Simone de Beauvoir
De Beauvoir, Simone (1908-1986)
French writer and feminist, and Existentialist. She is known primarily for her treatise The Second Sex (1949), a scholarly and passionate plea for the abolition of what she called the myth of the “eternal feminine.” It became a classic of feminist literature during the 1960s.
Schooled in private institutions, de Beauvoir attended the Sorbonne, where, in 1929, she passed her agrégation in philosophy and met Jean-Paul Sartre, beginning a free, lifelong association with him. She taught at a number of schools (1931-43) before turning to writing for her livelihood. In 1945 she began editing Le Temps Modernes with Sartre.
Her novels expounded the major Existential themes, demonstrating her conception of the writer’s commitment to the times. She Came To Stay (1943) treats the difficult problem of the relationship of a conscience to “the other”. Of her other works of fiction, perhaps the best known is The Mandarins (1954), a chronicle of the attempts of post-World War II intellectuals to leave their “mandarin” (educated elite) status and engage in political activism. She also wrote four books of philosophy, including The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947).
Several volumes of her work are devoted to autobiography which constitute a telling portrait of French intellectual life from the 1930s to the 1970s. In addition to treating feminist issues, de Beauvoir was concerned with the issue of aging, which she addressed in A Very Easy Death (1964), on her mother’s death in a hospital. In 1981 she wrote A Farewell to Sartre, a painful account of Sartre’s last years.
Simone de Beauvoir revealed herself as a woman of formidable courage and integrity, whose life supported her thesis: the basic options of an individual must be made on the premises of an equal vocation for man and woman founded on a common structure of their being, independent of their sexuality.
Simone de Beauvoir Reflects in 1963:
Source: "Force of Circumstances", an autobiography by Simone de Beauvoir.
The first volume of The Second Sex was published in June; in May, Les Temps Modernes had printed the chapter on ‘Woman’s Sexual Initiation’ and followed it up in the June and July issues with the chapters on ‘The Lesbian’ and ‘Maternity’. In November, Gallirnard published the second volume.
I have described how this book was first conceived, almost by chance. Wanting to talk about myself, I became aware that to do so I should first have to describe the condition of woman in general; first I considered the myths that men have forged about her through all their cosmologies, religions, superstitions, ideologies and literature. I tried to establish some order in the picture which at first appeared to me completely incoherent; in every case, man put himself forward as the Subject and considered the woman as an object, as the Other. This assumption could of course be explained by historical circumstances, and Sartre told me I should also give some indication of the physiological groundwork. That was at Ramatuelle; we talked about it for a long time and I hesitated; I hadn’t expected to become involved in writing such a vast work. But it was true that my study of the myths would be left hanging in mid-air if people didn’t know the reality those myths were intended to mask. I therefore plunged into works of physiology and history. I didn’t merely compile; even scientists, of both sexes, are imbued with prejudices in favour of man, so I had to try to dig for the exact truth beneath the surface of their interpretations. From my journey into history I returned with a few ideas that I had never seen expressed anywhere: I linked the history of woman to that of inheritance, because it seemed to me to be a by-product of the economic evolution of the masculine world.
I began to look at women with new eyes and found surprise after surprise lying in wait for me. It is both strange and stimulating to discover suddenly, after forty, an aspect of the world that has been staring you in the face all the time which somehow you have never noticed. One of the misunderstandings created by my book is that people thought I was denying there was any difference between men and women. On the contrary, writing this book made me even more aware of those things that separate them; what I contended was that these dissimilarities are of a cultural and not of a natural order. I undertook to recount systematically, from childhood to old age, how they were created; I examined the possibilities this world offers women, those it denies them, their limits, their good and bad luck, their evasions and their achievements. That was what I put into the second volume: L’Expérience vécue.
I spent only two years on this, work. already knew some sociology and psychology. Thanks to my university training, I had the habit of efficient working methods; I knew how to sort books out and strip the meat off them quickly, how to reject those that were merely rehashes of others or pure fantasies; I made a pretty exhaustive inventory of everything that had appeared on the subject in both English and French; it was one that had given rise to an enormous literature but, as is usually the case, only a small number of these studies were important. When it came to the second volume, I also profited from the continual interest that Sartre and I had had for so many years in all sorts of people; my memory provided me with an abundance of material.
The first volume was well received: twenty-two thousand copies were sold in the first week. The second one also sold well, but it shocked people. I was completely taken aback by the fuss it provoked when the extracts from the book appeared in Les Temps Modernes. I had completely failed to take into account that ‘French bitchiness’ Julien Gracq mentioned in an article in which – although he compared me to Poincaré making speeches in cemeteries – he congratulated me on my ‘courage’. The word astonished me the first time it was used. ‘How courageous you are!’ Claudine Chonez told me with an admiration full of pity. ‘Courageous?’ ‘You’re going to lose a lot of friends!’ Well, I thought to myself, if I lose them they’re not friends. In any case, I had written this book just the way I wanted to write it, but there had been no thought of heroism in my mind at any time. The men whom I knew well – Sartre, Bost, Merleau-Ponty, Leiris, Giacometti and the staff of Les Temps Modernes – were real democrats on this point as well as on any other; if I had been writing it for them I would have been in danger of breaking down an open door. In any case I was accused of doing just that; also of inventing, parodying, digressing and ranting. I was accused of so many things: everything! First of all, indecency. The June, July and August issues of Les Temps Modernes sold like hot cakes; but they were read, as it were, with averted eyes. One might almost have believed that Freud and psychoanalysis had never existed. What a festival of obscenity on the pretext of flogging me for mine! That good old esprit gaulois flowed in torrents. I received some signed and some anonymous epigrams, epistles, satires, admonitions, and exhortations addressed to me by, for example, ‘some very active members of the First Sex.’ Unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother. People offered to cure me of my frigidity or to temper my labial appetites; I was promised revelations, in the coarsest terms but in the name of the true, the good and the beautiful, in the name of health and even of poetry, all unworthily trampled underfoot by me. Certainly it is monotonous writing inscriptions on lavatory walls; I could understand that many sexual maniacs might prefer to send their lucubrations to me for a change. But I was a bit surprised at Mauriac! He wrote to one of the contributors to Les Temps Modernes: ‘Your employer’s vagina has no secrets from me,’ which shows that in private life he wasn’t afraid of words. When he saw them printed, it upset him so much that he began a series in Le Figaro littéraire urging the youth of France to condemn pornography in general and my articles in particular. Its success was slight. Although the replies of Pouillon and Cau, who had flown to my rescue, were suppressed – and probably those of many others as well – I had my defenders: among others, Domenach; the Christians were only gently indignant, and on the whole the youth of the nation did not seem excessively outraged by my verbal excesses. Mauriac lamented the fact bitterly. Exactly at the right moment to close his series, an angelic young lady sent him a letter so perfectly calculated to grant his every wish that a lot of us got a great deal of amusement out of what was obviously a godsend for Mauriac! Nevertheless, in restaurants and cafés – which I frequented much more than usual because of Algren – people often snickered as they glanced towards me or even openly pointed. Once, during an entire dinner at Nos Provinces on the Boulevard Montparnasse, a table of people nearby stared at me and giggled; I didn’t like dragging Algren into a scene, but as I left I gave them a piece of my mind.
The violence and level of these reactions left me perplexed. Among the Latin peoples, Catholicism has encouraged masculine tyranny and even inclined it towards sadism; Italian men have a tendency to combine it with coarseness, and the Spaniards with arrogance, but this sort of meanness was particularly French. Why? Primarily because in France a man feels himself economically threatened by feminine competition; to maintain, or to assert the maintenance of a superiority no longer guaranteed by the customs of the country, the simplest method is to vilify women. A tradition of licentious talk provides a whole arsenal calculated to reduce women to their function as sexual objects: sayings, images, anecdotes and the vocabulary itself. Also, in the erotic field, the ancestral myth of French supremacy is being threatened; the ideal lover is now generally attributed to the Italian rather than the Frenchman; finally, the critical attitude of liberated women wounds or tires their partners; it makes them resentful. This meanness is simply the old French licentiousness taken over by vulnerable and spiteful men.
In November, the swords were unsheathed once more. The critics went wild; there was no disagreement: women had always been the equal of men, they were forever doomed to be their inferiors, everything I said was common knowledge, there wasn’t a word of truth in the whole book. In Liberté de l’esprit, Boideffre and Nimier outdid each other in contempt. I was a poor neurotic girl, repressed, frustrated, and cheated by life, a virago, a woman who’d never been made love to properly, envious, embittered and bursting with inferiority complexes with regard to men, while with regard to women I was eaten to the bone by resentment. Jean Guitton, with great Christian compassion, wrote that The Second Sex had affected him painfully because one could so clearly see running through it the thread of ‘my sad life’. Armand Hoog outdid himself: ‘Humiliated by being a woman, agonizingly conscious of being imprisoned in her condition by the eyes of men, she rejects both their eyes and her condition.’
This theme of my humiliation was taken up by a considerable number of critics who were so naively imbued with their own masculine superiority that they could not even imagine that my condition had never been a burden to me. The man whom I placed above all others did not consider me inferior to men. I had many male friends whose eyes, far from imprisoning me within set limits, recognized me as a human being in my own right. Such good fortune had protected me against all resentment and all bitterness; my readers will know too that I was never infected by such feelings during my childhood or my adolescence. Subtler readers concluded that I was a misogynist and that, while pretending to take up the cudgels for women, I was damning them; this is untrue. I do not praise them to the skies and I have anatomized all those defects engendered by their condition, but I also showed their good qualities and their merits. I have given too many women too much affection and esteem to betray them now by considering myself as an ‘honorary male’; – nor have I ever been wounded by their stares. In fact I was never treated as a target for sarcasm until after The Second Sex; before that, people were either indifferent or kind to me. Afterwards, I was often attacked as a woman because my attackers thought it must be my Achilles’ heel; but I knew perfectly well that this persistent petulance was really aimed at my moral and social convictions. No; far from suffering from my femininity, I have, on the contrary, from the age of twenty on, accumulated the advantages of both sexes; after L’Invitée, those around me treated me both as a writer, their peer in the masculine world, and as a woman; this was particularly noticeable in America: at the parties I went to, the wives all got together and talked to each other while I talked to the men, who nevertheless behaved towards me with greater courtesy than they did towards the members of their own sex. I was encouraged to write The Second Sex precisely because of this privileged position. It allowed me to express myself in all serenity. And, contrary to what they suggest, it was precisely this placidity which exasperated so many of my masculine readers. A wild cry of rage, the revolt of a wounded soul – that they could have accepted with a moved and pitying condescension; since they could not pardon me my objectivity, they feigned a disbelief in it. For example I will take a phrase of Claude Mauriac’s which perfectly illustrates the arrogance of the First Sex. ‘What has she got against me?’ he wanted to know. Nothing; I had nothing against anything, except the words I was quoting. It is strange that so many intellectuals should refuse to believe in intellectual passions.
I stirred up some storms even among my friends. One of them, a progressive academic, stopped reading my book and threw it across the room. Camus, in a few morose sentences, accused me of making the French male look ridiculous. A Mediterranean man, cultivating Spanish pride, he would allow woman equality only if she kept to her own, and different, realm; also, he was of course, as George Orwell would have said, the more equal of the two. He had blithely admitted to us once that he disliked the idea of being sized up and judged by a woman: she was the object, he was the eye and the consciousness. He laughed about it, but it is true that he did not accept reciprocity. Finally, with sudden warmth, he said: ‘There’s one argument that you should have emphasized: man himself suffers from not being able to find a real companion in woman; he does aspire to equality.’ He too wanted a cry from the heart rather than solid reasoning; and what’s more, a cry on behalf of men. Most men took as a personal insult the information I retailed about frigidity in women; they wanted to imagine that they could dispense pleasure whenever and to whomever they pleased; to doubt such powers on their part was to castrate them.
The Right could only detest my book, which Rome naturally put on the blacklist. I had hoped it would be well received by the extreme Left. Our relations with the Communists couldn’t have been worse; all the same, my thesis owed so much to Marxism and showed it in such a favourable light that I did at least expect some impartiality from them! Marie-Louise Barron, in Les Lettres françaises, confined herself to remarking that The Second Sex would at least give the factory girls at Billancourt a good giggle; which implies a very low estimate of the factory girls at Billancourt, replied Colette Audry in a ‘review of the critics’ she did for Combat Action devoted an anonymous and unintelligible article to me, delightfully decorated with the photograph of a woman held fast in the passionate embraces of an ape.
The non-Stalinist Marxists were scarcely more comforting. I gave a lecture at the École Émancipée and was told that once the Revolution had been achieved, the problem of woman would no longer exist. Fine, I said; but meanwhile? The present apparently held no interest for them.
My adversaries created and maintained numerous misunderstandings on the subject of my book. Above all I was attacked for the chapter on maternity. Many men declared I had no right to discuss women because I hadn’t given birth; and they? They nevertheless produced some very distinct opinions of their own in opposition to mine. It was said that I refused to grant any value to the maternal instinct and to love. This was not so. I simply asked that women should experience them truthfully and freely, whereas they often use them as excuses and take refuge in them, only to find themselves imprisoned in that refuge when those emotions have dried up in their hearts. I was accused of preaching sexual promiscuity; but at no point did I ever advise anyone to sleep with just anyone at just any time; my opinion on this subject is that all choices, agreements and refusals should be made independently of institutions, conventions and motives of self-aggrandizement; if the reasons for it are not of the same order as the act itself, then the only result can be lies, distortions and mutilations.
I devoted a chapter to the problem of abortion; Sartre had already written about it in The Age of Reason, and I myself in The Blood of Others; people were always rushing into the office of Les Temps Modernes asking Mme Sorbets, the secretary, for addresses. She got so irritated that one day she designed a poster: WE DO IT ON THE PREMISES, OURSELVES. One morning, when I was still asleep, a young man knocked on my door. ‘My wife is pregnant,’ he said distractedly. ‘Give me an address ...’ ‘But I don’t know any,’ I told him. He swore at me and left. ‘No one ever helps anyone!’ I didn’t know any addresses; and I should scarcely have been inclined to have any confidence in a stranger endowed with so little self-control. Women and couples are forced by society into secrecy; if I can help them I have no hesitation in doing so. But I did not find it very pleasant to discover that I was apparently thought of as a professional procuress.
There were people who defended The Second Sex: Francis Jeanson, Nadeau, Mounier. It provoked public controversy and lectures, it brought me a considerable amount of correspondence. Misread and misunderstood, it troubled people’s minds. When all is said and done, it is possibly the book that has brought me the greatest satisfaction of all those I have written. If I am asked what I think of it today, I have no hesitation in replying: I’m all for it.
Oh! I admit that one can criticize the style and the composition. I could easily go back and cut it down to a much more elegant work. But at the time I was discovering my ideas as I was explaining them, and that was the best I could do. As for the content, I should take a more materialist position today in the first volume. I should base the notion of woman as other and the Manichaean argument it entails not on an idealistic and a priori struggle of consciences, but on the facts of supply and demand; that is how I treated the same problem in The Long March when I was writing about the subjugation of women in ancient China. This modification would not necessitate any changes in the subsequent developments of my argument. On the whole, I still agree with what I said. I never cherished any illusion of changing woman’s condition; it depends on the future of labour in the world; it will change significantly only at the price of a revolution in production. That is why I avoided falling into the trap of ‘feminism’. Nor did I offer remedies for each particular problem I described. But at least I helped the women of my time and generation to become aware of themselves and their situation.
Many of them, of course, disapproved of my book; I disturbed them or opposed them or exasperated them or frightened them. But there were others to whom I did some service, as I know from numberless testimonies to the fact, especially from the letters that I am still receiving and answering after twelve years. These women have found help in my work in their fight against images of themselves which revolted them, against myths by which they felt themselves crushed; they came to realize that their difficulties reflected not a disgrace peculiar to them, but a general condition. This discovery helped them to avoid the mistake of self-contempt, and many of them found in the book the strength to fight against that condition. Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it. Psychiatrists have told me that they give The Second Sex to their women patients to read, and not merely to intellectual women but to lower-middle-class women, to office workers and women working in factories. ‘Your book was a great help to me. Your book saved me,’ are the words I have read in letters from women of all ages and all walks of life.
If my book has helped women, it is because it expressed them, and they in their turn gave it its truth. Thanks to them, it is no longer a matter for scandal and concern. During these last ten years the myths that men created have crumbled, and many women writers have gone beyond me and have been far more daring than I. Too many of them for my taste take sexuality as their only theme; but at least when they write about it they now present themselves as the eye-that-looks, as subject, consciousness, freedom.
I should have been surprised and even irritated if, when I was thirty, someone had told me that I would be concerning myself with feminine problems, and that my most serious public would be made up of women. I don’t regret that it has been so. Divided, lacerated, in a world made to put them at a disadvantage, for women there are far more victories to be won, more prizes to be gained, more defeats to he suffered than there are for men. I have an interest in them; and I prefer having taken a limited but real hold upon the world through them to drifting in the universal.
1. It was begun in October it 946 and finished in June 1949; but I spent four months of 1947 in America, and America Day by Day kept me busy for six months.
2. There exists a hatred of women among American men. But even the most venomous writings, such as Philip Wylie’s A Generation of Vipers, do not descend to the level of obscenity; their sights are not on degrading women sexually.
3. When Christiane Rochefort’s Warrior’s Rest appeared ten years later, there was less scandal, but there were still plenty of male critics ready to chant the old refrain: ‘She’s an ugly and frustrated woman!’
4. I by no means despise resentment and bitterness, or any other of those negative emotions; they are often justified by circumstances and one might consider that I have missed something in not having experienced them. If I reject their attribution to me here it is because I would like The Second Sex to be understood in the spirit in which I wrote it.
5. A novelist pamphleteer of the Right, having been sharply attacked by Bost in Les Temps Modernes, exclaimed, very hurt: ‘But why so much hate? He doesn’t even know me!’
6. They went out and questioned mothers; but so did I.
1976 Interview with Simone de Beauvoir
Interviewed by John Gerassi, 1976.
Gerassi. It’s now about twenty-five years since The Second Sex was published. Many people, especially in America, consider it the beginning of the contemporary feminist movement. Would you ...
Beauvoir. I don’t think so. The current feminist movement, which really started about five or six years ago, did not really know the book. Then, as the movement grew, some of the leaders took from it some of their theoretical basis. But The Second Sex in no way launched the feminist movement. Most of the women who became very active in the movement were much too young in 1949-50, when the book came out, to be influenced by it. What pleases me, of course, is that they did discover it later. Sure, some of the older women – Betty Friedan, for example, who dedicated The Feminine Mystique to me – had read it and were perhaps influenced by it somewhat. But others, not at all. Kate Millet, for example, does not cite me a single time in her work. They may have become feminists for the reasons I explain in The Second Sex; but they discovered those reasons in their life experiences, not in my book.
Gerassi. You have said that your own feminist consciousness grew out of the experience of writing The Second Sex. In what way, and how do you see the development of the movement after it was published in terms of your own trajectory?
Beauvoir. In writing The Second Sex I became aware, for the first time, that I myself was leading a false life, or rather, that I was profiting from this male-oriented society without even knowing it. What had happened is that quite early in my life I had accepted the male values, and was living accordingly. Of course, I was quite successful, and that reinforced in me the belief that man and woman could be equal if the woman wanted such equality. In other words, I was an intellectual. I had the luck to come from a sector of society, the bourgeoisie, which could afford not only to send me to the best schools but also to allow me to play leisurely with ideas. Because of that I managed to enter the man’s world without too much difficulty. I showed that I could discuss philosophy, art, literature, etc., on “man’s level.” I kept whatever was particular to womanhood to myself. I was then reinforced by my success to continue. As I did, I saw I could earn as good a living as any male intellectual and that I was taken as seriously as any of my male peers. Being who I was, I then found that I could travel by myself if I wanted to, that I could sit in cafés and write and be as respected as any male writer, and so on. Each stage fortified my sense of independence and equality. It became, therefore, very easy for me to forget that a secretary could in no way enjoy the same privileges. She could not sit in a café and read a book without being molested. She was rarely invited to parties for “her mind.” She could not establish credit or own property. I could. More importantly still, I tended to scorn the kind of woman who felt incapable, financially or spiritually, to show her independence from men. In effect, I was thinking, without even saying it to myself, “if I can, so can they.” In researching and writing The Second Sex I did come to realize that my privileges were the result of my having abdicated, in some crucial respects at least, my womanhood. If we put it in class economic terms, you would understand it easily: I had become a class collaborationist. Well, I was sort of the equivalent in terms of the sex struggle. Through The Second Sex I became aware of the struggle needed. I understood that the vast majority of women simply did not have the choices that I had had, that women are, in fact, defined and treated as a second sex by a male-oriented society whose structure would totally collapse if that orientation was genuinely destroyed. But like economically and politically dominated peoples anywhere, it is very hard and very slow for rebellion to develop. First, such peoples have to become aware of that domination. Then they have to believe in their own strength to change it. Those who profit from their “collaboration” have to understand the nature of their betrayal. And finally, those who have the most to lose from taking a stand, that is, women like me who have carved out a successful sinecure or career, have to be willing to risk insecurity – be it merely ridicule – in order to gain self-respect. And they have to understand that those of their sisters who are most exploited will be the last to join them. A worker’s wife, for example, is least free to join the movement. She knows that her husband is more exploited than most feminist leaders and that he depends on her role as the housewife-mother to survive himself. Anyway, for all these reasons, women did not move. Oh yes, there were some very nice, very wise little movements which struggled for political promotions, for women’s participation in politics, in government. I could not relate to such groups. Then came 1968, and everything changed. I know that some important events happened before that. Betty Friedan’s book for one, was published before ’68. In fact, the American women were well on the move by then. They, more than any other women, and for obvious reasons, were most aware of the contradictions between the new technology and the conservative role of keeping women in the kitchen. As technology expands – technology being the power of the brain and not of the brawn – the male rationale that women are the weaker sex and hence must play a secondary role can no longer be logically maintained. Since technological innovations were so widespread in America, American women could not escape the contradictions. It was thus normal that the feminist movement got its biggest impetus in the very heartland of imperial capitalism, even if that impetus was strictly one of economics, that is, the demand for equal pay for equal work. But it was within the anti-imperialist movement itself that real feminist consciousness developed. Whether in the anti-Vietnam War movement in America or in the aftermath of the 1968 rebellion in France and other European countries, women began to feel their power. Having understood that capitalism leads necessarily to domination of poor peoples all over the world, masses of women began to join the class struggle – even if they did not accept the term “class struggle.” They became activists. They joined the marches, the demonstrations, the campaigns, the underground groups, the militant left. They fought, as much as any man, for a nonexploiting, nonalienating future. But what happened? In the groups or organizations they joined, they discovered that they were just as much a second sex as in the society they wanted to overturn. Here in France, and I dare say in America just as much, they found that the leaders were always the men. Women became the typists, the coffee-makers of these pseudorevolutionary groups. Well, I shouldn’t say pseudo. Many of the movement’s male “heavies” were genuine revolutionaries. But trained, raised, molded in a male-oriented society, these revolutionaries brought that orientation to the movement as well. Understandably, such men were not voluntarily going to relinquish that orientation, just as the bourgeois class isn’t going to voluntarily relinquish its power. So, just as it is up to the poor to take away the power of the rich, so it is up to women to take away power from the men. And that doesn’t mean dominate men in turn. It means establish equality. As socialism, true socialism, establishes economic equality among all peoples, the feminist movement learned it had to establish equality between the sexes by taking power away from the ruling class within the movement, that is, from men. Put another way: once inside the class struggle, women understood that the class struggle did not eliminate the sex struggle. It’s at that point that I myself became aware of what I have just said. Before that I was convinced that equality of the sexes can only be possible once capitalism is destroyed and therefore – and it’s this “therefore” which is the fallacy – we must first fight the class struggle. It is true that equality of the sexes is impossible under capitalism. If all women work as much as men, what will happen to those institutions on which capitalism depends, such institutions as churches, marriage, armies, and the millions of factories, shops, stores, etc.. which are dependent on piece work, part-time work. and cheap labor? But it is not true that a socialist revolution necessarily establishes sexual equality. Just look at Soviet Russia or Czechoslovakia, where (even if we are willing to call those countries “socialist”, which I am not) there is a profound confusion between emancipation of the proletariat and emancipation of women. Somehow, the proletariat always end up being made up of men. The patriarchal values have remained intact there as well as here. And that – this consciousness among women that the class struggle does not embody the sex struggle – is what is new. Yet most women in the struggle know that now. That’s the greatest achievement of the feminist movement. It’s one which will alter history in the years to come.
Gerassi. But such a consciousness is limited to the women who are in the left, that is, women who are committed to the restructuring of the whole society.
Beauvoir. Well, of course, since the rest are conservative, meaning they want to conserve what has been or what is. Women on the right do not want revolution. They are mothers, wives, devoted to their men. Or, if they are agitators at all, they want a bigger piece of the pie. They want to earn more, elect more women to parliaments, see a woman become president. They fundamentally believe in inequality, except they want to be on top rather than on the bottom. But they will fit fine into the system as it is or as it will change a bit to accommodate such demands. Capitalism can certainly afford to allow women to join an army, allow women to join a police force. Capitalism is certainly intelligent enough to let more women join the government. Pseudosocialism can certainly allow a woman to become secretary-general of its party. Those are just reforms, like social security or paid vacations. Did the institutionalization of paid vacations change the inequality of capitalism? Did the right of women to work in factories at equal pay to the men change the male orientation of the Czech society? But to change the whole value system of either society, to destroy the concept of motherhood: that is revolutionary.
A feminist, whether she calls herself leftist or not, is a leftist by definition. She is struggling for total equality, for the right to be as important, as relevant, as any man. Therefore, embodied in her revolt for sexual equality is the demand for class equality. In a society where the male can be the mother, where, say, to push the argument on values so it becomes clear, the so-called “female intuition” is as important as the “male’s knowledge” – to use today’s absurd language – where to be gentle or soft is better than to be hard and tough, in other words, in a society where each person’s experiences are equivalent to any other, you have automatically set up equality, which means economic and political equality and much more. Thus, the sex struggle embodies the class struggle, but the class struggle does not embody the sex struggle. Feminists are, therefore, genuine leftists. In fact, they are to the left of what we now traditionally call the political left.
Gerassi. But in the meantime, by waging the sex struggle only within the left – since, as you’ve said, the sex struggle is, temporarily at least, irrelevant within other political sectors – aren’t feminists weakening the left, hence fortifying those who exploit both their women and the poor everywhere?
Beauvoir. No, and in the long run it can only fortify the left.
For one thing, by being confronted as leftists, that is, as opponents of exploitation, leftist men are forced to start watering their wine. More and more groups feel compelled to keep their macho male leaders in check. That’s progress. Here in our newspaper, Libération, the male-oriented majority felt obliged to let a woman become its director.
That’s progress. Leftist men are beginning to watch their language, are...
Gerassi. But is it real? I mean. I’ve learned. for example, never to use the word “chick.” to pay attention to women in any group discussion, to wash dishes, clean the house, do the shopping. But am I any less sexist in my thoughts? Have I rejected the male values?
Beauvoir. You mean inside you? To be blunt, who cares? Think for a minute. You know a racist Southerner. You know he’s racist because you’ve known him all his life. But now he never says “nigger.” He listens to all black men’s complaints and tries to do his best to deal with them. He goes out of his way to put down other racists. He insists that black children be given a better-than-average education to offset the years of no education. He gives references for black men’s loan applications. He backs the black candidates in his district both with money and his vote. Do you think the blacks give a damn that he’s just as much a racist now as before “in his soul”? A lot of the objective exploitation is habit. If you can check your habits, make it so that it’s “natural” to have counterhabits, that’s a big step. If you wash dishes, clean house, and take the attitude that you don’t feel any less “a man” for doing it, you’re helping to set up new habits. A couple of generations feeling that they have to appear non-racist at all times, and the third generation will grow up non-racist in fact. So play at being non-sexist, and keep playing. Think of it as a game. In your private thoughts, go ahead and think of yourself as superior to women. But as long as you play convincingly – that you keep washing dishes, shopping, cleaning the house, taking care of children – you’re setting precedents, especially men like you who have a certain macho “pose.” The trouble is, I don’t believe it. I don’t think you really keep doing what you say. It’s one thing to wash dishes; it’s another to change diapers day in, day out.
Gerassi. Well. I don’t have any children...
Beauvoir. Why not? You chose not to. Do you think the mothers you know chose to have children? Or were they intimidated into having them? Or, more subtly, were they raised into thinking that it’s natural and normal and womanly to have children and therefore chose to have them? But who made that choice inevitable? Those are the values that have to be changed.
Gerassi. Fine. And that’s why, and I understand it that many feminists have insisted on being separatists. But in terms of the revolution, theirs as well as mine, can we win if we break up into totally separate groups? Can the feminist movement achieve its ends by excluding men from its struggle? Yet the dominant part of the women’s movement today, here in France at least, and it’s also quite true for America, is separatist.
Beauvoir. Just a minute. We have to investigate why they’re separatist. I can’t speak for America, but here in France there are many groups, consciousness groups, which do exclude men because they find it very important to rediscover their identity as women to understand themselves as women. They can only do this by speaking among themselves, telling each other things they would never dare in front of husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, or any other masculine power. Their need to speak with the intensity and honesty required can only be fulfilled this way. And they have managed to communicate with a profundity that I never thought possible or imaginable when I was 25. When I was among even the most intimate of my women friends then, truly feminine problems were never discussed. So now, for the first time, because of these consciousness groups and because of the toughness of the desire to genuinely confront women’s problems within these groups, real friendships among women have developed. I mean, in the past, in my youth, until very recently, women tended never to become genuine friends with other women. They saw each other as rivals, enemies even, or at least competitors. Now, mostly as a result of these consciousness groups, not only are women capable of being true friends, they have learned to be warm, open, deeply tender with each other: they are turning sisterhood and fraternity into realities – and without making that relationship dependent on lesbian sexuality. Of course, there are many battles, even strictly feminist battles with social impact, in which the women do expect men to join, and many have. I’m thinking, for example, of the struggle here to legalize abortion. When we staged the first massive demonstration on that issue, three or four years ago, I remember well the great quantity of men present. This doesn’t mean that they were not sexist: to uproot what has been anchored in one’s behavior pattern and value system from the earliest days of childhood takes years, decades. But these were men who were, at least, conscious of that sexism in society and took a political stand against it. On such occasions men are welcome, indeed encouraged, to join the struggle.
Gerassi. But there are also a great many groups, at least here in France, which proudly proclaim their separatism and define their struggle as strictly lesbian.
Beauvoir. Let’s be precise. Within the MLF [Women’s Liberation Movement] there are many groups, yes, which call themselves lesbians. Many of these women, thanks to the MLF and the consciousness groups, are now capable of saying openly that they are lesbian, and that’s great. It didn’t used to be that way at all. There are other women who have become lesbian out of a sort of political commitment: that is, they feel that it is a political act to be lesbian, the equivalent somewhat within the sex struggle of the black power advocates within the racial struggle. And, true, these women tend to be more dogmatic about the exclusion of men from their struggle. But that does not mean that they ignore the numerous struggles being waged everywhere against oppression. For example, when Pierre Overney, the young Maoist organizer, was killed in cold blood by a Renault factory policeman for failing to disperse during a demonstration, and the whole left staged a protest march across Paris, all of these so-called radical lesbian separatists joined the demonstration and carried flowers to his grave. This, on the other hand, did not mean that they expressed their solidarity with Overney the male, but that they identified with the protest against the state which exploits and abuses the people – women and men.
Gerassi. One of the consequences of women’s liberation, according to recent surveys carried out on American campuses, is that male impotence has vastly increased, especially among those young men trying to confront their sexism ...
Beauvoir. It’s their own fault. They try to play roles ...
Gerassi. But precisely, it is that they have become aware that they used to play roles, that it was easy to be macho and make believe that they were selfish, virile types when in fact, they now realize they often felt they had to make love or had to make an attempt to seduce the woman because that was what was expected, while now ...
Beauvoir. Having become aware of the role they played, which, nevertheless satisfied them – in both respects, that is, it was easy and it satisfied them sexually – while now they must worry about satisfying the woman, they can’t satisfy themselves. Too bad. I mean that. If they felt genuine affection for the women they were with, if they are honest with themselves and with their partners, they would automatically think of satisfying both. Now they’re worried about being judged sexist if they don’t satisfy the woman, so they can’t perform at all. But it’s still a performance, isn’t it? Such men are impotent because of the contradiction they live. It is too bad that it is this group of men, who are at least conscious of sexism, which suffers most from the women’s movement. while the vast majority of men profit from it, making life more intolerable for women ...
Beauvoir. A while ago we were talking about how the MLF has helped women gain sisterhood. affection for each other, and so on. That might have created the impression that I think women are now better off. They’re not. The struggle is just beginning, and in the early phases it makes life much harder. Because of the publicity the word “liberation” is on the tip of the tongue of every male, whether aware of sexual oppression of women or not. The general attitude of males now is that “well, since you’re liberated. Let’s go to bed.” In other words, men are now much more aggressive, vulgar, violent. In my youth we could stroll down Montparnasse or sit in cafés without being molested. Oh, we got smiles, winks, stares, and so on. But now it’s impossible for a woman to sit alone in a café reading a book. And if she’s firm about being left alone when the males accost her, their parting remark is most often salope [bitch] or putain [whore]. There’s much much more rape now. In general, male aggressiveness and hostility has become so common that no woman feels at ease in this town, and from what I hear in any town in America. Unless, of course, women stay at home. And that’s what lies behind this male aggressiveness: the threat which, in male eyes, women’s liberation represents has brought out their insecurity, hence their anger resulting that they now tend to behave as if only women who stay at home are “clean” while the others are easy marks. When women turn out not to be such easy marks, the men become personally challenged, so to speak. Their one idea is to “get” the woman.
Gerassi. So what’s happened to the myth, which every Frenchman upheld but which, of course, was never true, that lovemaking is an art, and that he was the greatest artist of them all?
Beauvoir. Except in some very rich parasitical layers of society, the myth is dead. Frenchmen now behave like American or Italian males: they just want “to score,” as the saying goes. And except for a very few number of men who try to cope with their sexism, they take the attitude that the freer a woman claims to be, that is, the more a woman tries to fight it out materially and in terms of her career, in their world, the man’s world, the easier she should be to get to bed.
Gerassi. The talk about women being freer puzzles me. In our society, freedom is achieved with money and power. Do women have any more power today, after almost a decade of the women’s movement?
Beauvoir. In the sense in which you ask, no. Intellectual women, young women who are willing to risk marginalization, the daughters of the rich when they are willing and capable to discard their parents’ value system: these women, yes, are freer. That is, because of their education, life-style, or financial resources, such women can withdraw from the harsh competitive society, live in communes or on the fringes, and develop relations with other similar women or men sensitive to their problems and feel freer. In other words, as individuals, women who can afford it for whatever reason can feel freer. But as a class women certainly are not freer, precisely because, as you say, they do not have economic power. There are all sorts of statistics these days to prove that the number of women lawyers, politicians, doctors, advertising executives, etc., is increasing. But such statistics are misleading. The number of powerful women lawyers and executives is not. How many women lawyers can pick up a phone and call a judge or government official to fix anything or demand special favors? Such women must always operate through established male equivalents. Women doctors? How many are surgeons, hospital directors? Women in government? Yes, a few, tokens. In France we have two. One, serious, hardworking, Simone Weil, is Minister of Health. The other, Françoise Giroud, who is the Minister in charge of women is strictly a showpiece, meant to placate bourgeois women’s needs for integration into the system. But how many women control Senate appropriations? How many women control the editorial policy of newspapers? How many are judges? How many are bank presidents, capable of financing enterprises? Just because there are many more women in middle-level positions, as journalists say, in no way means they have power. And even those women must play the male game to succeed. Now, that doesn’t mean that I do not believe that women have not made progress in the struggle. But the progress is the result of mass action. Take the new abortion law proposed by Simone Veil. Despite the fact that abortions will not be covered by the national health program and hence will be more available to the wealthy than to the poor, the law is certainly a great step forward. But for all the seriousness with which Simone Veil fought for such a law, the reason she could present it is because thousands of women have been agitating all over France for such a law, because thousands of women have publicly claimed that they have had abortions (thus forcing the government to either prosecute them or change the law), because hundreds of doctors and midwives have risked prosecution by admitting they have performed them, because some were tried and fought the issue in the courts, etc. What I’m saying is that, in mass actions, women can have power. The more women become conscious of the need for such mass action, the more progress will be achieved. And, to return to the woman who can afford to seek individual liberation, the more she can influence her friends and sisters, the more that consciousness will spread, which in turn, when frustrated by the system, will stimulate mass action. Of course, the more that consciousness spreads, the more men will be aggressive and violent. But then, the more men are aggressive, the more women will need other women to fight back, that is, the more the need for mass action will be clear. Most workers of the capitalist world today are aware of the class struggle, whether they call themselves Marxists or not, in fact, whether they even heard of Marx or not. And so it must become in the sex struggle. And it will.
Gerassi. You told me last year that you were thinking of writing another book on women, a sort of follow-up on The Second Sex. Are you?
Beauvoir. No. In the first place, such a work would have to be a collective effort. And then it should be rooted in practice rather than in theory. The Second Sex went the other way. Now that’s no longer valid. It’s in the practice that one can now see how the class struggle and the sex struggle intertwine, or at least how they can be articulated. But that’s true about all struggles now: we must derive our theory from practice, not the other way around. What really is needed is that a whole group of women, from all sorts of countries, assemble their lived experiences, and that we derive from such experiences the patterns facing women everywhere. What’s more, such information should be amassed from all classes, and that’s doubly hard. After all, the women waging the fight for liberation today are mostly bourgeois intellectuals; by and large, workers’ wives and even female workers remain firmly attached to the society’s middle-class value system. Try, for example, to talk to women workers about the rights of prostitutes and the respect due them. The idea is shocking to most women workers. To raise the consciousness of women workers is a very slow process needing a great deal of tact. I know that there are MLF extremists who are trying to get workers’ wives to rebel against their husbands as male oppressors. I think that’s a mistake. A worker’s wife, here in France at least, will be quick to answer, “but my enemy is not my husband but my boss.” And this even if she has to wash her husband’s socks and make his soup after she too spends a whole day at some factory. It’s the same in America, where black women refused to listen to the women’s liberation movement proselytizers because they were white. Such black women remained supportive of their black husbands despite the exploitation, simply because the persons trying to make them aware of the exploitation were white. Gradually, however, a bourgeois feminist can reach a worker’s wife, just as in America today there are some black women – very few, I grant you – who say, “no, we do not want to submit to the oppression of our men on the pretext that they are black and that we have to struggle together against the whites; no, that is not a reason for our men to squash us, just because they are our black men.”
In some very concrete ways, however, the class struggle can and does encourage and develop the sex struggle. Over the past few years, for example, there have been many strikes here in France in plants where the workers were almost totally women. I’m thinking of the textile strike in Troyes, in the North, or at the Nouvelles Galeries at Thionville, or the famous strike at Lip. In each case the women workers gained not only a new consciousness but also new or stronger faith in their power, and this faith upset the male system they faced in their homes. At Lip, for example, the women seized the plant and refused to evacuate it despite threats by the police to use force to get them out. At first, the workers’ husbands were very proud of their militant wives. The men brought food, helped make picket signs, etc. But when the women decided to be totally equal to the few men who also worked at Lip and who were on strike too, then the problems arose. The Lip strikers decided to organize shifts to guard the factory from police invasion. That meant night duty. Oh oh. Now, suddenly, the striking women’s husbands were upset. “You can strike and picket all you want.” they said. “but only in the daytime, not at night. What, night guard duty? Oh no! Sleeping together in large common rooms in shifts? Oh no.” Naturally, the women workers resisted. They had fought for equality, they weren’t going to give it up now. So they became committed to a double struggle: the class struggle against the Lip bosses, the police, the government, etc., on the one hand, and the sex struggle against their own husbands. Union organizers at Lip reported that the women were completely transformed after the strike, saying “one thing I got out of all this is that never again am I going to let my husband play the boss at home. I’m now against all bosses.”
Gerassi. Did your consciousness about old age change as you wrote on that, in the way your consciousness about being a woman changed during the writing of The Second Sex?
Beauvoir. Not really. I discovered many things; I learned a great deal about old folks. But I didn’t really gain a new consciousness because it was the realization that I was old which made me undertake the book in the first place. But now I can much better relate to the old than before. I used to be much more severe. Now I understand that when an old person is too susceptible, too selfish, that he is only protecting himself, throwing up defenses. But, you see, a woman can go through life refusing to face the fact that she is fundamentally, in values, experience, and life-approach, different from men. But it is very hard to avoid becoming aware that one is growing old. There comes a time when you just know that you have to draw the line or that you’ve passed the line. I know today that I shall never be able to go wandering through the hills on foot, that I shall never again ride a bicycle, that I shall never again have relations with a man. I was very scared or at least very apprehensive about old age before I reached it. Then, when it came, when I knew I had passed the line, well, it was much easier than I expected. Of course, you must stop looking backwards. But I find living from day to day much easier than I thought. But I learned I had passed that line independently of my research for my book on old age. Work on the book simply taught me to understand the old, and to be more tolerant.
Gerassi. What are you working on now?
Beauvoir. Basically, nothing. I’m helping on a scenario on, precisely, old age, for a Swedish director. I’m going to help Sartre with his television project. You know that he has signed a contract with national television to do ten one-hour shows, starting in October, on the seventy-five years of this century, and his relation to its major events. But I have no plans to undertake some particular project. This too is new for me. I used to have in the back of my head all sorts of projects, even while I was working on a specific book.
Gerassi. You have written that you have had a good life and regret nothing. Do you know that there are many couples who look upon your life with Sartre as a model, especially in the sense that you were not jealous of each other, that you had what is called an open relationship, and that it worked for forty-five years?
Beauvoir. But that’s ridiculous to use us as a model. People have to find their own elans, their own structures. Sartre and I were very lucky but also our backgrounds were very particular, very exceptional. We met each other when we were very. young. He was 23; I, 20. We weren’t quite formed yet, though we were already molded into intellectuals with similar motivations. To both of us, literature had replaced religion.
Gerassi. Yet you could have been competitive, rivals ...
Beauvoir. True, similar personalities with similar ambitions often feel competitive. But we had something else in common: we had been similarly structured in our youth. Both our childhoods were very solid, very secure. This meant that neither of us had to prove something to ourselves or the other. We were sure of ourselves. It was as if everything had been preordained from the very beginning. My parents acted as if nothing in the universe could change the normal course of my life, which was to be a nice little bourgeois intellectual. Sartre’s grandfather, who raised him – you know his father died when he was still a baby – behaved the same way, absolutely convinced that Sartre would grow up to be a professor. And that’s the way it was. So that even when crises occurred, such as when Sartre’s mother remarried when he was 12-13, or such as when I was 14-15 and learned that my father no longer loved me the way I expected it, the solidity of our childhoods made us externalize these crises. It was they who changed, not us. We were too structured to feel insecure. Besides, whatever the little variants, we were fundamentally in accord with our parents’ design for us. They wanted us to be intellectual, to read, to study, to teach, and we agreed and did so. Thus, when Sartre and I met not only did our backgrounds fuse, but also our solidity, our individual conviction that we were what we were made to be. In that framework we could not become rivals. Then, as the relationship between Sartre and me grew, I became convinced that I was irreplaceable in his life, and he in mine. In other words, we were totally secure in the knowledge that our relationship was also totally solid, again preordained, though, of course, we would have laughed at that word then. When you have such security it’s easy not to be jealous. But had I thought that another woman played the same role as I did in Sartre’s life, of course, I would have been jealous.
Gerassi. How do you see the rest of your life?
Beauvoir. I don’t see it at all. I guess I’ll soon start to write something again, that I’ll go back to work, but I have no idea yet what I’ll do. I know that I’ll continue to work with women, within feminist groups, the League of Women, and that I’ll continue to militate in some way, in whatever way I can, within the – let’s call it – the revolutionary struggle. And I know that I’ll remain with Sartre until one of us dies. But, you know, he’s 70 now and I’m 67.
Gerassi. Are you optimistic? Do you think the changes you have been struggling for will take place?
Beauvoir. I don’t know. Not in my lifetime anyway. Maybe in four generations. I don’t know about the revolution. But the changes that women are struggling for, yes, that I am certain of, in the long run women will win.