From Socialism to Radical Feminism:
Militant foundations in Simone de Beauvoir's Work
In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that equality between men and women would be possible “when the socialist society is realized worldwide, when there would no longer be men and women but only workers equal with one another.”Socialism was to thus create material conditions for women’s emancipation.In 1978, in Tout compte fait, with the development of women’s liberation movements, she appears more skeptic :“Formerly I thought that class struggle had to happen before struggle between the sexes.Now I find it necessary to lead them both together.”In 1949, she proclaimed herself socialist and in the seventies she became radically feminist.She moved from class struggle to the fight for sexual equality, from theory to praxis.Furthermore, The Second Sex is not a militant book but rather a pluridisciplinary investigation stemming from Sartrian existentialism.Neither is it a work that calls for action since Simone de Beauvoir did not admit to having any particular sympathy for feminist movements of the era.Thirty years later, she is no longer writing about the meaning of “being woman,” but is instead involved in experience, in the active protest found in the heart of women’s movements.She was involved in the fight for abortion rights, became president of Choisir in 1973 and of the Women’s Rights League in 1974.Indeed, she did not write another work comparable to The Second Sex, a sequel was never written.Nevertheless she spoke at meetings, gave numerous interviews, participated in demonstrations and shared her image and notoriety with other revolutionary feminists.I intend to show the different stages that led to this radicalization of her thinking that brought about a profound change in her women’s liberation strategy.
1. Socialist ideas in The Second Sex
With The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir positions herself in the philosophical and sociological fields rather than the political field.When she states “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman," Simone de Beauvoir is incontestably existentialist since this philosophy considers that in the absence of a human nature, existence precedes essence.Indeed, existentialism is close to historical materialism for example in that it shows that man is conditioned by class yet it adds a fundamental aspect, freedom.Several passages of The Second Sex offer a socialist interpretation of society.However, at the time that she wrote The Second Sex, Beauvoir did not feel any affinity for the French Communist Party (P.C.F.).This party, which was, according to her, too subdued by Moscow :“When you profess above all a philosophy of freedom, you are against all oppression. (...) That is why the socialist revolution does not seem to us as having to be consigned to the Communist Party, whose methods, ethics and Stalinist affiliations we refuse.”The relationships between politics and existentialism are complex due to the link between Marxist theory and the rejection of the party that it incarnates.
Beauvoir criticizes Marxism without denying its contribution in her work :“My essay owed so much to Marxism that I expected some impartiality on their part.”The work, upon publication, was very badly received by left wing groups and its author’s socialism was hardly recognized.Communists displayed hostility to her ideas.Marie-Louise Barron in French Letters comments :“The Billancourt working women laugh at what she discusses.”She could expect this kind of reception since she often criticized Marxist analysis of women’s condition.In the introduction she upholds that Bebel’s comparison of the women and the proletariat is well founded :proletariats are no longer inferior in number and they never constituted a separate collectivity.Nevertheless, it is an historical event that explains their existence as a class while the women’s dependence did not happen.The parallel drawn between proletariats and women is limited since the latter would not be able to suppress themselves in terms of sex.Simone de Beauvoir prefers to use the term caste instead of class because the physical characteristics themselves cannot be changed.In the third chapter of Fate, entitled The Perspective of Historical Materialism, she takes issue with Engels who, in The Origins of the Family, retraced women’s history rendering it dependent on the history of technical development :in the Stone Age, the Earth belonged to every member of the clan, the productive tasks were equally shared by men and women.In agriculture, man reduces other men to slavery and becomes the owner of his wife.The patriarchal family is thus founded on the notion of private property.For Simone de Beauvoir, Engels’ presentation is superficial as he does not investigate the relationship between man and property.In his opinion, this phenomenon is a consequence of the imperialism of the human conscience that seeks to objectively accompany his sovereignty.His theory derives from the statement that relationships between men and women are based on power structures, between the dominators and the dominated.His entire thesis states that woman is man’s Other :the will to dominate every other being that is different than oneself would explain the oppression experienced by the second sex.
Although she questions Marxist analyses, she opts for the same solutions.Like Engels, she believes that work alone will ensure women the conditions of their emancipation.In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir establishes from the advent of the socialist society the fundamental condition for women’s liberation since only work can guarantee freedom.Can one then consider Simone de Beauvoir Marxist ?She utilizes Marxism for its notion of equality, rejection of private property and analysis of alienation, however, the political position she takes at the time of The Second Sex is increasingly of a moral and philosophical nature.It is the philosophical and theoretical socialism which does not really correspond to a militant engagement that animates Simone de Beauvoir.More precisely, she sides with democratic socialism rather thaninternational communism.She declares herself leftist as a philosopher.In 1955, in Privilèges, she writes about the right wing to which she cannot adhere since “nature is to the right,” and this contradicts both history and praxis :“One understands humanity then as a given species, and not as a product of its product.”
It would be false to consider her essay as the statement of a political position.The Second Sex is an occasion for raising her feminist awareness, as Jean-Paul Sartre would later point out, rather than political awareness.Her political awakening happens later in her life.It is less a result of personal experience than a collective experience.She no longer tends towards self-understanding.
2. Political Awareness
Simone de Beauvoir often reproached herself for a lack of interest in politics previous to World War II, her blindness before the imminent war as her memoires, La force de l'âge, and her correspondence with Sartre confirm.It was only in the fifties and sixties that she became involved in political struggle.Anti-colonialism during the Indochinese and then the Algerian war develops her political awareness.If we accept her account, this awareness came about through Sartre’s initiative :“philosophically and politically, the initiative was his (…) Sartre ideologically creative, I am not.”Yet she adds, “I do not adhere to any idea, any resolution without having criticized and reconsidered it on my own.”La force de l'âge includes several passages in which she describes her action with Jean-Paul Sartre.The Müller Report, an account of torture that Jacques Lanzmann has her read, overwhelms her.The O.A.S. threats and the bombing of Sartre’s residence forces her to confront the political violence of extremist movements.They would later sign the “Manifesto of the 121.”She wrote the preface of Gisèle Halimi’s book on Djamila Boupacha, a young militant Algerian from the F.I.S., who was horribly tortured by the French Army.After the Algerian War, Vietnam, and then the Six Day War served to maintain her “pacifism.”Her militant political action was focused on the struggle against all forms of oppression.Over the course of these years, she acquired a taste for combat, demonstrations, public awareness, in short, for the necessity of the passage to action and militant activity in defense of freedom of oppressed peoples.Is it possible to speak of Simone de Beauvoir’s political consciousness ?She developed a very particular conception of politics :political activism involves not only voting - which she does not - but also participation in social struggle and solidarity with others.Politics can lead to action only by questioning society’s founding myths and administration itself.
This political awareness occurred in a dual context :
In the anti-colonial struggle, between 1952 and 1956, Sartre courted the P.C.F. (French Communist Party) was less attracted to the party.Indeed, the party opposed notably, contraception.Since the fifties, it supported conservative ideas about sex, contraception, family and ethics advanced by Jeannette Vermeersch, the wife of Maurice Thorez.The liberation of sexual behavior was perceived as a bourgeois idea intended to divert the proletariat’s attention away from class struggle.
The fifties and sixties were equally marked by numerous visits to so-called socialist countries : USSR, China and Cuba.Beauvoir does not fail to emphasize in her memoirs that in the USSR almost all women work, yet few of them work in the head office and their housekeeping is a great burden on them.On the other hand, one can reproach her for some ignorance as well as the lack of discernment at the time of her trip to China in 1955, “ideologically, [women] were not the victims of any discrimination, of any myth.”Yet, globally the confrontation with so-called socialist societies deceived her even though she admired the Cuban revolution of 1960, and the cultural Chinese revolution, begun in 1966, caused, for Beauvoir, an ideological transformation instead of change in her conception of modes of production.She is not so much a Maoist since she admits not liking The Red Book.In the same era, Jean-Paul Sartre refuses Maoist association despite Alain Geisman’s appearance in Modern Times.
The French Communist Party’s positions as well as travels in socialist countries secure for Beauvoir the idea that the truly socialist society does not yet exist.The solution for women’s emancipation up until 1968 barely evolved, being of an economic nature.During her conference in Japan in 1966, she reaffirms that women’s condition will change with the transformation of economic structures :“if socialism is not a sufficient condition, it is certainly a necessary one.”
3. Towards Radical Feminism
In the seventies, engaged as a militant feminist, she declared :“class struggle and women’s struggle articulate one another, but without becoming confused, since depending on the first in order to ensure the second is deceptive.Yet, the terms of the problem themselves have not changed.”At the inception of the M.L.F. (Women’s Liberation Movement), Simone de Beauvoir encouraged the movement and declared herself a radical feminist.While writing The Second Sex, Beauvoir was a feminist without realizing it.In the seventies, she asserted herself as a feminist which one interprets as an existentialist move.Simone de Beauvoir’s influence on the M.L.F. is often discussed.Indeed, The Second Sex was a revelation for many feminists, but their method of action came mainly from May ’68 (an author like Temjke Marjan Van der Poel, drew a parallel between the means used by the M.L.F. and Maoist theory from May ’68).Simone de Beauvoir supported a movement that originated without her.They were young women who favored their own militant feminist action.These women did not want to be granted equality, they wanted to take it.What does being radically feminist mean ?According to interviews with Alice Schwartzer, in La femme révoltée (The Rebel Woman), Simone de Beauvoir explains :“The women’s groups that existed before the M.L.F., created in 1970, were reformist and legalist.I had no desire to join them.”While old feminism was reformist and at the service of politicians, new feminism saw itself as radical due to its revolutionary character.Previously, feminists wanted to share equality with men in the public sphere, feminists from the time of the M.L.F. wanted to overturn a society whose patriarchal values they rejected.Later on, she inspired the movement with her own reflections.This uncompromising feminism that insisted on immediate action maintained a political definition because being feminist means assuming a political position :while resisting power, one must determine objectives, identify one’s enemies and fight them.Power is viewed as the confrontation of particular interests which Simone de Beauvoir opposes with collective will.In other words, she wishes to see an “consciousness of sex” emerge.The choice of the term, “consciousness,” derived from marxist language, is not innocent.It refers to revolutionary action.She wants a movement that is not apolitical, since “feminism is leftist by definition,” but one that is ultra-political.In other words, Beauvoir envisions a movement that is not politically neutral but rather one that is situated outside of the politician’s game.Women must form a political group with men as adversaries in the social sense of the term.But Simone de Beauvoir refused total repudiation of men :“as the proletariat, in refusing the bourgeoisie as the dominant class, does not reject the entire bourgeois heritage, women have to take hold of, along with men, instruments created by men, without refusing all of them.”Women’s combat is indeed a political one because the private sector is politicized but it does not use traditional weapons.Was it not under her influence that the women’s movement refused all participation in power that was experienced as an attempt of recovery ?“It is precisely because [women] are not confined to any party, because no ideology blinds them, that they [are able to] appreciate the subversive value of the feminist activism.”Through her increasing involvement in political activism and movements during the seventies, Beauvoir modified her strategy.She became more radical in the sense that the means of liberation became specific to women, they deal with individual experience :“I am for the abolition of the family.It is through the intermediary of the family that the patriarchal world exploits women.”She excludes feminism from institutional politics yet integrates it in revolutionary politics, which socially, economically and culturally overturns society.She made feminism into the avant-garde of the socialist revolution, recognizing that the suppression of the family and familial structures would upset capitalism.Since women constitute the primary oppressed group, their liberation, in a domino effect, would spur the liberation of other oppressed groups.
By eliminating the family, feminism would thus transform the structure of society.Simone de Beauvoir turns feminism into much more than the demand for equality between men and women.It has a political function, by proposing an alternative management of society.In this way, she remained quite socialist and refined her reflection to the point of giving feminism the magnitude of a true political movement.Socialism is a body of thought, and feminism as such, according to Simone de Beauvoir, is an integral part of socialism.
Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, Gallimard, Paris, 1949 (engl. The Second Sex, New York: Vintage Books, 1974 )
Simone de Beauvoir, La force de l'âge, Gallimard, Paris, 1960
Simone de Beauvoir, La force des choses, Gallimard, Paris, 1963
Simone de Beauvoir, Tout compte fait, Gallimard, Paris, 1972
Simone de Beauvoir, Privilèges, Gallimard, Paris, 1955
Simone de Beauvoir, Djamila Boupacha, Gallimard, Paris, 1961
Les Ecrits de Simone de Beauvoir, ed. par C. Francis et F. Gonthier, Gallimard, Paris, 197
Interview with Alice Schwartzer, La femme révoltée, Le Nouvel Observateur, 14 fevrier, 1972