Feminist Philosophers

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The NY Times gets sort of serious about Beauvoir May 28, 2010

Filed under: feminist philosophy,Uncategorized,women in philosophy,women's studies — annejjacobson @ 4:26 pm

Some of us were unhappy when the NY Times’ first notice of the new translation of The Second Sex focused on Beauvoir’s body and her sexuality.  Now there’s a review of the book that is supposedly an assessment of its intellectual merits.

Readers may find themselves, as I did, suspecting the particular reviewer, Francine du PLessix Gray, was not the best choice, despite her 1952 BA in philosophy from Barnard.  Thus she says:

The other pivotal notion at the heart of “The Second Sex” — a more problematic one, which Beauvoir came to on her own — is her belief that, in Parshley’s translation, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This preposterous assertion, intended to bolster her argument that marriage and motherhood are institutions imposed by men to curb women’s freedom, will be denied by any mother who has seen her toddler son eagerly grab for a toy in the shape of a vehicle or a gun, while at the same time showing a total lack of interest in his sister’s cherished dolls. It has also been disputed by certain feminist scholars, who would argue that many gender differences are innate rather than acquired.

Mothers’ observations, acute though they may be, are not going to tell us what is carried by the genes and in utero hormones.  The fact that some feminists would  agree with Gray’s conclusions indicates the diversity of views within feminism, if not a uniform competence.

I don’t think the reviewer is actually hostile to Beavoir or feminism.  But as her discussion of the “preposterous assertion” above indicates, she may not be engaged  enough with the relevant  issues.  Further,  she may be sufficiently in love with her gender role that she misses too much in what Beauvoir is saying:

“What a curse to be a woman!” Beauvoir writes, quoting Kier­kegaard. “And yet the very worst curse when one is a woman is, in fact, not to understand that it is one.” No one has done more than Beauvoir to explain the conditions of that curse, and no one has more eloquently, irately challenged us to turn that curse into a blessing.

 

6 Responses to “The NY Times gets sort of serious about Beauvoir”

  1. qmm Says:

    As I said on twitter, I thought this review was naive. The author succeeded in reminding those of us who care why it was important to have a new translation of the Second Sex in the first place:
    1) Persistently erroneous notions that Beauvoir only wrote at the behest of her lovers and that she takes her fundamental ideas from Sartre–disproven by Kate and Edward Fullbrooks
    2) The mistranslation of the phenomenological content of Beauvoir’s work for the sake of syntax that is pleasing to the ear of the general English speaking reader
    3) Not taking seriously Beauvoir’s concerns–that patriarchy does indeed affect our relationships to our lovers, husbands, children, etc and that it prescribes roles for women that they themselves often cannot see past.

    I had a student in my class just yesterday who said she doesn’t mind if men make more money than women as long as she can marry one of those money-making men. And this is 2010.

    And yet another reason why The Second Sex is not as outdated and “paranoid” as Gray makes it out to be…

  2. Kathryn Says:

    qmm- I had a classmate this last semester who said she thought men *should* make more money than women, so that we’ll be more inclined to have children and care for them like we should, rather than selfishly go off galavanting in the career world. So, I agree, definitely not so paranoid or dated.

    Also, what’s up with this: “. . . ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ This preposterous assertion, intended to bolster her argument that marriage and motherhood are institutions imposed by men to curb women’s freedom, will be denied by any mother who has seen her toddler son eagerly grab for a toy in the shape of a vehicle or a gun, while at the same time showing a total lack of interest in his sister’s cherished dolls.” ? First, I think she’s really misunderstanding what this means, and second, it doesn’t seem so absurd (even on her understanding) to a sister who frequently saw her toddler brother eagerly grab for a her dolls.

  3. jj Says:

    Kathryn – you saw that I quoted that passage?

    I really didn’t want to slam the reviewer, but this comment made that hard. If one understands the Beauvoir quote, it’s hard to see how you could think mothers (big perveyors of culture) can tell the difference between nature and nurture. A huge park of B’s work is to show that we do not see how much is arbitrary culture.

  4. Kathryn Says:

    jj- I did see that, I was just trying to make it clear that that quote was what I was responding to in the second part of my comment. I think maybe I’m just never clear. :)

  5. amos Says:

    By the way, if you read the introduction to the book (provided by the NYT), you’ll see that the reviewer copied much of her information about De Beauvoir’s life from the introduction.

  6. captiver Says:

    And for those of us who haven’t seen “her toddler son eagerly grab for a toy in the shape of a vehicle or a gun….” etc., I guess it just doesn’t seem so preposterous. I’m unlikely to see this, either, being childfree by choice, and so I’m thankful that I will be able to continue to find Le Deuxième Sexe as powerful and enthralling as I have always found it.

    The reviewer, an artist (writer) and intellectual (public), found those sections of TDS about women artists and intellectuals “among the best parts”. It starts to look suspiciously like the author is relating TDS primarily (or solely?) to the specifics of her own life which is just what qmm says above about it being ‘naive.’


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