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.

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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.

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.

On the day Amnesty International and women’s organisations lobbied MPs for increased protection for all women facing violence in the UK, I re-read Janice Turner’s recent article on the silence of feminists in the face of casual sexism. Wondering where feminism went wrong Turner writes that of the half dozen twenty-somethings she met in a bid to find out only one identified themselves as a feminist and the rest didn’t identify with it at all:

The only feminist they can think of is Julie Bindel, the radical lesbian writer. Feminism means no fun or make-up, anger and hating men. It is a broken brand, not needed now. As one put it: “All the battles are won.”

Why is it, Turner asks, “that while America has a tradition of feminist writers and thinkers, including Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, there are no young women “questioning the orthodoxy here”?

In a later article Turner sets out to rally feminists and stir up resistance to the “pornification” of culture. It’s time to challenge casual sexism she writes, inviting readers to send in examples of sexism.
The response to her first article she says was “thank God, someone is saying this — I thought I was alone”.

Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony argues it isn’t a case of feminists being silent, although she acknowledges those voices are rarely heard in the mainstream. She also criticises Turner for showing “a lack of knowledge or disregard of just what has been going on in the online world for the last decade” and picks up on the fact that feminists are often criticised for being silent on a variety of issues: “I’ve had it up to here with the “feminists have been silent about…” trope that springs up everywhere in the media both on line and off”.

So to an article by Clive James I recently re-read criticising feminists for their silence on the subject of so-called honour killings. He writes about Pamela Bone, an Australian journalist whose 2005 article in the Melbourne Age attacked Western feminists for failing to speak up against abuses in the Western world.

Reading around this issue, as with many others, it’s clear there are many vibrant feminist writers online.
If you are looking for authoritative voices speaking out in the mainstream media in the UK however, “silence” is what you’re likely to get.

Whether that’s important depends on how much weight you give to the mainstream. If you think it’s important that feminism is “heard” in the media then some of the questions Janice Turner raises about the pressures to keep quiet are important ones – but is it as much about deafness as about silence?