In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir makes many judgments on women in an effort to give women the motivation to change their situation and social status. My concern is that Beauvoir is playing into the stereotype that women’s work, women’s culture, and women in general are less valuable than men. It is a mistake to assume that components of generalized women’s culture are naturally inferior to men’s. Beauvoir, like Betty Friedan, argues that in order to gain transcendence, women must become more like men. It is my argument, that to encourage one to assimilate into masculinity or femininity is to promote the falsehood that one is innately more valuable than another. To illustrate my argument, I will discuss Beauvoir’s point about women’s belief in magic and men’s belief in miracles as a demonstration of the irrationality of women. I assert that magic is itself an act of assertiveness whilst miracles are a sign of passivity. Then I will discuss Betty Friedan’s solution for women who are locked within the constraints of housewife suburbia as the acquisition of an education in fields that will earn them a career that is typical of male culture.
Beauvoir writes that women are locked into the monotony of their days. Instead of seeing past their daily routine, and breaking free of repetition that continues to keep them immanent, women believe their routines to be a kind of magic:
She feels that she is surrounded by waves, radiations, mystic fluids…her religion is full of primitive superstition: wax candles, answered prayers, she believes the saints incarnate the ancient spirits of nature: this one protects travelers, that one women in labor, this other finds lost articles; and, of course, no prodigy can surprise her…she will perform well-tested rites…She is not familiar with the masculine use of logic…masculine reasoning is quite inadequate to the reality with which she deals. (Beauvoir, 599-600)
What I find most interesting about this passage is Beauvoir’s statement about masculine reasoning being inapplicable to women’s reality. Women’s belief in magic and superstition is not, as Beauvoir claims, a testament to their lack of reasoning, but rather a signifier of the different worlds in which men and women inhabit. Magic is an active process. It takes one’s self-determination and a degree of finesse to complete the incantations and rites that are part of magic. One must be meticulous in their actions and clear in their intent in order for magic to achieve the desired effect.
Beauvoir explains that men believe in miracles rather than magic. By definition, a miracle is something one waits for to happen, something one may hope for, ask for, but it is not something that is achieved through one’s own actions. Magic is an active process that requires one to take an active role in its process. When Beauvoir writes of the rationality of men in their ability to evolve, to separate from old Gods, as opposed to women who cling to old religions, she also implies that women are making a logical decision. Men may seem to adapt to change rationally in creating new gods that fit the contemporary time, but women, maintain their belief in a tangible deity, the Earth. Beauvoir also writes that one cannot honestly bow before a god that they themselves have created. Yet, irrationally, men are seen as the leaders in religious communities who encourage men and women to bow down to a god that they have created. Women’s worshipping of the earth and the elements does not involve worshipping a god that women created, but rather it is about worshipping creation. On some basic level, if Christianity and similar religions is about worshipping a set of morals centered around respecting life, (thou shall not kill, steal, covet another, etc.,) is it not more logical to worship life?
I agree with Beauvoir’s point about women living outside of the realm of male logic. Women’s domain, as outlined by western society, separates women’s lives from men’s. Each half of this dichotomous system is associated with different traits that ultimately mean men and women play different roles in a community. It makes sense that these roles having little crossover in western society, would have different kinds of logical reasoning associated with them. A woman’s role as a caregiver is more likely to follow logic with a caring, nurturing aim. Men’s logic may be more based in materialistic gain, due to men’s role as provider. Beauvoir’s argument that women are less rational than men because their logic does not fit into the male model only supports the idea that maleness is the standard and that everything outside of masculinity and male achievement is other and less valuable.
Betty Friedan places similar judgments on women’s culture in her Feminist Manifesto. In the conclusion of her work, Friedan suggests that housewives reestablish themselves as individuals in order to move past the “problem with no name”. Friedan says that the key to their success is to get an education in a field that will provide them a career so that they may become self-sufficient and not have to rely on a man or a family. Where Friedan’s argument loses momentum is where she outlines the sort of studies that a women should involve herself in to achieve her elevation from housewife status. Friedan says that women should move past relying on men for support, yet at the same time, she tells women to rely on male definitions of success and male ideals of what constitutes and education in order to overcome their station in subservience.
This solution, which continues to devalue woman culture, only elevates women on the surface. In reality, Friedan’s solution is a call for a “if you can’t beat them, join them,” movement. This cop out of a solution does not change the station of women, but rather continues to perpetuate social stereotypes of men’s culture as the more valuable. Assimilation of women into maleness is not a solution for women to gain transcendence in Beauvoir’s terminology. This solution only places women further into immanence because women are not finding their own ground. They are not fighting oppressive systems that devalue them, and they are not provided agency to make decisions about who they are truly if who that is falls into the realm of womanhood rather than masculinity.
Friedan further contradicts herself in her suggestion that women leave the home in pursuit of their education in “serious”, (and male-dominated) fields and hire a cleaning lady to cover for them in their households. This idea is curious not only in its obvious hypocrisy and likely racist connotations, but also because it acknowledges that the household is still solely a woman’s responsibility. Friedan is essentially encouraging women to take a double shift and to educate themselves, but still attend to their domiciles. If the strain of an education and household chores becomes overwhelming, the answer is not to ask one’s husband to pitch in, but rather to further the subservience of another women to get the job done. Note that Friedan has called women to assimilate into male culture by choosing fields of study that are reflective of male ideals of success, but she refrains from asking the same of men. Here, again, we see a devaluation of women’s culture. It is within reason for a woman to elevate herself by participating in male culture, but clearly it is crossing the line to ask a man to lower himself to the standards of female culture.
To Friedan’s credit, her solution does showcase the importance of the role of the housewife to a certain extent. By offering a suggestion for how to keep on top of the household while entering the workplace, Friedan implies that women’s culture fills a need in society. However, the importance of that social need is demeaned by Friedan’s suggestion that it can be passed onto another if need be, or that it is not so important as to require one’s full attention. To solely be a housewife is not enough, rather if one chooses to not give their housewife duties to another, then they should be responsible for them and also work towards an education.
Beauvoir is more blatantly hard on women in The Second Sex than Friedan is in the Feminine Mystique, but they both say a lot that devalues women’s culture. I realize that I have been discussing this topic through a gender dichotomous lens. I have done so because I feel that not only is this reflective of Beauvoir and Friedan’s approaches, but also because it highlights the distinction between socially constructed women’s and men’s culture in western culture. What both of these women do in their work is to raise men’s culture above women’s. In fact, Beauvoir and Friedan shame women for being complicit in their own oppression. While I agree that achieving transcendence is a matter of individual motivation, I believe that these two women do themselves a disservice in devaluing many aspects of women’s culture.
Faith in magic is not as Beauvoir insists, a sign of irrationality, or passivity. Rather, magic is transcendent in its foundation. Performing magic is about taking action to change something. Further, it represents worship for life and a respect for change. Miracles, attributed to men’s culture, are more about passivity, about waiting for another to decide that change should occur. In effect, belief in miracles makes one immanent because one chooses to give decision-making power to another rather than to effect change themselves. Miracles and modern religion is not an example of the rationality of man, but rather a sign of his irrationality for believing in deities he himself or his culture has created. Faith in the earth and the elements is more logical because it shows an understanding of the fluidity of religion and is a choice to put one’s faith in a constant.
Friedan and Beauvoir both suggest that women and men live in different realities, and Beauvoir says that they follow different logic systems. This split is reflective of the different roles that women and men play in western society. The devaluation of either of these sets of roles is detrimental. Further, it is not a solution for the oppression of women to suggest that women become more like men. If women are told that to be on equal terms with men they must adopt male behavior, then women have not reached transcendence, they are not liberated, and oppression for women is only shown to have deepened. Rather than calling for assimilation, we should be questioning our beliefs about the value of women’s and men’s culture. Women should be allowed to free themselves on an individual level, to become transcendent, through their own standards without those standards being compared to male ideals of success and logic.