Simone De Beauvoir and The Oppression of Women Throughout History

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“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” is a quote from Simone De Beauvoir’s novel The Second Sex. Simone De Beauvoir is one of the best known French existential novelists in the eighteenth century and is known her plethora of novels, essays and biographies on philosophy, politics and social issues. Her most famous piece of writing is the novel ‘A Second Sex’. 

The novel highlights and brings light to the oppression of women throughout history, and is regarded as one of the most influential works of feminist philosophy and the starting point of modern day feminism. In this essay I will be talking about the views of Simone De Beauvoir and relating them to the novels ‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf and ‘Room at the top’ by John Braine. Furthermore, I will be delving into Jane Poovey’s “Paradigm of a Proper Lady” and the difficulties faced by women authors in the eighteenth century thanks to the pressures and norms of society. Social Constructionism is the final topic that I will be talking about. The essay will provide an insight into how the notion of how gender is formed and the negative effects that it can have on society.

Beauvoirs views on women throughout history is that of them being the inferior sex 'brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women's inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority' Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p.151 (1949). “Men succeed in the world by transcendence, but immanence is the lot of women” Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 79, 89, 84 (1949), she was very aware of the fact that she was living in a patriarchal society and believes that the constant oppression of women has had a leading role to play in the formation of our modern day society. 

Beauvoir was one of the first women to openly point out the absurdity of gender roles and believes that marriage is a curse created to enslave women. She writes that marriage “Almost always destroys a woman” Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p.518 (1949) and highlights the inequalities between a husband and a spouse, with the main responsibilities of a spouse being “service” in bed and “housework”. At age 21 Beauvoir met another French existential novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, and their relationship quickly became romantic. The closeness of the two surely has had a great impact on both of their writings and it is possible to see many similarities in their works.

‘Mrs Dalloway’ is a novel written by Virginia Woolf in 1925, and provides us with a representation of some of the views held by Beauvoir. The domination of women through the societal pressures of our patriarchal society is clearly shown to us in the novel with the character development of Clarissa, who in her younger days was smart and free spirited but is moulded into an example of our societies ‘perfect’ woman. Her and Sally plotted to reform the world together when they were young. When they reunite at Clarissa’s party, they are both married. Something they considered a “catastrophe” as younger women. These negative feelings towards marriage that Sally and Clarissa held are very much reciprocated in Beauvoir’s ideologies. She declined Jean-Paul Sartre’s proposal, even after recognising their love. Just like their views, Beauvoir and Sartre’s relationship was wholly unconventional. They never lived together, despite being together for the majority of their lives and were polyamorous. Their relationship very much reflects their existential views, with them focusing more on themselves and acknowledging that they are both alone and completely responsible for their own actions, by which they make their own character.

When Sally kissed Clarissa on the lips she describes it as “The most exquisite moment of her whole life” Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.52 (1925), this kiss represents not only the freedom and youth that both of the girls were experiencing but also can be seen as a representation of Woolf’s sexual orientation. In the 1920’s Woolf met fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. 

Their professional relationship evolved into an affair which lasted several years. Woolf wrote in her diary “Vita shines in the grocers shop in Sevenoaks…pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung…There is her maturity and full-breastedness: her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down backwaters; her capacity I mean to take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth, to control silver, servants, chow dogs; her motherhood…her in short (what I have never been) a real woman.” Woolf, A Writers Diary, (1925). 

When Sally and Clarissa are interrupted, Clarissa describes it “Like running one’s face against a granite wall in darkness! It was shocking; it was horrible!” Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.53 (1925). Clarissa feels as if she has been brought back to reality and is distraught by it, perhaps this is a description of how Woolf felt knowing that these homosexual feeling are so looked down upon in society and that she would never be able to pursue them. This can also link back to Beauvoir’s views on the domination of women for the gain of men and as an example of the pressures of society restricting women and denying them the freedom of being or doing what they desire to.

A ‘proper lady’ is a term that Jane Poovey uses to describe someone that conforms to all the stereotypes of what a ‘proper lady’ should act like. She brings light to this in her novel ‘The Propper lady and the Woman Writer’. Dressing up properly, being modest and not having strong views are all traits that Poovey states a ‘proper lady’ should have. 

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The notion of Pooveys ‘proper lady’ has been formed “as an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society.” West, Candace; Zimmerman, Don H (1987). The prominence of this paradigm in our society has led to a vast difference in rights over the last few hundred years and has meant that our society has evolved as a patriarchal society. The outcome of this being a system where women feel oppressed and as a form of second class citizens.

We can see a clear example of this paradigm in ‘Mrs Dalloway’. In the 1920’s women were not seen as being capable enough to be responsible with their own money and it was the man’s job to decide where it was spent. A woman’s time and efforts was seen as being better spent inside, minding the children whilst their husbands would work and provide for the family. We can see an example of the felling of uselessness that women would experience at the beginning of the book when Clarissa is told that her husband is going on a business meeting “there was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room” Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.33, (1925). Another example of the inequality between the two genders that exists in the book is expressed though Richards’s thoughts on Elizabeth “if he’d had a boy he’d said, work, work. But he had his Elizabeth; he adored his Elizabeth” Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, p.124.

‘Room at the Top’ is a novel by John Braine first published in 1957. Although not a clear advocate for equal rights and the pressures that women face in society like ‘The Second Sex’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’, it is very relevant when trying to gain an insight into the lives of women of that era and the struggles that they faced. For example when Joe finds out that Alice was once an artist’s model “I felt sick and betrayed and dirtied. I moved away from her in the bed.” Braine, Room at the Top, p.115. Joe’s reaction is a clear insight into how men of that era perceive how women should act. He sees it as immoral and wrong, yet does not seem to be fazed by the fact that she is married. 

This relates back to the domination of women for the gain of men. Joe doesn’t like the idea of others being able to see Alice naked therefore he deems it as indecent “I took hold of her by the shoulders. ‘You stupid bitch, it isn’t that at all. Can’t you see that it’s the idea of other people looking at your nakedness that I hate? It’s not decent, don’t you see?’” Braine, Room at the Top, p.116. There is a lot of irony in Joe’s views. He finds it indecent to be an artist’s model, yet is fine with having an affair with a married woman. Stereotypes like those that Joe believes such as the indecency of being an artist’s model relates back to the societal pressures that Beauvoir argues are designed to suppress women’s capabilities and place in society.

Joe’s attitude towards women in the novel serves as a metaphor for how Beauvoir believes men treat women for personal gain. Joe's silver tongue and persistence enable him to seduce Susan, who becomes pregnant. This is part of his plan; Joe loves Alice, but wants to marry Susan so as to achieve his social ambitions. People end up becoming aware of his relationship with Alice, and exposure threatens his future, so Joe accepts when Susan's father insists on their immediate marriage, sweetening the offer with a 'thousand a year” job that he was so desperate to obtain. He doesn’t see Alice again. Joe breaks up with the woman that he loves in order to achieve wealth and luxury; a perfect example of Beauvoir’s views put into practise.

When Beauvoir states that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” It can be interpreted to mean that one becomes a woman due to their childhood and upbringing. Which leads me to the topic of social constructionism. Social constructionism is a theory that examines the formation of jointly constructed ideas and understandings of reality and how the world works. The theory revolves around the fact that meanings are formed together as a collective and not separately as an individual. 

A good example of this is money and Government. According to West and Zimmerman, the notion of gender is also formed due to social constructionism. They state that it is 'an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society'. By this logic Beauvoir is correct in her statement that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”.

Historically, the term gender was used as means of telling the difference between biological sex and social aspects of femininity and masculinity, and was learned and considered permanent after early childhood. When Beauvoir talks about “becoming” a woman, It could be interpreted that she is talking about the gender aspect of a person instead of their sex. 

And when Jane Poovey talks about the “proper lady” it should be assumed that she is talking about the gender of a person as research shows that it is clear that someone is shaped and moulded into this by society and is not born with the traits. Beauvoir makes it clear that historically there is a big difference between the opportunities that men and women face in their lives, and we can put this down to the different types of upbringing that a person would receive base on their sex. 

Society is affected in a very negative way by categorizing people in such a way based on purely their sex. Firstly, many people who might otherwise be very talented in a certain field would not realise their talents, as they perceive that there is a certain path that society would deem correct for them to go down. Furthermore, it can end with a large proportion of the population feeling as if they are inferior. This could very easily lead to tension and is immoral.

Simone De Beauvoir provides us with a very insightful view on our society and the way it works. She brings light to many areas of inequality and expresses the difficulties of being a woman in our society. In the present day women are given equal opportunities to men socially and in the workplace however there is still inequality in our society. As an example only 5% of companies have female CEOS, this type of inequality may be result of social constructivism and the prominence of gender roles in our society that Beauvoir highlighted in ‘The Second Sex’ and tirelessly fought against. 

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