Feminists think that there are female privileges

"The opposite sex"

Margarete Stokowski

To person

studied philosophy and social sciences, works as a freelance author and writes a column for "Spiegel Online", among other things. In 2018 the text collection "The Last Days of Patriarchy" was published. @marga_owski

If you ask what "Le Deuxième Sexe" ("The opposite sex") has to say to us 70 years after it was first published, you can understand this question in two different ways. First, one can mean how one should evaluate the individual theses and observations of Simone de Beauvoir from today's perspective: whether one would write this or that again today in exactly the same way or differently. That would be justified. But you can also - and that seems more interesting to me - ask what you can still learn from the work itself today: not only with regard to the substantive answers that Simone de Beauvoir gives to certain questions, but also with regard to the origin, the structure and Basic idea of ​​the book - and also from the reactions to the book.

Because "The Other Sex" is not just any work that just happens to be in circulation for 70 years, it is one the feminist classics, if not so the feminist standard work par excellence, at least for the European women's movement. Only "A Room of One’s Own" by Virginia Woolf (1929, "A Room of One’s Own") was probably just as influential.

"The opposite sex" is also regarded as the standard work of feminist philosophy, for some also as the book that influenced all subsequent feminist philosophy. [1] Simone de Beauvoir, however, did not see herself as a feminist or a philosopher when she wrote the book: In the third sentence of the introduction, she declares that the subject of feminism has been adequately dealt with ("Enough ink has flowed in the debate about feminism." ]). It stayed that way until around 1970, her texts sometimes read as if she didn't necessarily see herself as a woman, because she often wrote about women in the third person. As recently as the 1960s, Beauvoir was of the opinion that the question of women would, as it were, be solved in passing with the question of class. [3]

It was only towards the end of the 1960s that Beauvoir switched to "we" when she talked about women, described herself as a feminist and became active in the second wave of the women's movement. In 1972 she wrote: "Today by feminism I understand that one fights for the special demands of women - parallel to the class struggle - and call myself a feminist nothing achieved. The social revolution will not be enough to solve our problems. "[4] (Here is a secondary aspect that you can learn from Beauvoir in general: you can reconsider your opinion when you have learned more.)

Don't be afraid of unusual tools

While Beauvoir's attitude towards feminism changed in the course of her life, her attitude towards philosophy remained clear: she saw neither herself - like Hannah Arendt - as a philosopher, nor "The Other Sex" as a philosophical script. In an interview, she once said that being a philosopher means "building a great system" and she didn't. [5] In comparison with other standard works of philosophy, Beauvoir does not actually pursue a particularly classic method in "The Other Sex", because she draws equally from her philosophical education as well as from other sciences - above all biology and psychology - and everyday experience (as well as numerous examples of literature), which lets them describe bondage and oppression very vividly. So you could say: yes, it may not have a "standard philosophy" - but instead a particularly far-sighted philosophy that is well applicable to practical questions.

Barbara Andrew writes that Beauvoir simply did exactly what philosophers always do, just not in relation to humans in general, but in relation to humans as a being that belongs to a gender: "Philosophy is the project that considers what it means to be a person (...). In her work, Beauvoir considers what it means to be a person who is shaped by a social gender "(" what it means to be a gendered human "). [6]

The reference to Beauvoir's method leads to the first answer to the question of what we can still learn from "The opposite sex" today: The independence with which Beauvoir sets out to fathom the situation of women allows her to choose precisely the tools that she needs - without being distracted by any supposedly generally applicable standards for philosophical works. She tries to find out what "the feminine" actually is: Is there something "eternally feminine" that unites all women?

Beauvoir's aim is "to grasp the economic, social and historical conditioning of the 'eternally feminine' in its entirety". [7] To this end, she comes up with a lot of material: She looks at findings from biology, examines psychoanalytic standpoints and the perspective of historical materialism, she describes the history of gender relations and their depiction in literature.

It may seem a bit astonishing that Beauvoir wrote about spiders, amphibians, and chickens at the beginning, but all of these observations serve her investigation. Because she states that female beings are by no means the oppressed in all species: "The termite queen rules over the subjugated males monstrous and full." are equally involved and contribute genes, on the fact that two prejudices about "the feminine" cannot be proven: female animals do not have a passivity in nature, which is often assumed to be the feminine, nor is species conservation in principle "from the female." secured ". [9]

In a combination of phenomenology, Marxism and psychoanalysis, Beauvoir then develops a materialistically informed existential philosophy that puts concrete experience in the foreground and ultimately pursues the idea of ​​"overriding the myth of femininity". [10] There can be no "woman" as such, Beauvoir states, if only because of the physical conditions: "There is no sharp biological separation between the sexes." [11]

If you consider that Beauvoir wrote the book in the 1940s, then you could say that she basically had no choice but to choose her own, collecting-combining method of investigation: there was no such thing as a current one at the time State of research in gender studies that she could have relied on, or a feminist mainstream that she could have taken up. If one follows the division of feminism into "waves", Beauvoir wrote pretty much between the first and second waves of European feminism.

At the same time, however, it has to be said that Beauvoir would probably have written her book with this abundance of material and references if there had been more debates on the subject at the time, because that is the second point we can learn from Beauvoir: she takes nothing of what is said about women or "the feminine" as unquestionable truth.

Nothing is given

When Beauvoir examines how femininity is constituted in a patriarchal society - and there is nothing else she can do because she does not know anyone else from her own experience - then she takes nothing for granted, and in principle, always with the awareness that she will not find an eternally valid principle: "It is (...) just as absurd to speak of 'the woman in general' as of 'the eternal man'." [12]

A basic conviction of Beauvoir is the existentialist idea that the nature of the human being is not given, but is in principle free to develop in different directions - but only as far as his current situation allows him.

It sounds like this, quite abstractly, with her: "An existing one is nothing else than what it does: the possible does not go beyond the real, the essence does not precede existence in its pure subjectivity is the human being Nothing. He is measured by his actions. "[13] To put it simply: You cannot say in general who or how or what a person is, you only know that he is there - everything else is shown by what he is doing .

If, however, a person's scope for action is restricted from the outset by social circumstances, the opportunities to develop naturally also shrink: "For a large number of women, the paths of transcendence are blocked: because they are nothing to do, do they don't care about anything they do are."[14]

The fact that women "do nothing" does not mean at this point that they are lying around lazily, but that they are so busy with the activities that they have to do as housewives, wives or mothers that they have almost no plans for their own Time remains. That means: the woman could be everything that a person can be in her time - but she doesn't get around to it, so to speak.

There is a scene in Beauvoir's "Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée" (1958, "Memoirs of a Daughter from a Good Family") which theoretically has nothing to do with Beauvoir's concept of woman, but in which there is a sentence with which can be used to illustrate her perspective on the position of women. Beauvoir tells how she sat at the table when she was three and was given a plum. When she begins to peel off the skin of the plum, the mother tells her not to do this, and the girl throws herself to the ground, screaming in a fit of anger.

Beauvoir writes about it: "The arbitrariness of the orders and prohibitions that I encountered seemed to me to be proof of their insubstantiality; yesterday I peeled a peach; why not the plum today? Why do I have to stop playing this one Separate minute? Everywhere I encountered compulsion, but nowhere was it necessary. "[15]

This "everywhere compulsion - nowhere necessity" also describes their view of people who come up against socially prescribed limits. Constraints affecting women’s freedom work from everywhere: their families and the society in which they live have expectations of them. But none of these expectations, none of the roles that women are supposed to play, are natural or immutable. This is Beauvoir's main thesis, which is usually reproduced in the famous sentence: "You are not born a woman, you become one." [16]

When people talk about the role of women in society today, this openness to the gender perspective would make things easier. Just because you can see that women care more about children, the sick and the elderly, doesn't mean that it always has to be that way. Just because women have less money than men does not mean that they are worse off with it or that it is less important to them. And so on.

Actually not that complicated insight. How much time you would save if people did not conclude from the fact that their two daughters both like the color pink and play with dolls that girls are "just like that" - including all the other conclusions that consciously or unconsciously follow from this and then usually express themselves in the fact that the position assigned to women in patriarchy is considered to be something natural: caring for others, the inclination to gentleness, the preference for beauty and caring activities instead of power and Say.

The fact that I have just written that there is a "position that is assigned to women in the patriarchy" does not mean that women have nothing to say about this position and are only forced into it from outside. That, too, is a central point at Beauvoir: With her, women are never merely victims of the situation. It is not without reason that Beauvoir presents the second volume of the "Other sex "preceded the quote from Jean-Paul Sartre:" Half victim, half complicit, like all of us. " Separation from one's own, learned passivity.

That some women are subject to stronger constraints than others: this, too, is an insight that unfortunately cannot be taken for granted. With Beauvoir's analysis of the freedoms and imperfections of all people and especially of women, one could actually see very easily that the possibilities for free development, for pursuing one's own goals, for self-determination vary greatly, depending on when one was born into which situation - whether in a rich or poor household, with or without illness, and so on.

Nevertheless, today's debates often stall at the point where some particularly successful women have to serve as examples to show that nowadays anything is possible if you just want to. But even the will, apart from being able to do so, must first arise. Even the mere idea of ​​what might be possible requires certain requirements, which not everyone has, quite apart from the fact that achieving goals becomes easier the more privileges one brings with them.

It is an interesting parallel to Virginia Woolf's "A Room for Himself" mentioned at the beginning that these two classics are not only the most cited feminist books of all, but that both deal to a large extent with the requirements that women have to meet can develop as freely as only men have been able to do for a long time: that they need time and rest, education and relationships, money and space for themselves. Both works also have in common that they are sometimes very funny.

Unknown classic

It is often a bit lost in the reception of philosophical works if they contain humor, and Beauvoir is also not known as a particularly funny writer, but there are definitely places in "The opposite sex" that are very funny - if you are ready for it . Towards the end of the work, Beauvoir writes on the dissatisfaction of women and men with one another and on the question of whether conflicts between the sexes perhaps only "express a passing moment in human history". [17] Could be, she says: "We have seen that despite all legends, no physiological fate imposes eternal hostility on the male and female sex as such. Even the notorious praying mantis devours her male only when he has no other food or for the sake of species conservation . "[18]

One can easily imagine that "The Other Sex", when it appeared, was not received as the ingenious book we can read today. In a 1976 interview, Simone de Beauvoir was asked: "How were the reactions when it came out in 1949?" - "Very violently! Very against me! Very, very hostile!" - "From which side?" - "From all sides." [19] Beauvoir also describes the negative reactions to her book in "La Force des Choses" (1963, "The Course of Things"). Among other things, Albert Camus accused her of "having ridiculed the French man". [20]

Although one might think that feminist literature falls on more fertile ground today than it did back then, knowing what is in a classic like "The Other Sex" is not something that has got around by now. Many people today, if at all, only know the best-known phrase "You are not born a woman ..." - often in the wrong translation that ends: "... you are made to be" instead of "you will be" because the version with "Made" sounds more catchy in German, but unfortunately Beauvoir's recognition of the ambivalence of activity and passivity does not do justice at all.

Another sentence, which is also cited comparatively often, is this: "He is the subject, he is the absolute: she is the other." [21] Basically, this is an explanation of the book title "The opposite sex": In In a world in which men have more power than women, many things are set up as if the man were the actual person and the woman a special variant of it, a kind of minority that should not be counted as the "normal case" (see also the English manwhich can be called "man" and "human"). This insight would have extremely far-reaching consequences if it were to spread: In medicine, for example, many drugs are still mainly tested on men. Many people are familiar with the symptoms of heart attack in men, but not in women. There are "women" shelves in bookstores but none "men".

There is much more that can still be learned from Beauvoir's "The Other Sex" today, two very practical points should be mentioned here.

Menstruating and cleaning

As mentioned before, despite the fact that she is writing a philosophical book, Beauvoir also works on very everyday subjects, including menstruating and cleaning, and what she has to say about them is not only interesting as a curiosity within a standard humanistic work, but also directly applicable to today's discussions.

About menstruating: A large part of "The opposite sex" consists of the narration of the various phases of life that a woman goes through, from toddler to old age. She also describes the experience of menstruation (or the phase before it), from which girls and women can existentially suffer: "Irritated, upset, many women go through a monthly state in which they are only half themselves. (... ) This suffering and passive body makes the whole universe seem like an unbearable burden. Anxious, harassed woman becomes alien to herself because she is alien to the rest of the world. "[22]

In today's feminism, attempts are often made to occupy menstruation more positively, with instructions on self-care, tampons with funny sayings on the packaging or art that addresses the issue of bleeding every month. On the one hand, it is an honorable attempt to portray something that many people would still describe as "gross" as something that is normal for menstruating people. But on the other hand, one should also acknowledge how miserable many feel in this physical state: What Beauvoir describes as alienation, curse and shock is not just imagined suffering, but actual, physical states, it is pain and increased irritability and sometimes depression, too, which should be recognized as such. The situation today is perhaps a little better overall because fewer young people are surprised by their first period and they can classify them better than in Beauvoir's time, but that is not enough. When you see surveys about what men know about menstruation - why does it take place, how much blood does a woman lose in the process, what physical symptoms are there? - then you suspect that the historical phase of the education is far from over.

On the subject of cleaning and other household chores: Beauvoir writes a lot about reproductive activities, which in their time occupied a lot more space in the lives of women, but are still mainly carried out by women today. "Few activities have so much the character of Sisyphean work as that of the housewife," she writes. "The housewife wears out her strength by treading on the spot. She does nothing: she only perpetuates the present." [23] The fact that she "does nothing" should not mean that she is inactive, but she does not create anything of her own: It does not pursue its own, only "anonymous drafts". What she cleans becomes dirty again. What she cooks is eaten. And then it starts again. "Your hands are busy, only your mind has nothing to do." [24]

Many women who are alone at home with their baby shortly after the birth report of this emptiness that then occurs: They feel intellectually under-challenged, and yet are permanently drained and tired because all the care work is left to them. That doesn't mean that there aren't people who like to clean and cook and look after babies. But a society that usually assigns these fundamentally important tasks to women as if they were made for them cannot be particularly emancipated. In 1976, in the interview mentioned above, Beauvoir declared her sympathy for the idea of ​​making housework a "public matter" and doing it together at certain times: "There is no activity that is inherently degrading. All activities are equivalent. It is the entirety of the workconditionsthat is degrading. Clean windows, why not? (...) The conditions under which window cleaning are carried out are degrading: in loneliness, boredom, unproductivity, non-integration into the collective. "[25]

Although "The Other Sex" is now 70 years old, there is an incredible amount that can still be learned from it today. The abundance of material that Beauvoir collects to answer the question of what a woman is - her realization that there can never be an answer to it conclusively - her recognition of the ambivalences of involuntary limitation and self-inflicted passivity - her humor - her reference to certain forms of suffering that mainly women experience, all of these things make "The Other Sex" a book that not only should be read, but can also be picked up over and over again to see how old the struggles are, that we still have today.