The American writer Anna Quindlen and I share a common awe for the same woman. “She gave definition to my life by writing ‘The Second Sex,’ a book that made me think it could be fine to be female,” Quindlen wrote about the famous feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. But heroine-worship is tricky business. When Quindlen read Deidre Bair’s biography of de Beavoir, she saw another side of our favourite philosopher-queen.
Bair’s work was one of the first to reveal various inegalitarian aspects of de Beauvoir’s relationship with her lover and partner, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It describes the jealousy de Beauvoir experienced in their open relationship, the way that she introduced him to other women to take as lovers and then seduced the women herself, the hours of editing she put into Sartre’s writing rather than focusing on her own, the tears hidden behind public smiles after Sartre left all his work to a younger girlfriend. Perhaps worse than any of this, in Bair’s eyes and in those of many who read the book, was that de Beauvoir, a mother of modern feminism, accepted this seemingly unequal relationship. More than that: she relished it.
“Ha!” Quindlen wrote in disappointment, “It was always [Sartre’s] comfort that came first. [De Beauvoir] stooped when she was with him so he wouldn’t seem so short…” Certainly, as Quindlen argues, there is plenty to be learned from de Beauvoir’s negative example, from her stooping, literally and metaphorically, to be with him. “Do as I say, not as I do—“ Quindlen concludes, “that is one lesson of de Beauvoir’s life.”
This is true, but there is a problem with this as a major take-away: it misses how de Beauvoir’s very own point in The Second Sex is that it is nearly impossible to escape such patterns, and that the difficulties of her relationship are thus not so much contradictions of her work as affirmations of it and its importance. De Beauvoir writes that romantic love consumes women because they are taught to let it do so, while men are taught to have love be but a fraction of their lives:
“Men might be passionate lovers at certain moments in their existence, but there is not one who could be defined as a ‘man in love’; in their most violent passions, they never abandon themselves completely…by contrast, love for the woman is the total abdication for the benefit of the master.”
What women should rightly fear, de Beauvoir writes, is the romantic love that prevents women from loving themselves properly, from realizing their own transcendent possibility and being quite what they might otherwise have been. The theme figures heavily in the very real fear I (and I think many women) have that our men, even the best-intentioned and most loving among them, will eat us up—for that is what both men and women have learned implicitly to do and accept. That was de Beauvoir’s point, and the fact that her life conformed to it in some ways is more meaningful as proof of the difficulty of escape from the patriarchy than as a point about her hypocrisy or weakness.
Every time I read about the issue of intellectual women haunted in life and death by the spectre of their relationships and their sexuality, I can’t help but feel my feminist heart break a little. Will these idols of mine always be remembered this way? When I consider this problem, I always think of a particular quote from A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession. The Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte writes to her ex-lover,
“Do you remember how I wrote to you of the riddle of the egg? As an eidolon of my solitude and self-possession which you threatened whether you would or no? And destroyed, my dear, meaning me nothing but good, I do believe and know. I wonder—if I had kept to my closed castle, behind my motte-and-bailey defences—should I have been a great poet—as you are?”
LaMotte (and by extension Byatt, who was one of the first women at Cambridge) seem to have known, like de Beauvoir, that men and women adopt these roles without meaning to, and that in doing so love becomes a threat, a potential sacrifice of life for love. Perhaps everyone faces this trade-off to some extent, as we choose to make commitments and even sacrifices for other people. But women, it seems, make more, and their identities are more a product of their love lives than men. Things have certainly improved since de Beauvoir’s time, but not in all ways. Modern advertising is the first of many indications that the societal measure of a woman’s life is still first and foremost her sex appeal, that her worth is often equated with her erotic and romantic “value.”
What, then, can we usefully take from de Beauvoir’s example? The modern love advice I see comes in self-help books and listicles, neither of which seem to apply to de Beauvoir’s relationship (Though it is amusing to imagine: “Ten Signs You Might Be a Little Clingy…Number Three: You Introduced Him to His Girlfriend…Number Four: You’re Sleeping With His Girlfriend”). Perhaps de Beauvoir’s relationship with Sartre won’t do in these respects, and neither, I’d suggest, does the old-fashioned, bourgeois, married model she sought to reject—even with the welcome modern additions of better legal rights, women working outside of the home, and birth control. These help, but de Beauvoir’s point was that women must also be able to be equals in their relationships mentally, and know when they are not yet there. They must ultimately be able to realize their identity and relationships just as independently of one another as men do.
This is a challenge now as in de Beauvoir’s time because the model for a feminist relationship is at best uncertain. This isn’t because people aren’t having relatively feminist and egalitarian relationships, but rather because there isn’t the same clear, publicly understood image of this kind of relationship. Consider, for example, the tricky question of which aspects of the wedding ritual are still feminist, or whether weddings are feminist at all! The same debate plays out about motherhood and the anxieties of choosing between motherhood and career, partly because motherhood is “traditionally” (throughout large parts of western cultural history) a defining identity. What is especially lacking in modern life is a common expectation of romantic relationships that don’t define women: relationships that may take time and energy but do not absorb women’s selfhood and future goals. In this sense, de Beauvoir did not have it figured out, but neither do we. When asked why she never portrayed “an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex,” in her novels, de Beauvoir simply replied, “I’ve shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.” The undivided woman is even now a work in progress.