[Access article in PDF]
The Personal, the Political, and Others: Audre Lorde Denouncing "The Second Sex Conference" 1
Lester C. Olsen
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference--those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older--know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.
--Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider 112
Fifty years ago, in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir's book entitled The Second Sex was published in France. She did not consider herself a philosopher because, to her, a philosopher was "someone who has built a great system" (Simons and Benjamin 1979, 338). Her book, nonetheless, became a milestone in feminist philosophy, for it synthesizes elements of existentialism, phenomenology, and socialism in an account of women's situation in society. Central to this account is Beauvoir's concentration upon representations of "self" and "other." For example, Beauvoir affirmed, "The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality--that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts" (1993, xl). In an interview, Beauvoir stressed, "I believe that the Other is not simply an idealist relationship, it is a materialist relationship" (Simons and Benjamin 1979, 345). To develop her analysis, Beauvoir drew upon another binary, "master" and "slave." However, she concentrated on how women, as a category, had been subordinated as men's "other."
Twenty years ago, in 1979, Audre Lorde delivered her best-known speech, "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," at an international conference held in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of [End Page 259] Beauvoir's book. According to conference organizer Jessica Benjamin and reporter Lilly Rivlin, writing together in Ms. magazine, "[M]ore than 800 women from all over the world gathered at a conference on feminist theory, 'The Second Sex--Thirty Years Later,' sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities" (1980, 48). Like most of the conference participants, Lorde was a woman, a feminist, a socialist, a public intellectual, and an activist scholar. Lorde may have participated in the conference as a "consultant," a poet at a public reading, and a speaker at a plenary session 2 because her feminist philosophy is of resonance to Beauvoir's. Both women rejected biology as the basis for women's situation, believing instead that material conditions are most fundamental. Both commented upon the power of symbolism, especially myths about others, in perpetuating social inequalities and failing to differentiate categories for others. Both saw the relationship between "self" and "other" as a vital and creative tension.
To understand this tension, Beauvoir drew explicitly on Hegel's ideas as they were treated in Sartre's oeuvre (Lloyd 1983). In contrast, Lorde may have drawn upon conceptions of double consciousness among black public intellectuals in the United States (Henderson 1989, 17-21). Unlike Beauvoir, Lorde was a lesbian, a mother, and a black woman for whom Beauvoir's analogies between the status of women and the status of "Negroes" were problematic. Confronting the conference participants on the last day, during the last panel entitled "The Personal and the Political," Lorde condemned the conference for its limited range of speakers, its substance, its very structure. Lorde examined the ramifications of failing to include others as equals. For in failing to do so, the conference had employed the same tools of oppression over others that the participants deplored in the politics of patriarchy. Lorde challenged the conference participants, who presumably understood that Beauvoir had represented woman as...