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 exists as a wholly autonomous entity on its own terms. Otherness produces separation, but it also creates the bond of need between two...
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entities wanting to define themselves, a conception de Beauvoir has taken from the work of G.W.F. Hegel. In the relationship between men and women, otherness is bound to the constant desire of man to possess what he is not and to seek a union with the Other, which he is not.
The terms “transcendence” and “immanence” represent opposing conditions. Transcendence implies activity, freedom, being in charge, while immanence means confinement within an uncreative, passive, and limited existence. Man has long been seen as Homo faber, the doer who invented tools and created society’s fabric, while woman remained restricted to a narrow cycle of repetitious duties of childbearing and nurturing, and of what is compatible with the task of reproduction— namely, household chores. The ovule, motionless and in a state of expectation, has been thought to symbolize immanence, with the agile and vigorous sperm representing transcendence. De Beauvoir argues that human gametes play a fundamentally identical role and cannot be divided into a passive, inferior female and an active, superior male. Men, however, are favored from a biological standpoint, because their sexual life is fully integrated with their existence as a person. Women, on the other hand, are profoundly alienated because of their enslavement to reproduction, which, according to de Beauvoir, is unwillingly accepted. Women, too, feel the urge to transcend but are biologically destined to give life in a society which values posterity in its offspring. Facing the constant temptation to forgo liberty and become objects rather than affirm their subjective existence, women have failed to set up female values in opposition to male values.
It is not until menopause that women are delivered from the servitude imposed on them by their organism. Postmenopausal women, in a sense, form a “third sex,” not male but also no longer female. In de Beauvoir’s opinion, women of all ages will regain their urge and ability to transcend once they are permitted to affirm their status as subjects through an active and productive existence. In practice, nothing but gainful employment will guarantee their liberty. They will set new goals to play a vigorous role in economic, political, and social life; they will escape the prison of immanence “to emerge into the light of transcendence.”
De Beauvoir’s influence on feminist thought is tremendous. Her statement that “in a properly organized society, where children would be largely taken in charge by the community and the mother cared for and helped, maternity would not be wholly incompatible with careers for women,” though actually referring to a Socialist model, heralded a revolution in Western capitalist societies. Early American feminists blindly subscribed to de Beauvoir’s contention that economic independence and integration into the productive labor force could not fail to bring full equality to both sexes. Her suggestion of reorganizing a family-oriented society into one where the care of children would become the responsibility of the community as a whole has remained a viable concept reflected in many attempts to solve the lingering child care question on a state and federal level.