Simone De Beauvoir: Existentialist Philosopher and Feminist

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Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher, French writer, political activist, social theorist and feminist. Despite her works having a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory, she did not consider herself to be a philosopher. De Beauvoir’s most noteworthy work, The Second Sex, was a detailed analysis of women’s oppression throughout history. Amongst the many topics that de Beauvoir covered in this two-volume book, she also covered the topic of “authentic” love in the chapter The Woman in Love.

Simone de Beauvoir believes the reason for many of the disagreements between men and women is because of their different understandings of the meaning of the word “love”. According to her, Lord Byron was correct in saying that men consider love to be an occupation whilst women consider it to be life itself. Beauvoir strongly believed that men valued their women as much as they valued their other pursuits, integral and important, but only a part of their life, not their life itself. Women, on the other hand, were expected to make love the essence of their whole existence: ‘total abdication for the benefit of a master’ (The Second Sex 699).

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De Beauvoir, in her time, saw many implicit and explicit assumptions which stated that being in love for a woman must involve forgetting themselves as their own person, in their own right. Several sages’ advices are cited in The Second Sex, including one from Cécile Sauvage: ‘When the woman loves, she must forget her own personality. This is a law of nature. A woman does not exist without a master.’ (The Second Sex 700) According to De Beauvoir, the laws of nature were not the one to be blamed, but the laws of culture. Men were expected to be active in all spheres of their life. They are not only expected to love but also to be ambitious and to act in all other domains. Women, however, were always told that their value was dependent on whether a man loved or not. ‘The young girl has dreamed of herself as seen through the man’s eyes: it is in man’s eyes that the woman believes she has at last found herself’ (The Second Sex 703).

Hence, Simone de Beauvoir says that one of the barriers to achieving authentic love was women’s willingness to objectify themselves in at attempt to identify with men. The woman, when in love, tries to see herself through her lover’s eyes, basing everything about herself around him: she reads his favourite novels, listens to his favourite songs, grounds herself in his ideas and his friends, his political ideas becomes hers, etc. Beauvoir states that, even sexually, women are used as ‘instruments’ for achieving male pleasure rather than as sexual subjects themselves whose desires should also be taken into account.

The problem with this kind of love was that it wasn’t reciprocal. Men expected women to give themselves in love which they themselves would never do. Love, consequently, was dangerous for a woman in way that it could never be for a man. De Beauvoir does not lay the blame for this exclusively on men. Women, by participating in such a kind of non-reciprocal love, perpetuated its oppressive structures. However, according to de Beauvoir, it was hard not to do so as the entire world was built in a way that beckoned them to consent to their own oppression.

De Beauvoir stressed the importance of reciprocation in a relationship. ‘The day when it will be possible for the woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape from herself but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger.’ (The Second Sex 724–5) For her, authenticity in love can only be brought about when both the parties involved recognised their lover as free and appreciating them as their own person, as a subject of their own accord. When two people appreciate themselves separate from their lover and agree about what it means to love one another, they love truly, authentically.

De Beauvoir closes her chapter by saying that until such a time comes, until women continue to be encouraged to be devoted to their lover at the expense of their own personhood, love would continue to perpetuate injustice. Salvation is promised by love, de Beauvoir said, but all too often what women got in the name of love was a living hell. One that she isn’t even aware that she is in.

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