Thursday, September 23, 2010

One of the most important books of the 20th century: de Beauvoir

"There may indeed be much that is dated about Simone de Beauvoir’s “Second Sex,” but contrary to Francine du Plessix Gray’s claim (May 30), there is nothing “preposterous” in the assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”  This line has inspired some of the most interesting and influential thinking in feminist theory over the past five decades. It has brought students to understand the differences and relations between sex (as in the body one is born with) and gender (as in the way one is brought to interpret and live that body), and about the historical and cultural determinants that produce notions of femininity.  Gray diminishes the importance of this assertion by suggesting that it was meant to bolster Beauvoir’s idea that marriage and motherhood were merely “institutions imposed by men to curb women’s freedom.” Understood within Beauvoir’s existential framework, this sentence claims, rather, that women can be women without having to be mothers; that there is no “natural” image of femininity that women must subscribe to (or else accept that they are “unnatural”); and that each woman has, within certain biological and economic limitations, a share in defining her own idea of what it means to live her sex and her sexuality. For anyone who has been accused of not acting “ladylike,” there is nothing dated about Beauvoir’s assertion."  This is a reaction to a review of the second translation of the book.  When the book first appeared in an English translation, it was also reviewed in the Times and the reviewer basically said: well, sexism may apply to France but not here in the US (I read that in Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique.)