It arrived this week. Reading it so far I’ve felt nostalgia and had a sense of revelation.
The new translation does seem so different to the one I read in my late teens tho I can’t be sure without going back to the original translation if it was because I approached it differently as a younger woman or if it was the nature of the translation that made Simone de Beauvoir seem so different to me now.
Whatever the reason I find her writing much more approachable, more appealing to engage with rather than be lectured by and her long winding sentences seem personal and thoughtful rather than impenetrable.

Focusing on the question of ‘what is a woman’ in the introduction, Beauvoir identifies what an elusive term it is, that really only makes sense in contrast to the term ‘man’.. Yet there is something more absolute about man that doesn’t require definition in the same way.

..if we accept, even temporarily, that there are women on the earth, we then have to ask: what is a woman?

If I want to define myself, I first have to say, ‘I am a woman’; all other assertions will arise from this basic truth. A man never begins by positing himself as an individual of a certain sex: that he is a man is obvious.’

Woman…determines and differentiates herself in relation to man, and he does not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute. She is the Other.

I have always been very aware of this sense of being the ‘Other’ that ‘man’ is somehow the fixed standard against which woman is compared, contrasted and defined. Even when it comes to films I want to watch being dismissed as ludicrous for men to be expected to watch while the films they choose are considered generic and therefore I am expected to join in.

How is it then that between the sexes [this] reciprocity has not been put forward, that one of the terms has been asserted as the only essential one, denying any relativity in regard to its correlative, defining the latter as pure alterity? Why do women not contest male sovereignty?…in order for the Other not to turn into the One, the Other has to submit to this foreign point of view. Where does this submission in women come from?

There have not always been proletarians; there have always been women; they are women by their physiological structure; as far back as history can be traced they have always been subordinate to men; their dependence is not the consequence of an event or a becoming, it did not happen. Alterity here appears to be an absolute, partly because it falls outside the accidental nature of historical fact… If woman discovers herself as the inessential, and never turns into the essential, it is because she does not bring about this transformation herself. Proletarians says ‘we’…Posting themselves as subjects, they thus transform the bourgeois [or whites] into ‘others’. Women – except in certain abstract gatherings such as conferences – do not use ‘we’; men say ‘women’ and women adopt this word to refer to themselves; but they do not posit themselves authentically as Subjects.

They live dispersed among men, tied by homes, work, economic interests and social conditions to certain men – fathers or husbands – more closely than to other women. As bourgeois women, they are in solidarity with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians; as white women, they are in solidarity with white men and not with black women…

The division of the sexes is a biological given, not a moment in human history. Their opposition took shape within an original Mittsein and she has not broken it.

The concept of Subject and Other and Mittsein I know play a big part in Beauvoir’s writing and I do think there is something in how she portrays woman that is useful to work with.
It’s easy to dismiss some of the things she says about women’s position in society because things have changed. But I am interested in to what extent women’s position in relation to themselves and to men has changed… can women say that they have taken the difficult path towards freedom? Are they (am I?) still in some ways accepting the position of the Other because of the benefits it brings?

At the moment that women are beginning to share in the making of the world, this world still belongs to men: men have no doubt about this, and women barely doubt it. Refusing to be the Other, refusing complicity with man, would mean renouncing all the advantages an alliance with the superior caste confers on them. Lord-man will materially protect liege-woman and will be in charge of justifying her existence; along with economic risk, she eludes the metaphysical risk of a freedom that must invent its goals without help. Indeed, beside every individual’s claim to assert himself as subject – an ethical claim – lies the temptation to flee freedom and to make himself into a thing: it is a pernicious path because the individual, passive, alienated and lost, is prey to a foreign will, cut off from his transcendence, robbed of all worth. But it is an easy path: the anguish and stress of authentically assumed existence are thus avoided.


Reading Non-fiction book # 3 I was aware that I was being selective about what chapters I really paid attention to: My interest lies in what Karen Vintges says in one of the essays is Simone de Beauvoir‘s concept of art de vivre or art of living, which aligns her to the tradition of “philosophy as a way of life” as outlined by Pierre Hadot in his book of that title.
I’m drawn to how she makes use of Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic and how she seems to demand something quite rigorous from women.
The previous post sets out a vague framework for what I’m going to read and write about: I am interested in what Simone de Beauvoir has to say about being a woman and have a sense of wanting to wrestle with some of her thinking about how it applies to my life.
Please let me know what you think about Simone de Beauvoir and her thinking today.

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.

No one could deny that my idea for what I hope will be a series of blog posts over the coming year is that I have just watched Julie and Julia and am inspired by the idea of a daily blogging project.
But I have started a reading project which is now in its second month and a blog seems like the next step.
Last month I set myself the task of reading 12 philosophy books. I wasn’t sure which ones at first and quite randomly lighted Simone de Beauvoir, philosophy and feminism by Nancy Bauer.
That book has set the course for the next year and now I can see a theme developing.
So on this blog I am going to keep track of my trail through the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir and its pinnacle will be reading The Second Sex – the new translation.

Photo credit: Frasmotic via a Creative Commons licence

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 ainudil through a Creative Commons licence

I read Rachel Cusk’s piece about women’s writing in the Observer last year and have been thinking about it since then. It’s well worth reading in full but here are some extracts:

Half silence, half enigma: the words “women’s writing” connote not simply a literature made by women but one that arises out of, and is shaped by, a set of specifically female conditions. A book is not an example of “women’s writing” simply because it is written by a woman. Writing may become “women’s writing” when it could not have been written by a man.

If a woman feels suffocated and grounded and bewildered by her womanhood, she feels these things alone, as an individual: there is currently no public unity among women, because since the peak of feminism the task of woman has been to assimilate herself with man. She is, therefore, occluded, scattered, disguised. Were a woman writer to address her sex, she would not know who or what she was addressing. Superficially this situation resembles equality, except that it occurs within the domination of “masculine values”. What today’s woman has gained in personal freedom she has lost in political caste. Hers is still the second sex, but she has earned the right to dissociate herself from it.

The room, or the lack of it, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with writing at all. It could be said that every woman should have a room of her own…. But it may equally be the case that a room of her own enables the woman writer to shed her links with femininity and commit herself to the reiteration of “masculine values”. The room itself may be the embodiment of those values, a conception of “property” that is at base unrelated to female nature.

Since reading it I’ve been thinking about how those arguments might apply to women in other socio-economic groups and cultures and also about the impact the internet might have for women in terms of opportunities to write and have their voices heard. I haven’t come up with anything conlusive but was interested to read James Bradley’s City of Tongues reflections on why women seem to dominate the blogosphere and use the medium to such great effect.

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