This is a man's world/This is a man's world/But it would be nothing/Nothing without a woman to care
‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’
It’s difficult to review a 741-page book like ‘The Second Sex’, Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist literary landmark. But this milestone, first published in 1949, needs to be championed by and passed down from generation to generation since many of the issues that Simone addressed at the time are still relevant today.
‘The Second Sex’ is divided into two books: ‘Facts and Myths’ and ‘Woman’s Life Today’. The former focuses on the biological, historical and mythic aspects of women’s situation since the primitive communal system. The latter concentrates on woman as an individual within society, placing her in different categories and analysing each category in depth. Holiday reading material, this ain’t.
‘The Second Sex’ appeared at a time when Europe had just come out of a bloodthirsty conflict and was trying to come to terms with the devastating effects of Nazism. Ironically it was mostly women who had kept the Old Continent going in the absence of men. It is in this context that we ought to analyse this treatise.The thesis that underpins the book is based on the fact that man (as in the male of the species) is not only in control of most of the social, political and economic structures upon which modern polity is based, but also that he models this society according to his whims and tastes. In order to prove this, de Beauvoir conducts a thorough analysis, delving into the biological, psychoanalytical and historical aspects of woman’s life from ancient to contemporary times (at least until 1949). However two caveats: Simone does not see woman as a powerless victim (even if sometimes it feels exactly like that) and she does not come across as a pessimist (at least to me). In chapters like ‘The Independent Woman’ she avers that woman can indeed gain a degree of autonomy which would free her from economic dependence on man.
What conclusion, then, did I arrive at after I finished reading the last word of the last page of this literary behemoth? Can woman ever achieve the freedom and independence that Simone believed she had the right to? Could that be accomplished in our lifetime?
There are various reasons why, in my humble opinion, woman will remain at the bottom of the ladder at least for some time to come. These reasons are political, economic and social and in no way invariable, but at times they are difficult to alter. Let’s deal with each one briefly.
Politics dictates that whenever there is a change of government in a modern democratic nation the new status quo will address the issues which formed the agenda that brought it to power. Because woman sits at the bottom of the exploitation table, she is discriminated against not just for being a woman but also for belonging to the groups that occupy the echelons above her. A classical example is a gay, black, disabled woman. She will face discrimination for being gay, for being disabled and for being black, but her strongest identity marker, her femininity, will be airbrushed. If the government of the day decides to advance her agenda on account of her disability she might find herself arguing against other campaigners who disapprove of her homosexuality or her skin colour. Therefore, the result of political tepidity is disadvantegeous to the female of the species because she finds herself at the mercy of decisions and laws which she has not lobbied for or voted for in any way. Also, in modern democratic nations, government bodies are usually male-led and male-dominated.
The economic factor can better be explained through the times we are living now. The credit crunch was brought about by a combination of reckless banking and imprudent investment. This was chiefly carried out by men. Those who reported the news, those who appeared on the news, those whose opinions were sought after by avid journalists, were men in their majority. Those who ‘saved’ the day were mostly men. Women were mainly shown shopping desperately in an attempt to take advantage of sales, discounts and offers in major shopping centres. Jump to your own conclusions. Woman is the ultimate spendthrift, the media seem to say, despite the fact that woman’s economic planning at home is the kind of template that would have saved Lehman Brothers.
The social aspect is harder to pin down. This is one area where woman has been more visibly in recent decades, mainly in western societies with the second wave of feminism in the 70s. But just like woman has managed to make inroads socially in Europe and North America, man has upped the ante at the same time and prevented her from entering areas that are still considered men-only. Or even worse, like determining which areas are OK for her to trespass and which ones remain off-bounds. I think that the root of this malaise can be traced back to the absence of a social cataclysm that has seen the female population threatened with extinction just for being female. The important phrase here is ‘for being female’, a point I touched upon briefly in my review of Marilyn French's 'Women's Room'. I’ll explain. Jews had the pogroms in Nazi Germany and the concentration camps in WW2. The whole world shook its fist at such injustice and it vowed that never again would it let a similar event happen. Black people in the US had the civil rights movement to thank for their right to vote and to desegregate educational establishments. Milosevic’s trial was a display of judicial integrity in the midst of one of the worst conflicts Eastern Europe has ever seen. People sympathised with the Jewish women from the concentration camps, with the black women from the South of the US and with the Muslim women from Kosovo, but above all, they felt compassion because there was already an identity marker, an adjective preceding the noun: Jewish, black, Muslim. The fact that these women were being killed, raped or assaulted for being women did not occur to them, or maybe it did, but was secondary to their nationality or race. Both in Sudan, the Congo and Rwanda, rape has been used as a weapon; yet, we still refer to these actions as ‘side-effects’, 'collateral damage' of a terrible conflict. Actually, it’s anything but. The reason for women to be systematically abused and assaulted in those places is that there is already a social mindset that precludes any in-depth analysis of women’s delicate situation. And we are all part of that frame of mind. That’s why with every social gain that woman has made: the right to vote, the Abortion Act, employment rights, comes a backlash provided by a society that feels queasy about the leeway it gives to woman.
And there's a still another barrier that includes the other factors: the political and the economic ones. It's the elephant in the room, it's the uncomfortable issue that no one dares to discuss but on which we all have an opinion: immigration.
Globalisation has brought about a large displacement of people, relocation and mass migration. And we have not had time to come up with ways to solve what has turned out to be a time bomb. And the minority (majority) that has more often borne the brunt of the failure to set up effective systems to deal with immigrants is the female population. In the UK, at least, the rightwing press blames new arrivals for every single social malfunction. On the other hand, the liberal, leftwing media appease wife-beaters and mollycoddle so-called 'community leaders' who are nothing but covert mysoginists bent on keeping women down; this is usually called 'community cohesion'.
And lest I forget, within the social factors that work against woman we also have to name female antagonism towards her own gender. Rachida Dati anyone?
Then, that’s it. Woman will never ever be able to shake her shackles and get what she really deserves in a society that is so mysoginist.
Hold your horses, my chiquilines. I haven't finished yet.
Woman, in fact, can achieve a degree of parity with man, not as an adversary but as an equal. Simone pointed at economics and how independence in this area would put woman in an advantageous position. The other element is education.
I have always been a believer in education as the main factor in the formation of an individual. That entails not just state education (or private for that matter) but parental education, too, which to me is one of the most important pillars underpinning a child's upbringing. Woman is not determined by her hormones anymore than man is ruled by his penis. The abyss that separates both man and woman is created in early childhood and carried forward in their teenagehoood. By the time they both become adults the theory that justifies the abyss has taken full form and serves as the only reference to interact with the outside world. Only through a thorough, comprehensive, inclusive and encompassing education can the gulf between man and woman be bridged. It's not easy. Humans are individual beings who resist outside pressure most of the time. We believe ourselves to be owners of our destinies. Any government that tampers with this trait is in for a good kicking. However, a girl who is raised with the same demands and rewards as her male counterpart will cast aside any Oedipus complex, become a more fulfilled individual and serve society better as a whole. I believe that modern, secular and open-minded societies are better placed to achieve this, so theocracies and totalitarian regimes are out of the equation in my opinion. The former respond to a set of laws ouside the human realm, the latter might improve living conditions for women in the short term but end up subjugating them and leaving them in a worse state than they were before.
If we are to render the first two lines of James Brown's song obsolete (read the beginning of this post) we have to stop seeing woman as an Other and include her in humanity's historical development. After all we're more than just a mere species; we're men and women.