The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.2 (2000) 156-160
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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...