I have always considered myself a well-versed feminist. I have read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics.” I point out toxic masculinity when I see fit, empower women as my go-to hobby and, the cherry on top, I am a Women’s Studies major.
But no feminist text or practice could prepare my modern-day feminist brain for Simone De Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”: A psychoanalytic-existential hybrid that evaluates every angle of the female experience and humanity’s placement of women in relation to men.
Beauvoir’s feminist prose doesn’t just “go off,” it goes in — into the depths of the reader’s hard drive to rewire our preconceived notions of marriage, sex, menstruation and so forth. “The Second Sex” is the feminist encyclopedia that encompasses psychology, philosophy, biology, literature, law, traditions and ethics.
On a surface level Beauvoir’s standout progressive proposals, like her praise of open sexual relationships as the key to free love, may seem extreme to readers; however, Beauvoir may be playing with deeper psychological and social truths that many are not ready to admit because it’s not always easy. It’s not always easy to understand that marriage may be an oppressive institution that diminishes love or that women are confined to inferiority and men superiority.
On the other
Today I see physical signs of progress for women as they march through the streets equipped with signs demanding their liberation, computers across campus are adorned with “GRL PWR” stickers. And yet, women today are largely underrepresented, underpaid and without equal rights or authority to that of men. Beauvoir’s reasoning for this is as follows: “women have never formed an autonomous and closed society; they are integrated into the group governed by males, where they occupy a subordinate position.” Through man’s work and achievement he can progress further into the world while a “woman’s own successes are in contradiction with her femininity.” Women can bind together to create a “counter-universe” but they still cannot avoid the masculine universe by which they are forced to frame it. Beauvoir describes this as the paradox of the female situation: “Women belong both to the male world and to a sphere in which this world is challenged; enclosed in this sphere involved in the male world, they cannot peacefully establish themselves anywhere.” And these spheres grow tighter and tighter within marginalized groups of women based on sexual orientation, race or otherwise.
Beauvoir describes the feminist urgency to eradicate the patriarchy as “halfway between revolt and slavery.” We see the light at the end of the tunnel to women’s liberation but we lack the means to get there because we are the Other. Men today may include women and call us their “peer” but only as long as we remain “inessential,” as Beauvoir writes. For centuries women have been marginalized, silenced and othered by the masculine code society abides by.
And yet, as a woman of today, I am still othered. I am othered as soon as I step out into the world and am hit with the starving eyes of men or even worse derogatory “catcalls” that single me out in the street, making me aware that I am different. I become an object of desire. I am othered when I am told to cross my legs or cover my shoulders, while the boy sitting next to me in lecture spreads his legs wide apart without assessment of his body from the outside world. I am othered when people anticipate my future as a mother or wife based on my gender instead of future employer or goal-setter. And as much as I feel I am othered as a woman today, my oppression doesn’t compare or even reflect that of women with different socioeconomic and/or racial status who are significantly more marginalized by society than myself.
On marriage and motherhood
Beauvoir casts off marriage as a mechanism that ruins love through the boredom of habituality, essentially diminishing the female’s individualized and free self. Beauvoir argues that because married women feel a deep sense of unfulfillment from her secondary place in public and private spheres she desperately turns toward motherhood to fill the abyss that is herself. The mother becomes devoted, enslaved by her vocation to the child only to be devastated when the child denies her throughout maturation. In Beauvoir’s words, “Maternity is a strange compromise of narcissism, altruism, dream, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and cynicism.”
These ideals of Beauvoir’s are most critiqued as absurd and outdated, but I find them to be brilliantly audacious and interrogative. I recognize my mother’s irrational outbursts of anger, affection and bitterness as results of my deviation from her overbearing grips. I cannot berate motherhood or marriage for other women, but we should scrutinize the idea that motherhood, and the roles we attach with it, are natural for women.
On the housewife
It may seem outdated when Beauvoir addresses the oppression of the housewife as so many women today are receiving educations equal or greater to that of men and dispensing themselves throughout the workforce. Yet, there remains a significant gap between men and women partaking in household affairs. Polls reveal that working men overwhelmingly desire full time jobs while women with the highest earning potential preferred part time work by a 51 to 19 percent margin. In 1985 it was surveyed that only 10 percent of women said that husbands should turn down good employment in another city so the wife could continue working. In 2014 a study on Harvard Business School graduates found that 40 percent of Gen X and boomer women said their spouse’s careers took precedence over theirs, and 70 percent of the men studied agreed. These studies reveal that women still hold the importance of their husband’s career above their own, and work at significantly lower rates to ensure time is retained for home centered duties. Despite how many hours a woman dedicates to her job, when she comes home, the majority of housekeeping and childcare are largely placed on the woman’s shoulders. This is a routine we may witness countless times in our life: Our mothers come home from work straight into the kitchen to clean and cook, while our fathers hang to the side letting gendered roles excuse their incompetence. This is not meant to say whether being a mother or housewife is good or bad, but rather to challenge and critique the way gendered roles influence women’s inferior place in society.
The economic and social inequality that favors privileged people isolate women on an island of inferiority that becomes an obstacle of her essence. A woman must first overcome the fact that she is a woman before she can move about in the world as a free agent. According to Beauvoir, “she needs to expand a greater moral effort than the male to choose the path of independence.” In bed, in kitchens, in workplaces: the woman still remains the Other, the secondary. Where and when can she be first and the only?