Woman as The Relative Gender

Personally, I found de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex quite difficult to understand, partially because I know nothing about feminism, but also because it is generally¬†hard to relate to the strong opinions of others. Nevertheless, there were several interesting points that I found have resonated with me.

I will mainly talk about the introduction of the work, as I haven’t had a chance to get through the whole thing. What immediately struck me was the lack of self-identity that Beauvoir was conveying about the way women are conventionally treated by both themselves and men. She talks alot about how men are viewed as the superordinate of everything human, as the word “man” is used to apply to both male and female, as well as to only males, and thus represents woman as just a part of man. Men become the prototype of what it means to be human, and women are just deviations from this prototype. Therefore, the female gender is not seen as equal and opposite to the male, but rather as a defective version that just happens to be useful in procreation. They are seen as “the other”.

This idea that the female is a defective or imperfect male resonates alot in everyday life, and thinking about it this way helps to illustrate the extent to which “otherness” has developed in a sociohistorical context. For a long time, women have been seen as much weaker than men: mentally, physically, emotionally – you name it. They never really played a big role in conventional history. It was always the men who went to war, the men who made great discoveries, the men who earned the money. Women were there just to support them. As was brought up in lecture, the word “woman” itself, means wife of man (in English and other languages). They were identified by who’s wife they were and the profession and success of their husband. Nobody cared about what the women did.

One reason, de Beauvoir says, that this has failed to change to a great enough extent is that women lack a sense of self-identity. “Women do not say ‘We'” when they refer to themselves (xlviii). “Men say ‘women’, and women use the same word in referring to themselves” (xlviii). Other oppressed groups have learnt to unify themselves against their oppressors through self-recognition. But the “other”-ing of women has been so silent – so widely accepted – that it has gone unrecognized all throughout civilized human existence. The point here is that women themselves contribute to the way they are viewed by society at large by blindly conforming to the gender roles placed on them by men.

I have a few questions just to finish up here. I’m sorry this was long, but perhaps it will be useful. My questions are:

  1. In what ways does lacking self-identity contribute to being oppressed and treated as “the other”?
  2. How can we explain women’s failure to assert themselves through the concept of self-identity?
  3. Can we maybe draw similarities or make contrasts between the case of women and other forms of oppression we’ve read about in Arts One (i.e. Penelope in The Penelopiad, Blanca in Until the Dawn’s Light, Slaves in Kingdom of this World)

Cool. Okay, now to study for my midterm.

1 Thought.

  1. Great questions, Iva. About number 2, and what you said about this issue in your post: I think about Beauvoir’s comment about women not saying “we” in the context of the history of feminism in the West. What happened in the “second wave” of feminism is that some people did try to focus more on a self-identity for women, tried to talk about re-valuing women’s experiences and lives–like re-valuing emotions in addition to reason, relationships in addition to being independent and autonomous, raising children in addition to contributing to human culture in other ways, etc. And I think these efforts were really important. But then what happened is that lots of women said, hey, these descriptions don’t apply to me. In fact, the sort of identity you’re creating for women mainly reflects the lives and experiences of those in the dominant ethnic groups and upper classes. So after awhile it became difficult to say “we” again, because “we” began to see that there were so many differences among women and that trying to find a common identity was bound to be a matter of imposing the identity of one group on the others.

    Lately, some of these debates have moved into the area of sex in a different way: does “women” include those who are not physiologically women, but who identify as such? Many say “yes.” But this shows how complicated the issue of self-identity for a whole gender is!

    Nevertheless, in my own view, I think what is surely possible is to notice how there are systemic inequalities among women across the world, how there are laws that specifically discriminate against women, etc., and focus on dealing with those without having to say that all women are somehow the same. Insofar as all women in a particular place are discriminated against by a law or policy, we can attack that law or policy, for example, even if we recognize that women of many different types of backgrounds and living conditions will be affected differently by that law. We need to take those differences into account, of course, because we need to make sure we don’t make things worse for one group of women while making it better for another. But I, personally, still think there’s room for discussion of “feminism” as a broad category while there are still systemic problems experienced by women in many parts of the world.

    I’m not saying everyone has to agree with me, though, of course!

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