Beauvoir and "The Second Sex": Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism
Beauvoir and "The Second Sex": Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism. Margaret A. Simons. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Pp. 283. ISBN 0-8476-9256-6 hard cover, $25.95.
One of the first things to strike me when reading Margaret A. Simons's book, Beauvoir and "The Second Sex": Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism, is how much it is a work about love and struggle. The book shows Simons's struggle to understand Beauvoir as an independent thinker, separate from Jean-Paul Sartre, and as a founder of feminist thought. Yet Simons recalls how Beauvoir obstructed that understanding by demanding that her work be understood as heavily influenced by Being and Nothingness (1943), and how the sexism of other philosophers and the mistranslations of Beauvoir's work have led to a valiant effort by Simons and contemporary Beauvoir scholars to correct and reinterpret Beauvoir. It has been and continues to be a struggle to get accurate translations of Beauvoir's work published and to have Beauvoir acknowledged as a founder of both existentialism and feminist theory. Simons's book provides an immensely valuable resource, for it chronicles debates about Beauvoir in the United States and, in doing so, it also chronicles significant aspects of feminist philosophy in this country.
The work is clearly a work of love. The preface, "In Memoriam," exemplifies the emotional attachment and regard that Simons felt for Beauvoir. Besides, one would have to have something like love, or at least devotion, in order to spend twenty years proving that Beauvoir is a philosopher worth reading, thinking about, and canonizing. Appropriately, perhaps, Simons argues that one of the most pernicious misunderstandings of Beauvoir's work has been to map Sartre's view of the conflict between self and other onto Beauvoir. For Beauvoir, the conflict between self and other can be resolved, and connection to others is what calls us to recognize the value and meaning in life. [End Page 156]
Simons is well aware that Beauvoir herself is no ideal model of feminist subjectivity. Indeed, Simons's interviews with Beauvoir show Beauvoir to be sometimes cantankerous and antagonistic and other times gentle and generous. But, of course, to idealize Beauvoir is to miss the point: Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex so that women could understand themselves as selves free from idealized notions of femininity. Idealizing Beauvoir would simply create a feminist idol, as Simons notes.
The earliest interview (1979) locates Beauvoir as a feminist actively engaged in politics and a theorist whose work anticipated and influenced the theoretical arguments of feminism in the United States. In the chapter immediately following, "Racism and Feminism: A Schism in the Sisterhood," Simons indicates that Beauvoir fails to take into account class and race in their complexity at the same time that she takes an interest in both. Simons analyzes Beauvoir's influence on feminist theory of the 1970s in the United States and is quick to point out Beauvoir's weaknesses as well as her strengths. Because it provides an interesting analysis of 1970s' feminism from the perspective of the failures of white middle-class feminists to take race and class seriously, especially those feminists who argued for "absolute patriarchy" (the radical feminist notion that patriarchy is the root of all forms of oppression), the essay remains relevant to discussions among feminists regarding race.
In a 1981 piece on Beauvoir's influence on Sartre, Simons shows that, even without the evidence of Beauvoir's early diaries, scholars can trace Beauvoir and Sartre's philosophical conversation through their published work. While Beauvoir was once understood to be only applying Sartre's philosophy in her work, Simons points out that Sartre's theoretical claims change in response to Beauvoir's publications (as hers do in response to his publications).
Faculty will find the chapter "The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What's Missing from The Second Sex" an important assignment for students reading The Second Sex in English translation. Simons outlines much of what H. M. Parshley's translation deleted, which, according to Simons, is approximately ten percent of the French text. Parshley omitted historical accounts of women's lives, quotes from other authors that Beauvoir used to support her own arguments, and Beauvoir's articulation of "revolutionary feminism." Simons points out Parshley's significant mistranslation of key phenomenological, existentialist, and Marxist concepts, which, Simons argues, significantly impede U.S. feminist and philosophical interpretations of the text.
Simons confers with Beauvoir in a 1985 interview regarding Parshley's mistaken translation of la réalité humaine as human nature rather than human reality. Beauvoir explains that she was following Martin Heidegger in her use of the concept of human reality, which has the opposite connotations of human nature. In this interview, Beauvoir confirms that her work is independent of Sartre, especially her feminism.
In a 1984 piece, "Motherhood, Feminism and Identity," Simons discusses the views of radical lesbian feminists and Beauvoir regarding motherhood. [End Page 157] Simons applauds the fact that motherhood has finally become a potential philosophical issue, but warns that professional women philosophers are still likely to face inappropriate comments from colleagues regarding their choices of whether or not to parent. Simons distinguishes mothering as an institution from mothering as a personal experience and disentangles motherhood from female identity. In doing so, Simons articulates a female identity that authentically chooses individual success, motherhood, or both.
Many philosophers have been indifferent to Beauvoir's work. Simons makes the case that "The Second Sex broke new philosophical ground in its critical appropriation of Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and psychoanalysis and its transformation of feminism and existential phenomenology" (103) in "Sexism and the Philosophical Canon: On Reading Beauvoir's The Second Sex" (1990). According to Simons, Beauvoir successfully develops a political phenomenology in The Second Sex, which is important, not only to the development of feminist philosophy, but also to the development of phenomenology and political philosophy. However, the significance of The Second Sex is minimized by those who fail to recognize it as philosophy and by those who fail to mention it at all in their accounts of twentieth-century existentialism. Textbooks and existential criticism tend to ignore The Second Sex. Authors either portray Beauvoir only as Sartre's lifetime companion or mistakenly portray her as a faithful adherent to all of Sartre's views. Simons argues that all of these portrayals miss the significant role that Beauvoir's work played in the intellectual conversations of the time, and, consequently, they misrepresent those conversations. They also miss the significant philosophical disagreements between Beauvoir and Sartre and the ways in which Sartre's philosophy changed in response to Beauvoir, and, consequently, they misrepresent the work of both authors.
In considering Beauvoir's love relationships with women, "Lesbian Connections: Simone de Beauvoir and Feminism" (1991) relies on Adrienne Rich's notion of a lesbian continuum. Simons points to Beauvoir's strong connection to her women friends, her sister, her lovers, and her companion Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir to argue that Beauvoir's relationships with women were central to her life. Simons finds diary entries in which Beauvoir poses the question of whether she is lesbian, where she describes her joy in erotic connection with women, as well as entries in which Beauvoir admits to not treating her female lovers well. Simons redefines Beauvoir as primarily woman-identified, countering those who wish to understand Beauvoir simply as an appendage to Sartre, along with those who wish to understand The Second Sex as argument for women's identification with patriarchal values.
In "The Second Sex and the Roots of Radical Feminism" (1995), Simons analyzes Beauvoir's influence on radical feminist theorists in the United States, but also connects Beauvoir with Judith Butler and postmodernism. Simons indicates that Beauvoir profoundly affected mainstream feminist theory in the United States in the 1970s and is a precursor to the postmodern feminism of the 1990s. [End Page 158] Additionally, Beauvoir's critiques of Marxist and socialist feminist theory and psychoanalysis provide an important connection between Marxism, psychoanalysis, and existentialism. Simons notes that while Beauvoir's analysis foretells later feminist claims, it also sidesteps some of the weaknesses of radical feminism and socialist feminism. Simons argues that Beauvoir's claim that sexism is not comparable to other oppressions is repeated as the central claim of radical feminism. However, Beauvoir's emphasis on the importance of situation and her critique of objectivity align her work with the social constructionists and postmodernists as well.
Simons finds significant evidence of Richard Wright's influence on Beauvoir in "Richard Wright, Simone de Beauvoir, and The Second Sex" (1997). Simons rejects the idea that either Sartre or Nelson Algren could be the main influence on Beauvoir's knowledge of race theory. However, Wright's methodology for understanding black experience is similar to the methodology Beauvoir adopts in The Second Sex. Wright and Beauvoir were friends while Beauvoir was writing The Second Sex. She had read his work and other books on race that he recommended to her. Simons finds four major areas of Wright's influence on Beauvoir, namely, (1) internalized psychological oppression, (2) "a phenomenology of oppression," (3) "the critical appropriation of Marxism," and (4) "a critical appropriation of cultural nationalism" (178-81).
In "Beauvoir's Early Philosophy: The 1927 Diary" (1998), Simons discusses philosophical influences on Simone de Beauvoir during 1927, before Beauvoir met Sartre. Simons finds diary passages indicating that Beauvoir was, at age nineteen, already deeply influenced by Schopenhauer: "Beauvoir defines a philosophical project on the themes of the 'irrationality' of the 'given [donné]' and 'of life,' 'the impotence of analysis,' and the 'uselessness of life'" (192). The diary also refers to Henri Bergson's notions of "the given" and "becoming," which Simons relates to Beauvoir's famous claim that "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Beauvoir mentions William James's methodology, Gottfried Leibniz (even before she decided to write her thesis on Leibniz), and Jean Baruzi, Beauvoir's mentor at the Sorbonne. Simons notes the similarities between Beauvoir's idea of subjectivity and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "notions of embodied subjectivity and situated freedom" (203) and follows diary passages indicating that Merleau-Ponty was entrenched in "metaphysical absolutes" (203) while Beauvoir argued for an embodied reason. In addition to the previously mentioned despair that may anticipate Sartre, Beauvoir also, according to Simons, initiates the idea of bad faith. In the diary, Beauvoir has already noticed the importance of childhood on the adult and, significantly, the opposition between self and other. However, for Beauvoir, the other is not always a hostile force. Instead, the confrontation between self and Other is a struggle between love of the Other, the desire for fusion, the desire to consume the Other, and the desire to be free of the Other. Simons sees in Beauvoir the forerunner of Carol Gilligan, who proves that the conflict between self and other arises from women's [End Page 159] experiences, especially the contradictions in patriarchal ideas of femi5ninity and adulthood. Simons suggests that Beauvoir's own experience gave rise to this concern in her work, rather than her reading Hegel or her encounter with Sartre. Of course, Beauvoir develops a very different ethic than does Gilligan.
Simons's work has been and continues to be important in the overall understanding of Beauvoir as a philosopher. Simons corrects mistranslations, confers with Beauvoir about the influence other philosophers had on her, and reinterprets Beauvoir as a thinker--a theorist, philosopher, and novelist of extraordinary talent. The significance of this book for Beauvoir scholarship is immense. Simons has changed the way that Beauvoir is read among the international community of Beauvoir scholars. The significance of this book for continental philosophy in the United States is remarkably great, for Beauvoir's place among the philosophers can no longer be denied. In my view, Simons also chronicles important issues in feminist philosophy in the United States. I think that assigning Simons along with The Second Sex would provide undergraduates with an interesting history of feminist philosophy, allowing them to use The Second Sex to philosophically understand women's lived experience--Beauvoir's goal. All great philosophers rely on commentators to make their work accessible. Simons illustrates the complexity of Beauvoir's philosophy, banishes those who would silence Beauvoir, and brings out the lasting importance of her thought.
Barbara S. Andrew
University of Oregon