Simone de Beauvoir is, first, an existentialist philosopher. And she is another woman whose name is most often associated with a man’s, in this case Jean-Paul Sartre. Why is it that even when there are women who have accomplishments and merits to stand on their own that they remain tied to the exceptional men of their times, rather than being their own chapters? I recall studying philosophy in high school and having the existentialism section focus almost exclusively on Sartre, bringing up de Beauvoir only as an afterthought, the female focused version of existentialism that we were free to read about on our own.
This secondariness of woman, this othering, is, in fact, a focus of de Beauvoir’s Introduction to The Second Sex (at least the parts included in Available Means). While man is considered to be essential and complete on his own, women are seen as incomplete without a man. Man is the one by which the other, woman, is defined. But what is a woman?
One college stopped performing The Vagina Monologues in order to be sensitive to the fact that not all women have vaginas. Especially as transgendered women become more visible, the question of what makes a woman is ever more at the forefront. A junior high school student has drawn controversy by using the women’s restroom because that’s how she identifies, despite being born with a body that would be called male.
What does it mean to be a woman? The French language allows for ambiguity in reference to female and femininity, allowing, perhaps, for a greater fluidity of definition. De Beauvoir questions why women have submitted to being called the Other to man’s One, and concludes that “women lack concrete means for organizing themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. … They live dispersed among the males, attached … to certain men-fathers or husbands - more firmly than they are to other women. … Here is to be found the basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another” (257). I find that this principle is illustrated well in competitive reality shows such as Survivor and Big Brother. Despite being in a miniature society, the women rarely band together to oust the usually physically stronger males. Instead, again and again, the men bond and form alliances based on their shared manhood, while the women regard each other with suspicion and are unable to effectively bond. Each is simultaneously viewed as Other and viewing the other women as Other.
This class is the first one that I have had that has not only a majority of women, but a heavy majority of women. Every time we meet, women’s voices are raised. I felt that when we discussed Simone de Beauvoir, the voices were raised more than ever before. This writing seemed to speak to many of us, in a personal way that the more distant views of those fighting for women’s suffrage, for example, did not. We are all young enough to have grown up knowing women to be enfranchised, but we still struggle with the ideas of femininity that de Beauvoir raises. Whether we conform to feminine ideals or rebel, we are still “haunted by a sense of [our] femininity” (254).