Beauvoir’s has been regarded by many as ‘surely the greatest feminist theorist of our time,’1and a ‘spiritual godmother to the woman’s movement. ‘2Fallaize extends his admiration further by stating, ‘Beauvoir’s influence has been so widespread that it is impossible to draw up an exhaustive list of feminists indebted to her work. ‘3 However, this extremely flattering image portrayed by various critics, ignores the fact that Beauvoir has been criticised as much as she has been complimented. Her work is considered by many as widely acknowledged but has not been extensively cited, especially in feminist terms.
Although Beauvoir had a great influence upon the early stages in progressive feminism in the post war era, her work is now dated and hotly debated. Beauvoir’s theories and political messages continue to be significant, even though critics try to overshadow this accomplishment with the view that her work was too closely intertwined with that of her partner and mentor, Jean-Paul Sartre. Beauvoir admitted borrowing and using many of Satire’s ideas and many critics have dismissed her work as basic plagiarism.
However, I’m of the opinion that they borrowed each other’s work and they both come to different conclusions. As a result of this strong connection, Satire must be considered when one attempts to outline and critically access a theorist. Sartre is renown for his existentialism, consciousness and his theory of humans being free in an absolute and radical manner4, meaning they are not restricted, free to move within controlled spheres, making themselves what they want to be to a certain extent, an example of this is the prisoner.
Many Critics continue to reiterate the idea that Beauvoir’s work is an application of the existential philosophy of Sartre’s work, concerning the woman’s situation. Diane Raymond states that the central thesis behind the idea that under patriarchy woman is the other, which she claims, is an extension of Sartre’s ‘phenomenology of interpersonal relationships,’ and its ‘dynamic of consciousness struggling against consciousness.
Also, Sonia Kruks the political philosopher, wrote that ‘the central claim of The Second Sex – ‘one is not born a woman but becomes one,’ presupposes Sartre’s argument that ‘existence precedes essence’: that human beings become what they are on the basis of no pre-given necessity or nature. ‘ The evidence certainly has a Sartrean influence, however, this is very likely because if their close relationship, as many are influenced most by those closet to you. Beauvoir herself claimed she had many influences, including Sartre, but also Henri Bergson, a dominant figure in French philosophy.
Many commentators consider Beauvoir’s writings as featuring a better structure and consistency than that of Sartre, even though he considered himself as her mentor, perhaps giving an ironic twist, the woman in reality, actually being better than the man. The relationship between Sartre and Beauvoir can appear troubling at times, as her absolute devotion to him was believed to be beyond reason, an example of this is when she persistently referred to herself as ‘Sartre’s disciple.
This perhaps portrays a feminist going against their morals and being dependent on a man, looking up to one, especially supported by the religious reference. Beauvoir appears to concur that others can present a risk and can objectify, yet her argument underlies this, as she also feels that life in seclusion would be worthless, as one point of life is our need for recognition from others to give a meaning and importance to ourselves and others. Many also bestow a sense of rationality and objectivity on our own behaviour.
People that do give us recognition have to be those whom we consider worthy of commenting on us, people of a mutual standing. This gives an indication of equality, materialistically and symbolically. Therefore, this theory tends to imply that we have to have more awareness of our social conditions, more so than Sartre. It enhances the possibility of one having collective freedoms and participates in numerous projects, an integral aspect of society, which is not as possible with Sartre’s theory. Beauvoir questions her mentor’s radical interpretation of freedom, in which he argues that even slaves and prisoners are free.
Beauvoir, primarily sets out to distinguish freedom and power, where she states slaves can be free in an ‘ontological’ sense6 as they can chose what they can do within their limited freedom, but they do not have the power to change their limitations. However, this theory is one of her earlier works, as in The second Sex she discards this distinction between power and freedom, later changing her view to, slaves are subjugated in some manner and are just less free. The Hegelian argument is intertwined with this view, as we cannot be free unless we have fulfilled our essential biological and material needs.
Following Hegel, she states that violence and oppression are actual elements of societies, with some being freer than other in past and present, an example of this was France as women could not vote till after the second world war. Beauvoir rejects many of Sartre’s concepts, particularly, the idea of humans being selfish, being in itself and only for itself. However, she argues that our existence is ambiguous, where we are neither pure consciousness nor a thing, taking a centre role between en soir and pour soir, but we are both to a certain degree.
In The Second Sex, this is explained as human transcendence being weighed against immanence, whereby the social environment shapes the balance between them. Another key aspect to this view is the body. The body is the foundation of consciousness, impulsive action and a source of who we are, for example, as a result of our bodies; we are susceptible to death, illness and the ability to be hurt by others. Although Beauvoir was recognised before second sex, this was the work, which established her as a political and philosophical leader. The roots of feminism and ‘gender studies’ were born in the 1940’s after this piece.
This statement, which is perhaps radical, is confirmed with her work on what it means to be a woman shaped the discussions. Critics such as Mauriac claimed the book to be pornography, with others labelling her as a ‘nymphomaniac’. However, her book was meant to be philosophical and political, not simply about sexuality. Her work has a central theme of the existential dilemma, but her perspective ranges from the historical to the autobiographical. Second Sex made the mainstream society aware of women’s rejection of the theories upon which her socialization and development were founded.
She focused on the injustices facing women, particularly those who faced a male dominated world. Her social criticisms vary from the effects of socialism on female stereotypes and the expected social norms to the injustice of gender roles and patriarchal psychological opinions on female development. She strongly criticises Freud as he seems to devaluate female development, suggesting women are sexually and socially inferior to men Her analysis is extensive, focusing on biology, history, socially, literature and every stage of critique of women’s lives.
Her work could be considered simplistic but was profound. Throughout history women have been reduced to objects by men, a woman being construed as man’s Other, denied personal subjectivity and responsibility. This quote illiterates her theory, ‘ Man represents both the positive and the neutral… whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity… humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as a relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.
She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her… He is the subject, he is the Absolute- she is the Other. ‘7 According to Beauvoir the woman never becomes the subject so cannot reach the necessary consciousness for emancipation. She argued the view of the woman, as the other is central of all social and political life, which was internalised by women who carry on acting out these roles. Otherness is therefore a mental element as well as institutional.
She disagreed with women’s complicity as either legitimating of patriarchy or as evidence of a female nature or essence, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. ‘8 The messages within her work are often ambiguous, with her writing often being contentious. She has also been accused of being mostly male-identified in her perception of desirable human characteristics, contrasting female passivity with many incomparable male elements. She appears to believe in universal disgust at the female body and to devaluate motherhood (Fallaize 1998).
In conclusion, Beauvoir’s relationship with the women’s movement is characterised by change over time and her contribution to social science and feminism is often fiercely contested. However, her work as benefited many, such as the influential feminist in the early stages of the movement in America, Betty Freidan, as she declared her gratitude to Beauvoir for helping her to appreciate women’s condition. This gratitude is also noticeable among many feminists in France.
Feminists in the seventies used her ideas to question cultural myths, particularly marriage, the economic dependency of married women, motherhood and the family and so on. However, for women in contemporary society, her work is criticised for her desire to model women on men, undervaluing women in preceding generation and her glamorisation of men. However, I feel her work provides a loose role model for many women, through her open relationship with Sartre and her rejection motherhood and marriage.
In addition, whilst Beauvoir’s idea’s may seem positive in the respect that she rejects the conventional role of women, it can be seen as negative in the respect that it is the oppressors (men) she turns to, to solve the issue of inequality. ‘Beauvoir provided women all over the world with a vision of change. This is what gives her essay such power and such a capacity to inspire its readers to action, and it is also the reason why The Second Sex remains the founding text for materialist feminism in the twentieth century. ‘9