Books


This is the point I want to start from: What has Simone de Beauvoir‘s thinking got to say to women today?

Karen Vintges
thinks she gives us “important clues” as to how to conceive of a feminism for the twenty-first century. In an essay titled Simone de Beauvoir: A Feminist Thinker for the Twenty-First Century, she writes that Beauvoir’s thinking on ethics and politics:

..already suggests the contours of a feminism of the twenty-first century, that is a cross-cultural feminism based on a shared ethos and demanding access to all women to ethical-spiritual self-creation.

Themes such as the logic of “equality and difference” and identity that are interwoven in Beauvoir’s thinking offer solutions to some of the “apparent dilemmas of contemporary feminism”, Vintges argues in her essay, which is one of 16 in The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, Critical Essays.

Vintges says her work and life amount to the creation of an “art of living” that could inspire women to imagine what life as an active and creative woman could be like. Throughout another book, The Mandarins, Beauvoir,

..suggests that such an ethical life-project or ethos, takes constant exercise such as dialogue with oneself and writing practices. Her autobiographical work should be seen in the framework of her art of living concept of ethics. The five volumes of autobiography as well as her diaries and letters are writing practices through which she takes stock of her daily life and stylises her behaviour. They are the means to shape herself as the ethical subject that she wanted to be.

Beauvoir‘s emphasis on the necessity of creating a self or identity is at odds with postmodern feminist thinking in terms of identity, suspicion of any essential subject “woman” and cultural imperialism.
But Vintges argues that we can still benefit from her ideas and that Beauvoir‘s “concept of the self prefigures and anticipates the postmodern and multiculturalist critique on the essential autonomous self”

Vintges dismisses claims that The Second Sex was merely an application of Jean Paul Sartre‘s existentialism and argues that Beauvoir‘s work was focused on the idea that women were reaching a point in history when, emancipated, they would have the opportunity to develop a Self.
Vintges denies that Beauvoir was male-biased and argued that women should aspire to be like men, instead suggesting that she was concerned that both men and women have to change to overcome their enmity.

Reading Beauvoir‘s The Ethics of Ambiguity is important in order to understand her later book, The Second Sex:

Her argument in The Second Sex that the enmity between men and women can be overcome clearly builds on her own ethics of ambiguity. She argues that both sexes should assume their ambiguity and stop using the other sex to hide from themselves their ambiguous condition, “projecting into the partner that part of the self which is repudiated”.

Another important aspect of her work is the originality of her appropriation of Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic.

Both men and women should not only accept each other and themselves as subjects, but they should accept as well their objective, that is, bodily, dimension. Beauvoir‘s appeal to women in The Second Sex to grasp their chance at developing into a self cannot be considered a plea for women to become pure Cartesian, rational selves. She wanted women to become selves, but in contrast to Sartre, it is the situated, sensitive self she is after, for women and men.

This desire and the further significant aim of The Second Sex to “enable women to invent new ways of experiencing life as a woman on the individual and collective level” are “feminist projects that will take us far into the twenty-first century” writes Vintges.

Beauvoir‘s thinking offers a way for a collective political feminism to emerge “as a shared ethos, or a shared ethical spiritual way of life” that resists

…all essentialist and fundamentalist attempts to postulate the universal Truth about woman and all normativity with regard to women and femininity that is based on scientific, religious or metaphysical “knowledge” of what woman is (her nature, her desire, her destiny). It presents itself with a (shared) ethos that explicitly articulates gender by wanting to side with “women,” demanding access for them to a life of ethical-spiritual creation.

Photocredit: cdrummbks via a Creative Commons licence

At the start of the year I set myself a target of reading 12 non-fiction books and 12 novels. It’s only now that I’ve decided to keep track of what I’m reading on this blog so I’m going to give a brief run-through of what I’ve read so far.
Novel # 1 First I read Love in Winter, written by Storm Jameson and published in 1935.
Just one of her 45 novels and part of a trilogy, Love in Winter is one of just a handful still in print. It was a gem of a Christmas present: discovering a writer is a real treat and being introduced to one who writes so sparingly on such a large scale, touching on the political and individual – and has written so many books – feels like a ticket to explore.

Non-fiction book #1
One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power, Zero Books
With a title taken from One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse the book explores how contemporary woman is defined by consumerism and feminist language hijacked to present liberation and fulfillment in terms of shopping, pampering and indulgence.
I will write some of the key points I picked up in this book in a later post, but reading this book, which posed the question ‘where have all the interesting women gone?’ reinforced the idea I’d had writing posts here and here that the interest in French women may represent a search for something more deep-rooted and perhaps philosophical about what it is to be a woman.
This lead me to Non-fiction book # 2 which I have recently finished.
Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy and Feminism by Nancy Bauer
I read the Second Sex as a 20-year-old but reading this book opened up Simone de Beauvoir’s writing to me in a new way. It examines how Beauvoir engaged with big name philosophers such as Hegel and his .
My plan now is to be lead by Beauvoir who grappled with his idea of the Master/Slave dialectic in her attempt to answer the question “what is a woman?”
It feels like a big project and I’m not sure where it is going to end up. But on this blog I plan to keep track of the books I read and the theories/ideas I come across. It will be like setting out a map of sorts of the route I’m taking.

A talk about porn culture organised by Editorial Intelligence raised some interesting questions about how we engage with the issue of not only pornography but also an increasingly sexualised culture.
Susie Orbach touched on issues she raises in her new book Bodies which identifies how women’s relationship with their bodies is changing: we increasingly view our bodies as a mirror of how we view ourselves so that the body has become the measure of our worth.
Articles, interviews and reviews about Bodies are here.
Natasha Walter in her new book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism also looks at how culture has become hyper-sexualised and how the language of empowerment has been hijacked.
Articles and book reviews here.

Photo credit: fireballk2588 through a Creative Commons licence.

Photo by captaincinema/Jennifer P. through a Creative Commons license

There was no doubting the sense of triumph in articles announcing that French Women DO get fat trumpeted the latest statistic that 15 per cent of French women are obese.
Many of the books and articles about French women focus on “the look” and reflect on what is “indefinably sexy about French women”.
But does the interest in French womanhood reflect a desire for a kind of mentoring, for inspiration about what it means to be a woman? In a culture where women are over-sexualised and magazines suggest shopping is all, studies of French women may still largely focus on the sex appeal but also offer a more cohesive view of womanhood based on tradition, philosophy and intellect. Could that be part of the appeal?

Photo by Jean-Christophe Dichant via a Creative Commons license

At some point I will do a round up of all the books and blogs that pore over the style and outlook of French women. For now I’m just wondering if the appeal is straightforwardly superficial – the appeal of well-heeled, well-dressed, mainly bourgeois women? Or does it say something more about women and identity today?
This article hints at some of the appeal of Mireille Guilliano describing how the “pleasure-oriented approach to staying thin” in her first book French Women Don’t Get Fat “combined classic principles of Gallic gastronomy, time-honoured secrets of French women and common sense”.
Mireille Guilliano wrote her latest book Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility “as a guide to balancing work life with life life”. This is why her business book not only covers “important workplace skills and strategies” but “also covers style and food and wine and entertaining: because you can’t disassociate work from life. The book I wrote is as much about ‘art de vivre’ as it is about getting ahead.”
The aspiration to live life like a French woman is based on the narrow cultural stereotype of French woman = beautiful, elegant stylish creature and rightly has its critics. Zoe Williams sees in the proliferation of “themed diet books” a discourse that “both reveals and keeps alive a way of talking about women that should have been dispatched by now”.

Just as a lot of subtle racism slipped in under the guise of anthropology in old-school National Geographics, so a lot of misogyny slips in under the obfuscating, colourful gauze of Studies in French Etiquette.

Samara Ginsberg, writing on the FWord agrees:

I’m glad I’m not the only woman who gets pissed off about the idea that in order to be elegant, sophisticated and “feminine”, I am supposed to be wearing Chanel, smoking Gauloises, pouting a lot whilst sitting outside cafes, and not getting fat. How many women actually have the money and inclination to buy designer clothes? And since when has smoking given you anything except yellow teeth, chronic bronchitis and a greater-than-average chance of dying a hideous death?

Recently published books on French Women include Debra Ollivier’s‘s What French Women Know Leaving aside the wrangle over copyright with another blogger Polly-Vous Francais? there Debra Ollivier publishes a list of Twenty things that she thinks distinguishes French women.
This fascination with the (idealised) French way is says Zoe Williams a “cliche of French womanhood” that “is retrogressive and seems to have halted circa Dangerous Liaisons”.
But why are so many women in the US and UK in particular turning to “time-honoured secrets of the French”? It’s not just whether this is a new guise for oppression of women I’m interested in, it’s also what it says about what women are looking for. Whether the prescription is a good one, does the search reflect a desire for something more resonant in womanhood?