Simone de Beauvoir’s quote”Womanhood is a social construct” is one that came from her book, “The SecondSex” written in 1949. The book itself has had a lasting effect on our society, causing the questioning and critiquing of thepatriarchy and the causes for the inferiority ofwomen.
The use of phenomenology and feminist existentialism, even Jean-PaulSartre’s existentialism, provides a way of seeing women through embodied experiencesand as free agents. I firmly believe that phenomenology and feministexistentialism can provide a way of combatting the belief that womanhood issomething that is inherent in all women and therefore can liberate women byridding them of these attached preconceptions. Today, womanhood is not onlyseen as the condition of being a woman, rather, with the term comes falseideals and seemingly “natural” characteristics that come with being a woman,the most obvious example being of women as housewives. Of course today, we knowthat this is not always the case but I wish to argue that there is no suchthing as “womanhood” and that phenomenology and feminist existentialism showthis to be true. According to Beauvoir, the goal of liberation is the mutualrecognition of each other as free as the other; this would not be the case ifthere were fixed roles that either sex has toundertake. As well as Simone de Beauvoir, I would also like to look atJean-Paul Sartre and how their romantic and intellectual relationship shapedtheir respective philosophical theories; this is to highlight the importance oftheir work in tandem.
De Beauvoir combats the viewof womanhood being something that is inherent to all women by showing theorigins of male supremacy that established this view of women. De Beauvoirstates that it is “man’s world”1and that male supremacy is something that has been prehistorically engrained(she refers to the time of the Nomads) and that persistent inequality haselevated the male sex to superiority. Three main reasons can be identified asthe causes of male supremacy and this starts in the prehistoric times. Thefirst is that women have the “bondage of reproduction”2 thereforemaking them dependent on men for food and protection. Through pregnancy,childbirth and menstruation women are put at a disadvantage and this isexacerbated by the fact they are unable to fulfil their ability to work. Thelack of birth control meant that a pregnant woman would have her energy andtime absorbed; we see that women are able to reproduce but cannot create,unlike their male counterparts who create their futures with their freedom. LINK TO THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE. The second cause ofmale supremacy is that of domestic labours beingmerely functions.
These functions are only ever carried out by women andtherefore “imprisoned her in repetition and immanence”3. Toclarify, De Beauvoir uses the word “immanence” to describe a state in whichwomen are restricted, it contrasts freedom and transcendence. The “repetition”that Beauvoir speaks of has been perpetuated throughout centuries to such alarge extent that it has become “the norm”.
Finally, the early man’s activitywas usually dangerous, “it is not in giving life but in risking life that manis raised above the animal…superiority has been accorded in humanity not to thesex that brings forth but to that which kills”4. Itis this extra element of danger men had to face that made them worthy ofsuperiority. We see that the combination of these reasons put women at adisadvantage because it is a lot harder for women to fulfil theirself-realisation with such imposed restrictions.
Instead women are “submittedpassively to her biological fate”5. Suchproblems can still be seen today, in LEDCs women are still confined to theirbiological purposes and processes such as menstruation can be life threatening,as recently seen in Nepal where a teenage girl died of a snake bite afterhaving been banished to a period shed6. De Beauvoir goes on to speakof why inequality persists and speaks of there being two distinct economic”castes” between men and women. The first being that the burdens of marriageare heavier on women than men, it is “more difficult for a woman than for a manto reconcile her family life with her role as a worker”7.
This is followed by the fact that women who seek independence through workusually do this at their expense and under less favourable circumstances. Thisis evidently seen in the gender pay gap where women are paid less than men inthe workplace and in the lack of women in high positions. De Beauvoir makesthis explicit, “for equal work she does not get equal pay”8.The final reason is that society has not changed its expectations of women.
Although it can be said that women have the same opportunities, they canreceive an education and have a job yet it is true that marriage is “the mosthonourable career”9.Furthermore, such apparently evident opportunities are not available to themajority of women in LEDCs and the women of the west are privileged in thisrespect. From Beauvoir we can see that women are in a state of subjection, theyare unable to escape imposed standards created from the prehistoric time and itis these standards that have culminated to create such a loaded term as “womanhood”.De Beauvoir speaks of the importance of awareness of the self as a way toescape this imposed label, instead women should be understood on the basis ofher potential and not her limitations. Beauvoir uses French phenomenologicalphilosopher Merleau-Ponty to explain her point, “as Merleau-Ponty very justlyputs it, man is not a natural species…woman is not a completed reality, butrather a becoming, and it is in her becoming that she should be compared withman”. Although De Beauvoir paints a bleakimage of the situation of women, it is not hopeless because women’sexploitation has been occurring throughout history and is therefore amenable to change. Through the use of existentialismwomen are responsible and are able to change, they must reject bad faith tofind pleasures of freedom.
For Beauvoir, there are twodualities in social reality, that of the subject and the other and that of theman and the woman. These two dualities are related in the way that there is amirroring, man is the subject and the subject is absolute whereas woman is the”inessential” Other. As Beauvoir argues, it is through this duality arisingfrom sexual difference that women are oppressed and considered as “other” bysociety. Whilst the subject “who is himself” is able to live life intranscendence, the “inessential creature” is bound to living a life inimmanence and therefore is unable to fully realise herself subjectively. AsBeauvoir illustrates it is clear that men act for themselves, “man’s design isnot to repeat himself in time: it is to take control of the instant and mouldthe future”. Contrastingly, women are effected by the eternal societalpressures that stop women from achieving transcendence and instead lead them toliving a life of bad faith where they do not live for themselves, “hence womanmakes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means,because she senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positingits reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role asother”. Women achieve satisfaction from their role as “other” because it is theonly role she is rewarded for, “it is civilisation as a whole that producesthis creature…only the intervention of someone else can establish an individualas other”10.
Sincethe establishment of women as “Other” is not inherent to our human nature itcan also be said that the ideology of womanhood is also false because it is aresult of women being treated as “other”. Beauvoir makes this clear as sheexplains that the establishment of “other” occurs in childhood at the time ofseparation from the mother, it is at this point that the nursling lives the”basic drama of every existent, that of his relation to the other”11.However, this is not the deciding point because “Up to the age of twelve thegirl is as strong as her brothers, and she shows the same mental powers”12.
Instead, it is not until the outside influences make a distinction between theboy and the girl that she is “indoctrinated with her vocation from her earliestyears”13.Whilst the boy is denied, “little by little the kisses and caresses they havebeen used to”14the girl “continues to be cajoled, she is allowed to cling to her mother’sskirts, her father takes her on his knee…bodily contacts and agreeable glancesprotect her against the anguish of solitude”15.Perhaps the biggest difference that occurs between girls and boys is in theirtreatment of sadness, the boy is told that “‘a man doesn’t asked to be kissed…aman doesn’t look at himself in mirrors…a man doesn’t cry” whereas her “tearsand caprices are viewed indulgently”16. Sinceboys are urged from a young age to be as ‘manly’ as possible they become whatBeauvoir calls, “little men”17thus we can also see that any conception whether it be of womanhood or ofmanhood can be harmful and limiting to the individual. By the time of adulthooda woman is “a free and autonomous being like all human creatures, neverthelessfinds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status ofthe Other and…doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to beovershadowed and forever transcended by another ego which is essential”18.It is important to remember that following Beauvoir’s argument, theestablishment of “other” results from the sexual differences between men andwomen being used to perpetuate the idea that women are some what inferior tomen. Existentialism originatesfrom 19th century philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzche andit was fully developed by Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir through theircollaborative relationship. The basis of existentialism is to emphasizeindividual existence, freedom and choice.
I think that following anexistentialist line of thinking would remove imposed social constructs such asthat of womanhood because existentialism advocates liberation and equality. In”Existentialism is a Humanism” Sartre states that the first principle ofexistentialism is that “man is not only what he conceives himself to be, butwhat which he wills himself to be” 19therefore an embracement of our individual existence is necessary in order tobe able to define one’s own meaning in life because “existence precedesessence”20.This famous phrase coined by Sartre means that we don’t have an inherent nature,rather we define ourselves through our actions and our engagement with theworld. Sartre uses the example of a paperknife as a point of contrast because apaperknife’s essence does precede its existence since it is designed in aspecific way to serve a specific purpose. Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir in TheSecond Sex states, “one is not born, rather becomes, a woman”21.Not only does Beauvoir make it clear that being a woman does not entailpredestined roles, she also makes a distinction between gender and sexsuggesting that there is no link at all between the two. However, as Sartremakes clear, with this freedom comes a great weight of responsibility thatmakes us “a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind”22for “when we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean that each of us mustchoose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men”23therefore “our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed”24.
Although this may seem daunting, I think that it is also encouraging because itshows the extent to which we can have an impact on the world and it emphasizesthe importance of our actions therefore encouraging us to embrace our existencefor what it is. I believe that this line of thinking has the ability to empowerwomen to act as free agents and not to be subservient therefore eventuallyliberating the female stereotype. Especially since “in willing freedom, wediscover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that thefreedom of others is dependent on our own”25therefore there is equally a call towards the patriarchy to encourage thisliberation.
For Sartre it is especiallyimportant that we don’t live in bad faith (“mauvaise foi”) which is a state inwhich one is not being true to oneself and therefore practices self-deception,”we shall willingly grant that bad faith is a lie to oneself”26since it is an “aim at establishing that I am not what I am”27.Sartre acknowledges the difficulty in being our authentic and sincere selveshowever he also states that it a necessity because in not being authentic weare not taking our freedom seriously. Sartre uses the example of the waiter todepict someone who has bad faith, “his movement is quick and forward, a littletoo precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the customers with a step a littletoo quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly”28.
The problem with the waiter is that he is taking his role as a waiter soseriously that it has replaced his authentic and true self in the way that heis no longer in the mode of “being in-itself”29,rather a waiter in the mode of “being what I am not”30.De Beauvoir also utilizes this concept of bad faith in her analysis of theWoman in Love who lives in bad faith and becomes the object of her essentiallover therefore denying her own freedom and transcendence. Instead she “is thusslave, queen, hind, stained-glass window, wanton, servant, courtesan, muse,companion, mother, sister, child, according to the fugitive dreams, theimperious demands, of her lover”31.Unbeknownst to her, it is her bad faith that “raises barriers between and herand the man she adores…she misunderstands his freedom”32.Both Beauvoir and Sartre warn of the dangers of bad faith however Sartre seemsto ignore the differences in experience between men and women, particularly in matterssuch as love where the inessential woman is forced to go beyond bad faith intothe complete subjection of the man since she is “shut up in the sphere of therelative, destined to the male from childhood, habituated to seeing in him asuperb being whom she cannot possibly equal, the woman who has not repressedher claim to humanity will dream of transcending her being toward one of thesesuperior beings, of amalgamating herself with the sovereign subject. There isno other way out for her than to lose herself, body and soul, in him who isrepresented to her as the absolute, as the essential”33.
Sincethere is not inherent ‘womaness’ it can be argued that the typically femaleroles such as that of a domestic housewife are nothing more than women living inbad faith. Therefore it is not as simple as saying that these roles aresocially imposed because although they may be imposed by the patriarchy it isthe women’s responsibility to be true to their authentic selves and live ingood faith. 1 Simone de Beauvoir (1949).The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books . 932 ibid. 943 ibid.
954 ibid. 955 ibid. 966http://www.independent.
co.uk/news/world/asia/nepalese-teenager-dies-banished-menstruation-hut-shed-period-cycle-tulasi-shahi-a7833056.html7 Simone de Beauvoir (1949). The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books. 1658 ibid.
167 9 ibid. 16710 ibid. 29511 ibid. 29612 ibid. 66113 ibid. 29614 ibid15 ibid16 ibid17 ibid18 ibid. 2919 Sartre, J., Macomber, C.
, Elkaïm-Sartre, A. andSartre, J. (2007).
Existentialism is a humanism. New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, p.22.20 ibid21 ibid.
29622 ibid. 30 23 ibid. 2424 ibid. 2925 ibid. 4826 SARTRE, J.
(1943). BEING ANDNOTHINGNESS. S.l.: ROUTLEDGE.
p.7127 ibid. 8028 ibid. 8229 ibid. 8330 ibid. 8331 Simone de Beauvoir (1949).
The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books. P.66232 ibid. p. 66533 Simone de Beauvoir (1949).
The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books. P.653