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   The precarious social positioning and aspirations that hamstring women described by Beauvoir in 1949, still ring true today.

“In The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argued that women were at a disadvantage in a society where they grew up under ‘a multiplicity of incompatible myths’ about women. Instead of being encouraged to dream their own dreams and pursue meaningful projects for their lives, Beauvoir argued that the ‘myths’ proposed to women, whether in literature or history, science or psychoanalysis, encouraged them to believe that to be a woman was to be for others – and especially for men. Throughout childhood, girls were fed a steady diet of stories that led them to believe that to succeed as a woman was to succeed at love – and that to succeed at other things would make them less lovable. 

Although some of Beauvoir’s claims have dated, her method in The Second Sex was groundbreaking, two-fold and still worthy of attention: in the first volume, she explored some ‘facts and myths’ that had been written about women by men. In the second, she sought to describe what it is like for women to become women in the world where men defined them in these ways – and how it led many to feel divided and dissatisfied.

Whereas boys were brought up to believe that they could value their own independence and creativity and have flourishing personal relationships, on Beauvoir’s analysis, a woman’s education too often led her to feel ‘torn’ between choosing freedom and choosing love. ‘Woman’, she wrote, is ‘doomed’ to feelings of failure and guilt, because if she succeeded at conforming to mythical ideals of femininity she would be a mirage, not a person. She was expected to embody ‘an inhuman entity: the strong woman, the admirable mother, the virtuous woman, and so on’. Because femininity is so closely associated with prioritising the needs of others, with being likeable and giving, when a woman ‘thinks, dreams, sleeps, desires, and aspires’ for herself, she becomes less feminine – which, in the social currency of 1949 at least, meant she became a worse woman.”

Popular conception of Mind is still burdened, to a certain extent, with the cloak of Cartesian Dualism.  The notion that our brains are primarily computational/abstraction machines being transported around in a useful bags of flesh is strong heuristic model that, while providing clarity in many areas, often obfuscates our relationship with the environment, and how the environment shapes us.  Sally Davies writes eloquently about our conception of mind and how feminists can break the limitations that the current model imposes on society.

“While philosophers are inordinately fond of comparing humans to entities that are different to ‘us’ – zombies, bats, AIs, octopuses, aliens – they’ve been rather slower to show an interest in the complex lives of certain creatures who already live alongside ‘us’ day to day, who can walk and talk and describe their subjectivity, but who until recently have been shut out of the category of full and proper personhood. Feminist theory, concerned with the operation of patriarchy and the liberation of women, is a powerful tool for revealing the pernicious effects of setting women to the side – including how such exclusion might permit unexamined assumptions and questionable theories to persist.

In her classic text The Second Sex (1949), the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir performed just such a move against the bedrock of Enlightenment philosophy, the knowing human subject. ‘Man is not a natural species: he is a historical idea,’ she said, paraphrasing her fellow philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The very idea of the Human is not some universal given, de Beauvoir claimed, but a byproduct of how societies have systematically degraded women:

The devaluation of woman represents a necessary stage in the history of humanity; for she derived her prestige not from her positive value but from man’s weakness; she incarnated disturbing natural mysteries: man escapes her grasp when he frees himself from nature.Woman, in other words, is humanity’s foil. She is the ‘Other’, bearing the brand of the not-quite-Human, which lets man point at her and whisper: We know what we are, because, thank god, we are not that.

Thus when de Beauvoir makes the oft-quoted point that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, woman’, she is not just saying that women’s minds and selves are socially constructed. More trenchantly, she is arguing that women become women precisely so that men can become Human. While the Human has access to Cartesian qualities of reason, truth and clarity, the Other is linked to irrationality, emotion and vagueness; where the Human has civilisation and culture, the Other is aligned with nature and matter; and where the Human has a honed and powerful mind, the Other is at the mercy of the body. De Beauvoir writes:

Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers the woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularises it.The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum extends a version of de Beauvoir’s analysis in her bookPolitical Emotions (2013). Drawing on child and developmental psychology, Nussbaum says that the human condition is framed by an awareness of vulnerability on the one hand, and the desire to change and control our reality on the other. This inescapable bind creates a universal impulse towards narcissism and disgust, she says. We feel disgust at our own mortal and fleshly nature, and at any reminders of our finitude and fragility as creatures. So we subordinate others in order to project onto them all the qualities that we wish to deny in ourselves – that they are base, animal, Other – while we imagine ourselves as transcending to the realm of the mighty, truly Human.”

This is classic analysis of De Beauvoir and a great summary of how women are viewed in society. A different model of Mind, known as embodied cognition, suggests a different framework to view our interactions and behaviour in society.

“Computational thinking remains dominant within cognitive science and philosophy of mind. But new frontiers are opening up that view the body as something more than just a brain-carrying robot. In doing so, they have created the potential for alliances with feminist thinkers influenced by the likes of Fausto-Sterling. Within a broad church that can be called – not uncontentiously – embodied cognition, a growing number of psychologists, scientists and theorists are approaching mental life as something that is not just contingent on, but constituted by, the state of our bodies. In the place of a Cartesian computer, the mind becomes more like a clay pot thrown on a wheel, to use the philosopher Michael Kirchhoff’s metaphor. The wet clay spins on a rotating disk, shaping and reshaping itself under the potter’s hands, arms and muscles, which in turn respond to how the material is moving. The mind is moulded by forces operating both within it and upon it, but also linked up to the world and the body as a single, dynamic yet mostly stable system.

It takes only a small leap to see the political potential of embodied cognition for feminists seeking a path out of the quagmire of sex and gender – or indeed any other critical social theorists keen to overthrow falsely naturalised and unjust hierarchies. Embodied cognition allows us to recognise the agency of biology without ceding the significance of power or politics. In her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ (1980), the American philosopher Iris Marion Young cites empirical research suggesting that women playing sport are more likely than men to perceive a ball to be coming at them, aggressively, rather than towards them; they also tend not to trust their bodies, and to experience their limbs as awkward encumbrances rather than tools to help them realise their aims. Drawing on the work of de Beauvoir, Young suggests that female bodily experience is often rooted ‘in the fact that feminine existence experiences the body as a mere thing – a fragile thing, which must be picked up and coaxed into movement, a thing that exists as looked at and acted upon.’ But Young denies that this state of affairs is in any way natural, or that it flows from something intrinsic to female biology; instead, she says, such feelings are byproducts of how women learn to live in their bodies. One therefore doesn’t need some essential definition of ‘female’ to accept that embodiment matters, and to see how it shapes and can be shaped by culture.”

Fascinating.  The pivot away from the computational model allows a more textured analysis of how deeply rooted patriarchal norms in society are.  More hopefully we can see that the roots of female oppression are not a clear cut case of strictly biological factors, but rather of social construction, and social constructs are not immutable products of nature and thus, can be changed.

These just excepts from a very meaty and interesting essay, I recommend going to Aeon Magazine and reading the whole article as it well worth your time.

 

simonedebeavoir

simonedebeauvoirI am so beyond tired of English speakers misinterpreting this quote and making it mean the exact opposite of what Beauvoir meant by it.
Here is the explanation that immediately follows it in The Second Sex:

  “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.”

I don’t know how much clearer she can be: she defines “woman” as “the figure that the human female presents in society” and goes on to criticise the fact that society has made this figure into something “intermediate between male and eunuch” and called it feminine. To Beauvoir, “woman” is a harmful social construct forced on females, so this word doubly doesn’t apply to transwomen, who a) are not female and b) are not forced into womanhood.

When people use “one is not born, but becomes a woman” to mean “anyone can become a woman”, they
– are conveniently forgetting the part where the political construct of “woman” is inextricably linked to the condition of being born a human female (I mean, the first chapter of that book is called The Data of Biology…) and the part where Beauvoir is criticising this man-made concept of “woman” as well as the, in her words, “hierarchy of sexes” (also known as ~spectrum of genders~) it helps create; and
– are essentially saying that transwomen are feminine eunuchs. That is what “woman” is in this book, a restrictive patriarchal construct that could best be described as an inferior, castrated male with feminine clothing and behaviour, and that female humans are not born as (as patriarchy would like us to believe) but are forced to grow into, which is the main component of their oppression.
(Please keep in mind that this was written in the 1940s when the belief that women were naturally inferior and born to serve men wasn’t publicly challenged at all. When everyone defines “woman” as “naturally inferior”, saying “the human female is not born a woman, she is made one” is revolutionary.)

The point of “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” was not that male humans can also become women despite being born male, it was that female humans should not be forced to become a “woman” as defined by our patriarchal world. But trust our modern-day “feminists” to take a quote about female oppression and make it about male fantasies instead.

It is blatant gender criticism by SdB so you can see why it would need to be repurposed by men to serve men.

-Found on Ses Purs Ongles.

Probably not what you expected, but still accurate and interesting. :)

 

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