Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
It seems appropriate that the first comprehensive and widely influential feminist study of recent times should focus on the deceptively simple but absolutely essential task of defining what a woman is in modern times. Unlike earlier American feminists, the author rejects as too abstract and unreal the concept of a common humanity without clearly defined sexual distinctions. De Beauvoir provides her readers with a highly logical exercise in examining and systematically refuting some generally accepted statements by scientists and theoreticians such as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Engels, whose combined efforts shaped the image of women during the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, she establishes her own concept of women as not significantly different from men biologically yet socially far removed from the superior position occupied by men. De Beauvoir’s compelling arguments against existing perceptions and in favor of her own inventive feminist interpretation of known facts are well-grounded in modern philosophy and anthropology (the theories of Martin Heidegger, the father of French existentialism, and Claude Levi-Strauss, the foremost representative of structuralism, are cited).
De Beauvoir fully agrees that the human race shares its biological differences between male and female with other species, but she also insists that membership in a species is insignificant in human terms, because human beings create societies with set human values and impose customs, restrictive as well as supportive, on their members. This social imposition on the human female is the determining factor in her existence. (De Beauvoir’s dictum that one is not born but rather becomes a woman is now one of the mainstays of feminist theory.) Emphasizing the mutual need for a willed coexistence in both male and female, de Beauvoir rejects the psychoanalysts’ view of women as alienated from their biological and psychological destiny and frustrated in a vain attempt to be men. She sees alienation for both men and women as an existential dilemma precipitated by the burden of self-determination and the exercise of free will. She rejects Engels’ theory that the oppression of women is merely the result of men acquiring private property with a subsequent profit-oriented need for slave labor done by women. Instead, she traces women’s enslavement to the invention of tools, which became the exclusive province of men.
The invention of tools brought about a profound change enabling man to settle and to liberate himself from the uncertainties of his environment. The new life-style eliminated the need for women to function as the incarnation of the secrets of nature; women, however, failed to transcend their established status and remained in bondage to life’s mysterious processes, while men created productive work for themselves. This disturbance of a previous existing equilibrium led to women’s devaluation and their oppression in modern societies. Women’s failure to share in men’s way of working and thinking excluded her from human Mitsein, a commonly shared existence. It is de Beauvoir’s view that women’s alterity, once it is recognized and clearly defined as a social rather than biological condition, is not irreversible or absolute and that there exists no real reason to continue to deny women access to human Mitsein.
De Beauvoir’s theory rests on two important concepts: “otherness” and the related ideas of “transcendence” and “immanence.” She unequivocally stands behind otherness as a fundamental category of human thought. The Other is usually set up by individuals or groups who need a foil in an inferior position to define themselves as superior. Therefore, the Other never...
(The entire section contains 1120 words.)
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