An imperfect man

In rekindling my interest in the life and works of Simone de Beauvoir, I recently re-read the Introduction to The Second Sex: Woman as Other.

The whole book is a marvelous piece of non-fiction literature that I first read in my early 20s. It had a great influence on me.

Now, perhaps in parts slightly outdated, it is still remarkably clear from what origin the piece comes. It is so recent history in parts, and still every-day life in other parts of the world that I cannot but admire Simone de Beauvoir’s ability to capture the essence of this complex matter: women’s status inferior to men’s. By stating this I mean it in the broadest sense possible (as would de Beauvoir I am sure). Looking back at the Western culture still some 50-100 years ago, or contemporary societies elsewhere in the world, equality had not yet reached the public sphere of influence, and in some ways surely not the private either. I by no means wish to enter a discussion of whether ‘protecting’ women is a good reason for inequality, I merely wish to point out that there is (has been) a difference in dealing with men and women in society, and as de Beauvoir wonders, why is this (necessary)?

Even from the Introduction to the piece, it is easy to pick out delicious quotes and phrases, such as the following. Starting with an all-time favourite:

A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man.

..humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him..

Interestingly enough, although already at the time of writing (1949) de Beauvoir recognizes that women’s situation relative to men is beginning to change, in the light of statistics alone there is still a seed of truth in this quote:

Even when her rights are legally recognised in the abstract, long-standing custom prevents their full expression in the mores. In the economic sphere men and women can almost be said to make up two castes; other things being equal, the former hold the better jobs, get higher wages, and have more opportunity for success than their new competitors. In industry and politics men have a great many more positions and they monopolise the most important posts.

At the present time, when women are beginning to take part in the affairs of the world, it is still a world that belongs to men – they have no doubt of it at all and women have scarcely any.

I must emphasize that of course the world is changing, and has changed since the writing of The Second Sex. In politics the playing field is already more even, however not all over the world.

What de Beauvoir most cleverly states next I find is true in all aspects of life:

To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal – this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste.

What is meant by this, is that women must take their fate in their own hands, take on economic and intellectual responsibility in addition to the social, and stand on their own two feet without waiting to be buoyed to the next level by their more influential ‘allies’.

This last remark on the contents of the Introduction ‘Woman as Other’ I still find compelling, and I think only now fully understand. We should all take the time to revisit some of these works that have changed the way we think, or begun to change it. Since we as persons also change and grow from our experiences, it can be quite fulfilling to re-read some of our old influences, see how we interpret them now and, in the case of powerful and deeply intellectual work, realize how they’ve held on even in changing times.

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