Acertain mythology surrounds Simone de Beauvoir. It presents her to the world as an independent thinker, a spokesperson for women and an advocate of freedom.
In truth, the French existentialist, who lived from 1908 to '86, is none of these. The core of her philosophy is derived from the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre; she does not, by any means, speak for all women. And the range of freedom she endorses does not include, among other things, the freedom to marry and raise one's own children.
Sartre's existential philosophy provides the axial skeleton of de Beauvoir's 1949 book The Second Sex. When she announces in her introduction that “our perspective is that of existentialist ethics,” she is referring to the philosophy Sartre expresses in 1943's Being and Nothingness. Whereas Sartre employs “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself” as his fundamental philosophical categories, de Beauvoir prefers to use “immanence” and “transcendence.” “Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation,” she writes, “there is a degradation of existence into the en-soi [being-in-itself] – the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of liberty into constraint and contingency.”
If her treatise on woman had continued in this abstract vein, it would have been a replica of Being and Nothingness. What gives The Second Sex its readability and popular appeal is that the author relates “transcendence” (with its freedom, activity and indefin-ability) to men and “immanence” (with its constraints, immobility and objectness) to women.
In full agreement with Sartre, de Beauvoir maintains that human beings are, at their core, nothing. But this “nothing” is synonymous with their freedom and is the basis for their obligation to transcend themselves. Human beings, however, are loathe to accept the responsibility (and anguish) that rises from their nothingness. Hence, they attach themselves to some thing or to some role and live inauthentic lives, fearful of being themselves. When they choose this inauthenticity, they are guilty of “bad faith.” When such inauthenticity is imposed upon them, they are “oppressed.” “An existent is nothing other than what he does,” states de Beauvoir. “The possible does not extend beyond the real, essence does not precede existence: In pure subjectivity, the human being is not anything. He is measured by his acts.”
Biology as Oppressor
De Beauvoir contends, with unremitting energy throughout a long and tedious book, that the man is associated with transcendence while the woman is locked into immanence (as housewife, mother, domestic, etc.): “This is the lot of the woman in the patriarchate.” Men are at least partly responsible for women's immanence because they view them specifically as the Other. There is a certain inevitability in men regarding women as the Other (and hence, as the “second sex”), for de Beauvoir. She claims that “no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.”
Men enjoy transcendence. Woman are trapped in immanence. Therefore, man becomes the role model for the “modern” and “independent” woman. Thus, “the ‘modern’ woman accepts masculine values: She prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating – and on the same terms as men. Instead of seeking to disparage them, she declares herself their equal.” One might logically accuse de Beauvoir of providing a blueprint for “male sexism” rather than a guideline for the liberation of women.
ARCHITECTS OF THE CULTURE OF DEATH
Sixth in an occasional series
“The Second Sex,” William Barrett contends, “is in reality the protest against being feminine.” The protest is both unparalleled and unrelieved. “Maternity dooms woman to a sedentary existence,” she tells us, “and so it is natural that she remain at the hearth while man hunts, goes fishing and makes war.” Maternity is “one feminine function that is actually almost impossible to perform in complete liberty.” “Her whole body is a source of embarrassment.” “It seems to her to be sick; it is sick.” She is the victim of her “menstrual slavery.” Women who enjoy being mothers “are not so much mothers as fertile organisms, like fowls with high egg-production. And they seek eagerly to sacrifice their liberty of action to the functioning of their flesh.” The “pregnant woman feels the immanence of her body ... it turns upon itself in nausea and discomfort.” She is a degraded human being and a public laughingstock.
According to de Beauvoir, the pregnant woman is a degraded human being and a public laughingstock.
Political philosopher Jean BethkeElshtain has come to the conclusion that de Beauvoir suffered from the “pretense of one who believes she has found the worm in the apple when, in fact, she has lost the apple for the worm.” It was not that she threw the baby out with the bath water, but in confusing the two, decided to embrace the bath water.
De Beauvoir was not the “independent” thinker her misguided public assumed her to be. Nor did she speak for all women – certainly not those who valued their femininity. Much less was she an advocate of freedom, despite her posturing. She did speak of the importance of freedom in securing the “right” to abortion. She was the first president of Choisir (To Choose), a pro-choice, pro-abortion organization in France. She frequently allowed illegal abortions to be performed in her apartment when women had no other choice and was instrumental in bringing about the legalization of abortion in her country. Nonetheless, she was not pro-choice when it came to more life-connoting arrangements, such as women raising their own children in their own home. As she told Betty Friedan in a published interview: “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”
There is more than a touch of authoritarianism behind this remark. The “champion” of freedom would gladly, if she had the power, remove freedom from the lives of the vast majority of women. “As long as the family and the myth of the family and the myth of maternity and the maternal instinct are not destroyed,” she went on to say, “women will still be oppressed.”
At War With the World
De Beauvoir's writing continuously reflects her radical dichotomies: sanctity and intelligence, immanence and transcendence, in-itself and for-itself, Self and Other, biology and culture, men and women. Along with a tendency to see things simplistically in black and white, she also had a proclivity to pit these categories against each other. With regard to the ultimate category of life and death, she shows a disturbing inclination to champion the latter over the former. This is evident in her preference for abortion over mothers staying at home to raise their own progeny. It appears time and again throughout her novels. In The Second Sex she speaks of the warrior who enjoys his superior function as a killer, in contrast with the woman who is deprived of such glory:
“The worst curse that was laid upon woman was that she should be excluded from those warlike forays. For it is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.”
In stating that male killing is superior to female caring, de Beauvoir is prescribing a culture of death. “Why give pride of place to killing?” asks one startled feminist. For de Beauvoir, killing represents action and transcendence, which are superior to the modes of passivity and immanence.
De Beauvoir, unfortunately, remains trapped in her atheistic existentialism, in her abstract categories that do not reflect either reality or life, but the twin voids of Godlessness and human-lessness. If God does not exist, and man is essentially nothing, is there any possibility whatsoever that the conscious use of freedom alone, operating in this double vacuum, could produce anything at all, let alone anything of significance? All that could eventuate from such a sterile and powerless origin is tantamount to a culture of death. Madame de Beauvoir's philosophy inevitably places the culture of death on a higher plane than the culture of life because she believes that love and life are both uncreative and inert. Fortunately, enough of us know that she is dead wrong.
Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.