Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 35 Number 6. April 11, 1972
Interview with Simone de Beauvoir
Interview with Simone de Beauvoir
This is a slightly abridged version of an interview by Alice Schwartzer that appeared in the Nouvelle Observateur last year.
The interviewer first asks Simone about the gap between her actions and her words - the second sex was published 23 years ago, and only recently has she become actively involved in the women's liberation movement Simone replies that up till the present times the women's liberation movement was reformist and legalist, and she had no desire to loin them. The movement now is revolutionary and seeks to change society - so is far more worthy of support However, socialism is not enough: or at least the socialism as practised in the Eastern bloc countries. There the productivity relations have change, but basically the role of women is very much the same as in the West.
There are many misunderstandings about "feminism". Could you give me your definition of it.
At the and of the second sex, I said I was not a feminist because I thought that the solution to woman's problems was to - be found in a socialist evolution of society'. To be a feminist meant to me to fight about specifically feminist demands. Independently from the class struggle. Today I keep the same definition: I call "feminist" the women and even the men who fight to change women's condition, of course in liaison with the class struggle, but yet outside it, without totally subordinating this change to the change in society. And I would say that today I am a feminist that way. Because I have came to realise that it is necessary, before the socialism of our dreams can happen, to fight for the concrete condition of women. And on the other hand, I realised that even in socialist countries this equality did not exist. It is therefore necessary for women to seize their fata in their own hands. This Is why I am now involved in the Women's Liberation Movement.
Besides, I observed - what Is one of the reasons that prompted many women to create the movement - that even in French left wing movements there was a deep inequality between men and women. Women always did the most humble, boring, unnoticeable chores. And men always spoke, wrote articles, did all the most interesting things and took greater responsibilities. Thus, even in those movements which, theoretically are made to liberate the world, and the young and women, the women remained inferior. It goes further. I am not saying they all are, but a lot of leftist males are agressively hostile towards women's liberation. They scorn women and show it. The first time a feminist meeting was held at Vencennes, a number of leftist males burst in to the room with shouts of "Power lies at the phallus' end". I think they are beginning to reconsider this position, but precisely because women take independent action.
What are, in general, your positions towards the new feminists, these young women in the Struggle who are more radical men ever?
You know, there is - at least in the U.S., the country where the movement is most advanced a range of tendencies: from Betty Friedan, who Is quite conservative, to what is called S.C.U.M. ie. the Society for Cutting Up Men. Between these two positions, there are many others, In France, it seems to me there are also different tendencies. My own tendency is to tie the feminist emancipation to the class struggle. I think that the struggle of women, while being singular is linked to the struggle they must lead with men. Therefore I completely refuse a total repudiation of men.
What do you think of the principle of women only in groups which to, at this stage, adopted by the majority in the movement?
As you have just said, it is a stage. I think that for the time being. It is a good thing. For several reasons: first if men were admitted in the groups, they could not help having the male habit to command and impose., On the other hand many women still have - whatever they say, and besides they sometimes know it- some feeling of inferiority, a kind of shyness; many of them would never dare freely speak in front of men. And in particular, it is indispensable for them to know they are not being judged by the men who shares their life, because they must liberate themselves from him too...
...and analyse their specific oppression?
Exactly. Just now, neither men's nor women's mentality allows a really sincere discussion within a mixed group.
But to not this momentary exclusion of men also a political question? Since they represent the system, and besides, since they individually oppress women, are not men considered, in this first stage, as their main enemy by the feminists?
Yes, but it is rather intricate because, as Marx said abour capitalists, they also are victims. To say as I have done for some time, that the system alone is to be blamed is too abstract. Men also are to be attacked. Because you cannot harmlessly be an accomplice and profiteer of a system. Even if you have not established it yourself. A man nowadays has not created the patriarchal system but he takes advantage of it, even If he criticizes it. And he has absorbed it. We must attack the system but at the same time we must feel towards men if not hostility, at lease wariness and prudence and not allow them to encroach on our own activities and possibilities. Even when a man is a feminist, we must keep our distances and beware of paternalism. Women don't want to be granted equality, they want to conquer it. It is not at all the same thing.
Have you in your experience, felt this mistrust, this hatred of men?
No, I always got along very well with the men in my life. Besides, many W. L. Women I know do not hate men; they rather have an attitude of prudence, a decision not to be eaten up.
Do you think it is good, politically, that soma women go further?
Perhaps indeed it is not bad that some women be totally radical and completely refuse men. They carry along those who would perhaps compromise. This is quite possible.
In the majority of women's movements there exists a Homosexual current - not a majority as people try to make out- which gives vary important Impulses to the movements. Do you consider that female homosexuality- as the most radical form of men's exclusion could be a political weapon in the present stage of the struggle?
I have not thought about it. In theory I think it good that some women be very radical. Homosexuality may have a useful role. But when they become obsessed by their particpris, they may put heterosexuals off the movement. I find their mystique of the clitoris and all those sexual dogmas they pretend to impose, boring and irritating.
Their first argument is that, in actual circumstances, any sexual relation with men Is oppressive. Therefore they refuse it. What do you think of that?
Is it really true that any sexual relation between a man and a woman is oppressive? Is it not possible to work not in order to refuse this relation but in order to change its oppressive nature? To pretend that every coitus Is a rape shocks me. I don't believe it. Whoever says that coitus is rape, takes up masculine myths. It means that the male sex is a sword, a weapon. The question to to invent new non oppresive sexual relations.
You were speaking about your individual experience. You said, in a comment on the second sex that the problem of feminity had not personally touched you ant that you felt in a "position of great impartiality". Did you mean that a woman can individually escape her female condition on a professional level and in her relations to others?
To escape completely, no. I have a woman's. But indeed I have been very lucky. I have escaped most of women's servitudes: maternity, household chores, Besides, professionally, in my days, there were less women studying. To pass a "agregation de philosophie" was to take a priviledged situation among women. And I was recognized by men: they were ready to treat with friendliness a woman who succeeded as well as they did because it was exceptional. Now many women do higher studies end thus men are afraid to lose their places. More generally, if you admit, as I do, that a woman does not have to be married and have children to have a complete and happy life, there are a number of women who can be fulfilled without suffering from women's servitudes.
You said "The greatest success of my life is Sartre".
But you have always had a great preoccupation with your independence and the fear to be dominated... Even though egalitarian relations between men and women are difficult to establish do you think you succeeded there?
Yes. Or, rather the problem did not exist because Sartre is not an oppressor. If I had loved somebody else, I would not have accepted oppression in any case. There are women who escape male domination; provided they have professional autonoy. Some reach a balanced relation with a man. Others have short-term affairs.
You have spoken about women as an Interior class.
I did not speak of class. I said in the second sex that women formed an inferior caste. A caste is a group in which you were born and from which you cannot escape. Whereas it to possible, in theory, to pass from one class into another. If you are a woman you will never become a man. This is belonging to a caste. And the way women are treated on the economic, social and political level, makes them an inferior caste.
Some movements have gone further. Speaking of housework which is unpaid and has no market value, they define women as a special class, outside existing classes. That is, they put patriarchal oppression as the mam contradiction not as the secondary one. Do you agree with this analysis?
I find analysis of this point insufficient. I would like somebody to work seriously on it Juliet Mitchell, for instance, showed in Woman's Estate how to put the question. But she does not pretend yet, in this little book, to solve it. I remember it was one of the first questions I asked when I met militants of the W. L. M.: According to you, how do you relate patriachal and capitalist oppression? Just now I cannot exactly see the answer. It is a point on which I would like to work in the years to come. It interests me a great deal. But I think any analysis which equates patriarchal and capitalist oppression is not right. The housewife's work does not produce any surplus value; it to a condition different from the worker's who to rob- page 9 bed of the surplus value of his work. I would like to know exactly what relations exist between the two. The whole tactic women -must follow depends upon it.
It is vary just to emphasize the unpaid nature of housework. But there are many women who work outside the mohe and whose exploitation is different from the housewife's.
But, even when a woman works outside her home for equal work she does not receive an equal salary.
Yes, it is true. Generally salaries are not equal. But I come back to it. The type of exploitation of women as housewives is not the same as the workers. It is precisely a point that has not been sufficiently studied in any of the books I have read; by Kate Millet, Germaine Greer of Firestone.
They do not bring anything new anyway as far as analysis is concerned.
No. Neither Millet nor Greer. Only Firestone, lesser known, has brought something new in her book "Dialectics of Sex": she associates Women's liberation with children's liberation. It it true, because women will only be liberated when they will be liberated from children and that at the same time, children will be liberated from adults to a certain extent.
You took a concrete part in the class struggle after May '68. You took the responsibility of a revolutionary newspaper. You want down into the street, in short you joined in the struggle. How do you see the relations between class struggle and sax struggle?
All I can state, ell that led me to modify my positions of the second sex is that the class struggle proper does not emancipate woman. Whether you-take communists, trotskyists, or maoists, there is always a subordination of woman to man. Consequently; I became convinced that women had to become feminist, that they should analyse society quite seriously, to try end understand the relation between workers' end women's exploitation. And to what extent the suppression of capitalism would bring about conditions more favourable to feminine emancipation, I don't know. It remains to be done. I am certain of one thing, to suppress capitalism does not mean to suppress the patriarchal tradition, as long as the family continues to exist. I believe it necessary not only to suppress capitalism, and to change the means of production, but also to change the family structure. And this, even in China, has not been done. Of course, the feudal family has been suppressed and thus great changes have been made in women's conditions. But to the extent that they accept the conjugal family, which is really inherited from the patriarchal family. I do not believe that Chinese women are liberated. I think the family must be destroyed. I am in complete agreement with all the attempts made by women and also sometimes by men, to replace the family either by communities or by other forms that can be created.
If feminism makes radical demands and if they prevail then at this point, it will really threaten the system. But it will not be enough to reorganise productivity relations, work relations and human relations. There is no sufficient analysis on this. It comes from the fact that the women who were active In feminism were bourgeoises who struggled on the political level.
They were suffragettes and ware trying to obtain the franchise. They were not fighting on an economic level. And on the economic level, people were contented with marxist formulas over much, such as after the victory of socialism, there will be equality between men and women. I was very surprised when I wrote the second sex to be badly received by the left. I remember a discussion with some trotskyists who said: the women's problem is a false problem, exist. When the revolution has come, women will naturally find their places.
Also the communists, with whom I was in bed terms politically at that time, laughed at me. They wrote in their articles that women workers in Billan court did not give a dam about the women's question. When revolution was accomplished at that time, women would be equal to men. But the fate of women till the revolution did not interest them.
After the publication of the second sex you have often been reproached with not having developed any tactic for the women's struggle, having stopped at the analysis.
It it true. I admit that this is what is lacking In the book. I stop in a vague faith in the future, in revolution and in socialism.
Today I have changed. I told you so at the beginning, I have really become a feminist.
Concretely, what possibilities of liberation, on the Individual and collective level, do you see for woman?
Oh the individual level, the first thing is to work. If possible to refuse marriage. After ell I could have married Sartre. But I believe we were wise not to. Because, when you are married, people consider you as married and you end up considering yourself as married. You don't have the same relation with society if you are married or if you are not. I believe marriage is dangerous for a woman.
Given this, she can still have reasons to get married. If she wants children for instance. It is still very risky to bring Into the world children whose parents are not married: they will have a lot of difficulties. If you really want independence, what matters is to have a job, to work. This is the advice I give to all the women who ask ma this question. It is a necessary condition. It allows you, when you are married and want to divorce, to assume your own existence. However, work is not a panacea.
What about the women who are already married and with children?
I think some women no longer have a chance. If they are 35 already, with four children in their care, and no professional qualification, I don't see how they can achieve their liberation We can only speak of liberation with some real chances of success for the coming generations.
Should the women who fight for their liberation stay on the individual level or join in collective actions?
They must join in collective actions. I have not done it personally up to now because there was no organised movement with which I agreed. But, all the same to write the second sex wet an act which went further than my own liberation. I wrote the book because of my interest for the whole of the feminine condition, not only to understand what the situation was but also to fight, to help other women to understand themselves.
In twenty years, I have received a great number of letters from women who say that my book has helped them a lot to understand their situation, to struggle, to take decisions. I have always been careful to answer these women. I met some of them. I have always tried to help women in trouble.
Generally speaking, how do you see the evolution of women's liberation?
I think it should progress. But I don't know, in France, like elsewhere, most women are very conservative. They try to be feminine". All the same, it seems to me that the new conditions of housework free women a little and give them more time to think; they should begin to rebel. On the professional level, it is certain that work won't be given to women in capitalist countries as long as there is unemployment for men. This is why I think women's equality will be gained only with a total reversal of the system.
Having said this, I think that the women's movement, just like the student's movements which were limited at the beginning and which later on started strikes all over the country, could upset a lot of things. If they succeed in entering the work force, then they will really shake the system. For the moment, the weakness of the French movement, and, I believe, of the American movement, is the fact that it includes few women workers.
Isn't it a matter of the stage of the struggle?
Certainly. Everything is related: When women go on strike in factories, like in Troyes or Nantes, they become aware of their poser, of their autnonmy and won't be ruled so easily at [unclear: home]
You think, then, that this feeling of solidarity should be developed?
Absolutely. Individual emancipation is not enough. We need collective work tied to the class struggle. Women who struggle for women's emancipation cannot be truly feminist without belonging to the left because if socialism is not enough to insure sexual equality it it necessary.
Besides, for the 1st time in history, feminist movements are revolutionary. They no longer believe in changing women's position without changing society.
It is true. There It a slogan I read in Italy and found very true: "No revolution without woman's emancipation, no women's emancipation without revolution".
In the second sex, you quoted Rimbaud who gives a vision of a future world where women would be liberated. Do you have an idea of this new world.
Rimaud imagined that women when they were liberated would bring something entirely different to the world. I don't believe that. I don't believe that, once women have gained equality specifically feminine values will develop. I have discussed this with Italian feminists. They say we must refuse masculine values, masculine models, we must invent quite different things. I don't agree.
It it a fact that culture, civilisation, universality. In the same way as the proletariate, while refusing the domination of the bourgeoisie, does not reject all bourgeois inheritance, similarly women have to seize, on an equal footing with men, the instruments they have created, not to refuse them all. I think there is here again a question of mistrust, of watchfulness.
It is true that in creating, those universal values— I call a universal value mathematics for example men have often given them a masculine, male and virile character, and they have mixed both in a subtle, sly manner. It it a question of disassociating, the two things, of tracking down the contamination. It is possible and it one of the tasks women must carry out. But we cannot reject the masculine world because after all it is also our world.
I think the liberated woman would be as creative as man. But she would not bring any new value. To believe otherwise is to believe in a feminine nature, a thing I have always denied. We must wipe out completely all these concepts that the liberation of women brings new types of relations between human beings, that men and women are changed by it, it certain. Women must be, like men, complete human beings. The differences between the sexes are no more important than the individual differences existing between women or between men.
Do you approve violence in the women's struggle?
In the present situation, yes, to a certain extent for men do use violence towards women, in their language as well as in their actions. They aggress against women: they rape them, insult them, and tome looks are agressions. Women must defend themselves by violence. Some learn karate or other forms of fighting. I entirely agree They will thus be more at ease in their bodies than if they felt defenseless against masculine agressions.
You often speak of American woman. Do you have more contacts with them?
Yes. First, through their books. There are many of them. Those we have quoted: K. Millet, G. Greer, although the it not an American, Firestone. I have' read their books, whereas French women have not published anything yet. I have also received many letters from Americans, invitations to go to the States. But now I answer: I am working with French women; I must first work at home.
Now that you consider yourself as a feminist militant and that you era involved in concrete struggle, what action do you plan in the near future?
There it a project on which I am working with a group of women: to hold several days of denunciation of the crimes committed against women. The first two sessions will cover maternity, contraception and abortion problems...There will be a kind of commission of inquiry constituded by a dozen women; they will question witnesses, biologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, doctors, mid wives, but mostly women who suffered under the present condition of women. We hope to convince the public that a woman must have the right to procreate freely, i.e. to help support the burden of motherhood - in particular by creches, - and also to refuse unwanted pregnancies thanks to contraceptive practices and abortions. We demand that it be free, that women decide for themselves.
The women's struggle and abortion are often linked. Do you plan, in your involvement, to go further than this stage?
Of course. I think the W.L.M., and I with them are working for lots of other, things. We do not fight only for free abortion on demand, but for a massive diffusion of contraceptive practices which would only leave a marginal role to abortion. On the other hand, contraception and abortion are only a start towards women's liberation. Later on, we will organise other days to denounce the exploitation of women's work: the housewife's, the employee's, end the workers.