence since, after all, a woman may be feared as a destroyer of patrimonial order as well as praised for her willingness to conserve that order. A woman may, for instance, be a saving "angel of the hearth" (in Coventry Patmore's Victorian poem) or the adulteress who scatters men's concentrated wealth, thereby injuring an economic order favorable to men.

To understand Beauvoir more precisely, it is necessary to see her views as flowing from Existentialist thought. For an existentialist, the most important thing is to understand that "essence does not precede existence." In sum, our actions define us, if indeed we want to use terms like "definition" with regard to human beings, as we really shouldn't. For Sartre, the concept of "choice" is fundamental--we choose what we do and thus who we are. Although that emphasis on choice invokes the subjective dimension of life, one must be careful to understand how Sartre deals with personal agency--at base, he rejects Cartesian dualism--we cannot just say that our intellect or some other "essence" is prior to and in control of our physical existence in the world, and thereby establish a false cause-effect relationship between mind and body. (Think of Nietzsche's critique of the phrase "lightning flashes"--there we see an abstraction, a noun, made to precede and cause the activity with which we associate it. The noun, in this way, is a false "essence" preceding "existence.") In Sartre's existentialism, the verb "exist" must be understood in light of its etymology: "exist" derives from the Latin prefix ex and the root sisto--to cause to stand, send, cause to appear, establish, etc. We make ourselves in the exercise of choosing, with the "us" not preceding the "making"; further, that "making" involves bodily action in the world and intersubjective contact with other human beings. When a man constrains a woman to suit his need to believe in the Eternal Woman, he sets up (or rather accepts the fiction that has already been created for him by his society) an Essence-of-Woman, an inessential Other that can then vacuously be used to judge everything she says and does.

To be solely what someone else has made you is to be nothing at all. As Beauvoir describes this state of affairs, men require that women be an absolute Other even to themselves, an empty Mystery without actuality, incapable of existing, incapable of exercising choice, in the way that men alone are permitted to do. Her example of the rich older woman and her young male "insignificant other" shows, of course, that this vapid mysteriousness is not really a function of gender; it has rather to do with inequality in social and sexual relations. What is needed, says Beauvoir on 999-1000, is an "authentic relation with an autonomous existent"--such relations would amount to true and dynamic reciprocity, with neither individual canceling or dominating the individuality of the other.

As we move towards understanding Beauvoir's hopes for future relations between men and women, perhaps some reference to Hegel's Master and Servant Dialectic would be appropriate here since feminist authors like Beauvoir and Judith Butler have found it useful for exploring inequality in gender relations. In the Phenomenology of Mind (1807), German Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel theorizes the development of consciousness from its earliest forms. (Note 1) As his history moves along, of course, Hegel must deal with the kinds of consciousness possible for the individual within the developing societal stages. One of these kinds is captured by the Master/Servant relation. The servant is constrained to labor and to produce for the master the things necessary for living. In the most obvious sense, the master has the better end of this struggle for recognition and dominance, since it is he who appropriates to himself the products of the servant's labor. What Homer calls "the good things that lie at hand" are, for the most part, lying in the master's household, waiting to be consumed for his satisfaction. But while the servant does not benefit much from the products of his labor, he develops a limited degree of independence, of self-awareness, through his relation to the objects and materials upon which he must work. That independence is something the master does not get from his relations with the servant and the worked-upon object. A translation of Hegel's language from Phenomenology of Spirit reveals the inadequacy of the master's self-consciousness:

Paragraph 191. ...[The Master or Lord] achieves his recognition through another consciousness....[The Master or Lord] is the pure, essential action in this relationship [with servant and objects], while the action of the bondsman is impure and unessential. But for recognition proper the moment is lacking, that what the lord does to the other he also does to himself, and what the bondsman does to himself he should also do to the other. The outcome is a recognition that is one-sided and unequal.

Paragraph 192. In this recognition the unessential consciousness is for the lord the object, which constitutes the truth of his certainty of himself. But it is clear that this object does not correspond to its Notion, but rather that the object in which the lord has achieved his lordship has in reality turned out to be something quite different from an independent consciousness. What now really confronts him is not an independent consciousness, but a dependent one. He is, therefore, not certain of being-for-self as the truth of himself. On the contrary, his truth in in reality the unessential consciousness and its unessential action.

Paragraph 193. The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness of the bondsman. This, it is true, appears at first outside of itself and not as the truth of self-consciousness. But just as lordship showed that its essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be, so too servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is; as a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness. (pages 116-17, A.V. Miller translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.)

Hegel's point is that in the far from acceptable relationship between master and servant, the potential for change and independence belongs not to the master but instead to the servant. It turns out that the master is in truth uncomprehending about the true basis of his dominant position, that he is dependent on the servant, and that the servant has a more accurate understanding of himself and his position. One produces one's independence and self-consciousness through work upon materials and objects that are to be crafted into useful things--a point that Marx, of course, will emphasize and amplify almost half a century after Hegel's Phenomenology was written. It is not hard to see how feminist writers might extrapolate from this Hegelian scheme about the development of independent consciousness.

We need not suppose that being dominated or oppressed is a good thing to see that the kind of unequal relationship Hegel describes contains the seeds of change within itself--it is in truth unstable and unsatisfying. One might say the same thing of relations between men and women in modern times. When Beauvoir calls for an "authentic relation with an autonomous existent," her term existent, a specifically existentialist term, implies that the social, political, and economic order must change so that men and women may relate to one another on an equal, mutual basis. As Beauvoir writes in 1949, the Second World War has ended not so long ago--a war that saw a large influx of women into the work forces of Europe and America simply from military necessity. It is difficult to sustain an idealistic view of women as homemakers and "inessential others" when you need them to turn out rivets for airplanes and bullets for machine guns. But as we know, thanks to our historical perspective, 1949 is just on the cusp of "the fifties," at least in America--a time when, despite tremendous growth in the economy and in US power around the world, domestic conformity and submission were imposed (or rather reimposed) to the point of maddening inanity for women, African Americans, and other groups who had always been seen as subordinate and inessential. If women didn't all simply go home from their factory and office jobs, they were at least expected to act as if they had done so. This cyclical phenomenon is what Susan Faludi refers to in her book Backlash: the Undeclared War against American Women (1991). (Note 2) her thesis is that whenever women seem to be making good progress, male opposition to that progress kicks in and we get a social, political, and economic backlash that threatens to drive women back to their earlier status, or perhaps worse. To see how Beauvoir responds to the continuing subordination of women, you would need to refer to the works she wrote after The Second Sex.

Note 1. See Summary of Hegel's Philosophy of Mind.

Note 2. See my Comments on Susan Faludi's Backlash. and Allison Miller's Feminist History Timeline.