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  • The Other Within: Ethics, Politics, and the Body in Simone de Beauvoir
  • Andrea Veltman (bio)
The Other Within: Ethics, Politics, and the Body in Simone de Beauvoir. By Fredrika Scarth. Lanham, Md.: Roman & Littlefield, 2004.

In the last few decades, critical analyses of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1952) developed by feminist philosophers have contested Beauvoir's denigration of the body, her belittling of pregnancy and child rearing as uncreative natural functions, and her general endorsement of masculine conceptions of human subjectivity and embodiment present in the Western philosophical tradition. In The Other Within: Ethics, Politics, and the Body in Simone de Beauvoir, Fredrika Scarth advances the revisionist scholarship on Beauvoir while providing a compelling response to feminist critical analyses of Beauvoir. Scarth provides a reading of The Second Sex as an ethical text alongside Beauvoir's earlier ethical treatises The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) and Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944), examining in particular the themes of embodiment, subjectivity, maternity, and the interdependence of human freedoms. Rather than reading Beauvoir as a first-wave feminist theorist keen on equality and economic independence for women, Scarth argues that Beauvoir is primarily concerned with envisioning social and political conditions that transcend relations of domination and subordination, so that women and men can achieve reciprocal recognition of one another as embodied subjectivities. [End Page 217]

In responding to feminist theorists who think Beauvoir forecloses the possibility of authentic maternal desire, Scarth draws attention not only to the context in which Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex but also to a crucial and overlooked distinction in the work between enforced maternity and "maternité libre." In France in the 1940s, legislation forbade contraception and abortion at the same time that both laws and mores promoted marriage and child rearing as a vocation for women. In a context of enforced maternity, motherhood does not readily allow the expression of subjectivity or the creation of value; pregnancy blurs with the social imposition of femininity. But motherhood can, in principle, be lived as a human achievement for Beauvoir. If maternity is undertaken in freedom, it can be an intentional connection with a future world, and pregnancy itself can be a project. In a passage on motherhood in The Second Sex, Beauvoir writes, "the child is an enterprise to which one can validly give oneself . . . to have a child is to take on an engagement" (Beauvoir 1949, translation by Scarth). Notably, H. M. Parshley's translation renders Beauvoir's use of "se destiner" as "to devote oneself" ("se devouer"), which obscures Beauvoir's distinction between undertaking motherhood as an engagement with the world and devoting oneself to a child in the absence of other projects.

Experiencing maternity as a free engagement with the world requires not only that adequate contraception and legal abortion be available so that maternity can be a genuine choice, but also that women have some involvement with the public world, real alternatives to the vocation of motherhood, and the economic independence to raise a child outside traditional marriage (Scarth 145–49). Given the distinction between enforced and free maternity, Scarth argues, Beauvoir's occasional denigration of maternity as enslavement is a description of maternity as women live it in social contexts of enforced motherhood, rather than a description of maternity per se.

The characterizations of pregnancy as mutilation, annihilation, and invasion that confront the reader of The Second Sex also describe the experience of carrying life in patriarchal contexts of enforced maternity, rather than descriptions of pregnancy itself. On the one hand, when maternity effectively becomes a woman's destiny, pregnancy takes on the character of an alienating invasion, the interests of mother and fetus are in conflict, and morning sickness is a "revolt of the organism against the invading species" (Beauvoir 1952, 30, 498). The experience of pregnancy in a context of free maternity, on the other hand, highlights the basic ambiguity of the human condition and directs us to a new conception of maternal subjectivity. The pregnant body undermines our received individualistic conceptions of subjectivity, for the pregnant body symbolizes the relational aspects of subjectivity and human interdependence in a social community. A complex process of creation, pregnancy draws attention...


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pp. 217-221
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Archived 2009
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