Simone De Beauvoir Today and Tomorrow

December 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Last week I attended a screening of Imogen Sutton’s award-winning film Daughters of De Beauvoir, which I first saw on the BBC in 1989. The film hasn’t dated; it reminds us acutely of what she meant to a nascent women’s movement in the early 1970s, and to subsequent generations. Indeed, without The Second Sex (1949, English translation 1957) it’s hard to imagine the Women’s Liberation Movement, so influential did the book prove to be for hundreds of thousands of women.

It spurred the movement’s writers and theorists to investigate women’s history and the realities of a gendered society. Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate (1971) and Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History (1973) were landmark books in this respect. Placing the growth of the movement within a wider historical and political context, Mitchell saw The Second Sex as ‘the greatest single contribution’ on the subject of women’s liberation.

In Sutton’s film a number of women talk about the impact of reading The Second Sex, as well as the later books that further developed De Beauvoir’s ideas in the light of personal experience and her feminist activism. Interviewees include the American writers Kate Millet – author of Sexual Politics (1970) – and Marge Piercy, whose novels explored utopian possibilities for women, along with the British sociologist Ann Oakley, a pioneering analyst of women’s experience as housewives. An FE teacher, Angie Pegg, describes how she saw De Beauvoir as an encouraging mother-figure who enabled her to change her life as a housewife with two young children and go to university. This was a book that changed lives.

I know it changed mine. I read it as a teenager, already at university, in 1966. This was a year before abortion became legalised, at a time when there was no Equal Pay Act, no Sex Discrimination Act and when a woman couldn’t get a mortgage. Men were the real breadwinners, married women shouldn’t take jobs away from them, university was wasted on girls – these and similar views had the currency of the changeless normal. Yet, their loudly repeated expression was a sign that these norms were being threatened. The processes of change are often obscure when you’re young and in their midst, as I was, being part of a generation that was growing up with unprecedented access to education and the expectations it raises.

In The Second Sex I found the clarity of words that explained my instinctive sense of unfairness. Women were diminished in the world and had been throughout history. This injustice filled me with anger. But De Beauvoir also allowed me to believe that I could make my own life.

At the time, reading her, I had no idea I was reading a philosopher. At university I read Plato’s Republic and Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays. While the latter was discussed in lectures, De Beauvoir, his companion and intellectual equal, wasn’t mentioned.

It can take a while for the insights bestowed on us by books to inspire action. The world, and my corner of it in particular, was a narrow place in 1966. It wasn’t until 1970 that De Beauvoir herself publicly declared ‘I am a feminist’, a commitment to a dawning movement. By then the idea that we could make our own lives had gathered potent collective force and become a conviction that the world itself could be changed. A fundamental tenet of De Beauvoir’s Existentialist thinking, it emphasised the importance of taking individual responsibility for one’s actions, but within a historical and social context.

Existentialism sets store by the truths of lived experience in relation to others. Allied with Marxism, it fostered the spirit of the New Left, the spirit behind the political movements that had their first culmination in 1968, on the heels of the anti-war movement, and, for France, the Algerian war. It was the idea of remaking the world and the self that mobilised the slogans on the walls of Paris’s left bank in May of that year: TAKE YOUR DESIRES FOR REALITY; WE ARE REALISTS, WE WANT THE IMPOSSIBLE.

What I also took from reading The Second Sex and the books that De Beauvoir published later was a sense that what you did with your life, what you became, didn’t always have to be gender specific. I didn’t always have to be defined as a girl or a woman, I could be a person, freed from the otherness and limitations that notions of gender imposed. At the same time I could be a feminist.

That evening, after the film screening there was a panel discussion largely focusing on the question of De Beauvoir’s relevance for younger women today. Do they read her? What would she mean to them? Agreement prevailed that with all the legal and social progress made towards gender equality, young women still have much to contend with and new battles to fight.

The dominance of the virtual in today’s world makes consumerism increasingly inseparable from narcissism and voyeurism. This invasive cult of buying, looking and being looked at permeates daily life through social media on the Internet. Young women face pressures to spend more and more on their looks, even to have cosmetic surgery at an early age, and reports of bullying around the sending of naked pictures have become commonplace. Meanwhile, workplace misogyny and discrimination continue. The ‘everyday sexism’ of De Beauvoir’s time has not gone away. New forms of feminism have latterly been thriving, though young activists sometimes look back with some envy at the solidarity experienced in the WLM of the 70s. They’ve all heard of Simone De Beauvoir (she provided an excuse for some lame jokes on a radio programme I heard a few days ago: ‘Before They Were Famous’, so she must be), but would they find it helpful to read The Second Sex?

It all depends; some certainly would, but there’s a risk of it seeming academic at first compared with contemporary writing on the subject, whereas for my generation it was a lone beacon in the darkness. Rather than new readers resorting to a biography, I’d recommend that they take a look at a short collection of illuminating interviews, carried out over a decade (1972-1982) by Alice Schwarzer, a German journalist and co-activist in the women’s movement: Simone De Beauvoir Today. De Beauvoir’s own words in lively dialogue make a good place to start.

Not all biographies are bad, but some have set out to discredit her by alleging hypocrisies in her relationships, or by claiming that she accepted subordination to Sartre. The aim is surely to damage the value of her work by suggesting a failure at life, an example not be followed. In fact, a curious thing happened towards the end of the panel discussion last week, when someone suddenly rushed in with the remark that De Beauvoir had ‘made a mess of her own life’. To me this comment was mystifying.

De Beauvoir never wanted a conventional life with a husband and children. Her argument had always been in favour of women’s choice to say no to marriage and motherhood. Instead she had a life rich in work and achievement, in friends and lovers of both sexes. She showed a great deal of personal and political courage and, as a committed activist, strove for change on many fronts. She relished life and she wasn’t a saint. Hers strikes me as an example of a good, useful and happy life.

It was a happier life, for sure, than that of feminism’s earlier mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and let us be glad of that. Wollstonecraft too lived a passionate, albeit much shorter, life, but in the face of far more obstacles and far fewer choices.

To both of them we owe a great debt.

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