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by Julia

This evening, the French Embassy in Washington, DC, along with L’Alliance Française, hosted an event honoring the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s watershed feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex. The appearance of the translators, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, drew an incredibly well-dressed crowd. On the first real fall evening in DC (finally!!), the women wrapped themselves in scarves and belted long cardigans, all sporting incredibly simple but striking outfits. (I’m not sure myself whether some of us chose to channel Simone, or whether we all just showed up emulating her because her influence on our lives is so great that it subconsciously permeates our habitudes.)

It’s hard to believe with such a significant work that it has not been translated into English since Howard M. Parshley attempted it in 1953. Parshley’s version, for lack of a better word, butchered the original text. He eliminated over 100 pages of text, most of which centering on examples of women in literature or Marxist-feminism. Parshley also deconstructed de Beauvoir’s grammatical structure by splitting up her paragraphs and altering punctuation for the benefit of appealing to larger English-reading audiences. By cutting out the difficulty and glossing over the philosophical concepts, Parshley deprived the English-speaking world of a just treatment of Simone’s largely philosophical musings on the female condition.

The significance of The Second Sex is well documented elsewhere, so I’ll just spend a moment highlighting the parts most relevant to the new translation. The Second Sex centers on the idea of this dichotomy of human experiences, specifically pertaining to men and women. The book is at its core a deconstruction of the myriad myths that cause women to be seen and see themselves as “other,” secondary, and dominated. (A lot of these myths stem, no doubt, from their perpetuation in her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.) The Second Sex was originally published in two volumes, translated respectively by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier as “Facts and Myths” and “Lived Experiences.” Both of these volumes analyze the myths surrounding women’s lives from every perspective: biological, psychological, economic, literary, philosophical, anthropological, linguistic, etc. This characteristic is one of the many reasons why The Second Sex remains such a wonderful entry point into feminist consciousness for many women and men.

The overarching myth that the translators wanted to maintain and emphasize was that of economic monism – the idea that men are better-suited to economic prowess than women. This myth is perpetuated through the aforementioned fields of human experience such that women are subjugated to men in every social (and even biological) encounter. This myth – that men are the producers and women are reproducers – rings true even today, when we see women playing into the same system that subjugates them, thereby reproducing.

(Side note – one of my favorite quotations works well here: “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new.”)

Borde said her most crucial task in this translation was putting the philosophy back in the text (M.A. Simons famously documented this silencing in her 1983 piece.) Simone was a student of Hegel and Heidegger, and her understanding of “subject” was much more nuanced than Parshley could recognize. His translation of “subject” bent toward the idea of “subjective” and “personal,” rather than that of the greater of the two states of being – the subject being the one with complete freedom of choice (rather than the object). This complete glossing-over of the philosophical significance of Simone’s etymology has ramifications for one’s overall impression of the text as a whole. After all, the modern feminist movement was largely built on this text – one wonders how the second wave feminists might have treated class difference and economics differently had the original intent of Simone been conveyed into the English translation (sigh).

The goal of the new translation was to discover the original intent of Simone de Beauvoir and convey her voice as written in 1949. The new version is completely unabridged – this means keeping Simone’s pages-long paragraphs and unconventional punctuation (mostly, the semicolon). (At the event tonight we all toasted, “Vive la point-virgule!”, a poke at Simone’s affinity for the oft-abused and misunderstood punctuation.) But this adherence to the original intent has extremely rewarding results, namely, conveying the logic of her grammatical choices, which have great philosophical significance.

In French grammar, words are assigned a gender (masculine, feminine, or neutral). Simone recognized that assigning genders to the very language we use probably was not an accident, and the translators did not gloss over the significance. (I should mention here that I’ve studied French my entire life. My mom taught French to high schoolers and is fluent, and I went so far as to minor in French in college.) The gender of words in French (or other languages) is something foreign to English-speaking students of the language. I remember coming up with mnemonic devices for French grammar lessons in middle school, most of which centered on the idea that the words en féminine that didn’t follow normal patterns were usually the “sad” words: la mort, la guerre, la bataille – death, war, battle (also, interestingly, all of the words for sex organs are female). Of course, there’s the obvious that for the majority of French words, the masculine is the default, and to make something feminine, one must somehow modify the word (usually adding an “e” to the ending). This is one pattern that English-speakers can recognize: Waiter/Waitress, Host/Hostess, and the most obvious, Man/Woman.

Thus, the treatment of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quotation – On ne naît pas femme: on le devient – is critically altered in the new translation. The translation of this sentence hinges on the translation of the word “femme.” In French, “la femme” can mean “woman,” “the woman,” “wife,” or “maid.” Without the article, “femme” tends to convey more of the idea of “woman” as an institution – a construct of femininity as determined by society. Adhering to de Beauvoir’s intent is key to the significance of the phrase. H.M. Parshley’s translation reads:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate the phrase as follows:

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.”

This key treatment of the lack of an article is crucial. Clearly, Simone was not talking solely about the biological evolution into a physically mature woman. No, she was focused on the idea of “woman” as shaped by society.

After the English translation was published in late 2009 (in England, early 2010 in the United States), critics came out of the woodwork to jump to pick apart Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s effort (including this inane review from the New York Times Book Review). I’m sure some of the critiques are warranted. The translators had previously worked on cookbooks and textbooks – definitely nothing this philosophical. And Toril Moi has an excellent analysis in the London Review of Books. However, the bigger picture is significant to keep in mind. The translators told the story of an Iranian woman who approached them at one of their stops on this book tour. She thanked them for helping to share Simone’s words with a new generation of women, for, she said, “reading this book made me realize I wasn’t insane.” The Second Sex is applicable to all societies and all eras of women – la lutte continue (the struggle continues). If the most important thing is to be free, then to be free necessitates understanding one’s condition. No work better addresses women – as constructs, biological beings, mothers, wives, workers – than The Second Sex, and I have such great respect for these women for toiling to provide as authentic a translation as possible.

The last question of the evening came from one of the outnumbered men in the room who asked whether if, given the advances of women over the past sixty years, any parts of the original text perhaps felt dated or irrelevant. Malovany-Chevallier softly replied, after a long pause, “very little.” She then reminded us of the story included during one of Simone’s long biological analyses, that of the relationship between the ovum and the sperm. Both equal gametes, the ovum’s job is to lay in wait for the sperm, endeavoring to create the best home for the future union. Simone remarked, “It might be rash to say that a woman’s place is [from the very start] in the home, but some people are rash.”

Indeed, there are many many myths remaining regarding women and people working had to perpetuate them. The myth of a woman’s place in society as beneath a man is manifested in many of our daily interactions, and to have a new translation of The Second Sex available is wonderful. To have one that rightly emphasizes the nuanced ways in which sexual hierarchy dominates our interactions – particularly economic – is truly revolutionary.

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by Julia

March 4 was The National Day of Action to Defend Education, and at Maryland we took action to create the kind of education we desire. We held a series of workshops in the Art-Sociology building’s atrium on feminism in academia, hip hop and society, sports and education, the prison-industrial complex, and whatever else is in our everyday lives but is little discussed in our classes. I am fortunate enough to be enrolled in several courses this semester which deal with issues of sexism, classism, ableism, racism, and other inequalities which are prevalent in our system today, and I wish to share just a sample of the progressive and intellectually stimulating topics from my 300-level Women’s Studies class on the Sociology of Gender.

Foucault and Purity Balls

On March 4, we discussed the intersection of Michel Foucault and sexuality in society, specifically concerning purity balls. For further information on purity balls, I highly recommend Jessica Valenti’s book, The Purity Myth, as well as these links. These often federally funded events represent the hegemony of several institutions on the bodies and brains of young women, a phenomenon which Foucault links to the definition of the Self solely by one’s sexuality.

“Since Christianity, Western civilization has not stopped saying, ‘To know who you are, know what your sexuality is about.’”

-Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction

“Sexuality as a term did not appear until the beginning of the 19th century. What had been some 300 years earlier just so many disparate urges, inclinations, and activities were delineated as a problematic set of traits and drives that supposedly define a central aspect of human nature…[and]…define us as sexual objects.”

– C.G. Prado, Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy

Because the Self is a social and cultural construct, the hegemony of certain institutions in society and their obsession with sexuality led to the definition and eventual policing of our bodies in terms of our sexuality. The Church, specifically, pursued its their goal of disconnecting sex from pleasure starting in the 19th century, and began to define sex as a sin punishable by eternal damnation – allowing religious morality to permeate all forms of privacy, so that people ended up policing their own choices for fear of retribution. Our sexual selves are also managed by the government and medical communities, under the guise of the “public good.”  In short, the advent of this new Self definition represented the institutionalization of sexuality.

Purity balls, then, represent a fairly recent evolution of this institutionalization. As I see it, underlying these ceremonies is a great fear that the expression of women’s sexualities will in some way topple the order of society which, for the past 200 years, has recognized the power of individual expression to the independence of many social groups. Most tragically, this trend of hypersexualization essentializes young women so that they are defined by a single issue – their sexuality. How sad that equal focus is not placed on their education, advancement in male-dominated academic fields, or protection from the patriarchy instead of from themselves.

Young women who express their heterosexual desires – not to mention those women who *gasp* align themselves somewhere else on the sexual spectrum – are forced to suppress their wants by social institutions. At the same time, however, young women are also hypersexualized from a very young age because of this very same trend of defining the Self not by one’s thoughts or actions, but solely by one’s sexual expression.

Foucault challenges us to not only recognize who we are sexually – gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, etc – but also to deconstruct why many of us identify so strongly with our sexual selves in the first place. 200 years ago, few defined themselves by sexual expression, and to claim otherwise is to lay a false metanarrative of sexual expression on history.

Foucault’s strongest attribute in terms of deconstructing sexuality is his ability to question exactly whose ends our identifications serve.

“The central issue…is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue [is] the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse.*’”

– Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality

*Foucault defines “discourse” as simply a discussion among people, but as a discussion that “society has with itself: a set of meaning-making practices.” The discursive power of the narrative of purity produces certain types of individuals with repressed sexualities.

The hypersexualized young woman who is forced into purity balls is certainly not serving her own desires or interests, but most likely those of her parents, and religious leaders. This definition of women by their sexuality and “purity” is detrimental to all involved. It hurts young women who learn to measure their worth based on a single issue. It hurts young men who struggle to see their sisters, cousins, friends, and partners for more than their sexual purity. It hurts society because this focus on the sexuality of young women impedes the recognition of so many other facets of a women’s mind. Ultimately, all parties lose out, but none so much as the women who fall prey to the policing of their minds and bodies by a society which strategically subordinates them to maintain dominance.

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by Julia

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the incredible importance of fostering a sense of community based on common experiences. From campus activism to personal relationships, exposing commonalities (especially through the accessible application of theory) is perhaps the most effective means of transforming society. This realization also results in anger at the inane portrayals of so-called female commonalities in popular culture. Remember the Bechdel Test? In the real world, do women really “mediate their relationships through discussion of men”, as is portrayed in mainstream consumer media? Discussions of finding “the one” dictate female interaction in music, film, and television – think Sex and the City. Is realistic female interaction really Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha?

According to the Marxist-feminist philosopher Nina Power in her new book, One Dimensional Woman, “if all discussions with ‘friends’ are merely mediating stepping-stones in the eschatological fulfillment of romantic purpose [in popular media],” friendships in reality are bound to reflect that trend as well, especially if the dominant portrayal of female interaction is one centered around our relationships with men. I disagree with Power, and I think she gives the media too much credit (and also imposes some pretty ridiculous generalizations on the interactions of her fellow females). While it is true that some women (especially in Western societies) center their interactions over discussions of men, exposing this phenomenon, instead of indicting it, should be the cause of any feminist genuinely devoted to created an inclusive feminist movement. Assuming that your fellow woman is a vapid dude-obsessed, pink-clad, consumerist cog is not going to do our sex any favors. It is detrimental, it is elitist, and frankly, it is offensive.

Power writes a scathing critique of feminist writer Jessica Valenti, mostly because of Valenti’s effort to bring feminism to the masses. Power likens this effort to capitalism – rendering feminism yet another product du jour to be consumed by women. I’ve got my issues with capitalism, for sure, but if feminist theory is made most accessible through the identification of common experiences (working within the current capitalist reality of millions of women), then I see no problem. Also, for the record, Power only references Valenti’s Full-Frontal Feminism, a book explicitly written to expose for a skeptical young woman the commonalities of women in society – entry-level feminism. As Valenti writes, every woman, regardless of whether she’s read Butler or Foucault, should be able to relate to feminism. Because it does permeate society. And the adoption of a feminist lens is an incredibly important gateway towards comprehending greater feminist issues, and even – shocker of all shockers – the writing of theorists like Power. Valenti is not endorsing capitalist consumerism as a means of advancing feminism. She is using our commonalities (including our semi-indoctrinated desire for fashion and chocolate) to flip consciousnesses, with the ultimate goal being a feminist revolution.

This brings me to a fabulous piece published on Feministe about the importance of female friendships to the future of feminism. As much as society tells us that women only talk to one another about men and marriage, we all know this isn’t the case. Instead of seeking out healthy conversation with other women, however, many of us turn to men for companionship. I know I have been guilty of this association. I also attended an all-girls school for seven years, and have come to realize the incomparable value of intelligent conversation with other women. Female friendships create not only a sense of companionship unobtainable elsewhere, but, as Chally writes, they can also exist as an “immensely powerful feminist act.”

“It is a strengthening of bonds between women where patriarchy has sought to keep us apart, rivals, without coherent community. In forming such connections there’s a centring of women’s wishes and concerns. That is, it’s about women valuing women, a rare emotional space in which we aren’t considered less than (that is, if all parties are doing friendship right!) or centring men.”

When women are allowed to truly interact with one another, they will quickly dismantle what Audre Lorde deems the “only social power open to women” within the patriarchy: maternity. Shared common experiences – even those that include discussions of men (!!!) – will inevitably expose greater commonalities. Let me reiterate: the only way to successfully dismantle the patriarchy (and capitalism) is to foster the greatest sense of community. Taking from de Beauvoir, women cannot “expect our emancipation to come from the general revolution” – rather, we have to create our own. And inclusion is imperative in this transformation. My advice: give a female companion a copy of Full Frontal Feminism. Talk to her about it, let her see the misogyny in the products she consumes, the media she worships. Invite her to a Women’s Collective meeting. For god’s sake, don’t be elitist, recognizing that we all come to feminist realizations from different places. Allow her to recognize the value of the genuine feminist analysis that only other women can provide. Then, and only then, can an inclusive discussion of theory take place. Anything else is exclusionary and counter-productive to a collective revolution.

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by Julia

I spent the first week of winter break devouring Carole Seymour-Jones’s A Dangerous Liaison, a “revelatory new biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.” I ordered this book in September, but wanted the time to fully devote to its 540+ pages. Relative isolation in south Florida with my parents, iPod, and beach chair seemed an ideal setting for reading about the infamous 50-year polyamorous relationship between two of the most influential theorists of the 20th century. As a self-described theory nerd, though, I was most looking forward to accounts of Beauvoir and Sartre’s pillow talk discussions of philosophy and a comprehensive account of their individual development as existentialist thinkers. In this effort, the biography falls short. Instead, the detailed portrayal illuminates the complex arrangement of  ‘essential love’ that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre entered into in the fall of 1929 in the Tuilerie Gardens of Paris.

Upon meeting Sartre at the École Normale in Paris, Beauvoir established an immediate intellectual connection with the young student of Gide and Hegel. Simone de Beauvoir became the youngest woman (twenty-one) to ever pass her final oral examination in philosophy, and the ninth woman to ever pass. When the rankings came out, in fact, only one student ranked higher: Jean-Paul Sartre, three years her senior. The educational hierarchy between Beauvoir and Sartre foreshadowed the subordination Simone would experience in all facets of their relationship. Seymour-Jones writes that “for the rest of her life, Simone de Beauvoir would consider herself second to Sartre.”

From childhood observations of her mother’s monotonous routine, Beauvoir vowed to never sacrifice her freedom for bourgeois domesticity. Sartre, too, maintained that “‘he was not inclined to be monogamous by nature’” and condemned marriage as a “‘despicable bourgeois institution.’”  One can imagine how confused Beauvoir must have been, therefore, when Sartre proposed marriage to her three times in the span of a few weeks. She vehemently refused, and critiqued Sartre for going against their philosophical ideals of individuality and freedom – what would later be called Existentialism. “The balance of power at this point lay with Beauvoir,” yet it was actually Sartre who proposed the idea of a “pact of ‘essential love’ which allowed for secondary affairs and was intended to guarantee their ‘reciprocal liberty’” – a pact which would become the template for a polyamorous relationship enshrined in existential history.

In Beauvoir’s mind, entering into this pact of essential love with Sartre was the most realistic embodiment of the philosophies which they professed in academia. Yet the realities of the relationship (which I will not bore you with) left Simone as the clear victim of patriarchal domination at the hands of a power-hungry celebrity. Going into this biography, I had an idea of the types of affairs in which Beauvoir and Sartre engaged; I did not predict the sheer number of simultaneous affairs, nor the heartbreaking effects of these relationships on Beauvoir. Even though the couple maintained complete honesty with one another (in a far more detailed manner than any person I know could stomach), jealousy and manipulation reigned for over four decades.

I want to focus this post on the mind-blowing contradictions between Beauvoir’s brilliant feminist theory and her polyamorous relationship with Sartre. Essentially, Simone fully bought into the idea that “whoever wants the ends – equality between the sexes – must want the means,” and she let those ‘means’ be defined by Sartre’s incredibly patriarchal interpretation of their pact of essential love. In retrospect, there were abundant signs of Sartre’s misogyny – his theoretical assertions practically drip with it. Though Sartre later delved into praxis, most notably in his affinity for the USSR and the student demonstrations of Mai 1968 (to be discussed later), his existential theories epitomize the danger of the male gaze.

“Sartre gives the example of a woman who goes out with a man for the first time; halfway through the evening he takes her hand. To leave the hand there is to consent to flirt; to withdraw it is to break the harmony of the moment. Her intention is postpone a decision, and so she leaves her hand ‘between the warm  hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing. We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.'”

Sartre likens this female “deception” to the actions of the bourgeoisie, and in Beauvoir’s shared goal of exposing hypocrisy within capitalist society, she agreed with her partner. The complete denial of female agency is exemplified countless times in Sartre’s violation of desperate young women (many of whom were cultivated first by Beauvoir in lesbian relationships). What Beauvoir and Sartre failed to realize was that their observations on the comportment of the bourgeoisie stemmed solely from their privileged position as academics and products of the petit bourgeois.

The same perspective of privilege led Simone and Sartre to develop a flawed affinity for the Soviet Union. When questioned by fellow existentialist Albert Camus on how he could possibly reconcile the murder of millions in Soviet gulags, Sartre responded that the camps are no more inadmissible than French colonialism in Africa or the state violence towards French workers. Sartre claimed that “the Iron Curtain is only a mirror, in which half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds with a twist there, and finally, both here and there, we are both the screwers and the screwed.”

It was not until the 1960s and the Mai 1968 student revolutions that a marked division developed between Sartre and Beauvoir in terms of their acknowledgement of their privileged (and flawed) perspective. Both theorists realized that in order “to merit the right to influence men who are struggling, one must first participate in their struggle.” This realization led Sartre and Beauvoir to express their solidarity with the movements and occupations both through their writings and physical presence in the Latin Quarter.

Sartre: “‘These young people don’t want the future of our fathers – our future – a future which has proved we were cowardly, worn out, weary…Violence is the only thing that remains, whatever the regime, for students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system. The only relationship they can have to the university is to smash it.'”

Unlike Sartre, however, Simone de Beauvoir recognized much sooner the misogynistic realities of both the Soviet model that the worshipped and of the Mai 68 student occupations. “Beauvoir expected socialism to deliver sexual equality. It had not.  Even the gauchiste men of the 68 demonstrations did not treat women as equals.”  This crucial realization led to revisions of Beauvoir’s watershed work of feminist theory, The Second Sex. The basic tenet of The Second Sex is that all male ideologies are directed at justifying the oppression of women, and that women are so conditioned by society that they consent to this oppression. Instead of Sartre’s interpretation of this “consent” as “bad faith,” Simone removes blame from women and stands by her most famous statement: On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.

Regarding the 68 occupations, Simone remarked:

“’Men made the speeches, but women typed them. Men were on the soap boxes and on the podiums, but women were in the kitchens making coffee. So they got fed up with this because they were intelligent women…I finally understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from the general revolution but would have to create their own. Men were always telling them that the needs of the revolution came first and their turn as women came later…'”

This quotation is heavily underlined and starred in my book not only because it was a turning point in Beauvoir’s feminist consciousness, but also because I can relate strongly to it. I know I’m not alone in having been encouraged to subordinate  female revolution “for the cause.” Once one realizes that the general revolution – be it state communism or campus activism – does not exist to serve the purposes of women, true liberation from the patriarchy is achievable.

Seymour-Jones correctly states that “there could be no more glaring contradiction than that between the principles enshrined in The Second Sex and her past practices with Sartre.” These contradictions frustrate me to no end. As a feminist and political theorist, I, too, struggle with the application of my academic passions to reality, particularly romantic relationships. Simone de Beauvoir undeniably maintained a relationship with Sartre which, with the exception of the first year, was driven completely by his desires. Though they experienced relatively equal acclaim in their professional lives, Beauvoir and Sartre’s personal life was clearly dominated by misogyny and overwhelmingly skewed power dynamics. Beauvoir had tried to avoid domesticity and patriarchy through her pact of essential love with Sartre, yet the reality of their relationship and the incredible despair that Simone experienced at times (she developed a collapsed lung from one particular incident of jealousy), makes it clear that she was no more liberated in her personal life then her stay-at-home mother was in the early 20th century. Misogyny – not equality – ruled in their relationship and in society.

My question to you, readers, is this: does this contradiction make Simone de Beauvoir any less important as the foremost Marxist-feminist? And, perhaps more relevant, can we, as women, ever truly escape the power of misogyny? Is there such a thing as a relationship with truly equal power dynamics? Even today in the 21st century, most women will argue that an open relationship benefits the man more than the woman. I will save the diatribe on polyamory vs. monogamy for another post, but suffice it say that what Simone de Beauvoir experienced in her relationship with Sartre did not result in the equality of the sexes which she strives for in her feminist texts. Can Beauvoir really be blamed for “talking the talk” of feminism and not “walking the walk” in her romantic encounters, given the underlying hegemony of misogyny in relationships?

I will leave you with our all-time favorite quotation of Beauvoir’s, from The Second Sex:

“The most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend women’s concrete situation. And there is no reason to put much trust in the men when they rush to the defense of privileges whose full extent they can hardly measure.”

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