2009 – ” The Writer & her Critics: Current Dialectics On Beauvoir’s Second Sex”.

Posted: September 3, 2012 by anitahadasangwan in Uncategorized
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          Image  2009:  a leading woman political figure (Rachida Dati, the French Minister of Justice) joins duty FIVE days after giving birth by C – section to a baby girl, to howls of outrage from French and British feminists who see her as a traitor to her sex. Their argument was that her early joining (forgoing the maternity leave) was an example that could be used to undermine hard –won maternity rights.

            2009 : Natalie Dylan a 22-year-old from San Diego who says she’s a virgin. She has a B.S. in women’s studies and hopes to get her masters in marriage and family therapy. Dark-haired and very attractive, she’s decided to finance her grad school education by putting something up for auction. Not her college textbooks or her Pez collection…but her virginity.

            2009: Michelle Obama, Wife of President Elect of USA resigns from her high powered job as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to focus on her responsibilities as the First Lady Of USA. The Coup Magazine blog analyzes reactions to Michelle Obama ‘s resignation and says that , if she wants to counter the Strong Black Woman stereotype and make her husband appear to be in charge, she cannot have a career. But when she quits her job, her motivation and commitment are called into question, and she risks losing credibility in the eyes of feminists

2009: the hundred and first birth anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir

2009: 60th year of the publication of her epic on feminism,

           “THE SECOND SEX”.

Relevant today or no longer????

            In the light of the three varied examples quoted above it is clear that Feminist issues and Feminism are alive and kicking, and still women are defining Feminism and what does it actually mean.

            Beauvoir in life was the centre of controversy, discussion and argument, in death, centenary and anniversary celebrations she continues to be the source of emotional and lively discussions and on going controversies.

            What can we say about a woman whose centenary celebrations spark off not just seminars and discussions about her work and her philosophies but more about her person? Her self? Her affairs? Her personal life. And what does it mean when a leading magazine of her country, France, the  Le Nouvel Observateur marks her centenary with a nude rear view photo of her, Simone de Beauvoir, at the age of 44.

           An article, “Academic tug-of-love over De Beauvoir legacy” in the Guardian Weekly, at the occasion of Beauvoir’s centenary in 2008, tells that how experts fear that,” Feminist philosopher’s sex life may overshadow centenary.”

She was the high priestess of 20th century French thought, the mother of modern feminism and a champion of sexual freedom who shocked Paris with her threesomes and passionate bisexual affairs. But as France begins a glittering celebration of the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir’s birth next week, some academics have warned against the rush of debate and publications descending into prudish attacks on her deliberately outrageous sex life. The hype and publishing frenzy around De Beauvoir’s centenary have created a rush of interest in the relationship between a couple whom one French magazine described as the “Fred and Ginger of French existentialism.

            More than a dozen books were  published, with TV films and DVD box sets to match. De Beauvoir had a new footbridge over the Seine named after her, and the great and the good of world academia descended on Paris for a symposium to mark the occasion. A junior government minister, the urban policies secretary Fadéla Amara, even used a De Beauvoir quotation on her office’s new year cards, the previous year.

            But as the latest round of De Beauvoir specials hit the French newsstands, it was clear that it is her unconventional love and sex life that would be taking centre stage.

Le Nouvel Observateur, which proclaimed a “De Beauvoir revival”, featured the author’s naked behind on its cover.

             L’Express asked if France was now finally ready to challenge an icon.

Le Point marvelled at a new biography which it felt revealed a Sartre who was “sexually cold, macho, authoritarian and jealous” and De Beauvoir’s traces of “authoritarianism, Pygmalion complex and calculating libertinism” that she used to “subjugate, submit and shape” those around her.

            “This year, let’s look at all her work together, not just the affairs and the sex – important as they are,” Danièle Sallenave, the author of the De Beauvoir biography, entitled Castor de guerre, told the Guardian.

            “The real game here is for De Beauvoir to step out of Sartre’s shadow,” she said. “I think Sartre was authoritarian, classically macho and traditional. De Beauvoir wanted to be revolutionary in everything concerning her public and private life. Sartre was ready to have parallel relations without her, behind her back, and hide it, and so behaved like a classic bourgeois husband. She wouldn’t fit into that; she was much more radical.”

            Hazel Rowley, an Anglo-Australian writer whose recent book Tête-à-Tête detailed how De Beauvoir and Sartre’s open relationship polarized public opinion, said she was worried that next week’s rush of debates would see the couple described as “monsters”. She said it could set off a stream of pronouncements on De Beauvoir’s sex life, including “cruel, sadistic, manipulating, lying and all these stupid words”.

“I don’t think we should be trivialising this incredible figure by fixating on lascivious sex,” Rowley said. “Why are we doing this? Are we puritanical? Do we think we’re superior, and why?” She said she hoped the centenary year would “stop people mocking and belittling De Beauvoir”.

            Meanwhile, as President Nicolas Sarkozy this week rejected the proposed new year’s honours list as too stuffy and male-dominated, politicians, actors and intellectuals alike declared that De Beauvoir’s feminism was more relevant than ever in French society.

            Aurélie Filippetti, a novelist and Socialist MP close to Ségolène Royal, said: “Simone de Beauvoir was the glaring proof that feminism didn’t rhyme with frigidity … She’s still an inspirational figure for my generation.”

Even today Beauvoir’s writings, in particular The Second Sex, can serve as resources for thought, for the life of the mind which is as concerned with the past and future as it is with the present.

            Should we read Simone de Beauvoir today? asks Nancy Bauer’s essay. “Yes” is her emphatic answer. She chides feminist theorists and teachers of feminist theory for treating Beauvoir only as history, not as part of an ongoing philosophical project. That neglect of Beauvoir is at the heart of the stalemates that are paralyzing academic feminism, Bauer writes.

            Much current feminist theory has unmoored itself from women’s lives; The Second Sex can lead us back to the real world, Bauer says.

            Published on the 50th Anniversary of the publication of “The Second Sex”, The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir Edited by Emily Grosholz clearly supports the relevance and importance of Beauvoir as a feminist author and philosopher today.

            Some critics say that Beauvoir isn’t relevant because she was writing for white European and American women. Several contributors to this book take issue with that charge. In fact, says Toril Moi, Beauvoir was much more specific than that. She was writing for middleclass French women of the Left who had just gone through World War II and had all their perceptions shaken. She didn’t much like the American women she had met, partly because they weren’t deeply interested in philosophy.

            The clarity with which Beauvoir describes the situation of French women-her own situation-enables other people to respond to her work and examine their own situation to compare it with hers, Moi says. “To respond to a text the reader does not have to identify with it or recognize herself in it, feel represented in it. She needs to be moved, challenged by its appeal,” according to Moi.

            Toril Moi writes in The Guardian that all of us should read her masterpiece, The Second Sex, and writes, “Beauvoir’s analysis of sexism is perhaps her most powerful theoretical contribution to feminism. In a sexist society, she argues, man is the universal and woman is the particular; he is the One, she is the Other. Women therefore regularly find themselves placed in a position where they are faced with the “choice” between being imprisoned in their femininity and being obliged to masquerade as an abstract genderless subject.”

            David Tresilian in  “A missed opportunity?” (Article in Al Ahram) says that ,

The lack of any comparable event to mark the centenary of Beauvoir’s birth is a missed opportunity, since it could have served to introduce new audiences to this important writer’s work, putting it back into general circulation.

Various “dossiers” dealing with the writer and her work that have appeared in the mainstream French press, particularly in current affairs magazines like Le PointL’Express and Le nouvel Observateur. The last named of these in particular, a traditionally left-leaning publication to which Beauvoir herself once contributed, ran a series of articles on Beauvoir in January, in which she was introduced as “la scandaleuse,” the cause of scandal.

           “The companion of Sartre declared war on patriarchy,” the magazine’s dossier began, “but she was also a victim of passion. A manipulator of others, but also herself vulnerable, she was stubborn and submissive, easy-going and jealous and quite often unhappy. What was really hidden under that austere turban” that Beauvoir used to wear?

           Beauvoir was put across not as the woman who had shown, perhaps in a more sustained way than had been done before, the ways in which woman has been constituted as man’s “other” in European culture in a relationship of dominance and subordination, but rather as a wily manipulator of powerful men, as if the “real woman” was not the intellectual or the author of a string of significant works, but rather the one who suffered from the kind of petty jealousies sometimes staged in television soap operas.

           David Tresilian continues

Returning to Le Deuxième sexe today after a period of 60 years it is still possible to be struck by its contemporary air and by its author’s wit and ear for male hypocrisies. This is so even with the many years that separate this work from the present: it is easy to forget that Beauvoir published her “book about women” only one year after women had been given the right to vote in France.


           At the centenary celebrations of Beauvoir one would have expected a serious discussion of her as an author, a feminist? And a philosopher but like the article in Guardian featured , remembrance of Beauvoir has degenerated into something which is unexplainable for people like us, who regard her as a feminist and one whose book, “ the Second Sex” ,  remains a book worth reading for any woman who wishes to walk her won path and forge an identity for herself.

           Sylvie Tissot, in Simone de Beauvoir: Retrospective Celeb Makeover For A Revolutionary writes about a series of articles published in  Le Nouvel Observateur.

 The articles were about a passionate but unhappy woman, authoritarian yet submissive, intelligent yet sensual, stylish yet with a weird hair-do, a man-eater who was enthralled by one man (1). Was it Britney Spears or Carla Bruni? No, it was a philosopher, militant and committed intellectual, an incarnation of feminism for many in France and around the world: Simone de Beauvoir. For the centenary of her birth, the newspaper gave her the celebrity exposé treatment, complete with nude picture on the front page. The series said much about the conditions that govern a Frenchwoman’s right to get into the enclosure of memorials to great men in the Panthéon in Paris (Marie Curie was the first woman so honoured, although not until 1995). It helps to go in on the arm of a man — the feature keeps calling de Beauvoir Jean-Paul Sartre’s girlfriend.

In fact, it starts with an account of her affair with the film-maker Claude Lanzmann, continues with Sartre and ends with her American lover, Nelson Algren.

Can he and the journalists really be talking about Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote “one is not born a woman but becomes one” and then showed that being a woman doesn’t mean having to accept a role predetermined by nature?.

            That front page picture, like the fixation on the love life, really is shocking — the rules seem to be that before she can become a media worthy national celebrity, even a philosopher must provide proof of her love for men and get her clothes off.

            Nathalie Petrowski in La Presse of Montreal, Canada, took to task the Nouvel Observateur for publishing a nude photo of Simone to greet the centenary year. But her brief was for equality, not against the supposed invasion of privacy that has bothered some feminists:

On the day when the Nouvel Obs has the nerve to show us the bare behind of a great male thinker, we will be able to say that equality between men and women has at last been achieved. (January 9, 2008)

            Agathe Logeart and Aude Lancelin start by explaining that “Sartre’s woman declared war on patriarchy but was also a victim of passion”.

So we have de Beauvoir, member of the philosophy establishment, author of The Second Sex and winner of the Goncourt prize, a leftwing, feminist militant; and de Beauvoir the woman and lover, swept along by desire and passion. The two sides are seen as opposing, as if her love life, intellectual friendship and non-exclusive relationship with Sartre were separate from her questioning of marital and domestic norms.

            The feature’s implicit central theme is that nature always wins out in the end. Didn’t de Beauvoir remain “a shop assistant right up to her manicured nails”? The French critic Philippe Sollers explains that, with her “high pitched, disagreeable, stubborn and didactic voice, she seemed to want to deny her beautiful image” — and so her charm was in her appearance, not her language. Dombasle writes: “Behind the harsh suits and austere turbans”, she was “a ravishing woman”. Unthinkable, that a famous French woman could be ugly and badly dressed.

            Sollers buries her true identity by asserting that “she will always be a great letter writer”, that her love letter masterpieces were superior to her theory, and invites us to re-read her as the letter writer, the secret and private de Beauvoir who poured out her feelings: to discover a “sensual and funny” de Beauvoir. Ah, that favourite theory of the anti-feminist backlash: the women’s movement withers, isolates and causes unhappiness, a conclusion reached through the idea that de Beauvoir’s struggle was violent. The war she led is reduced to a few briefly mentioned demands: “refusal of the male future”, women-only feminist groups, defence of women’s right to resort to violence, suppression of the family for the benefit of the community. No explanation, just the bare list followed by the stupid question: “She may have been famous, read and listened to all over the world, but was she happy?”

            Though in her book , “ The Second Sex”, Beauvoir herself writes ,

But we do not confuse the idea of private interest with happiness, although that is another common point of view. Are not women of the harem more happy then women voters ? Is not the housekeeper happier than the working-woman? It is not too clear just what the word happy really menas , and still less what true values it may mask. There is  no possibility of measuring the happiness of others and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them.

            Apparently de Beauvoir was exceptional because of her tragic destiny — her character was exceptional, not her work and action. The headline, “A Scandalous Woman”, is revealing; the writers are quoting the indignant reactions of Albert Camus and François Mauriac after the publication of The Second Sex in 1949. But they don’t mention what ideas provoked that male indignation.

            Controversy with a capital C seems to follow Beauvoir in death and celebrations like I said earlier, but none of us can shake off the relevance of Beauvoir as woman author, a feminist and a leader among woman authors who forever need to re define their commitment to feminism. Her The Second Sex is an                         epic on Feminism and deals with a mind boggling array of physiological, psychological and analytical concepts of being a woman and more.

            Right now as I focus on on how Beauvoir defines a woman ; we can interface the current dialectics on being a woman. 

            Simone de Beauvoir asks” What is a woman.?” That is a question that has been asked for centuries and is still being asked. We see an echo of this query in many works by prominent women authors.

            This query may take the shape of  an angry cry as asked by Catharine MacKinnon in  Are Women Human?

Fifty years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defined what a human being is. It told the world what a person, as a person, is entitled to. Are women human yet?
  If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we have our genitals sliced out to purify us (of what?) and to bid and define our cultures? Would we be used as breeders, made to work without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died if we survived his funeral pyre, forced to sell ourselves sexually because men won’t value us for anything else? Would we be sold into marriage to priests to atone for our family’s sins or to improve our family’s earthly prospects? Would be we sexually and reproductively enslaved? Would we, when allowed to work for pay, be made to work at the most menial jobs and exploited at barely starvation level? Would we be trafficked for sexual use and entertainment worldwide in whatever form current technology makes possible? Would we be kept from learning to read and write? Would we be hidden behind veils and imprisoned in houses and stoned and shot for refusing? Would we be beaten nearly to death, and to death, by men with whom we are close? Would we be sexually molested in our families? Would we be raped in genocide to terrorize and destroy our ethnic communities, and raped again in that undeclared war that goes on every day in every country in the world in what is called peacetime? If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators? And, if we were human, when these things happened, would virtually nothing be done about it?

            Beauvoir asks that If her functioning as a female is not enough to define woman, if we decline also to explain her through “the eternal feminine,” and if nevertheless we admit, provisionally, that women do exist, then we must face the question: what is a woman?

            What is a woman? And what does it mean to be a feminist today? In her first full-scale engagement with feminist theory since her internationally renowned Sexual/Textual Politics (1985), Toril Moi challenged the dominant trends in contemporary feminist and cultural thought, arguing for a feminism of freedom inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex .
            In the controversial title-essay, Toril Moi radically rethinks current debates about sex, gender, and the body – challenging the commonly held belief that the sex/gender distinction is fundamental to all feminist theory. Moi rejects every attempt to define masculinity and femininity, including efforts to define femininity as that which ‘cannot be defined.
            In the second new book-length essay, ‘I am a Woman’, Toril Moi reworks the relationship between the personal and the philosophical, pursuing ways to write theory that do not neglect the claims of the personal. Setting up an encounter between contemporary theory and Simone de Beauvoir, Moi radically rethinks the need, and difficulty, of finding one’s own philosophical voice by placing it in new theoretical contexts.

            Let us look at  the definition of “woman” in a bill making its way through Congress:

WOMAN- The term `woman’ means a female human being who is capable of becoming pregnant, whether or not she has reached the age of majority.

Both the House and the Senate thought this definition was OK. But what are the implications of it?

A. A female human being who is not capable of becoming pregnant does not qualify as a woman under this definition. 
B. This definition implies that a woman is not, as any dictionary will tell you, an ‘adult female human.’ A thirteen-year-old female child is a woman if she has reached puberty. Fertility is the sole measure of womanhood, not maturity and the capacity to make one’s own decisions.

            Now, it’s true that laws can use definitions of words which are narrower than standard usage — that’s not typically a problem.

            But this definition could end up being used elsewhere in laws that aren’t appropriate. More important, perhaps, is the apparently lack of any good reason to define “woman” so narrowly. The definition may specify only those people that the law will end up affecting, but so what?

            The bill in question deals with abortion, so the only people being affected are pregnant women and girls — but the definition of “woman” includes non-pregnant, but fertile women and girls. If it really were necessary to have a definition, why not say something like “pregnant females of any age”? Why define “woman” according to their ability to reproduce?

            Woman is a womb???? .

            Heinz Duthel  writes in his book, Woman, the relative being …’ ‘Tota mulier in utero’- ‘woman is a womb’  that“WOMAN? Very simple: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female – this word is sufficient to define her.People have tirelessly sought to prove that woman is superior, inferior, or equal to man. Some say that, having been created after Adam, she is evidently a secondary being: others say on the contrary that Adam was only a rough draft and that God succeeded in producing the human being in perfection when He created Eve.”

            Beauvoir has focused on the common use of the word man to designate human beings in general in that era. Though nowadays we are seeing the avoidance  of Gender enders like  actress, comedienne, executress, heroine, poetess, and starlet. Instead use gender-neutral terms such as actor, comedian, executor, hero, poet, and star are in vogue. But how deep rooted is this ?

            Jo Freeman in THE BUILDING OF THE GILDED CAGE also touches upon the same.

The easiest place to start when trying to determine the position of any group of people is with the legal system. This may strike us as a little strange since our national ideology also says that “all men are equal under the law” until we remember that the ideology is absolutely correct in its restriction of this promise to “men.” Now there are three groups who have never been accorded the status and the rights of manhood — blacks, children (minors) and women. Children at least are considered to be in their inferior, dependent status only temporarily because some of them (white males) eventually graduate to become men. Blacks (the 47% who are male) have “been denied their manhood” since they were kidnapped from Africa and are currently demanding it back. But women (51 % of the population, black and white) — how can a woman have manhood?


Catharine MacKinnon in  ‘Are Women Human’ talks about the same issue:

It takes a lot of imagination — and a determinedly blinkered focus on exceptions at the privileged margins — to envision a real woman in the Universal Declaration’s majestic guarantees of what ‘everyone is entitled to’. After fifty years, just what part of ‘everyone’ doesn’t mean us?
      The ringing language in Article 1 encourages us to ‘act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Must we be men before its spirit includes us? Lest this be seen as too literal, if we were all enjoined to ‘act towards one another in a spirit of sisterhood,’ would men know it meant them, too? Article 23 encouragingly provides for just pay to ‘[e]veryone who works.’ It goes on to say that this ensures a life of human dignity for ‘himself and his family.’ Are women nowhere paid for the work we do in our own families because we are not ‘everyone’, or because what we do there is not ‘work’? Don’t women have families, or is what women have not a family without a ‘himself’? 

            Is it merely lip service or used because it is ‘politically correct’ to use creation words instead of others like slow learners for the mentally retarded and disabled for the physically handicapped Unfortunately titles such as chairperson, actor are put in the same bracket as these.

            What rings a bell here is that these words are used so that the affected person should not mind as somewhere he or she is lacking something vital, so where do we go from here?

Is the fight for Feminism going to be limited to titles?

So? What is a  woman?

            Tell me how many of us…. Educated liberated women when faced with this query… genuinely try and answer it? How many of us immediately think of words like: mother, sister, wife, ….etc etc?

            How many of us feel pleased when we are called super women because we are able to juggle career, motherhood and familial obligations very smartly without causing any trouble to our husbands and families, but with considerable strain on ourselves?


Till the women and society feel the Need to ask this Question, Simone de Beauvoir will be relevant.


Till we need to observe International Women’s Day…. Beauvoir will be relevant.





Bauer,Nancy. Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism. New York:            Columbia University Press. 2001

Byrne, Peter. “Not Shutting Up For A Second: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986).”            February 12, 2008.January 12, 2009.Retrieved from          http://www.swans.com/library/art14/pbyrne61.html

Chrisafis, Angelique.  “Academic tug-of-love over De Beauvoir legacy.” January   4, 2008. January 10, 2009. Retrieved from           http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jan/04/highereducation.books

Duthel, Heinz. Woman, the relative being …’ ‘Tota mulier in utero’- ‘woman is a    womb.2008. Retrieved from http://stores.lulu.com/euroreports.

Grosholz,Emily R. The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir . New York: Oxford           University Press. 2006.

            http://translate.google.co.in/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http://www.            philippesollers.net/Beauvoir.html

MacKinnon,Catharine. ‘Are Women Human?’ .Reflections on the Universal           Declaration of Human Rights 171.Barend van der Heijden & Bahia             Tahzib-Lie, eds., The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1999

Moi, Toril. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Office of Medical Center Communications. The University of Chicago Medical     Center .  Michelle Obama resigns position at University of Chicago       Medical Center.”January 9, 2009. January 12, 2009. Retrieved from    http://www.uchospitals.edu/news/2009/20090109-obama.html

Soller, Phillepe.“Beauvoir Beauvoir Before.” Nouvel Observateur, No. 2252,          January 3,2008. Retrieved from   

Tissot, Sylvie. “Retrospective Celeb Makeover For A Revolutionary.”  February    06,2008. February 16, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.zcommunications.org/retrospective-celeb-makeover-for-a-            revolutionary-by-sylvie-tissot

Tresilian ,David.“A missed opportunity?” AL-AHRAM- Weekly on-line.  20 – 26 March 2008. Issue No. 889. Retrieved from    http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2008/889/cu1.htm


  1. amit kulshreshtha says:

    very impressive !

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