“I am a woman.”
In 1946, Simone de Beauvoir – a French, thirty-eight year old woman – examined that sentence. She was many things: a writer, philosopher, an existentialist. Unmarried, childless, by choice. An atheist, also by choice. A university professor, public intellectual, social and political activist. Lover of a man called Jean-Paul Sartre, travel, wine, cigarettes.
To be then defined by a single word, and of all those, by her sex, a biological determinant she had not chosen…
“I am a woman.”
Simone de Beauvoir changed the course of history by challenging that sentence.
To be a woman, in 1946, was a passive sentence. Women were born and raised to be daughters, wives, mothers. Feminine. Peripheral, supporting members of a society run by gender-based institutions. Women could study, work, write, and teach, but could not use birth control. They could vote in some countries, but no female head of state had ever been elected. The international convention on women’s political rights had not been written.
De Beauvoir asked why.
To answer, she delved into history, chronicling womankind from its origins to the 1940s. She then looked at the present: her own life and that of her contemporaries, from girlhood to womanhood. Education, adolescence, sexual initiation. The laws and attitudes that governed women and their conduct.
Her study revealed a revolutionary truth:
“A woman is not born a woman. Rather, she becomes one.”
Biology aside, what it means to be a woman is… a social construct.
In 1949, she published Le Deuxième Sexe, The Second Sex,debunking the myth that women are, by nature, inferior to men. This second-class status results from a long history of institutions – patriarchy, marriage, capitalism – that set the standards for women’s behavior and appearance.
“There is no way women have to be, no given femininity, no ideal to which all women should conform,” she states.Sex differences, in themselves, provide no justification for the differences in status and social power between men and women.
All humans live and die. All have the same essential needs and basic capabilities. “It is through other people’s expectations and assumptions that a woman becomes ‘feminine.'” By struggling to meet these standards, these standards that men set, women became “passive objects.” But what if, instead…
Women were fundamentally free to reject stereotypes of how they should look and act? To define themselves as individuals equal, not inferior to men?
“The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes […] and they can take the same glory from their freedom;
if they knew how to savor it, they would no longer be tempted to contend for false privileges; and fraternity could then be born between them.”
With that thought, Simone de Beauvoir laid the foundation for modern feminism.
De Beauvoir’s dream of a fraternity between men and women has not yet come true, but humanity is on its way toward it. Because of her, millions of girls today assume that their right to work, pleasure, self-fulfillment, is the same as that of their brothers. Laws have changed and attitudes are evolving all over the world. Sex is a characteristic, no longer a definition.
The Second Sex gave women the freedom to decide who they were as human beings and what they wanted to become. For that, as a woman, as a person, as the person I am becoming,
Thank you, Simone,