Some arguments from biology try to reduce a woman to what she is in society. However, no man or woman within society has escaped its powers to shape them as people. And as people are in society is in no way related to biology. One can hardly imagine a woman in the state of nature dreaming of a Channel purse. Rather, the way we are is directly related to the way that the world is given to us. Whoever a person is, is somehow a response to the rules of society. Moreover, the rules of societies are somewhat fluid. If the rules that help to shape people are always in flux, we can infer that the people themselves are the same way.
Another way in which people commonly try to find the essence of women is through Freudian psychoanalysis. One aspect of a person that psychoanalysis rightly identifies is the importance of how someone responds to society. Where Freud goes wrong, for de Beauvior, is when he presupposes that women see themselves are mutilated men. This does not approach an essence of women from the phenomenological point of view, but rather from a male point of view. In Freud’s description, women are reduced to mutilated men. Therefore any angst would be explained away by the psychoanalyst as a women‘s protest at being a malformed male and not because of her situation. De Buavior also states that even Freud was unable to give a complete reason for why society was male dominated: “For Freud himself admits that the prestige of the penis is explained by the sovereignty of the father, and…he confesses that he is ignorant regarding the origin of male supremacy”(de Beauvior 477).
This speaks to a larger problem that the psychoanalysts have for women: psychoanalysts “reject choice”(de Beauvior 474). De Beauvior says that psychoanalysts do not connect the personal situation of a particular women to her larger social surroundings. This shows that their psychological attempt to pin point an eidos is not world orientated. It is likely that some of the psychoanalyst’s finding about personality are correct, but psychoanalyst’s incorrectly assume that such findings mean that a person in not at liberty in regard to her own lived body. Such psychological constraints do not establish a fixed destiny for a person. Moreover, such a point of view seems to ignore the fact that certain personality features tend to homogenize within a society. A better way to understand why an individual chooses a particular lifestyle would be to turn towards the world and to see what effect that had on the individual.
The last view that de Beauvior analyzes is historical materialism, or the view that people are basically economic units. What this view is essentially right about is that people are not as simple as other animals. We are animals with a collective sense of history, and also an ability to control nature, to a certain extent. Because these are features of human nature, they are therefore not particular to a women’s supposed nature. However, this eidos of all of humanity is not preserved with the historical materialist view. By trying to reduce women to her ability to labor, the proponents of this view miss essential pieces of the puzzle of why women became the ‘second sex’. In order to show why the historical materialist view is wrong, de Beauvior analyzes Engle’s account of how the advent of private property doomed women to perpetual inferiority. Early in history, when tools were small, both men and women were equally capable of working the land and were therefore equal members of society. With technological advances, such as bronze, man was able shape the world in an unprecedented way, making many of his projects larger in scale. With this also came private property, and because women were not able to compete economically they did not receive a proportional amount of property.
De Beauvior first criticizes this account for begging the question. Engle’s gives no explanation for why early societies even conceived of the idea of private property to begin with. Even today, there are some small tribal communities with no concept of private property. People working under that paradigm give an incomplete story of women’s oppression by trying to reduce it to class conflicts. But they have no way for explaining why the relationship between men and women did not take a symbiotic turn. De Beauvior explains the oppression of women rather by appealing to an aspect of all humans- the desire to dominate someone different. The separation of classes and sexes is different in another way, in that there is no biological basis for class distinctions. Because women represent a different empirical universal, men and women both can mis-justify women’s subordination by pointing to that obvious difference.
As was indicated earlier, there is a positive argument explaining why many women act so similar: this similarity is caused by the influence of society. Women’s so called ‘character’ is just a result of the various conditions that era after era and culture after culture have immersed her in. One of the main thrusts of phenomenology is that our minds are world directed, or public. In other words, all consciousness is consciousness of something. Therefore, the qualia of the feminine experience can be understood by examining the particular world that is given specifically to women. A person can do no more than what her world allows. So it is women’s type of situation in the world that that shapes her experience in it.
In Women’s Situation and Character, de Beauvior also appeals to this explanation. One of the first aspects of a women’s life is that it is always as the other. While a feeling of other must have been strong in de Beauvior’s time, it is still perpetuated today. Some contemporary feminists deny that there is anything at all that could rightly constitute this feeling of other. We often contrast boys and girls, but they do not necessarily have to have separate worlds given to them. Rather, it is adults and larger societal elements that separate them. The separate mentality begins before the infants have a chance to resist, girls a draped in pink, boys with blue. It feels like a cliché to say this, but separate is not equal. Where boys are often allowed to act rambunctious, girls are told to “be lady like”. Indeed, sociological studies have even found that even female teachers perpetuate the different and unequal mind set. “In our research we have found that gender segregation is a major contributor to female invisibility. [T]eachers are pulled to the more talkative, more disruptive male sections of the classroom or pool. They stay there teaching the boys more activity and directly while the girls fade into the background” (Sadker 474). Where boys are frequently complimented for their intelligence, girls will be complimented for their cuteness. This is what literally creates the feelings of other for young girls. Such innocent comments shape the way that young children see their situation and social positions. Young girls don’t really decide to be passive, but that is the world of expectations they are born into.
This makes it clear that the world, in part, is not given to women as it is to men. De Beauvior even rejects Heidegger’s view of the world qua tool. “The world does not seem to woman ‘an assemblage of implements’ intermediate between her will and her goals, as Heidegger defines it; it is on the contrary something obstinately resistant, unconquerable; it is dominated by fatality and shot through with mysterious caprices” (487). Tools can only seem useful if they can somehow help you change the course of your life. Of course, women do use tools, but those tools are not the sort that moves a life into the space of reasons. For example, knowing how to cook doesn’t teach you how to build a stove. A major part of life for most women is maternity and this aspect of life is not transformed by engineering, or knowledge of tools. It is common knowledge that women still do more housework on average then men, but such work is not equivalent to the tool use that Heidegger builds his world around. It is not an intellectually fecund life to know how to prepare meals, wield a vacuum, or wash clothing. The life of house work is repetitive in nature and gives women a cyclical phenomenon of time. When one task is finished, it will just have to be done again. This type of work requires a less rigorous, less mathematical world view. This knowledge is not begat by critical thinking but by repetition of daily tasks. Understanding of mechanical causation is an inaccessible goal for her. Moreover, without such knowledge, intellectual tools remain as just objects, and not necessarily as use-objects, despite the fact that women are capable of using them.
One element of the common view of women is that they are passive, but this is hardly a surprise considering her captivity. “Not only is she ignorant of what constitutes true action, capable of changing the face of the world, but she is lost in the midst of the world as if she were at the heart of an immense vague nebula”(488). Reason is useless if no change can be affected by it. There is an element of powerlessness that comes with a lack of education. Obviously not all women, especially American women, have the world given to them in this way, but one does not have to look very long to find a women not speaking up for her self, or crying as a result of her frustration with her present situation. These claims are clearer when we look to certain Middle Eastern and African countries, where women (who are largely uneducated) accept and continue female genital mutilation. This extreme passivity is not part of their essential nature, but rather their conformity to the society that they were born into.
All of this speaks to the fact that women have an altered phenomenology of freedom. In many cases when women are given the opportunity for equality, it is not men that resist the move, but women. Women have an equal role in the longevity of gender roles. This is likely another symptom of their limited world. “Many of the faults for which women are reproached – mediocrity, laziness, frivolity, servility – simply express the fact that their horizon is closed”(490). Freedom is, for most philosophers, the ability to do otherwise, but for a long time there was no other option for women. In much of the west the emancipated woman would not be said to have the negative traits de Beauvior attributes to women; as a matter of a fact they seem to be to opposite. This just goes to show that once it was possible for women to live like men, that they were equally capable. If her world is not open, her mind will remain closed. With no possibility for greatness, it is no struggle to see why she would strive for moderation.
Women live the type of life that their world permits. It is clear that whoever I am is a product of my situation in life. People can have varying amount of control within the scope of their situation. And in the case of women, the scope has be quite narrow for far too long. However, I believe the fact that she is a dynamic type of person shows itself in more recent years. Once the world is open too her, she can do nearly everything equally well as men (excluding such things as being a line-backer).
In this paper I have tried to show that there is nothing in a lived body that could properly be called an eidos. There are many other false attempts to give an eidos of women, but it would take the length of a book to do justice to all de Beauvior’s refutations of such attempts at eidetic intuitions. Husserl began this idea in his philosophy of the lived body. Merleau-Ponty further developed Husserl’s ideas and gave a clear argument denouncing immaterial roots for essences. De Beauvior make their claims stronger by dismissing the idea that there is a particular eidos for women, and showed that even the most intellectually rigors attempts at finding it have failed. She eventually argues that whatever we may think are eidos are really just products of a continued situation to which women have been subjected.
Sokolowski, Robert. Introduction to Phenomenology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
De Beauvior Simone. “Destiny.” The Phenomenology Reader. Ed. Moran, Dermont & Mooney Timothy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 467-485.
De Beauvior Simone. “Women’s Situation and Character.” The Phenomenology Reader. Ed. Moran, Dermont & Mooney Timothy. New York: Routledge, 2002. 486-507.
Sadkler, Myra. Sadker, David. “How America’s Schools Cheat Girls: Missing in Interaction.” Intersections : Readings in Sociology. Ed. Mc. Neal Ralph, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2005. 462-485.
Heinamma, Sara. Toward a Phenomenology of Sexual Difference. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefeild Publishers Inc., 2003.