The critics of de Beauvoir invite us to ponder whether it is more liberating to think of woman as the product of a cultural construction or instead to think of woman as the result of a natural arrangement. They also invite us to wonder whether the realm of transcendence is better, worse, or simply different than the realm of immanence. Finally, they invite us to consider, as others already have, whether women's liberation requires women to reject the "feminine" entirely or to embrace it yet more wholeheartedly.
Despite the force of Elshtain's and Lloyd's critiques, much can and has been said in defense of de Beauvoir's existentialist feminism. De Beauvoir is, admittedly, a challenging, even intimidating feminist thinker. But just because she spoke in her own voice--that of a highly educated, bourgeois, French woman--does not mean her words cannot speak to women whose life circumstances depart dramatically from her own.
De Beauvoir was dismayed when some of her supposedly nonsexist friends--for example, the existentialist Albert Camus--met the publication of The Second Sex coldly, rejecting it as a simpleminded assault upon masculinity.55 She was also disheartened by the chilly response of the local Communist Party, which regarded her book as yet another trivial catalogue of female complaints intended to distract women from genuine class struggle.56 To be sure, de Beauvoir also had her supporters; 22,000 copies of The Second Sex were sold in the first week following its publication. However, what pleased de Beauvoir the most, according to one of her biographers, were the letters she received from grateful women of every social class whose lives had changed in positive directions after reading her reflections. Whether de Beauvoir's prose is difficult to read or not, these women found in her book a liberating message addressed to them in particular.57
The assertion that de Beauvoir was hostile to the body, especially to the female body, is one for which ample textual evidence exists. When de Beauvoir observed women have within their bodies a "hostile element"-- namely, "the species gnawing at their vitals"--her words evoked feelings of fear, weakness, and disgust.58 Nevertheless, despite her valorization of the mind over the body, de Beauvoir's rejection of the body was less virulent than Sartre's rejection of the body. In fact, de Beauvoir told Sartre that his attitude toward the body, especially the emotions, was too inflexible: "I criticized Sartre for regarding his body as a mere bundle of striated muscles, and for having cut it out of his emotional world. If you gave way to tears or nerves or seasickness, he said, you were simply being weak. I, on the other hand, claimed that stomach and tear ducts, indeed the head itself, were all subject to irresistible forces on occasion."59