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Simone de Beauvoir’s Insights Towards Gender and Status
Is there any wonder that Simone de Beauvoir rejected the idea that gender has innate characteristics from birth?
As a woman philosopher living in a man’s world I believe she fully understood what she was talking about. The writings in her world renowned book ‘The Second Sex’ written in 1947 give us a historical and cultural lesson of what women have had to overcome to exist as women in a man’s world. Men and women are both influenced by their conditioning the main difference is that man has been attributed the leading role. Times are changing and Simone de Beauvoir has played an important role in our attempt to undo the erroneous programming. Today’s leading ladies have proven their capacities at playing the part.
Simone de Beauvoir’s example of what a woman that is intelligent can do in life by her straightforward, honest approach may be the stepping stones for other women to fearlessly do the same.
As far back as the 10th century ideas of antifeminism have haunted the women of the world. The handful of women that were in the limelight were usually obliterated for witchcraft as in the case of Jeanne D’Arc or publicly ridiculed or at worse martyred. Women as the lesser sex have been depicted as temptresses from Bible days which at the same time undermined their intelligence. This dual image which has conditioned women to see themselves as passive beings who lie in wait for men to save, them or come and love them and their counterparts the devouring temptresses who take what they want and leave the rest behind including their intelligence is what Simone de Beauvoir sees as our conditioning. This conditioning starts at a very early age when there are no apparent differences between baby girls and baby boys. They are both at this early age totally in need of nurturing and physical contact which they thrive upon. This loving care is exactly the same up until a certain moment when the baby is weaned. According to Simone De Beauvoir from that point on boys are taught to become little men and they receive less physical contact and affection than their girl counterparts; They are also a product of their conditioning just as we are. This is an important thing to remember throughout this reading. Boys and girls alike are part of their environmental conditioning through family heritage, cultural traditions, religious beliefs and historical beliefs. As children we all have the same attitudes of temper tantrums, pouting, charming our parents then we are in fact the same until our environment gives us another outlook upon ourselves. Little girls quickly learn that they need to be careful. They need to act like little ladies not climbing trees and skinning knees as their brothers are encouraged to do. This myth starts very early with the family attitude about the physical differences between sexes. Boys have an outward expression of their masculinity which turns them rapidly into having something to be proud of. This expression of self that has, in the eyes of the parents, a value becomes what the boy measures himself to other boys with. It’s a tactile indicator of their manliness and gives them the instinct of measurability. How long their sex is and how far they can urinate. The inevitable presence of their extension gives them a power of object. Women are inwardness. All of their discoveries are inward and therefore left unsaid. You can’t see much of the sex of a little girl so it is not made a fuss over as boy’s sexes are. Girls try to express their transfer towards an object to a doll for example. This treating a doll as herself gives her the idea that the substance is the same and therefore she is someone to dress up to cater to, that has an existence because others make her exist. Later on in life she will eventually become that doll thing that sits home waiting for her husband and children to pick her up and do as they please with her. Just as she idled away her childhood she idles away the hours of her parenthood, or wifehood at home staving off boredom with no particular goals or worlds to conquer.
Boys grow up with the idea that they are going somewhere and have something to accomplish and will assume responsibilities along the way. They learn at around 13 yrs. old that the answer may not come out in words but through violence. A girl wills repress her own violence because girls don’t do that sort of thing. This violence turns into neurosis which in part is violence unexpressed which comes back to oneself eventually. Simone De Beauvoir was avant guard when she recognized the fact that women have their own part of violence at that age but we do not allow ourselves to express it. We are simply not encouraged socially, historically or culturally to express it. Where progress has been made is that more and more women are training in martial arts which are a positive way to express their inner violence.
What upset our mothers, and depending on what conditioning you were also given, was the pre- established path chosen for us no matter what we would like to become. Once the path was set then fear was quickly to follow. What path? The path that says no matter what education you receive you will end up a wife and mother then grandmother. This is a frightening aspect of the growing girl’s plight. She will not only have to learn to become a woman, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. She can study all that she would like but there is no real asking of her to do so or to assume the responsibilities that this implies. She’ll marry then stop working to have children and her husband’s career will prevail and take on the traditional role of breadwinner. Perhaps today’s economy has obliged young women to be career assertive but maybe not for the right reasons. Career minded because families are not withstanding without two good salaries to support them. The outer expression of sexual pride may still be baring the road. The fact that a young woman can be a productive and important member of our society and that she also has her contribution to make does not seem to impress upon girls as it does on boys.
There are so many frightening biological events in the life of a young girl who is becoming a woman that possessing her own inward sexuality is a complicated task.
Young men can see theirs, be proud of it, and use it where as young girls have to deal with what biologically is imposed upon them. Their menstrual cycles which alter their characters for several days a month is in itself part of the mystery of womanhood. The changes in her body that may lead her to withdrawal because now she is becoming the object so desired by men. The doll has come of age and can now be manoeuvred accordingly. This is a moment in time when many young women become anorexic keeping their bodies at bay and stopping the menstrual cycle as if time would stand still. The onset of an eventual pregnancy, abortion risk, risks during pregnancy, menopause and all the choices that implies has made being a woman probably more complicated than being a man. What is very interesting to remark according to statistics there are a large majority of women that would prefer being men. Men in a very small minority if they had the choice would have preferred being a woman. There is the unfortunate, radical, feminist view of continuously proving that women can be more or better than men by doing the same things and acting the same way.. I find this unfortunate. If we want equality then we should be striving for equal respect and equal rights not superiority and domination which are what has made us suffer from the ages. Women finding ways to be assertive, well-balanced, brilliant, and effective is what can give us our strength in today’s world.
It was unthought-of at the time of French sculpt rice Camille Claudel that a woman could surpass the master. Camille Claudel would never have broken through the layers of men to get to where she did in the arts if she hadn’t had the support of her father firstly and Rodin. Once Rodin retracted she lost all prestige and control over her life. There is the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo who also had the support of her father interestingly enough and that of a great Mexican artist as well. Both fathers in these two examples gave their support to their daughters which were probably what they would have received if they were sons instead of daughters. In the face of talent and genius these men were supportive and able to recognize potential. How many other Sunday morning painters got left by the roadside because they were not recognized in virtue of their talents but because of their gender?
What did the world wars teach us about women? It taught us that in the absence of brothers, cousins, fathers, and husbands they were capable of running a country from industry to education the national health Women kept their families fed, clothed, and sheltered during the war. We are not warriors are heart but have the same potential. There are examples in history like Amazons and Jeanne d’Arc of women capable of leading armies and warring. We could have been cultivated as war lords also but weren’t. Women are givers of life and that is probably what gives us the incentive to promote peace culture instead of war. No woman wants to see her sons, daughters, husband, brothers or sisters go off to war and not come back. The peace movement has a majority of women supporters and that seems to go with the fact that life giving is still our realm.
The political world has opened up it’s doors to women within the last twenty years. Before that time there was usually a woman behind a great man in the shadows and there to decorate the photographs for the press more than for her opinions. In France there were three woman ministers elected in the late 70’s. This was a turning point. The paradox comes in when women fought in the French resistance showing their bravery and didn’t obtain the right to vote until two years after the war was over. The equality act was also pronounced shortly after women’s right to vote. This maintaining of women in a conditioned status has been painful for us and is now becoming painful to our male counterparts who are seeking the limits of their own identity. Women are now brought up and beginning to think for themselves, what they want out of life, what they are going to do to get what they need. This is a true cultural revolution. If the conditioning has begun to change then women shall become women and know themselves. Thus knowing themselves they will become decision makers, and active citizens not through man’s making but through their own. This fundamental step has been operating since May 1968 even though precursors since ancient times have been trying to change this. Simone de Beauvoir succeeded in starting the league for Women’s Rights and was a militant for family planning.
Giving back to women the right to do what they need to do with their own bodies was an essential step in accepting the responsibilities that are incumbent for every human being either man or woman. The big waking up of our society started with her book and has continued to live on inspiring women to take the responsibility for their lives as a person and an equal which gives them a lot more freedom than it did our mothers. The social role was encouraging us look pretty but please don’t say anything. Mediocrity amongst woman rose as her only idea of self was stemming from what others mirrored her. Her husband and her family were her only mirrors and connection with the world. He went out in the world she quietly stayed home or followed in the shadows. If an intelligent woman did express herself she was ridiculed in public and could not be accepted for her thoughts. The Marie Curie’s and other thinkers are a small handful of the potential that women have been suppressing since the beginning of time. Women are beginning to realize that no matter what their conditioning since birth they can change the course of events in their lives. Taking their own responsibility for their own lives and what is to become of them is the next chapter in our evolution. Women are finally starting to be raised to believe in themselves and their capacities. Ask a little girl today what she wants to become later and she might surprise you and answer “an astronaut, a research worker, an architect “. We are far from the days of Simone de Beauvoir’s struggle to live in a man’s world. I think that men are having trouble adjusting to this change. They are becoming more and more aware of women’s presence in the work field and their contribution as fellow citizens. Their own identity has been questioned and ours is beginning to grow and develop. This cleavage will be difficult to stabilize since all related gender problems have finally come to the surface, the debate is whether or not women that are raising their children can make the ‘shift’ to raising their sons and daughters alike. The story perhaps begins and ends with women. Are we going to keep attributing to ourselves the role models that went before us? Or are we finally going to break the bondage of what we have been made to think of ourselves? There has come a time when the individual man or woman will begin to raise his consciousness and choose him or herself first. Not in and egotistical way but to ask oneself the question ‘”What do I need for myself right now to be in agreement with myself?” When finally women and men have worked on themselves enough to be able at any moment to ask themselves that question then it is definitely not a question of gender but autonomy. Do women want their autonomy? Is the easy way out or women to continue a mediocre existence to take the easy way out and let this be a man’s world and a state of dependency and submission? Men take their independence and unfortunately women think or have been taught to think theirs is to be earned. Men believe it is their right from the beginning. Women ask permission for it and in most circumstances and it never comes. Leaving behind all the social prejudice and family prejudice and historical and cultural prejudice can only be the choice of women. Simone de Beauvoir showed us that a woman is herself and can dare to be herself if she so chooses. Although this idea will not appeal to some, women are running for presidential office these days and hold important functions within our highest auspices while Simone’s message has probably hit home. Women are accepting to be themselves without asking permission to do so. Men are battling with their own conditioning and their own identity problems due to this conditioning. In order to create a balance it will take time and courage. Women for peace, for children’s rights, for non-violence, for equal education and career rights have united all over the world to speak their piece. A beautiful French song that implies women as being men’s future. could hold a lot of truth in these words.
Thinking back on the historical events and cultural ideas about gender it must have taken great incentive for a woman like Simone de Beauvoir de openly and honestly explore the femaleness and the contradictions of our times. It is also easy to comprehend why men find it so difficult to understand us when we are on the brink of finding ourselves as people and as women. Perhaps if our own opinion of self changes then the worlds opinion can also evolve. Starting with individual awareness can only lead to universal awareness in time. Simone de Beauvoir in her rejection of gender has put back the sparkle in the eyes of women and helped us overcome the conditioning of the years.
Simone de Beauvoir ‘ Le Deuxieme Sexe’ Galiard, Paris 1947
Nancy Bauer Contributor ‘Simone de Beauvoir Philosophy and Feminism’ Columbia University press N.Y. 2001
Isabelle De Courtivron Contributor ‘ New French Feminism’ An Anthology ED. Elaine Marks ED. Publisher University of Massachusetts press,Amherst ma. 1980
Reference to song written and sung by Jean Ferrat ‘La Femme est l’avenir de l’homme’
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