Simone is one that came from her book, “The

Simone de Beauvoir’s quote
“Womanhood is a social construct” is one that came from her book, “The Second
Sex” written in 1949. The book itself has had a lasting effect on our society, causing the questioning and critiquing of the
patriarchy and the causes for the inferiority of
women. The use of phenomenology and feminist existentialism, even Jean-Paul
Sartre’s existentialism, provides a way of seeing women through embodied experiences
and as free agents. I firmly believe that phenomenology and feminist
existentialism can provide a way of combatting the belief that womanhood is
something that is inherent in all women and therefore can liberate women by
ridding them of these attached preconceptions. Today, womanhood is not only
seen as the condition of being a woman, rather, with the term comes false
ideals and seemingly “natural” characteristics that come with being a woman,
the most obvious example being of women as housewives. Of course today, we know
that this is not always the case but I wish to argue that there is no such
thing as “womanhood” and that phenomenology and feminist existentialism show
this to be true. According to Beauvoir, the goal of liberation is the mutual
recognition of each other as free as the other; this would not be the case if
there were fixed roles that either sex has to
undertake. As well as Simone de Beauvoir, I would also like to look at
Jean-Paul Sartre and how their romantic and intellectual relationship shaped
their respective philosophical theories; this is to highlight the importance of
their work in tandem.

 

De Beauvoir combats the view
of womanhood being something that is inherent to all women by showing the
origins of male supremacy that established this view of women. De Beauvoir
states that it is “man’s world”1
and that male supremacy is something that has been prehistorically engrained
(she refers to the time of the Nomads) and that persistent inequality has
elevated the male sex to superiority. Three main reasons can be identified as
the causes of male supremacy and this starts in the prehistoric times. The
first is that women have the “bondage of reproduction”2 therefore
making them dependent on men for food and protection. Through pregnancy,
childbirth and menstruation women are put at a disadvantage and this is
exacerbated by the fact they are unable to fulfil their ability to work. The
lack of birth control meant that a pregnant woman would have her energy and
time absorbed; we see that women are able to reproduce but cannot create,
unlike their male counterparts who create their futures with their freedom. LINK TO THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE. The second cause of
male supremacy is that of domestic labours being
merely functions. These functions are only ever carried out by women and
therefore “imprisoned her in repetition and immanence”3. To
clarify, De Beauvoir uses the word “immanence” to describe a state in which
women are restricted, it contrasts freedom and transcendence. The “repetition”
that Beauvoir speaks of has been perpetuated throughout centuries to such a
large extent that it has become “the norm”. Finally, the early man’s activity
was usually dangerous, “it is not in giving life but in risking life that man
is raised above the animal…superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the
sex that brings forth but to that which kills”4. It
is this extra element of danger men had to face that made them worthy of
superiority. We see that the combination of these reasons put women at a
disadvantage because it is a lot harder for women to fulfil their
self-realisation with such imposed restrictions. Instead women are “submitted
passively to her biological fate”5. Such
problems can still be seen today, in LEDCs women are still confined to their
biological purposes and processes such as menstruation can be life threatening,
as recently seen in Nepal where a teenage girl died of a snake bite after
having been banished to a period shed6.

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De Beauvoir goes on to speak
of why inequality persists and speaks of there being two distinct economic
“castes” between men and women. The first being that the burdens of marriage
are heavier on women than men, it is “more difficult for a woman than for a man
to reconcile her family life with her role as a worker”7.

This is followed by the fact that women who seek independence through work
usually do this at their expense and under less favourable circumstances. This
is evidently seen in the gender pay gap where women are paid less than men in
the workplace and in the lack of women in high positions. De Beauvoir makes
this explicit, “for equal work she does not get equal pay”8.

The final reason is that society has not changed its expectations of women.

Although it can be said that women have the same opportunities, they can
receive an education and have a job yet it is true that marriage is “the most
honourable career”9.

Furthermore, such apparently evident opportunities are not available to the
majority of women in LEDCs and the women of the west are privileged in this
respect. From Beauvoir we can see that women are in a state of subjection, they
are unable to escape imposed standards created from the prehistoric time and it
is these standards that have culminated to create such a loaded term as “womanhood”.

De Beauvoir speaks of the importance of awareness of the self as a way to
escape this imposed label, instead women should be understood on the basis of
her potential and not her limitations. Beauvoir uses French phenomenological
philosopher Merleau-Ponty to explain her point, “as Merleau-Ponty very justly
puts it, man is not a natural species…woman is not a completed reality, but
rather a becoming, and it is in her becoming that she should be compared with
man”.  Although De Beauvoir paints a bleak
image of the situation of women, it is not hopeless because women’s
exploitation has been occurring throughout history and is therefore amenable to change. Through the use of existentialism
women are responsible and are able to change, they must reject bad faith to
find pleasures of freedom.

 

For Beauvoir, there are two
dualities in social reality, that of the subject and the other and that of the
man and the woman. These two dualities are related in the way that there is a
mirroring, man is the subject and the subject is absolute whereas woman is the
“inessential” Other. As Beauvoir argues, it is through this duality arising
from sexual difference that women are oppressed and considered as “other” by
society. Whilst the subject “who is himself” is able to live life in
transcendence, the “inessential creature” is bound to living a life in
immanence and therefore is unable to fully realise herself subjectively. As
Beauvoir illustrates it is clear that men act for themselves, “man’s design is
not to repeat himself in time: it is to take control of the instant and mould
the future”. Contrastingly, women are effected by the eternal societal
pressures that stop women from achieving transcendence and instead lead them to
living a life of bad faith where they do not live for themselves, “hence woman
makes no claim for herself as subject because she lacks the concrete means,
because she senses the necessary link connecting her to man without positing
its reciprocity, and because she often derives satisfaction from her role as
other”. Women achieve satisfaction from their role as “other” because it is the
only role she is rewarded for, “it is civilisation as a whole that produces
this creature…only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual
as other”10. Since
the establishment of women as “Other” is not inherent to our human nature it
can also be said that the ideology of womanhood is also false because it is a
result of women being treated as “other”. Beauvoir makes this clear as she
explains that the establishment of “other” occurs in childhood at the time of
separation from the mother, it is at this point that the nursling lives the
“basic drama of every existent, that of his relation to the other”11.

However, this is not the deciding point because “Up to the age of twelve the
girl is as strong as her brothers, and she shows the same mental powers”12.

Instead, it is not until the outside influences make a distinction between the
boy and the girl that she is “indoctrinated with her vocation from her earliest
years”13.

Whilst the boy is denied, “little by little the kisses and caresses they have
been used to”14
the girl “continues to be cajoled, she is allowed to cling to her mother’s
skirts, her father takes her on his knee…bodily contacts and agreeable glances
protect her against the anguish of solitude”15.

Perhaps the biggest difference that occurs between girls and boys is in their
treatment of sadness, the boy is told that “‘a man doesn’t asked to be kissed…a
man doesn’t look at himself in mirrors…a man doesn’t cry” whereas her “tears
and caprices are viewed indulgently”16. Since
boys are urged from a young age to be as ‘manly’ as possible they become what
Beauvoir calls, “little men”17
thus we can also see that any conception whether it be of womanhood or of
manhood can be harmful and limiting to the individual. By the time of adulthood
a woman is “a free and autonomous being like all human creatures, nevertheless
finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of
the Other and…doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be
overshadowed and forever transcended by another ego which is essential”18.

It is important to remember that following Beauvoir’s argument, the
establishment of “other” results from the sexual differences between men and
women being used to perpetuate the idea that women are some what inferior to
men.

 

Existentialism originates
from 19th century philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzche and
it was fully developed by Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir through their
collaborative relationship. The basis of existentialism is to emphasize
individual existence, freedom and choice. I think that following an
existentialist line of thinking would remove imposed social constructs such as
that of womanhood because existentialism advocates liberation and equality. In
“Existentialism is a Humanism” Sartre states that the first principle of
existentialism is that “man is not only what he conceives himself to be, but
what which he wills himself to be” 19
therefore an embracement of our individual existence is necessary in order to
be able to define one’s own meaning in life because “existence precedes
essence”20.

This famous phrase coined by Sartre means that we don’t have an inherent nature,
rather we define ourselves through our actions and our engagement with the
world. Sartre uses the example of a paperknife as a point of contrast because a
paperknife’s essence does precede its existence since it is designed in a
specific way to serve a specific purpose. Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir in The
Second Sex states, “one is not born, rather becomes, a woman”21.

Not only does Beauvoir make it clear that being a woman does not entail
predestined roles, she also makes a distinction between gender and sex
suggesting that there is no link at all between the two. However, as Sartre
makes clear, with this freedom comes a great weight of responsibility that
makes us “a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind”22
for “when we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean that each of us must
choose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men”23
therefore “our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed”24.

Although this may seem daunting, I think that it is also encouraging because it
shows the extent to which we can have an impact on the world and it emphasizes
the importance of our actions therefore encouraging us to embrace our existence
for what it is. I believe that this line of thinking has the ability to empower
women to act as free agents and not to be subservient therefore eventually
liberating the female stereotype. Especially since “in willing freedom, we
discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the
freedom of others is dependent on our own”25
therefore there is equally a call towards the patriarchy to encourage this
liberation.

 

For Sartre it is especially
important that we don’t live in bad faith (“mauvaise foi”) which is a state in
which one is not being true to oneself and therefore practices self-deception,
“we shall willingly grant that bad faith is a lie to oneself”26
since it is an “aim at establishing that I am not what I am”27.

Sartre acknowledges the difficulty in being our authentic and sincere selves
however he also states that it a necessity because in not being authentic we
are not taking our freedom seriously. Sartre uses the example of the waiter to
depict someone who has bad faith, “his movement is quick and forward, a little
too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the customers with a step a little
too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly”28.

The problem with the waiter is that he is taking his role as a waiter so
seriously that it has replaced his authentic and true self in the way that he
is no longer in the mode of “being in-itself”29,
rather a waiter in the mode of “being what I am not”30.

De Beauvoir also utilizes this concept of bad faith in her analysis of the
Woman in Love who lives in bad faith and becomes the object of her essential
lover therefore denying her own freedom and transcendence. Instead she “is thus
slave, queen, hind, stained-glass window, wanton, servant, courtesan, muse,
companion, mother, sister, child, according to the fugitive dreams, the
imperious demands, of her lover”31.

Unbeknownst to her, it is her bad faith that “raises barriers between and her
and the man she adores…she misunderstands his freedom”32.

Both Beauvoir and Sartre warn of the dangers of bad faith however Sartre seems
to ignore the differences in experience between men and women, particularly in matters
such as love where the inessential woman is forced to go beyond bad faith into
the complete subjection of the man since she is “shut up in the sphere of the
relative, destined to the male from childhood, habituated to seeing in him a
superb being whom she cannot possibly equal, the woman who has not repressed
her claim to humanity will dream of transcending her being toward one of these
superior beings, of amalgamating herself with the sovereign subject. There is
no other way out for her than to lose herself, body and soul, in him who is
represented to her as the absolute, as the essential”33. Since
there is not inherent ‘womaness’ it can be argued that the typically female
roles such as that of a domestic housewife are nothing more than women living in
bad faith. Therefore it is not as simple as saying that these roles are
socially imposed because although they may be imposed by the patriarchy it is
the women’s responsibility to be true to their authentic selves and live in
good faith.

1 Simone de Beauvoir (1949).

The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books . 93

2 ibid. 94

3 ibid. 95

4 ibid. 95

5 ibid. 96

6
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/nepalese-teenager-dies-banished-menstruation-hut-shed-period-cycle-tulasi-shahi-a7833056.html

7 Simone de Beauvoir (1949). The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books. 165

8 ibid. 167

9 ibid. 167

10 ibid. 295

11 ibid. 296

12 ibid. 661

13 ibid. 296

14 ibid

15 ibid

16 ibid

17 ibid

18 ibid. 29

19 Sartre, J., Macomber, C., Elkaïm-Sartre, A. and
Sartre, J. (2007). Existentialism is a humanism. New Haven: Yale University
Press, p.22.

20 ibid

21 ibid. 296

22 ibid. 30

23 ibid. 24

24 ibid. 29

25 ibid. 48

26 SARTRE, J. (1943). BEING AND
NOTHINGNESS. S.l.: ROUTLEDGE. p.71

27 ibid. 80

28 ibid. 82

29 ibid. 83

30 ibid. 83

31 Simone de Beauvoir (1949).

The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books. P.662

32 ibid. p. 665

33 Simone de Beauvoir (1949).

The Second Sex. Paris: Vintage Books. P.653