Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999


María Luisa Femenías

Beauvoir revisited: Butler and the „gender“ question


The emergence of North American post-modern Sex Theory in the 90’s destabilises the category of the sexual difference. The sexual theorising impact results - in Judith Butler words - in a renewed interest on questions of sex and gender ontology and fundamentalism. Some new writers challenge the stability of binarian sex / gender categories from transgender-identified perspectives.  Sex / gender categories are becoming, they say, more fluid and less able to be sustained on essential and monolithically based sexual differences in terms of binarian sexes. The distinction between hetero and homosexuality develops a strong current of feminist critique of normative sexuality, focussing on alternative readings of sex / gender accounts (Schutte, 40).[1]

 Discursive differences are being examined creating new philosophical questions about the matter of bodies and the materialisation of sexualities, where Judith Butler is perhaps one of the most influential radical philosophers (Butler, 1-3). Her insights of gender essentialism as a tendency to be suspected firstly, makes her to identify -wrongly as we will try to show- Beauvoir as one of the first feminists to use that category and ascribes her an essentialist condition in debt with Sartre’s ontology. So, while arguing that gender is a cultural / discursive configuration of the body she ascribes to Beauvoir the concept of „gender“ as a „natural kind“, and in so doing she reaches some crucial and controversial conclusions ignoring Beauvoir’s contributions to dismantling the lure of normative sexuality in heterosexual relations. A dismantling from the prevailing normative constructs of sex and gender – as Ofelia Schutte explains –  is necessary to the construction of any feminist social and political order (Butler, 1986).


             Simone de Beauvoir’s Le decième sexe is perhaps the most influential work of feminist theory in the Twentieth Century, and in the United States inspired at least radicals like Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millet as well as liberals like Betty Friedan or socialists like Juliet Mitchell. Beauvoir based her understanding of the situation of women on descriptions of women’s own experience, confirming the priority of the concrete and experiential over the abstract and the ahistorical. She locates her ethical enquiry within the context of specific historical relationships, given man’s historical definition of women as Other, and so doing criticising traditional Philosophy, Religion, Psychoanalysis and even Marxism.  

 She opens her analysis of normative constructions of heterosexuality with the goal of reinforcing the wide range of non-normative gender and sexual options available to feminist women, because there is an assumed identification or overlap between heterosexuality and normativity ignoring that normative sexuality [is] a type or form of sexual activity that is marked by a coincidence between socially privileged sexual acts and privileged gender constructs (Schutte, 41-42). Any heterosexual woman can break normative gender stereotypes by succeeding economically, being non emotional dependent, or refusing to be a mother. When Simone de Beauvoir poses her most famous question qu’est-ce qu’une femme? (Beauvoir: 1976,13) she puts the categories of woman and man on the stand. And from the morals of the Existential framework she answers that one is not born, but rather becomes a woman because tout sujet se pose concrètement à travers des projets comme une transcendance; il n’accomplit sa liberté que par son perpétuel dépassement vers d’autres libertés“ (Beauvoir, 31)

So, to be is to become to being, but the drama of woman is the conflict among the essential reivindications she has the rights to, as any other subject, and the monde oú les hommes lui imposent de s’assumer contre l’ Autre: on prétend la figer en objet, et la vouer á l’immanence puisque sa transcendance sera perpétuellement transcendée par une autre conscience essentielle et souveraine (Beauvoir, 31). Woman’s drama consists of the paradox between her rights and reivindications as a subject (the nominalistic universal subject that Enlightenment proposes and Beauvoir is thinking of) and her facticity where she is constituted as inessential (Beauvoir, 31). Moreover, like today European Sexual Difference theorists do, Beauvoir states the obvious and focuses at first on the difference between masculine and feminine normative subject positions: sex is not only a biological fact and does not denote only a chronological episode in human History. This also concerns with women reproductive functions. Beauvoir seems to consider women’s reproductive function as the main obstacle to their realising the radical freedom Existentialists believe humans have to determine themselves as their own essence, so it seems she understands motherhood as an obstacle to have a share in the human mitsein. No woman can evidently forget what she is as „Il est clair qu’aucune femme en peut prétendre sans mauvaise foi se situer par-delà son sexe „(Beauvoir, 13) because the body is important as the locus of concrete „lived experiences“, the body is not le corps-object décrit par les savants /.../ mais le corps vécu par le sujet, for women (like men) are subjects in situation (Beauvoir, 78). So far of Beauvoir’s pivotal elements. Let us examine Butler’s discussion.


             Rosi Braidotti describes the North American reception of poststructuralist Theories of Sexual Difference in terms of a „Transatlantic Disconnection“, which l rewrite now in terms of „Butler disconnection“, as she basically misinterpreted the main contributions in Beauvoir’s Le decième sexe. By discussing the ideas of Beauvoir, a theory of gender was mistakenly endorsed by Butler which does not give enough support to her oversimplified reading. Unfortunately, such a reading has been uncritically assumed by many North American (post)feminist (post)structuralist thinkers.[2] This means that l do not share her critiques though l recognise the sharp implications of her analysis.  

            According to Butler, Beauvoir’s contribution in Le deuxième sexe appeals, at least, to 1) a voluntarist theory of gender, 2) a Cartesian (dualistic) view of the self (moi), identified with Descartes’ cogito and with Sartre’s „being-for-itself“ (être-pour-soi),  3) an ontological hang over, 4) an abstract universal subject, 5) a biological essentialism. Butler’s misinterpretation is basically directed by her claim that Beauvoir has a Theory of gender. Even though Beauvoir’s latter experience of the contemporary women movement in the ‘70’s changed her perspective on the sex / gender question, she never understood gender as Butler does when she endorses her concept of „gender“ to be the most distinguished contribution of Simone de Beauvoir (Butler, 1986, 1990). 


Judith Butler seems to start her reading of Beauvoir with the assumption that Le deuxième sexe is based on a thesis about the sex / gender relation, but not from the Existentialist Ethics and a non Husserlian Phenomenological description of the place women have in society due to their sexual difference.[3] Butler’s strategy reminds strongly of her own comments about the foundationalist fictions that support the notion of subject, and although she criticises Beauvoir’s conceptualisation of „women“ and the representationist theory that supports her political theory of the body, she suggests that in one is not born a woman, but rather, becomes one, is where gender is „constructed“ in a strong voluntaristic way (Butler, 1990, 3; 1986, 36). So, being a woman is a voluntaristic cultural construction and „woman“ only designates a variety of modes in which the facts acquire cultural meaning or intelligibility, as a process of gender self-construction, where „women“ is that what we finally become.  

Though, how can a certain sex become a certain gender? asks Butler. According to her reading of Beauvoir, nothing can designate a „female“ as the fixed and self-identical set of cultural presumptions that „women“ fulfil (Butler, 1986, p. 37). So Butler strongly suggests that Beauvoir’s „to be a woman“ is a cultural interpretation of „to be a female“, where the female body is the arbitrary locus of „women“ as gender.    

            So Butler considers that to become a „woman“ is a process of constructing ourselves /.../ is a purpositive and apropiative set of acts, the acquisition of a skill, a „project“ to use Sartrean terms, to assume certain corporal style and significance (Butler, 1986, 36). Butler takes „to become“ as „purposefully assumed or embodied“ and makes use of Sartrean categories to support the striking claim that endorses Beauvoir a voluntaristic account of gender as a self-reflexive process to become our genders, previously determined by the very system of representational politics that Beauvoir’s feminism takes itself to be combating, in its struggle for woman’s emancipation. At least with regard to the first issue, Butler reads the „Sartrean Project“ in terms of the Performative, and so in a consciously voluntaristic way. So woman submission designates her true vocation of male dominance. But this does not seem to be the best standpoint to judge Beauvoir’s position.   

This is to say that, in the one hand, sex is taken to be natural, biological and bodily in ways that are not politically or culturally circumscribed, and that (sex) fully imposes its effects on the normative construct of women while marks her subordination. On the other hand, Butler points out that Beauvoir misses the performative point; sex is constituted by way of exclusionary claims that may be more or less invisible to those of us who are caught up in the socially varied discourse which itself is not immune to the heterosexual, racial, and class prejudices that help to structure and maintain the status quo (Butler, 1990, 4; Jaggar & Young, 265). „Becoming“ a gender has to be understood to be both a choice and an acculturation process. It seems to Butler that Beauvoir formulates „gender“ ambiguously because she misses the performative point. In other words, Butler’s own construction of gender as performative and citational provides Beauvoir with an „ambiguous discursive trend“ she in fact lacked. This system unilaterally imposed to Beauvoir also engages Butler in the claim that we need to understand the term „woman“ as the site of permanent openness and resignifiability ignoring that Beauvoir can both acknowledge the weight of social construction and the autonomy of the self, because women are subjects „in situation“, a category she posed (not Sartre) to explain the particular position human beings –specially women- have. Beauvoir is certainly an existencialist but her position is not simply that of Sartre. She is not a Sartrean epigon. One can be interested –as Butler does- in Sartre’s influence on her philosophy but, on the contrary, her philosophical differences from Sartre’s can be richly explored (Simon, 1999, 41 ff; Kruks, 1992, 92; López-Pardina, 1994, 107 ff). 

            This means that Butler understands that „gender“ also entails a critique of „woman“ as possessing any „essential“ or unitary meaning. She suggests in Gender Trouble that there is a parallel to be drawn between the way we think of sex, and the tendency to naturalise, or posit a foundational and unchanging biological grounds to the fictional or discursive category of women. The idea of women as unitary is a fiction in the service of the very oppressive regime that Feminism seeks to overthrow. This is to say –in Butler’s own words- that the belief that „women“ does have some common meaning serves to coerce individuals into a behaviour aimed to exhibit such a meaning. In other words, the idea of „women“ as unitary operates as a policing force which generates and legitimises certain practices, and experiences and delegitimates others. Moreover, the idea of „woman“ as a unitary situated human being in opposition to „man“ works to sustain the status quo by supporting the norm of heterosexuality. The idea of  „woman“ and „man“ as possessing a unitary meaning in opposition to each other supports the idea of sexual desire as the „attraction of opposites“, where Butler understands heterosexuality and normativity as synonyms. Butler considers that there is no sexed body prior to its construction by phallocentric signification. So any feminist project which assumes such unitary meanings therefore ends up reproducing both the very sexist and heterosexist social order it aims to eliminate, as Beauvoir does (Jaggar & Young,1998, 293). So Butler blames Beauvoir to cut in her analysis of gender and to assume a fixed ontological status of woman and the body. As we can see, she criticises Beauvoir’s work as heterosexist, masculinist and Sartrean. 

            This means to ignore at least that Beauvoir challenged the normative elements that delimit the senses of woman (mainly the heterosexual canon but also the lesbian one). When Beauvoir uses the category of femme indépendant suggests that she draws a distinction between woman as „the Other“ (the normative description of women, as placed in a position of subordination to man) and woman as an agent in pursuit of freedom (Simon, 115; Beauvoir, 597). Beauvoir’s rejection of normative feminity and sexuality plus her ascription to an Existential Philosophy prevents from any assumption of a fixed ontological status of woman and opens into a revolutionary feminist potential. It is true that Existential Philosophy carries a recognisable masculine-centred focus on existence but at the same time nourishes a spirit of rebellion against constraints on one’s freedom and this spirit is extraordinarily helpful for feminists (Schutte,47 ff.).        

Butler is also critical of Philosophy’s tendency to miss the body or, worse, to write against it. Drawing on Lacan and Foucault, she attempts to theorise the materiality of the body and the ways in which bodies are materialised as sexed in the light of a critique of heterosexism. In other word, „sex“ is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialised through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize „sex“ and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms; this means that there is no reference to a pure body (Butler, 1990, 80). Her Beauvoir nor Merleau-Ponty would deny this statement. But Butler wishes to go beyond the conventional limits of constructionist theories to consider how such constraints not only produce the domain of intelligible bodies, but produce as well a domain of unthinkable, abject, unliveable bodies (Butler, 1990, 80). From her hyperconstructivist point of view, she pretends to show that sex is the regulatory norm which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility (Butler, 1993,2). Gender identity -Butler argues- is a performance not determined by a fixed biological nature, but it is not a performance at will; the conventions by which we are named „girl“, „boy“, „queer“, „gay“ are constituted in language. So Butler goes on to use the resources of Speech Act Theory and Reference Theory to understand how the linguistic mechanisms that produce normal and abnormal bodies, normal and queer subjects, might be cooptable or interruptible to produce new sexual / social identities (Jaggar & Young,1998,155). Butler’s concept of performativity is useful here (but it is not Beauvoir’s). She focuses on genders’ performance analysing in detail the cultural production of gender transgression specially in terms of hetero/homosexuality. But, might performativity (in the sense of literal performance, whether or not to do with gender) itself also influence the way the body works its interiority? (Jaggar & Young, 200).  

            Butler’s suggestion –as we have already seen- that we „choose“ or „build up“ our genders moves to perplexity as it implies an ontological puzzle: a res cogitans, prior to the gender constructed, is needed as a pre-generized locus to build up a gender. This means that Beauvoir would have considered -according to Butler’s reading- that a kind of self-constituent agent is needed previous to the gendered body. This is what Butler identifies as Cartesian Ghosts in the Sartrean Bodies and Beauvoir’s becoming a gender seems both an extension and a concretization of the Sartrian formula.  

Butler, by the way, explores themes in Sartre’s Philosophy that had influenced on Beauvoir’s (or so she says) but she is not interested in her influence on him, probably believing in Beauvoir’s statement that she does not consider herself a Philosopher(Simon, 1989, 13). But her perspective in Le decième sexe and Sartre’s perspective in L’ être et le néant are not the same. He writes an essai d’ontologie phénoménologique where Beauvoir places her critique more on a moral plane, as a human activity. 

So, Butler reads Beauvoir as if in transposing the identification of corporal existence and becoming onto the sense of sex and gender, she appropriates the ontological necessity of paradox where the tension move from natural to acculturated body (Butler, 1986, 39). Butler concludes that Beauvoir’s thesis is tautological for the ego lives prior to discourse and consciousness comes before an apart from the body. This is why Butler considers that she could not avoid a dualistic conception of the human being. So understanding Beauvoir’s Philosophy, Butler can claim that we do not become our genders from a place prior to culture or embodied life, but essentially within their terms. And Beauvoir surely would have agreed with her as she never believed in human nature as a predetermined site but in human reality, a Heideggerian term, meaning man’s presence in the world.  

            On the other hand, Butler recognised the importance of Merleau-Ponty strength in Beauvoir’s conception of the body, particularly in its sexual aspect, as above all a historical and a cultural modality of existence. Both of them consider sexuality as coextensive with existence and not as an isolated sphere of drives, or natural givens. However, the account Merleau-Ponty gives of the body in its sexual being is actually an account of the heterosexual male body and while he claims to talk of concrete „lived experiences“, paradoxically, he refers only to male-bodies experiences. Again, Butler considers that this is a biased heritage, as Merleau-Ponty opposes „male“ to „female“ as discrete units. Biology rests a bound, biological essentialism is not put into question; the body is understood in the sense of „limit“ or „essence“ [not as] a field of interpretative possibilities, the locus of a dialectical process of interpreting anew a historical set of interpretations which have become imprinted in the flesh (Butler, 1986, 45). This biological dimorphism becomes the significant of the cultural order, as Lacan posed, though her „perspectivism“ or „situationism“ does not recover the body as another institutional construction, as Butler’s states it (48). So it makes perfect sense for Butler that Beauvoir does not challenge the notion of natural body (sex) and exposes herself to the political uses of biological discriminations accepting a dyadic gender system. Butler assumes that Beauvoir also emphasises that the demarcation of anatomical difference does precede the cultural interpretation of that difference and the normative assumptions it carries.  

But it is worth noting that for Beauvoir The Data of Biology is subjected to non-natural systems of interpretation, the body as a natural fact never exists without a human experience, so it cannot be found „pure“ but situated, as the locus of cultural interpretations and -like Butler’s- it is not merely a body but rather a body subject to taboo, to laws, conscious of him/herself and attains fulfilment (46). Beauvoir wrote freely that she was completely against the searching of Woman-identity as a feminist aim. She considered searching Women-identity as part of men’s mythology, that is as if women were essentially apart. On the contrary, she finds everybody’s duty to identify themselves as a human being who happens to be a woman, a different situation which is not the same as men’s situation (Butler, 1989, 19). Beauvoir does not suggest the possibility of other genders besides „man“ and „woman“, yet she insists that these are historical constructions and either her bisexual orientation or her fictions about female sexuality (p.e. Les Mandarins) correspond to her critique of normative feminity (or any other forms of orthodoxies) as much as her notion of sexual pleasure is surely an ethics of transgression and an appeal to imagination to repopulate the future. 


            On the one hand, Butler’s approach seems fruitful enough to call attention and her Performative Theory of Gender is interesting and provocative. But her framework seems not to be the right one for interpreting Beauvoir. So why does she critique Beauvoir on bases that the French philosopher did not support?  Whichever her motivations were, Butler seems to work on at least three preconceptions 1) She considers „sujet“ and „he/man“ are equivalent (S. Bordo’s  thesis) so she takes into consideration both  extensional and intentional strokes; 2) She rejects feminist theories based on the acceptance of the biological sexual difference (which entail normativeness, ontological hang over, or so) in order to establish post-feminist foundations; 3) She thinks that the body is not a biological data but also a performative-cultural-discoursive construction.  

            On the other hand, in Le decième sexe, Beauvoir ignored gender as an analytical category. Her perspective of „sex“ (female / male) cannot be conceived as the natural basis for a „gender“ construction and „gender“ should not be viewed as the cultural interpretations of a pre-given sex -even though her experience of the ‘70’s movement of women lead her to accept the notion of „gender“ without many of Butler’s theoretical implications. The body is not a choice, it is the point of departure which l am; to be present in the world implies strictly that there exists a body which is at the same time a thing in the world and a point of view of the world. Subjectivity and corporeality are co-extensive. For choices are always made in a certain situation and starting from the same situation one can choose this or that. So one can have different choices in a single situation and one can choose to accept it or escape it. 

            So, there is a theoretical tension in Le decième sexe on the question of choice and oppression: women are an oppressed group but in a way each girl chooses to be the Other so she is in complicity with her oppression. Beauvoir knows that it is convenient for bourgeois women this kind of oppression but she appeals all the same to the possibilities of each human being has to refuse her/his situation.     

            In brief, as Heinämaa insists bel et bien, when Beauvoir asks how does one become a woman, she in fact asks how it is possible that a body, intertwined with the world and other bodies, can both repeat certain postures, gestures and expressions, and change and modify them (Heïnamaa, 1997, 32). This is to say, we need to explore the strange ambiguity of existent bodies. In so doing, Butler needs an interlocutor, not to read her works, but to follow her own reflections: Beauvoir remains there richly suggestive.                                           




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[1] I am in debt to Victoria Costa and María Spadaro for their helpful suggestions.

[2] Butler cites H. M. Parshley translation into English extensively critised. Cf. Simon, M. „Two Interviews with Simone de Beauvoir“ Hypatia, 3, 3, 1989. p.12. Simon (1999) ch. 5.

[3] Nicholson considers that English language-speakers started to use the word „Gender“ technically in the late ‘60s. Cf. Nicholson, L. „Gender“ In Jaggar-Young (1998) pp. 289-297. Spanish and other Latin languages use „gender“ in a non-feminist way till North-American literature introduced it in the early 70s., and the use of this expression is quite resisted.