Political Philosophy Part 2


Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986)


                                                                                                                                                                   Updated March 2010.


                                                                                                                                                                   Links: Imagining Other Homepage


                                                                                                                                                                             Political Philosophy Contents Page    

For other aspects of feminism, see:


Notes on feminism        Feminism: extracts (a small selection of quotes)          Feminism: statistics on inequality


Feminism and Postmodernism (not completed yet…)  Feminism Today (miscellaneous notes on various topics, taken from the press etc).     


The Women's Movement (a historical account of the activities of women in the movement for liberation).




A. Introduction – life and works

B. de Beauvoir’s philosophy:

          1. #what is a woman? How does one become a woman?

          2. #existentialism - being and becoming - "along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forego

                   liberty and become a thing" - "transcendence" and authenticity

          3. #rejection of the argument that biology, or economics, or psychology, determine people's lives/identities

          4. woman as #other - sense of "other-ness" fundamental to human existence, but need not prevent authenticity

          5. from early times, men have appropriated those activities which allowed #transcendence and allocated women to activities which did not allow it

          6. #the solution: women must become subjects "through exploits or projects that serve as a model for transcendence"

          7. #comments on de Beauvoir's viewpoint.


A. Introduction: brief summary, and sources for more information on her life and works:


Simone de Beauvoir was born in Paris on Jan 9th 1908. She graduated in philosophy at the Sorbonne, coming second in the class to Jean-Paul Sartre. Her first novel was l’Invitee, published in 1943. The Second Sex caused a scandal when it was first published in 1949; it sold 22,000 copies in the first few weeks. In 1954 she won the Prix Goncourt for her novel The Mandarins. She was the lifelong companion (though both had other relationships) of Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous existentialist philosopher. There is much discussion on her influence on him and on his thinking (it must not be assumed the influence was all from Sartre to de Beauvoir!).


In the 1970s she organised pro-abortion demonstrations, was president of the Ligue Francaise pour le droit des femmes, founded a feminist newspaper Nouvelles feminism (sic, according to Maggie Humm 1992), and journal of feminist theory Questions feministes. 


She made ‘careful distinctions between sex and gender’ (Humm 1992) and ‘her claim that women’s social functions are interdependent with our maternal and natural functions but not dependent on biological gives had an enormous impact on later writers’ (e.g. Betty Friedan, Shulamith Firestone, Nancy Chodorow, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Susan Griffin).


Other works:

The Ethics of Ambiguity 1947 – an accessible introduction to existentialism

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter 1958

Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre 1981 – she was buried alongside Sartre in Montparnasse Cemetery in 1986.


‘She lived her life as a project…’ said the philosopher Kate Soper.


Sadly, much that is written about de Beauvoir has to do with details of her relationship with Sartre, and is often prurient. However, as Bea Campbell says: she ‘exemplifies the emergence of a revolutionary idea: that women’s subjectivity and their subordination was neither natural nor fixed, but the creation of social structures in which gender was invented, reinvented and polarized. De Beauvoir gives to our political thinking the idea that woman is not born she is made, as a relationship of service and subordination.’


Agnes Poirier has a piece at on the centenary of de Beauvoir’s birth.


Lisa Appignanesi says: ‘she put woman’s body and experience at the very centre of the way we think about the world. [Her books] underline the importance of self-invention’.  


There is an interview – never broadcast, because Radio Canada censored it, under pressure from the Archbishop of Montreal – made on Nov 13th in 1959, in which she discusses marriage as prostitution, God as an ‘alibi’, women in the workplace, war in Algeria and concentration camps in the Soviet Union. Go to: (according to Diary in Guardian).


There are university of Michigan notes, by Stephen Darwall, on de Beauvoir at:


See also: for an article by Toril Moi on The Second Sex.


NB Pashley’s original translation – the only available – is faulty: 15% of the text (300 pages) is missing, including portrayals of fifty leading French women, who have demonstrated that women can achieve as much as men. There are philosophical errors in the translation, but Random House have just commissioned a new translation.


‘The free woman is just being born’ de Beauvoir declares.


B. Outline of De Beauvoir’s philosophy, as in The Second Sex:


1. What is a woman?


‘Women are different’ – how? Note that we wouldn’t ask ‘what is a man?’ And, while it is common to say: ‘you only say that because you are a woman’, we wouldn’t say: ‘You only say that because you are a man…’


In other words, masculine and feminine are not symmetrical – note how historically women have been defined in relation to men: Aristotle – that women lack something, St Thomas – that women are imperfect. This is similar to Virginia Woolf’s account of women as a ‘mirror’ to men. (See Feminism: extracts).


So we can see that, as things stand, ‘man is the universal, woman the particular…’ ‘He’ is the Subject, the Absolute, the One – She is ‘the other’… (see below). She also shows how dualisms (culture/nature, production/reproduction) have been created which keep women in an inferior position. (Humm 1992)


Women’s biology is used against them – they are trapped by ‘menstruation and maternity’. Women they are therefore faced with the ‘choice’ of being trapped in ‘femininity’ or ‘being obliged to masquerade as an abstract genderless subject.’


‘Identity is an effect of choices and actions in specific situations.’ This is an existentialist approach – though Maggie Humm also notes the possible influence of situationism. One is not born a woman (despite the biological characteristics of women). One becomes a woman – how does this happen?


The question then is: why are women a subordinated other? Perhaps this is because women have never formed a ‘collective’ (as has the ‘working class’ for example). Women don’t talk of themselves as ‘we’, have no past, no solidarity of work etc.


2. Existentialism (see Notes on existentialism):


As noted, Simone de Beauvoir seems to me, in The Second Sex, to base her ideas on existentialism. The basic starting point of this philosophy, as Sartre set it out, is that humans have an ‘existence’ before they have an ‘identity’ (or ‘essence’ or ‘nature’). “Existence precedes essence”. The fact that we are born without any pre-determined ‘nature’ means that living is a process of becoming. And we are (in theory at least) free to choose what we want to become. That is, although there are bound to be physical obstacles to certain choices, there is nothing in our nature as humans that determines that we must become any particular kind of being. “… there is no justification for the present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future.”


However, “along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forego liberty and become a thing." In fact existentialists constantly stress the angst – anxiety, pain – of being ‘thrown into existence’: we do not choose to be born, but once here we are forced to choose almost everything about our lives. Unless we are going to sink into a kind of object-like existence, we have no choice but to try to “transcend” our situation.


If we refuse to do this, and if we make excuses such as “I had to become X because of my family background” we are being “inauthentic”.


Many people will do whatever they can to avoid the strain of “authenticity” – by denying they have a choice, or by attributing their lack of choice to outside factors. This seems to make life easy – but is it worthy of respect? Is it making the most of life? Existentialists would call it “bad faith” (mauvaise foi).


The importance of this to de Beauvoir, in her examination of the relationship of woman to man, is that this relationship is traditionally one of dependence; and this also ‘easy’ in the sense that it avoids the risks associated with economic and personal freedom. It is also (some would add!) understandable, given the pressures that a male-dominated society exerts over women. When women do strive to liberate themselves, men will either try to make them get ‘back into the home’ or will grant them ‘equality in difference.’ 


3. The rejection of Marxist and Freudian theories:


De Beauvoir rejects the argument that biology, or economics, or psychology, determine people's lives/identities – however, the woman’s body does act as a burdenher sex is at war with her existence as a person… She believes that this need not always be the case, as humans are “for ever in a state of change, for ever becoming”. Biology (and science generally) has meaning in a social context – and science, psychology, even economics, have been permeated with the assumption that women are inferior.


With regard to economics – although Engels identifies women’s original exclusion from property-ownership as at the origins of patriarchy, even he does not explain how this came about historically.


With regard to psychology, and Freud, she is also critical: you cannot ‘reduce’ the individual to e.g. sex drives – again these get their meaning in a social context and in the context of human activity. Freud is too ready to see biological drives as determining our behaviour. (On the other hand, some feminists would say that de Beauvoir underestimates the power of the subconscious, an insight that is central to Freud). However, (existentialist) psychology does tell us the subject is anxious when faced with freedom. We therefore need to study ‘women’ in “an existential perspective with due regard to her total situation.”


4. Woman as "other":


A sense of "other-ness" is fundamental to human existence, ‘as primordial as consciousness itself’ ‘a fundamental category of human thought’ (she says). ‘In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes…’ Pairs such as Sun-Moon, Day-Night, Uranus-Zeus, right and left, God and Lucifer had nothing to do with a male/female distinction.


In words which are (at first glance!) similar to Sartre’s ideas (I am thinking of Huis Clos, where three people are trapped in a room for eternity – soon, when they find that they cannot be honest and open with each other, and each has a guilty secret, but that they also need each others’ approval, then ‘hell is other people’) she says: ‘If three travellers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile ‘others’ out of all the rest of the passengers on the train.’ ‘… to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists…’ ‘Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other.


There are also important links to be made with the ideas of Hegel: the conscious subject can be posed only in being opposed, and more recently Levi Strauss used the concept, and ‘structuralism’ is built on it. (See Notes on Hegel and Marx, and Notes on Structuralism and Postmodernism [latter not completed yet] ) 


On a personal note, of course, these ideas are close to my heart, and these notes are ‘imagining other’… See: ‘imagining other'


5. "Transcendence":


Simone de Beauvoir’s own account of how ‘civilization as a whole [has produced] this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine’ goes along these lines: from early times, men have appropriated those activities which allowed "transcendence", and they have allocated women to activities which did not allow it. Among early humans: men controlled tools, and hunting and risked their lives (in hunting and war) whilst women were tied to reproduction and the maintenance of children. My impression of her argument is that this happened ‘naturally’ – based on biological characteristics – but became fixed; and of course once trapped in a role which in itself prevented ‘transcendence’ women were destined to stay in this role for centuries.


She therefore compares women’s experience with that of children: their world is ‘given’, and they are not able to imagine another one.


Broadening out beyond the question of male-female relationships, de Beauvoir analyses different stances taken by men in regard to the possibility of transcendence: she says that sometimes men can exist in a state of ‘infantilism’, allowing themselves to become ‘sub-men’ e.g. in a lynch-mob. Others are (too) ‘serious’ i.e. they accept their role and don’t question it – their enthusiasms are ‘things detached from themselves’. Another kind of person is (too) ‘passionate’ – they “take the object of their enthusiasms to have an absolute value” ignoring the ultimately subjective nature of their passions. In doing this they may trample on the subjectivity of others. A fully free person recognises each person’s subjectivity – “Only the freedom of others can keep each one of us from hardening in the absurdity of facticity”. “To will oneself free is also to will others free.” [Notes from S Darwall website].


6. Simone de Beauvoir’s solution:


Women must become subjects "through exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence."  This is clearly a plea for women to be no longer excluded from ‘productive’ areas of life – and Maggie Humm (1992) says that this puts de Beauvoir in the ‘first wave’ of feminism. My impression is that the idea goes further, since (i) we can transcend our objectivity in many ways – creative arts, politics, writing and philosophy for example – and (ii) above all, since it is ‘Only the intervention of someone else [that] can establish an individual as an Other’, then what must change is the attitude of men towards women, the deeply-rooted assumptions that she describes that go through philosophy, politics, social policies, and even science.


On this last point, for an account of the patriarchal origins and nature of science, I recommend the books by Brian Easlea: Witch-Hunting Magic and the New Philosophy especially. (I hope to write more on this in notes on The Enlightenment).



7. Comments on de Beauvoir's viewpoint:


Some have criticised de Beauvoir for a too negative stance in regard to the (female) body. Given what modern technology can achieve, in birth-control, artificial fertilization and abortion, some feminists have argued that men need have less importance in reproduction, or conversely that they can have more of a role in childcare. Is de Beauvoir herself in danger of ‘biological determinism’ with her emphasis on ‘menstruation and maternity’? 


Some (not necessarily feminists!) might ask: is a woman’s social and familial role not one that enables ‘transcendence’? There is of course endless debate to be had on the issue of the ‘best’ way of parenting, whether children need both a mother and a father – and it has to be said that the hostility to the traditional nuclear family that some feminists expressed may have led to a neglect of the needs of the child.


Finally there is the question: must women ‘transcend’ in the same way that men have (hunting, war, work)? If this is what de Beauvoir means, then she is – says Maggie Humm – in the first wave of feminism. Moreover, societies where women have been expected to do the same as men – the Soviet Union for example – have not succeeded in emancipating women: many women simply ended up with ‘two jobs’, one in and one outside the house!