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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 21, September 6, 1976.

The Second Sex

page 14

The Second Sex

It's now about twenty-five years since The Second Sex was published. Many people, especially in America, consider it the beginning of the contemporary feminist movement. Would you.....

I don't think so. The current feminist movement, which really started about five or six years ago, did not really know the book. Then, as the movement grew, some of the leaders took from it some of their theoretical basis. But The Second Sex in no way launched the feminist movement. Most of the women who became very active in the movement were much too young in 1949-50, when the book came out, to be influenced by it. What pleases me, of course, is that they did discover it later. Sure, some of the older women - Betty Friedan, for example, who dedicated The Feminine Mystique to me - had read it and were perhaps influenced by it somewhat, But others, not at all. Kate Millet, for example, does not cite me a single time in her work. They may have become feminists for the reasons I explain in The Second Sex; but they discovered those reasons in their life experiences, not in my book.

You have said that your own feminist consciousness grew out of the experience of writing The Second Sex. In what way, and how do you see the development of the movement after it was published.

In writing The Second Sex I became aware, for the first time, that I myself was leading a false life, or rather, that I was profiting from this male-oriented society without even knowing it. What had happened is that quite early in my life I had accepted the male values, and was living accordingly. Of course, I was quite successful, and that reinforced in me the belief that man and woman could be equal if the woman wanted such equality. In other words, I was an intellectual. I had the luck to come from a sector of society, the bourgeoisie, which could afford not only to send me to the best schools but also to allow me to play leisurely with ideas. Because of that I managed to enter the man's world without too much difficulty. I showed that I could discuss philosophy, art, literature, etc. on "man's level." I kept whatever was particular to womanhood to myself. I was then reinforced by my success to continue. As I did, I saw I could earn as good a living as any male intellectual and that I was taken as seriously as any of my male peers. Being who I was, I then found that I could travel by myself if I wanted to, that I could sit in cafes and write and be as respected as any male writer, and so on. Each stage fortified my sense of independence and equality. It became, therefore, very easy for me to forget that a secretary could in no way enjoy the same privileges. She could not sit in a cafe and read a book without being molested. She was rarely invited to parties for "her mind". She could not establish credit or own property. I could. More importantly still, I tended to scorn the kind of woman who felt incapable, financially or spiritually, to show her independence from men. In effect, I was thinking, without even saying it to myself, "if I can, so can they."

In researching and writing The Second Sex I did come to realize that my privileges were the result of my having abdicated, in some crucial respects at least, my womanhood. If we put it in class economic terms, you would understand it easily: I had become a class collaborationist. Well, I was sort of the equivalent in terms of the sex struggle. Through The Second Sex I became aware of the struggle needed. I understood that the vast majority of women simply did not have the choices that I had had, that women are, in fact, defined and treated as a second sex by a male-oriented society whose structure would totally collapse if that orientation was genuinely destroyed.

But like economically and politically dominated peoples anywhere, it is very hard and very slow for rebellion to develop. First, such peoples have to become aware of that domination. Then they have to believe in their own strength to change it. Those who profit from their "collaboration" have to understand the nature of their betrayal. And finally, those who have the most to lose from taking a stand, that is, women like me who have carved out a successful sinecure or career, have to be willing to risk insecurity - be it merely ridicule - in order to gain self-respect. And they have to understand that those of their sisters who are most exploited will be the last to join them. A worker's wife, for example, is least free to join the movement. She knows that her husband is more exploited than most feminist leaders and that he depends on her role as the housewife-mother to survive himself.

Simone de Beauvior

Simone de Beauvior

Anyway, for all these reasons, women did not move. Oh yes, there were some very nice, very wise little movements which struggled for political promotions, for women's participation in politics, in government. I could not relate to such groups. Then came 1968, and everything changed. I know that some important events happened before that. Betty Friedan's book, for one, was published before '68. In fact, the American women were well on the move by then. They, more than any other women, and for obvious reasons, were most aware of the contradictions between the new technology and the conservative role of keeping women in the kitchen. As technology expands - technology being the power of the brain and not of the brawn - the male rationale that women are the weaker sex and hence must play a secondary role can no longer be logically maintained. Since technological innovations were so widespread in America, American women could not escape the contradictions. It was thus normal that the feminist movement got its biggest impetus in the very heartland of imperial capitalism, even if that impetus was strictly one of economics, that is, the demand for equal pay for equal work.

But it was within the antiimperialist movement itself that real feminist consciousness developed. Whether in the anti-Vietnam War movement in America or in the aftermath of the 1968 rebellion in France and other European countries, women began to feel their power. Having understood that capitalism leads necessarily to domination of poor peoples all over the world, masses of women began to join the class struggle - even if they did not accept the term "class struggle." They became activists. They joined the marches, the demonstrations, the campaigns, the underground groups, the militant left. They fought, as much as any man, for a non-exploiting, nonalienating future.

But what happened? In the groups or organizations they joined, they discovered that they were just as much a second sex as in the-society they wanted to overturn. Here in France, and I dare say in America just as much, they found that the leaders were always the men. Women became the typists, the coffee-makers of these pseudorevolutionary groups. Well, I shouldn't say pseudo. Many of the movement's male "heavies" were genuine revolutionaries. But trained, raised, moulded in a male-oriented society, these revolutionaries brought that orientation to the movement as well. Understandably, such men were not voluntarily going to relinquish that orientation, just as the bourgeois class isn't going to voluntarily relinquish its power. So, just as it is up to the poor to take away the power of the rich, so it is up to women to take away power from the men. And that doesn't mean dominate men in turn. It means establish equality. As socialism, true socialism, establishes economic equality among all peoples, the feminist movement learned it had to establish equality between the sexes by taking power away from the ruling class within the movement, that is, from men. . Put another way: on inside the class struggle, women understood that the class struggle did not eliminate the sex struggle.

It's at that point that I myself became aware of what I have just said. Before that I was convinced that equality of the sexes can only be possible once capitalism is destroyed and therefore - and it's this "therefore" which is the fallacy - we must first fight the class struggle. It is true that equality of the sexes is impossible under capitalism. If all women work as much as men, what will happen to those institutions on which capitalism depends, such institutions as churches, marriage, armies, and the millions of factories, shops, stores, etc which are dependent on piece work, part-time work, and cheap labour? But is it is not true that a socialist revolution necessarily establishes sexual equality. Just took at Soviet Russia or Czechoslovakia, where (even if we are willing to call those countries "socialist", which I am not) there is a profound confusion between emancipation of the proletariat and emancipation of women. Somehow, the proletariat always end up being made up of men. The patriarchal values have remained intact there as well as here. And that this consciousness among women that the class struggle does not embody the sex struggle - is what is new. Yet most women in the struggle know that now. That's the greatest achievement of the feminist movement. It's one which will alter history in the years to come.

But such a consciousness is limited to the women who are in the left, that is, women who are committed to the restructuring of the whole society.

Well, of course, since the rest are conservative, meaning they want to conserve what has been or what is. Women on the right do not want revolution. They are mothers, wives, devoted to their men. Or, if they are agitators at all, they want a bigger piece of the pie. They want to earn more, elect more women to parliaments, see a woman become president. They fundamentally believe in inequality, except they want to be on top rather than on the bottom. But they will fit fine into the system as it is or as it will change a bit to accommodate such demands. Capitalism can certainly afford to allow women to join an army, allow women to join a police force. Capitalism is certainly intelligent enough to let more women join the government. Pseudosocialism can certainly allow a woman to become secretary-general of its party. Those are just reforms, like social security or paid vacations. Did the institutionalisation of paid vacations change the inequality of capitalism? Did the right of women to work in factories at equal pay to the men change the male orientation of the Czech society? But to change the whole value system of either society, to destroy the concept of motherhood: that is revolutionary.

A feminist, whether she calls herself leftist or not, is a leftist by definition. She is struggling for total equality, for the right to be as important, as relevant, as any man. Therefore, embodied in her revolt for sexual equality is the demand for class equality. In a society where the male can be the mother, where, say, to push the argument on values so it becomes clear, the so-called "female intuition" is as important as the "male's knowledge" - to use today's absurd language - where to be gentle or soft is better than to be hard and tough, in other words, in a society where each person's experiences are equivalent to any other, you have automatically set up equality, which means economic and political equality and much more. Thus, the sex struggle embodies the class struggle, but the class struggle does not embody the sex struggle. Feminists are, therefore, genuine leftists. In fact, they are to the left of what we now traditionally call the political left.