by Rebeka Abey
In her seminal philosophical work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir developed an ontological framework which centres on the lived experience of women. She explains this unique lived experience in the following:
… what peculiarly signalizes the situation of woman is that she—a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of Other…the drama of woman lies in this conflict between the fundamental aspirations of every subject (ego)—who always regards the self as the essential—and the compulsions of a situation in which she is the inessential.[i]
In this essay, I will firstly draw distinctions between Sartrean and Beauvoirian phenomenology since their terminology is similar, yet their application and understanding of this terminology varies significantly. I will then argue that this “situation in which [woman] is the inessential” is the product of two pillars of western thought—western religion and philosophy (I will explore these to the exclusion of other possible contributing factors). The factors I will discuss are 1) the Christian belief in the natural subjugation of women, as well as the characterisation of power as masculine and the resultant denunciation of feminine power, and 2) the series of dichotomies developed by canonical western philosophers which laud the masculine subject as the absolute and superior human by virtue of his innate rationality. Furthermore, the present concerns of this essay do not address whether the notion of the inessentiality of women is either a preordained truth or immoral and erroneous dogma. In addition to this, the relevance of Beauvoir’s theory for modern women whose social positioning has changed after several waves of feminism is also beyond the scope of this essay. My essay only aims to be a descriptive and historical investigation. To make normative claims or compare the lived experience of women as described by Beauvoir to the lived experience of modern women would require far more exploration than I offer here.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s ontological framework is characterised by distinct modes of existential being for humans—being-for-itself and being-for-others. Being-for-itself is a manifestation of transcendence, consciousness or subject-being. That is, one’s sovereign freedom to become whatever one wills, to be no “thing,” but rather to be engaged in the very act of choosing. Being-for-others is a manifestation of immanence or object-being—that is, to be a fixed object in the world. The Sartrean Other is a consciousness that has the ability to reduce a subjectivity to a state of being-for-others by looking at them and reminding them that they are a fixed object. Sartre argues that in order to live authentically, human beings must strive to remain in the ontological state of the being-for-itself. As a result, interactions between individuals inevitably entail a battle of consciousness between Self and Other, where there is an attempt to reduce the Other to immanence and consequently retain one’s sovereign subject-being.[ii]
Beauvoir employed much of the same terminology as Sartre; however, she used it to articulate her own understanding of the lived experience of women. She used the terms Subject to denote the consciousness who is afforded its own freedom, and she employed the term Other to refer to the consciousness who is reduced to immanence by the Subject.[iii] She asserted that in real life, there is no battle of consciousnesses as Sartre had argued. Rather, the outcome of the “battle” has already been determined—men have been designated the status of Subject, while women occupy the position of the Other. Thus, since the Subject is the Absolute, it is man who is the absolute human—he is the standard for humanity.[iv] On this note, the term inessential is not used to suggest that women’s existence is not required. Conversely, woman is “indispensable” to man.[v]She is necessary for him to affirm his subjectivity (that is, to affirm his position as the absolute human),[vi] in order to satisfy his physical desires and to serve as the unchanging ground which provides stability.[vii] It is thus rather her transcendence that is inessential—her consciousness is to be transcended by the consciousness of men so that she can be “subordinated to men’s will.”[viii] She is condemned to live in the ontological state of being-for-others, or in her case, being-for-men.[ix]
At the time The Second Sex was written, Christianity played a major historical role in dictating the moral standards of western society. The contribution of the Church to the societal position of women is mentioned by Beauvoir.[x] However, I wish to expand on Beauvoir’s argument and posit that the figures of Lilith and witches are mythological and historical embodiments of contradictions to Christian ideals of femininity. The ways in which they are commonly portrayed reflects the Christian attitude, and resultant societal attitude described by Beauvoir, towards such contradictions. In the Christian doctrine, a woman’s rightful position is one where she is subservient to her husband. Lilith, the contested first wife of Adam, was for example shunned from the Garden of Eden and is depicted as a winged demon[xi]—she was, in the most literal sense, demonised. Her sin: refusing to submit to her husband. Her legend, while not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, has made many cultural appearances.[xii] Her portrayal reflects the Judeo-Christian attitude towards women who demand sovereign freedom. Furthermore, the possession of power is seen as an exclusively masculine affair since the divine Father-Son-Holy Spirit trichotomy is clearly devoid of a feminine aspect. If power is seen as inherently masculine, feminine power is seen as an aberration to this natural order, a moral transgression. The historical vilification of female-wielded power can be exemplified in the Church-led witch hunts that took place throughout Europe and the U.S. from the 1300s-1700s.[xiii] The witch embodies the belief in the perversity of female power—she is stereotypically portrayed as an ugly, old woman whose power is evil as she likely has an alliance with the devil. The idea of female transcendence sits in direct opposition to the Church’s notion of a proper woman where she is instead expected to submit to a masculine transcendence. Given the historic authority of the Church, I maintain that the notion of women’s inessentiality as described by Beauvoir is partly a product of the religious beliefs outlined above.
Further to western religious beliefs, prevailing philosophical theories also shaped societal paradigms. In her article, “THE MAN OF REASON,”[xiv]and later in her book, The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy,[xv] Australian philosopher Genevieve Lloyd elucidates the association between masculinity and rationality.[xvi] She describes how the exaltation of reason has been apparent from the beginnings of western philosophy, and she shows how these notions have been further cemented in the works of successive, prominent philosophers. Here I will introduce three significant developments mentioned by Lloyd. Firstly, in a set of dichotomies that were proposed by Pythagoras, the masculine principle aligned with clear and distinct form, while the feminine aligned with indeterminate formlessness, (the former of the two gaining a hierarchical superiority by comparison).[xvii] Plato’s mind-matter dualism was also gendered and characterised by the presence or absence of reason, and a master-slave relation.[xviii] The mind could comprehend the rational and transcended matter,[xix] which was implicitly feminine in nature.[xx] Later, Descartes proclaimed reason—that is, clear and distinct thought—to be the mark of truth.[xxi]In his formulation, the ability to use reason indicated humanity’s connection to divinity.[xxii] The divine nature of reason implied that to possess more reason was to be more divine and therefore superior. For this reason, the rational man represented the apex of humanity, the absolute human.[xxiii] While Descartes is noted by Lloyd to have had egalitarian intentions as he did not directly exclude women from the pursuit of reason,[xxiv] the association between masculinity and reason was already well-established by thinkers such as Pythagoras and Plato. Descartes only further exalted rationality which served to promote masculinity to the status of the divinely-made and absolute human. So to summarise, the conceptual overlap of dichotomies in western thought (namely, masculinity/femininity, rationality/irrationality, master/slave, divine and Absolute human/Other) has persisted throughout western philosophical thought. This has permeated the western conception of femininity and as a result, it has led to the situation of women as described by Beauvoir. Women, by virtue of their presumed inherent femininity, were regarded as the subordinate human and were to be subjugated by men.
In this essay, I proposed that the “situation” described by Beauvoir in which woman is inessential—one where femininity is seen as an appendage to human nature, subordinate to the masculine, and antithetical to expressions of individual transcendence—is the product of deep-rooted western religious and philosophical beliefs. The collaborative impact of the Christian decrees of women’s mandatory submissiveness, the association of power with masculinity, and the overlapping conceptual dichotomies characterised by gender and domination have contributed to the inessentiality of women.
Rebeka Abey is a UQ student majoring in Philosophy and Linguistics. She is opposed to both slurs used to dismiss people regardless of the validity of their argument, and to coerced participation in clinical trials.
[i] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, (New York: Random House, Inc., 2011), 37.
[ii] Thomas Flynn, “Jean-Paul Sartre,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2013. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/
[iii] Bergoffen and Burke, “Simone de Beauvoir,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/#SecoSexWomaOthe
[iv] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 26.
[v] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 114.
[vi] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 383.
[vii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 230.
[viii] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 115.
[ix] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 189.
[x] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 134.
[xi] Gershom Scholem, “Lilith,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lilith
[xii] Such as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sonnet “Body’s Beauty,” in John Collier’s 1887 oil on canvas “Lilith” and in Goethe’s 1808 play “Faust.”
[xiii] Ioan Lewis and Jeffrey Russell, “The Witch Hunts.” In Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/witchcraft.
[xiv] Genevieve Lloyd. “THE MAN OF REASON,” Metaphilosophy 10, no. 1 (1979): 18–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9973.1979.tb00062.x.
[xv] Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason : “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy. 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1993).
[xvi] Rationality can be viewed as the employment of reason. I am using the terms reason and rationality interchangeably.
[xvii] Lloyd, The Man of Reason, 26.
[xviii] Lloyd, The Man of Reason, 28.
[xix] Lloyd, The Man of Reason, 27.
[xx] Lloyd, The Man of Reason, 28.
[xxi] Lloyd, The Man of Reason, 66.
[xxii] Lloyd, “THE MAN OF REASON,” 23.
[xxiii] Lloyd, “THE MAN OF REASON,” 25.
[xxiv] Lloyd, The Man of Reason, 45.
Bergoffen, Debra and Megan Burke. “Simone de Beauvoir.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauvoir/#SecoSexWomaOthe
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Random House, Inc., 2011.
Flynn, Thomas. “Jean-Paul Sartre.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2013. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/
Lewis, Ioan and Jeffrey Russell. “The Witch Hunts.” In Encyclopedia Britannica, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/witchcraft.
Lloyd, Genevieve. The Man of Reason : “Male” and “Female” in Western Philosophy. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, 1993.
Lloyd, Genevieve. “THE MAN OF REASON.” Metaphilosophy 10, no. 1 (1979): 18–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9973.1979.tb00062.x.
Scholem, Gershom. “Lilith.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lilith
Featured image by Sergei Gavrilov via Unsplash