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Bonnie Burstow HOW SEXIST IS SARTRE? In 1948 William Barrett objected to Sartre's attitude toward women.1 Since then, Sartrean writing has often been depicted as sexist—not just slightly, but extremely sexist. The writing, it is objected, associates women with the inferior mode of Being. Sartre expresses nothing but revulsion toward women. His writings constitute a philosophic "no" to women. Detailed references to both literary and philosophic works have been used to support and illustrate these claims. Barnes's 1990 article in this journal constitutes the only response thus far to the allegations.2 There is no question but that sexism may be found in Sartre, as, indeed, it may be found in the writings of almost all mid-century male writers. In fact, when a member of a privileged group writes in a way that can be easily seen as oppressive, as indeed Sartre did, even if that writer is being completely misconstrued, the laxness speaks to privilege and is itself a form of oppression. In this regard, the works are sexist. There are other types of sexism as well for which Sartre might be legitimately challenged. My contention is, however, that the degree of sexism being alleged is not tenable, and, more particularly, that the allegations are based on misunderstandings of Sartre. I begin by clarifying the claims and the arguments supporting them. Included in this section is Barnes's response to the allegations together with an assessment of her response. The bulk of my article is a detailed response to the specific allegations and arguments presented. I also clarify where sexism indeed exists. Finally, I comment on Sartre's possible contribution to feminism by revealing the pro-feminist position which Sartre has explicidy articulated. As the critics go between the literary and philosophic works in the process of establishing their poPhilosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 32-48 Bonnie Burstow33 sition, I, too, go between the literary and the philosophic. Special attention is given to the literary, however, because it contains important implicit critiques ofmale arrogance and chauvinism which Sartre's critics have misconstrued. Barrett's primary claim is that while Sartre is not explicitly sexist, female inferiority is implied in the very ontological descriptors which Sartre uses. Barrett's argument is as follows: (1)Sartre associates the for-itself or superior realm of being with masculine qualities like freedom, choice, action, and project. (2)Sartre associates the in-itselfor inferior mode ofbeing with female qualities like "softness" and "fertility." (3)Therefore, Sartre sees women as inferior. Barrett is claiming that while Sartre's official position is that both men and women are consciousness and as such for-itself, the writings suggest an identification between the for-itself and the male on one hand and the in-itself and the female on the other. The qualities which Sartre attributes to these two realms of being are offered as proof of the identification. The identification, Barrett suggests, is particularly pronounced in Sartrean fiction where, Barrett contends, the woman emerges as a threat to the freedom of the man, much as the in-itself is a threat to the freedom of the for-itself. Her fertility, her overabundance, ties the male down (p. 254 ff.). Barrett ends by returning to the ontological issue and asking that the psychology of the for-itselfbe seen for what it is—something inherently masculine: Consider . . . the normal woman. . . . What sense does it make to say that such a woman's identity is constituted by her projects? Her project is family and children . . . but it is hardly a project that has issued out of a conscious ego. Her whole life ... is rather the unfolding of nature through her. As soon as we begin to think about the psychology ofwomen, Sartre's psychology shows itselfindeed to be exclusively a masculine affair, (pp. 206-61) Decades later, Collins and Pierce quite rightly take issue with Barrett. In his attempt to prove a Sartrean identification between the in-itself 34Philosophy and Literature and women, they point out, Barrett engages in a totally illegitimate type of argument—argument by analogy. They write: Barrett's evidence for associating the In-itself with the female . . . rests solely on the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 32-48
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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