Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction

By Rosemarie Putnam Tong | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Existentialist Feminism

SHORTLY BEFORE SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR DIED, Margaret A. Simons and Jessica Benjamin interviewed her for the journal Feminist Studies. In their background commentary, Simons and Benjamin commented on the significance of de Beauvoir's major theoretical work, The Second Sex:

De Beauvoir's analysis of women's oppression in The Second Sex is open to many criticisms: for its idealism--her focus on myths and images and her lack of practical strategies for liberation; for its ethnocentrism and androcentric view--her tendency to generalize from the experience of European bourgeois women, with a resulting emphasis on women's historic ineffectiveness. Still, we have no theoretical source of comparable sweep that stimulates us to analyze and relentlessly question our situation as women in so many domains--literature, religion, politics, work, education, motherhood, and sexuality. As contemporary theorists explore the issues raised in The Second Sex, we can see that in a sense all feminist dialogue entails a dialogue with Simone de Beauvoir. And a discussion with her can be a way of locating ourselves within our feminist past, present, and future.1

Within a short forty-year span, The Second Sex clearly achieved the status of a classic in feminist thought. Thus, no introduction to feminist thought would be nearly complete without a discussion of this work, which has helped many feminists understand the full significance of woman's otherness.

Over the years there have been questions about the precise relationship between de Beauvoir's Second Sex and Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness. The first and ultimately mistaken view is that The Second Sex is simply an application of Being and Nothingness to women's specific situation. Because Sartre was de Beauvoir's lover and mentor, the misconception she dutifully followed his philosophical lead clouds the history of

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