Écriture Féminine: Historical Context

ÉCRITURE FÉMININE

PART ONE: AMERICA AND FRANCE

…It still remains politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to contrast the patriarchal oppression that precisely defines women as women…Toril Moi, 1995

One is not born a woman, one becomes one…Simone de Beauvoir, 1954

These two opening quotes expose a rift within post-war French feminism. One one said is Simone de Beauvoir, who was historically caught in the uncomfortable position of being a pioneer. It is possible to image Beauvoir, surrounded by men talking about their works and the works by other men, in a chic café in Montparnasse. Buffeted by the male ego, she began to rewrite history and retold the received wisdom of the Western world through the experiences of women. The Second Sex, published in 1949, is both a statement that women exist and signals a possible closure to a patriarchal system that is oppressing half the sky. But beginnings are just that beginnings and the magnitude of Beauvoir’s achievement loomed over the next generation of feminists, especially in France who felt that they had to wrestle with her as a precursor. It is rare that woman have to challenge a predecessor, but as Toril Moi stated in 1986, speaking for many French feminists, “Now that Beauvoir is dead, feminism is finally free to move into the twenty-first century.”

Feminist theory, or a critique of society from the standpoint of gender, borrowed from the only possible preexisting model: Marxism. Although Marxist theory was concerned only with class differences, its theoretical position of a critique of a (capitalist) society through a particular lens, such as class, did lend itself to a concentration on the issue of gender. Feminism altered the Marxist position that the economy or the economic system is the engine of society. True, the economic system produced a class division, but women were folded into those classes. Whether upper, middle or lower, the Marxist take on the classes rendered the female a mere counterpart of the male and did not allow gender to be considered as a reason for social ordering. For the feminists of the Second Wave, a Marxist critique of society was very appealing as was the message of social reform and revolution, but, for them, Marxism, a theory that critiqued dominance, hid from itself a dominance–the assumption that females were (should be) dominated by the males.

As was pointed out in earlier posts on the history of feminism, First and Second waves, one of the ironies of so-called reformist (abolitionist) or revolutionary (war protest) movements is the continuation of female subjugation into the proposed more just future. It is no accident that the Suffragettes emerged out of the anti-slavery movement and that the Women’s Movement followed the uprisings and Civil Rights protests of the 1960s—each historic event specifically left women out of the equation. The feminist position would be that Othering in terms of gender pre-dated class hierarchies and that gender was as much, if not more, a determining factor of one’s role in society, than class. In fact, one could make an argument that discrimination against women was the Primal Prejudice and that until sexism is eradicated, all other bigotries remain in place.

One of the most basic tenets of Marxism was that the lower classes must be re-educated to understand that they were being exploited by those who owned the means of production. Dependent and frightened for their livelihoods and grateful for any kind of job, the laborers were reluctant to rebel against their masters. The task of the revolutionaries was to remove the veil of false consciousness and allow the working class to see that what they considered “nature” was indeed “culture.” Nothing could be more entrapped in the idea of “nature” than women, who were held down by the socially imposed doxa that women were nature. Men, of course, believed that women were, by nature, naturally, inferior to the ale and many women, especially middle class women, benefited (or so they thought) from their subservience. As was pointed out earlier, the feminist movement was essentially middle class and priority was given to those well-positioned womne who could make a difference. Late 20th century feminists borrowed the Marxist technique of “consciousness raising” to illuminate the gendered bases of society and to reveal the ideological constructions of relations between men and women.

Throughout the centuries of the Enlightenment, the voices of women were virtually unheard and their existence hardly factored into male-made philosophy. To merely interject women into philosophy, into critical theory was to call into question the legitimacy of the entire enterprise of objectivity and scientific progress. All claims to universality ring hollow when philosophy is confronted with the actual lived reality of women and people of color and those who did not conform to the heterosexual “norm.” One of the more interesting aspect of feminism is that, unlike Marxist revolutionaries, the movement did not directly attack government but developed a theoretical interrogation of knowledge itself. The goal was to undermine, not the epistemology or philosophy, but the practical way in which knowledge was produced. If half the human race is systematically eradicated from history, eliminated from scientific discourse, denied access to the political system, and prevented from having equal access to social opportunity,then knowledge and the discourses it produced was suspect. The question was how and what to attack.

The America feminists of the late 20th century were university educated intellectuals, well positioned to question the methodologies of the male enterprises, from literature to philosophy to science to language itself. Over the course of forty years of continuing challenges to received wisdom, traditional male scholarship was shown to be sterile and narcissistic, women learned to be suspicious of monolithic systems, such as science and religion, that not only excluded them but also devalued women. There were several distinct modes of feminist critique, carried out in the arts and in the sciences and in the humanities. One could conduct a feminist reading of any kind of text, from a newspaper article to a scientific journal, in other words, to posit the feminist (not a woman who was not a feminist) as a reader/viewer of something that had been produced by a man for men. This type of reading would reveal how male authors have used women as a sign in their semiotic systems and how women have been led by male culture to imagine themselves in male terms.

In 1973 Robin Lackoff wrote “Language and Woman’s Place” which convincingly demonstrated that the very language we speak services the empowerment of men and works hard to keep women in a powerless position. Language has trapped women, which are represented only as objects, images, and stereotypes in a culture that is marked by omissions and misconceptions about women. As Lackoff concluded,

Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-worldimbalancesand inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing, rather than items that one should seek to change directly. A competent doctor tries to eliminate the germs that cause measles, rather than trying to bleach the red out with peroxide. I emphasizethis point because it seems to be currently fashionable to try, first, to attack the disease by attempting to obliterate the external symptoms; and, secondly, to attack every instance of linguistic sexual inequity, rather than selecting those that reflecta realdisparityin social treatment,not meregrammaticalnonparallelism; we should be attemptingto single out those linguistic uses that, by implication and innuendo, demean the members of one group or another, and should be seeking to make speakers of English aware of the psychological damage such forms do. The problem, of course, lies in deciding which forms are really damagingto the ego, and then in determiningwhat to put in their stead.

If naming is a man’s prerogative, given to Adam by God, then it is the task of the feminist to use critique as interpretation, insisting on the perspective of the female, leading to pluralism of reading and demanded interpretation or a counter-interpretation and hermeneutics as a critical stance. Another feminist position was to attack male critical theories, such as that of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, which was based entirely on male experience. These androcentric models needed to be de-coded and de-mystified, a task undertaken by many women over the course of decades. The feminists analysis of male discourses and male texts would reveal the connection between textuality and sexuality, art and gender, and psychosexual identity and power. But, as always, in examining the male-based knowledge and discourse, there was the problem of reinforcing its power by acknowledging its power.

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Sandra Gilbert (left) and Susan Gubar (right), 1980

At the peak of the Second Wave of feminism, the key question was whether or not to acknowledge the male or to ignore the male. Ignoring the male meant raising yet another question: what did art by women look like through the feminist eyes of women as viewers and as readers? One of the best-known books of this type was published in the year 1979 was The Madwoman in the Attic by the writing team, Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The remarkable year also introduced a feminist critique of literature, termed “Gynocritics” by Elaine Showalter. Like other early feminist scholars, Showalter focused on the essential issue of difference and explained how “difference” between men and women was used by men to disadvantage women. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar who concentrated on literature by women writing in a repressive society, Showalter examined the female literature from the perspective of the female reader. Gilbert and Gubar accepted the essential psychoanalytic definition of women artists as displaced, disinherited, and excluded. Women as artists have a troubled and tormented relationship to female identity. For women, gender is a painful obstacle and a dehabilitating inadequacy, making the self-assertion that is writing an agony.

Showalter pointed out that embedded in the feminist critique of both the female and male writer was a concentration on the male–either as a writer a fictional protagonist or as an “authority” who authorized certain established interpretations—all of which served only to reinforce the power of the male. What feminism needed was to study the literature of women from the perspective of women in order to unearth the buried female culture. Another hope of these feminist theory was that the narrow male-oriented studies of the (male) arts would be expanded to include newly discovered and recovered artists and writers who were women and people of color and to read their images and texts, not from the male perspective as taught in the university, but from a feminist perspective. The results of the attempts to reform academia from the inside have been mixed. Certainly feminist theory became part of the very institution it attacked but, in many cases, was either marginalized as “women’s studies” or incorporated as a “token.”

Academic skirmishes over who and what should be studied were called the “canon” wars, a reference to a canon of “great” books or “major” monuments—all by men, put in place on by males and consecrated by males on the vague basis of “quality,” a concept that appeared (due to the lack of representation by women) to be gendered. The (white and male) opposition to the inclusion of women and people of color in courses of university studies was based upon the assumption of a finite number of “slots” available for membership in the canon. The male argument went: if Jane Austen was included then Charles Dickens would have to be excluded and what would “literature” be without Dickens? If one were to contrast American feminists to the French feminists it would be the difference of perspectives between the experience of women on the two continents. American women had been politically enfranchised and socially empowered for more and far earlier than the women in France, who were not able to obtain the right to vote until 1944.

In France, feminist criticism paralleled certain separatist activities among American feminists during the seventies, especially in the area of visual arts in Los Angeles, and, as such, tended to be more intellectually edgy and politically radical. Écriture féminine is, simply defined, writing the female body. As Antoinette Fouque stated, “…our enemy isn’t man but phallocentry; that is, the imperialism of the phallus.” As was established in earlier posts on Freud and Lacan, the foundation of male theory on the social order was based on the male body, with the phallus as the signifier of domination. Although both groups–those in Paris and those in Los Angeles–would be accused of “essentialism” by returning to the female body as a source of meaning, Écriture féminine was a literary movement. Whether or not these feminists ventured onto to dangerous ground by replicating the tactics of their male counterparts, the idea of “writing women” was advocating the possibility of examining the role of the female body and female difference in language and text. Utopian in nature, écriture féminine reasserted the value of the “feminine” as a struggle to rescue the feminine from stereotypical associations created by males with the supposed “inferiority” of the feminine to the masculine. Rather than intellectual critique or attempts at reform, écriture féminine at its most extreme was an organic or biological criticism, asserting, “anatomy is textuality” and attacking the status quo from the radical outside.

As always, the question is how literal to take these or any assumptions over “anatomy.” This position was or could be a return to the crude anatomical essentialism that had oppressed women in the past or the implications were both Promethean and metaphorical. Gilbert and Gubar, for example, considered the association of the text with masculinity, of writing as being a patriarchal aesthetic. The pen was considered an extension of the penis, while women’s writing/art making is marked by anxiety about their lack of phallus/predecessors. Annie Leclerc’s “parole de femme” is language that is not oppressive to women and that loosens the tongue, i.e., makes it easier for women to make art. As the expert on Surrealism and sexuality, Xavière Gauthier noted,

As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it is a history, that, logically speaking, their speech should disrupt.

Women’s art needs to work within male discourse, and work ceaselessly in order to disrupt it and to deconstruct it. Women must write what cannot be written, and to do this they must reinvent language. They must speak outside and against all phallocentric structures which are based on the specular, that is of men looking at and investigating women in order to disempower them.

While women must pay homage to both their mothers and their fathers, men are able to ignore their female predecessors. Male writers will acknowledge Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson but they do not consider these women as “mothers” of literature, only as authors who are historical figures. Women artists are marked by feelings of loneliness and alienation. They need sisterly precursors and fear antagonism from male readers and suffer from anxiety over their own female intervention, uninvited, into a man’s or public world. Women have always been artists, but they have been willfully forgotten by men. The feminists in France and/or those associated with écriture féminine were very concerned with philosophy and philosophical systems that perpetuated male domination. The question was where to begin–with equality which might imply equality on male terms or with difference which might imply locating the distinctiveness of women first and pursuing parity on their own female terms.

L’écriture féminine is associated with the French group known as MLF, Mouvement de libération de femmes, and is led by four leading female writers, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and the recently deceased, Monique Wittig. They share a common opponent—masculinist thinking and believe that Western culture is fundamentally oppressive and phallocentric. The Symbolic Discourse of the West is dominated through verbal mastery–to write and speak from a particular position is to appropriate the world.Women must resist this will to master by asserting jouissance, a direct re-experience of physical pleasures of infancy which have been oppressed but not entirely obliterated by the Law of the Father. Women are prevented expression of their own sexuality and must speak of their sexuality in a new language that would establish their point of view–a site of difference from which the phallocentric controls can be taken apart in the exercise of the theory and practice of féminine/féminité. This new sight/site is focused on women, not on their divergence/difference from men or from men’s views of women, but upon what it would mean to re-think philosophy from the standpoint of the body of the female.

Another post of interest discusses the work of Luce Irigaray.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Jacques Lacan and Women

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART SIX: LACAN AND WOMEN

Throughout this series on the teachings of Jacques Lacan, I have noted several times that his terms must not be taken literally. The Masculine Order does not signify “men” or “males,” but the Symbolic Order or language and the Feminine, likewise, is not “women” or “females,” but the inarticulateness of the real. The Phallus is likewise a signifier that both joins the masculine and the feminine and acts as a function of difference or becomes the mask of sexual difference. But the Phallus is not merely or only abstract,the Phallus is also part of the physical and is linked to sexual jouissance. The linking can take place because sexuality and sexual desire is deeply rooted in fantasies of desire (for the Mother) that have faded and have become lost over time and are unrecoverable, except symbolically as signified by the Phallus.

As the complexity of the meaning of the “Phallus” implies, Lacan’s thinking on the organ/not-organ evolved over decades—as was his habit—and is marked with traces of his struggle to wrest the Phallus from Freudian biology and to place it, in all its erectile glory, in the abstract symbolic. The centrality of the Phallus is not just a problem for Lacan, for his interpreters, it is also a problem for the 21st century woman, who following the women who read Lacan in the 2oth century, can only wonder, if the Phallus is symbolic of the Symbolic Order, why must the Symbolic Order or Language be represented by an über-penis? why is Desire ordered and organized around this phallic entity? As Lacanian scholar Luce Irigaray wondered, if the Mother is/was the origin of all Desire and the unspoken real, why not the vagina or why not an Economy of the breast? The simple answer is that Lacan spent his lifetime re-telling the tales of the patriarchy as re-told by Freud.

In reading Lacan, it is striking how phallic and aggressive his word choice is, indeed, his entire analysis of the socialization of the human subject is not a story of loving nurturance but one of sexual jealously and dramatic renunciation. Lacan combined Ferdinand de Saussure with Sigmund Freud or language and sexuality with ideas of being and existence, an interesting intellectual game, but, whatever the intent, the effect is to privilege the male and male violence and to write off the female by placing the Feminine in the realm of the non-speaking. The result of the Lacanian “family romance,” while stripped of its Freudian biological roots, is still the same and mirrors the actual male dominance over the female in actual society and has the effect of reinforcing the genderization of the Master/Slave dialectic.

Within the Lacanian system, Woman cannot be; she cannot exist. Within Lacanian thinking, women are merely the sign of difference, and if women are merely the relation of difference, they are excluded from subjectness or subjecthood. While speaking against “mastery,” Lacan not only masters Woman/women but renders them as the Other or the always-already Other which exists for the masculine subject. But this Otherness of women is a minor one and is less than the status of the Symbolic Other to the Symbolic One or the (non)subject. Women cannot even exist as the Other, as Simone de Beauvoir asserted in The Second Sex,

…she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. However, like Freudian thought, Lacanian theory eliminates women, real women, from meaningful participation in society. The theory of Lacan by way of Freud, according to feminists, is nothing more than a ruse for a male voiced or “monologic” “elaboration” of the masculine. The feminine is silenced as the site of plurality, multiplicity, and subversion of the Masculine order, part of the real that resists symbolization. Women, as Difference, have always been excluded from universality, which is always the male who are assumed to transcend the local.

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Jacques Lacan as a Young Man

As Lacan explained, the “male way” of jouissance or pleasure precluded any relationship with the female. The male subject is everything: l’homme comme tout. What the male desires is not the specific female but the objet a or the original missing love object that can never be recovered but is identified by Slavoj Zizek as the “Mother-Thing.” Feminist philosopher, Monique Wittig called for the destruction of “sex”or gender differentiation so that women could assume the status of the universal being. Feminist scholars point out that Lacan, like Freud, privileged vision and created a specular system or a system that is deeply scopophilic and voyeuristic. The (boy) child discovers his mother’s (Freudian) castration or (Lacanian) Lack through vision, through looking. He sees that, because the mother does not have the penis which is the appendage necessary to carry authority, therefore, the mother is less than the male. Without definition or meaning in her own right, she is defined by her Lack of a phallus/penis/power. The (child’s) eye has mastered/seen the Mother/object and has reduced her to insignificance.

Notice that the child has already learned–or the male theorist has already assumed–that the female must be “seen” only “in relation” or in comparison to the male. For Lacan, they eyes are the source of the scopic drive, the access through which the libido explores the world by projecting itself on the world. Love reduces the beloved to an object for the sake of possessing and controlling the object. Male/female relationships are organized around the inevitable sadism of Displaced desire in which the Other is reduced to a submissive non-entity and the masochism in which one offers oneself as an object for the other. For Lacan, sexuality, based upon a differential structure, is an assignment and is confined within the structure of the language. To illustrate the ” assignment,” Lacan produced his famous image of restroom doors, one labeled: “Ladies” and the other “Gentlemen.” Just as the doors are labeled, human beings are also labeled or differentiated, their social identities imposed from the outside, assigned to them through the operation of the Law which is Symbolic. Gender may exist as a biological effect, but sex is a social construct and an effect of dominance and subordination and sadism and masochism.

Although the Phallus is put forward as the supreme signifier, its supremacy is fraudulent, it is a mask. The Phallus depends upon its power only through the subjection of the other. But, in truth, we are all castrated. Our place in the patriarchal system is secured at the price of a Loss and our adult life is one of deferred consequences of the repressions instituted by the rule of symbolic patriarchal law. Women might well ask, why not an economy of loss and gain based upon the vagina? But if one follows the logic of Lacan, a vaginal economy would be impossible. Lacan based his psychology on the specular, on the sight of the woman’s “lack” of the Phallus/penis. The vagina exists but cannot be seen. Therefore, the specular order functions only in terms of the seen or visuality. It is not that women don’t possess sexual organs; it is that the organ is not “present” in the sense of being “present/ed” to the viewer.

For years Courbet was in possession of a painting thought lost, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet. This famous painting was kept hidden and shrouded by a wooden sliding door (decorated with a outline carving of the painting by André Masson), which was pulled aside when the doctor “presented” the painting of a woman’s genitalia to the viewer (male or theoretically female). As Courbet’s painting Origin of the World suggested, the vagina was to be presented under ceremonial circumstances. The viewpoint of the female genitalia is purely that of the spectator: the woman who presumably owns or possesses the organs cannot see that which define her. She is blind to her own sex. The painting of the female vagina by a male, whether by Courbet of anyone else, is an act of not only claiming and defining but also one of radical voyeuristic visualization of the terrifying mystery of Lack. In addition to the literal concealment during Lacan’s ownership, there is the veil of pubic hair which frames the labia, which in turn covers the feared “hole,” that Lacanian theory defined as the Lack.

In contrast to the unseeable Lack, the penis/Phallus is easily located, readily regarded, and is always available to view. The man can see his organ without difficulty. From the standpoint of visual culture, the absence of the woman’s present organ explains the intense male curiosity about the female “sex.” Given the supposed cultural power of the Phallus, it is curious that the penis, its signifier, perhaps in order to preserve its mystique, is kept socially hidden from view. The culture gives the penis a discourse of variety: large, small, long, short, fat, thin, dark, light and so on. To the contrary, the culture seems to assume a “universal” vagina, as though all vaginas are the same, unified by their Lack. Oddly enough, the endless variation of penises is spoken but rarely seen outside of pornography, while the female body is constantly on view while being constantly subjected to uniformity through surgical engineering to ensure sameness. Within this specular system, the woman is denied individuality and must correspond to an abstract vision of herself or be cast out of the visual culture. As Lacan said,

Besides, it isn’t the penis, but the Phallus, that is to say, something whose symbolic usage is possible because it can be seen, because it is erected. There can by no possible symbolic use for what is not seen, for what is hidden…Strictly speaking, there is no symbolization of the woman’s sexual organ as such..The feminine sexual organ has the character of an absence, a void, a hole…

The Phallus is the only theorizable sexual organ, therefore, according to Lacan, the Phallus is only “trivially masculine.” The Phallus is the theory of what is given, what one has, what exists, while the vagina symbolizes what one does not have, a Lack, a Loss or that which does not exist or lies outside of theory. However, Lack and Loss are the very reasons for Desire. Men are energized by the threat of castration (Lack) and live uneasily within a phallocentric message that intimidates men and forces them to enter into rivalry with those who seem to possess more Phallus/power. As for women, Lacan’s theories canceled out women. “Woman” is merely an endless sequence of projections and fabrications emanating from the male discourse. Lacan displayed wonder that the female orgasm even existed and that the woman’s ability to orgasm is situated beyond the Phallus.

For Lacan, there is never a sexual “relationship,” because in their inequality, men and women cannot relate. Each partner plays the role of Subject to the other’s Object. There is never symmetry or reciprocity. The female body scarcely exists (except as Lack). Women have little to do and nothing to say. They can “become equal” only to men, because only men exist. If women do not exist, then who or what is that we see? Lacan, who readily incorporated the the ideas of others, stated that the woman is a masquerade. The idea of “womanliness as a masquerade” was not Lacan’s idea, but that of Joan Riviérè who wrote her famous essay in 1929 in response to a 1927 paper by Freudian follower, Ernest Jones. According to Sean Homer in his book, Jacques Lacan, Riviérè wanted to present a woman more modern, an intellectual woman, into a world of male psychoanalysts who had not considered such a being. The result was her 1929 essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade.”

According to Riviérè, women who possess intellectual abilities and aspirations must, in the early 20th century, be aspiring to “masculinity,” and such a Promethean act would arouse anxiety within the male. This disruption of male dominance would be so great that men would resort to retribution against the offender. Therefore, women wish for masculinity but wear a mask of womanliness as an expression of the resolution of aggression and conflict. The masquerade averts anxiety and retribution from men. The fear that women have of men can be traced back to the family–her fantasy of taking the place of a man, the Father. For Lacan, the woman is a sign-object, a item of exchange, and, for Riviérè, when a woman speaks in public, acting as a lecturer or in any public way, she feels fear. Not only do men not welcome the voice of a woman, she is also but a castrated subject within the language.

The solution to this fear and the possible retribution from the male is the Masquerade. Riviérè draws an analogy between the woman and the homosexual, both of whom are required to wear masks: an exaggeration of “femininity” is a masquerade for women who wish for masculinity as their identification and the “masculinity” of a homosexual hides from others his “femininity” by an exaggeration of masculinity. The masquerade is central to the creation of a womanliness that men will accept. Ironically it is this art form of disguise through mimicry that authenticates this inauthentic womanliness. Because the entire discourse of sexuality circulates around the needs of the male, femininity is a mask for men. The reassuring mask resolves the crisis of masculine identification by allowing men to define themselves in relation to what they are not: women. In fact, as Lacan stated, “Woman does not exist.” To express the non-existence of an element that must, nevertheless, be spoken of, woman, like Being is put under sous rature. The Woman does not exist.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Lesbian Culture

LESBIANS IN CULTURE

In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.
Simone de Beauvoir

There is a historical coincidence between capitalism, urbanism, and an extreme gender distinction, accompanied by a strict segregation between males and females. In a rural agricultural culture, both men and women labored year round, both genders contributed the the family’s prosperity and survival. The income came from the harvests, but once income came from wages in factories, gender inequality took on new dimensions. Men were paid more than women, not necessarily because they did better jobs but because low wages for women and children incrusted profits for factory owners. New forms of wealth also impacted the middle class as well, giving the men enough income to support a wife who, in emulation of upper class women, did not earn an income. As men took a larger role in the business/industry based system, they became more powerful, but their behavior was more carefully regulated in a modern world that needed both fiscal and sexual discipline.

Because men were given higher status in society and their behavior had more impact upon the social system, only male sexuality was regulated. Lesbians were usually not recognized as such and were more often labeled as “spinsters” and pitied for their condition and did not come under legal control. Romantic friendships among women and “Boston Marriages” between women were tolerated, doubtless because such friendships provided women with emotional sustenance and such unions were good places for “old maids,” or left-over women, to live out their lives. In fact, the nineteenth century was safer than other centuries for lesbians who, like gay men, had been put to death as late as in the seventeenth century.

Lesbians were left out of gay liberation, which was mostly a male movement. Lesbians had a prior commitment to women’s liberations but in the early years of the Women’s Movement, lesbians were marginalized in favor of heterosexual women in order to give the movement wider appeal to the masses. The relationship between lesbians and feminism was turbulent and it took years for mainstream feminists to accept lesbians as part o their cause. Lesbians realized that gay men were part of the male patriarchy and were complicit in the subjugation of women. It was a clear case of gender (male) trumping (lesbian) sexuality.

Men, regardless of sexual preference, would bond with men and, even though lesbians had long identified with the gay culture and had allied themselves politically with male homosexuals, men, no matter what their sexual preferences, would not be supportive of women. Lesbians had not suffered the persecution that gay men had. “Straight” men had high opinions of “femme” lesbians and had fantasies about a pair of such ladies making love. Therefore, lesbians were no threat to masculinity or to the family or to male dominance, and the lesbians who were “butch” exhibited all the appropriate attributes of the male bureaucratic personality: objective, logical and unexcitable. Nevertheless, according to the late Jill Johnson, author of Lesbian Nation, “in the 1950s, there was no lesbian identity except a criminal one.”

Because of instinctive male bonding, the poet, Adrienne Rich, made a connection between lesbians and feminism in her 1978 article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” Rich made a very important argument in deconstructing heterosexuality, which was assumed to be “natural” and was therefore unmarked. Rich pointed out that heterosexuality was not natural but was an oppressive social force that was imposed upon men and women. Heterosexuality was like capitalism in that it created relations of unequal power, and, according to Rich, gay men are complicit in the marginalization of all women. Johnson agreed stating, “Gay men, however discriminated against, are still patriarchs.”

Because male domination of women is in the interest of men, whatever their sexual preference, all men oppress women. Rich puts forward the influential concept of what she called “compulsory heterosexuality,” meaning that the entire social and economic system forced heterosexuality upon the population through laws and customs. Homosexual behavior, everything from certain sex acts (among men) to mode of dress (for men), was outlawed and homosexuals were stigmatized and shamed. Heterosexuality, therefore, is not a personal preference or a religious dictate but a political institution that works to the disadvantage of all women.

Here is where Rich connects the cause of the gays and lesbians with the feminist movement. By denying women full equality, women’s lives are limited and their dependence upon men is increased. Rich’s position was an interesting one, considering that for over a decade, feminists had kept a distance from lesbians, fearing that feminism would be even more stigmatized. But by the late seventies, stigmatization had already occurred (feminists hated men and didn’t shave their legs, etc.) and the feminist movement became more inclusive of homosexual women because they were sisters in inequality.

The legal and social inequality of (homosexuals) lesbians and women keeps straight men in power and maintains an imbalance of privileges through the political system. Heterosexuality is “naturalized,” that is, the culture insists that heterosexuality is the “norm” or is normal and that any deviation from the “natural” organization of male and female is “unnatural.” By making lesbianism pathological, heterosexual masculinity is privileged. Lesbianism, then, is a resistance to the patriarchy, according to Rich, even though “lesbian” is a term used against women. (We continue to see this label applied to Hillary Clinton.) Lesbian theory in America was straightforward and practical and, in its way, reformist and assimilationist but every nation produced a different version of lesbian theory.

In France, a nation that was not open to extending equality to women, feminism was, by necessity, less practical or more theoretical. The late French feminist Monique Wittig, stated that lesbianism and the term “woman” is possible only in a sexist society that is ruled by rigid sex roles and is characterized by male supremacy. “Woman” and “man” are imaginary formations created and constructed by the culture in order to create power positions. What Wittig and Rich are saying is that the “identity” of “women,” “men,” “gays,” and “lesbians” is not natural but a cultural fiction, and this position was a radical change from the way in which the concept of “identity” had been used during the Civil Rights Movement in America.

During the period of Gay Liberation, “identity’ was linked with political activism and with “pride” in that identity which would be asserted in the face of the labels of the Heterosexual culture: “deviant,” and “invert,” and “queer.” Wittig deconstructed “identity” and “queer” and “lesbian” in order to escape value-laden binaries. As she wrote in “The Straight Mind” in 1980:

To destroy ‘woman,’ does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (‘forced residence,’ domestic corvée, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.) a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual. We are escapees from our class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free. For us this is an absolute necessity; our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression.

In 1978, Wittig was arguing with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous book, The Second Sex, which was mostly about the history of straight women, in which the older scholar said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” But the two Frenchwomen shared the same ground, as women and/or as lesbians, they were the Other, and both inherited their ideas from Marx (or ultimately from Hegel) that systems, not people, created human relations. Wittig tried to situate lesbians outside of the system of binaries: “…it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women…” an act of separatism that, in her lifetime, would yield to the desire to become part of the wider society where Ellen de Generes would be a beloved lesbian talk-show host.

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Simone de Beauvoir, “The Second Sex,” 1949

SIMONE-ERNESTINE-LUCIE-MARIE BERTRAND de BEAUVOIR (1908 – 1986)

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

Longtime companion to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir was the other half of France’s glamour couple of the Left Bank. Both philosophers were arguably brilliant and both took up pre-exiting ideas and brought them into the late Twentieth Century. The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir brings up the age-old “woman question” yet again. Asserting that a woman is not born but made, de Beauvoir turned the assumption that women were determined by their “natures” on its head. Writing in the face of a near universal acceptance of the dictum of Sigmund Freud that the anatomy of women was their destiny, de Beauvoir countered his “nature” with her “culture.”

In order to replace The Second Sex as an essential expression of existentialism is not to take the book out of women’s studies but to reassert its role in philosophy. The pieces of her life informed her writing, which took place in the immediate post-war period, a time still heavy with the realization of the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem” or the problem of the Other. In addition, Beauvoir attended lectures by Lacan and by Claude Lévi-Strauss and, on a visit to America in 1947, she was exposed to racism. In contrast to Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre who took a universalist taken on the “subject,” Beauvoir’s very comprehensive volume demonstrated the very real effects of what it means to establish a philosophical and theoretical and sociological order in which the One opposes itself to the Other.

Simone de Beauvoir undertook the unprecedented task of writing a book about women, something a man would never do—there was no need to write a book about men because all books were about men.Opposed to “essentialism”, the writer asked, “Are there women, really”? She asserted that the social and functional answer was that a woman is a womb, meaning that all cultures since the dawn of time had defined women in terms of procreation. Given that this is the case, then women are “less than human” and thus have no lives, much less identity or history. And yet women have lived and their lives have been determined by their biology and by what society decided to make of this biology.

According to Beauvoir, the male is “human,” positive and neutral, and the common use of the term “man” is used to designate humanity. Women represent only the negative and are defined by limiting criteria or the particular. She is defined “relative to” a man. She is not autonomous. The woman is always wrong, not just different but negative in the sense that she is not “right” because she is not male. She is imprisoned in her own (inadequate and defective) body and is understood only in terms of her uterus and ovaries. She is defined simply as “Sex” in that she appears to the male only as a sexual being and once her sexual duty, that is, her reproductive duty, is done, she is incidental and inessential.

Thus he is the Subject, he is the Absolute; she is the Object, the Other. To be the Other is not simply being “othered”. To be the Other is to be so excluded, so outside the realm of discourse, that the other is inexpressible, falling beyond the scope of discourse into formlessness. The only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity. As a result, practically, the only language available to “explain” women is man-made language that expresses maleness. As Beauvoir wrote,

..to reject the notions of the eternal feminine, the black soul, or the Jewish character is not to deny that there are today jews, blacks, or women; the denial is not a liberation for those concerned but an inauthentic flight…The category of the Other is as original as consciousness itself. The duality between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies; this division did not always fall into the category of the division of the sexes, it was not based on ay empirical given..”

Beauvoir traced the concept of the Other back to primordial consciousness. The Self and the Other is an ancient expression of duality. Groups create themselves as the One by setting up another tribe as the Other. But in the limited paleolithic world of tribes, it seems that the primal groups were male and female and that sexism is the first act of discrimination. As Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out in Les Structures Élémentaires de la Parenté,

Passage from the state of nature to the state of culture is marked by man’s ability to view biological relations as a series of contests, duality, alteration, opposition, and symmetry, whether under definite or vague forms, constitutive not so much phenomena to be explained as fundamental and immediately given data of serial reality.

For the male, there is no one else to have “biological relations” with other than the female. Lévi-Strauss implicitly understood “man” to be male, not female. It is the male who “viewed” these relations and therefore it must the the male who set the terms of “duality, alteration, opposition,” etc. In perceiving women to be opposed or the Other to the man, men put themselves in charge. De Beauvoir asked why was it that women did not dispute male sovereignty?

She stated that women have always been subordinated to men because they did not bring about a change in status or position. The oppression of women is so absolute it seems a historical fact because it is without historical fact. Even if women wanted to assert themselves, they lack the means for organization. Isolated, women cannot communicate with one another. Put together, they are thrown into a condition of competition and begin to identify with male goals. Thanks to the social practice of “exchanging women” among men, women are dispersed from father to husband and are attached to male residences and their social standing is aligned with men. Consumed by the male world, women have no past, no history, no religion and no solidarity and thus no group identity.

The invisible oppression of women as Other cannot be compared to other oppressions. The bonds that unite her to her oppressor is not comparable to any other situation. Men and women must come together to continue the human race. Driven together by instinct, they must mate and in order to organize a society men and women must come together to raise the offspring. However, once society formed, a social hierarchy formed and women were designated as the Other, although means of the primal subordination women remains unclear. Beauvoir asserts that the division or the segregation of human sexes is a biological fact not an event in human history.

Nevertheless the results of this division are real: nowhere is woman equal to man and everywhere the economic sector is divided into two castes and the entire political and economic world belongs to men. Therefore for a woman to renounce a man or men, she would renounce all the advantages conferred upon her—indirectly—as an associate of the ruling caste. Although women have the possibility of renouncing these privileges, there are similarities between their lot and that of African-Americans. Women are kept separate and not equal, and their lives are governed by Jim Crow type laws. The Master wants to keep both in their “place” and to keep them in a situation of inferiority. Beauvoir stated (predicted) that men regarded the equality of women to be a threat and their emancipation would menace the dominance of men who dread female competition.

The question is how to insert the female into the body of discourse and to retake language so that a new term “the Mistress Bedroom” could penetrate the culture and become as dominant a term as “the Master Bedroom”. If language is gendered male, how does the female speak? According to Robin Lackoff’s critique in Language and a Woman’s Place, Language condemns the Other to a speech of absurdity.Although men feel that women have no place in “their” world, men never doubt their rights to this world in its entirety. The subordination of women serves the needs of both sexes. Women are “protected” by men and are kept out of the game. Their exclusion allows any man to feel superior to any woman. The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” De Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their life time situation in relation to the dominance by men. Men can be written about as autonomous human begins; women can be written about only as appendages to the male.

In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked. Just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her more famous companion, the lives of women were always incidental and contingent to their roles designated by society. As the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation,” times began to change. Simone de Beauvoir’s book on The Second Sex would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work. Her insightful book laid the ground for theories post-War feminism and anticipated the Postmodern assertion that humans are socially constructed and that all gender roles are artificial constructs.

The Second Sex was an examination of the mechanisms whereby women are “made.” Beauvoir thematically examined the lives of (European) women from birth to old age, always discussing their situation in relation to the dominance by men. In the post-War stress on a return to “normalcy”, that is the return of women to the home, any political, social, or economic needs of the “The Second Sex” would be overlooked, just as Beauvoir would be overshadowed by her companion. But times would change, as the women who found freedom during the war years when men were away did not forget their “liberation.” Beauvoir book would proved to be more relevant in later years than Sartre’s work would prove to be. Her book would lay the ground for post-War feminism.

Despite the slow gains in women’s “liberation”, the writing of Simone de Beauvoir proved its accuracy. Not all women welcomed knowledge about themselves or their oppression or wanted liberation. The Woman’s Movement encountered a great deal of on-going opposition from women as well as men. The Equal Rights Amendment would be defeated. Abortion clinics would become sites of murder, harassment, and terrorism. Women would encounter the notorious “glass ceiling” which allowed them to teach in a classroom but not to preside in a board room. Cultural conservatism and male control was reasserted when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Affirmative action was stalled; and the white male backlash against women began. For women and people of color, it was one step forward and two steps back. Indeed, in her own lifetime, Beauvoir would be challenged on all fronts–most surprisingly from an inpatient younger generation of women. Although she lived long enough to be part of the French feminism of the seventies and the eighties, she did not live long enough to see the struggle continue and start to show real results.

Today, sixty years after the publication of The Second Sex and thirty years after the resurgence of a conservative agenda in America and Europe, the struggle to free the Second Sex from its Otherness continues. Post 2010 in the United States ushered in an unprecedented number of political efforts, mostly successful, to pass laws that take constitutional rights away from women, who are still regarded mainly as a womb. Equally unprecedented have been uncounted and unreported sexual assaults and rapes of women in the armed forces and those crimes that have been reported have rarely been prosecuted must less have the predators been brought to justice. There are days when one wonders if we have not reverted to those dark days when Beauvoir was trying to write women back into Existentialism and back into meaningful existence. And then there are other days when it is possible to see powerful women standing up for the rights of women, women with political power and social prominence, women who have made the propositions of Simone de Beauvoir come true: women are made, yes, and today they make themselves.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]