de Beauvoir and Gilman’s woman

From the moment I began reading The Second Sex, I had the impression that de Beauvoir is a very intelligent woman. Starting her introduction with tactics of rhetoric, she asks questions such as ‘what is a woman?’ ‘why is it that women do not dispute male sovereignty?’ These are provocative questions that we can still ask today without receiving a complete and satisfactory answer. I believe that the answers to these questions are indefinite and are always changing in the progress of time. That said, Simone de Beauvoir was a woman who was well ahead of her time.
In ‘The Data of Biology’, de Beauvoir examines the relationship between men and women in terms of their biological assets. Most extensively, she brings into comparison the female-male relations in numerous species in the animal kingdom, illustrating the sexual behaviour, reproduction and maternity/paternity of species varying from mammals to marine invertebrates. I am impressed at the extent of de Beauvoir’s knowledge and how evidently well-researched her presentation of facts is. Through this information, she underscores the fact that biology has put women in danger or alienation for the greater purpose of perpetuating humanity, yet stating that this “fails to explain why woman is the Other” and how these biological facts do not “establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny” (34). In the next section, she criticizes Freud for basing his psychoanalytic views on a masculine model and how he “was forced to invent strange fictions” (46-47). In summary, de Beauvoir is pushing forward the argument of the woman being able to choose, as we can see from the fact that biological differences have no significance on their own, but once put into social/economic interpretation by men the woman is at a disadvantage. She defines woman as a human being in quest of knowledge and values that have economic/social consequence, to be able to take the world by storm, so to speak. Overall I’m really in awe of de Beauvoir. I found this Youtube video of an interview of her. It’s long but really insightful: A lot of the times she’s just ‘in your face’ at the interviewer. She’s the grandmother that we all would have liked to have.

In drawing connections between The Second Sex and The Yellow Wallpaper, both argue for the autonomy of women in different forms of writing–non-fiction vs. short story part autobiography and part fiction. The Yellow Wallpaper is about a woman breaking out of her bonds after being confined domestically by the male/husband/doctor figure and having her writing vocation and independence taken away, but in order to break the bonds she had to become or at least appear to others as mad or insane. This makes me wonder how much agency women really had that they did have to be driven mad to at least get out of their psychological confinement.

3 Thoughts.

  1. Nice reflection on the texts! I particularly like your point at the end about how there may have been so few options for women to get out of psychological confinement that a possible recourse would be to lose touch with reality. At least that way one could be “free,” in a sense. You’ve also picked up well on the point that what matters to Beauvoir is not so much just the bare facts about biology, but how these have been interpreted, the meaning that has been given to them in society.

    Which makes me wonder: isn’t she giving a particular sort of interpretation to biological facts when she says that women are enslaved to the species? She writes sometimes as if she’s just saying what is the case in a kind of objective way (e.g., that there are numerous aspects to women’s bodies that are not of particular value to the woman herself but crucial to the species–e.g., breasts, menstrual cycle), but then she uses words like “maternal servitude” (23) and how in sexual activity between men and women the woman’s inwardness is “violated.” That seems to be giving a particular spin, a particular interpretation, and I wonder why she focuses on that particular interpretation as opposed to other possible ones. As Jenna said in class, it can make the woman sound weak, perhaps.

    • Hi Christina, I also wonder why she depicts the woman as “enslaved” and “violated”. I think the fact that she didn’t get married and didn’t have to go through “maternal servitude” suggests that maybe she had an aversion for domestic life and didn’t want to be in a situation where she had to be tied to a husband or a child. If this is true, then I can see her choosing to focus on the woman ‘being enslaved to the species’ to possibly persuade other women reading the text to agree with this unflattering view. Seeing that domestic life is interpreted as servitude, women might want to be more independent, like Simone was, or be in support of this independence. By doing this, she seems to be suggesting that only women can change how they are perceived and all women must actively participate in this Feminist movement.

  2. Yes, this makes sense. Her own life choices in regards to these matters are surely significant! It’s possible that this is the way she herself saw motherhood, and she didn’t want to be enslaved herself. Perhaps she was reacting against the view of women at the time that says that is how they ought to live, and encouraging women instead to go their own way. Later feminists tried to revalue the choice to be a mother, to be a stay-at-home mom, rather than saying that it means one is stuck in servitude. It can be something good for women to choose, if they want to and are able!

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