It’s time to reclaim the legacy of Simone de Beauvoir and see feminism for what it is
In the shadow of the horrific alleged rape in Unnao and alleged rape and murder in Kathua, and worldwide acknowledgment of workplace harassment of women (#MeToo, #TimesUp), feminism has an important role to playeditorials Updated: Apr 13, 2018 18:48 IST
“One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal book The Second Sex. At the time, the book was considered so radical that the Vatican put it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of prohibited books). Beauvoir died at the age of 78 on this day 32 years ago, leaving behind a legacy of revolutionary thinking, activism, and having spurred the beginning of the ‘second wave’ of feminism.
As an existentialist, Beauvoir believed that human beings create their own values through their consciousness, and not simply by some inborn “essence”. She drew upon this philosophy to describe the sex-gender distinction, in which she explains that there is a difference between biological sex assigned to a child at birth, and the social and historical construction of gender and the stereotypes that become associated with them. Her argument is that all children are born the same way, but become conditioned by the society around them to think that men must behave a certain way and women in certain others. She calls women the ‘second sex’ because historically, women have always been defined in relation to men, as though the male was the ideal — that women could only aspire to be, but can never really become.
In the shadow of the horrific alleged rape in Unnao and alleged rape and murder in Kathua, and worldwide acknowledgment of workplace harassment of women (#MeToo, #TimesUp), feminism has an important role to play. It is past time to amend the widespread belief that feminism is a philosophy of women hating men. It would help to recognise that feminism is simply the revolutionary political idea that women and men are not all that different. The insecurity that arises with changes in traditionally male-dominated societies, in which women suddenly believe they must have equal powers as men, can often manifest as violence against all women. That fear, that insecurity, and that violence is what feminism aims to solve.
By putting her finger on the problem of social construction of gendered identities, Beauvoir already took the first step in deciphering the problem of violence against women — be it in marriages, families, on the street, or in the workplace. Progress from identifying the problem to beginning to solve it, however, continues to be a long, slow, and painful process. One way to speed it up is to educate society — everyone, of all genders — about the ideas of feminism and gender parity. As the fourth wave of feminism takes shape, it is time to reclaim the legacy of Simone de Beauvoir, and see feminism for what it is: a philosophy of equality.