Philosophy and feminism
You know you've hit a nerve as a feminist when someone accuses you of being a Marxist. For the record, I have read Marx, defended him against a hostile audience and mostly think he's pie in the sky with his thinking. If you must label my brand of feminism in philosophical terms, I would probably be an existentialist. Though my brand of feminism is a hodge-podge, there is no doubt that the primary text that has influenced my way of thinking has been The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir.
People who fling "Marxist" like an insult are unlikely to be into fine distinctions, but in the interest of accuracy, I shall confront this accusation. I feel ugly even labeling it as an accusation. When I was younger, I had the pleasure of having dinner with one of the most famous feminist Marxists you'll ever meet, and we had a good time talking about Jane Austen. Living in a capitalist society, it's really dumb not to deal with economic feminist theories; when everything in our lives is determined by economics, then you must deal with them.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am relatively free of an economic feminist understanding. If this disappoints anyone, please be glad that you don't have to tolerate my really hypocritical and slipshod understanding of economics. I drive a fuel-efficient car and otherwise try to make socially responsible spending choices, but I am also a hopeless materialistic who is downright sexually excited by a new pair of sexy shoes, and as such, I am hopeless.
But de Beauvoir's book was like a lightening bolt in my young life when I read it nearly a decade ago. I want everyone to read it, but when I recommended it to a friend many years ago who was suffering at the hands of a well-meaning but hopelessly sexist boyfriend and my then-boyfriend suggested that it's a bit hard to read, well, I've learned that not everyone is up for sucking down books on existential philosophy as readily as I am. But I still think everyone should read it. It's the primary view I use to look at the world.
The premise is laughably simple; de Beauvoir's point was simply a melding of existential philosophy and a realistic view of the world. The existentialist view is that we are a bunch of animals mucking around and the only hope for humanity is focus on that which elevates us--art, music, whatever. I agree with this whole-heartedly. I don't believe in any sort of god and subsequently I think people are making it up as we go along. There is no absolute standard, so why not squeeze meaning out of what we can? I know that I'm making shallow what Sartre and the rest meant of it, but that's how I take it, and it gives me great comfort.
de Beauvoir took it one step forward, and her point is really easy to grasp, if time-consuming to prove. The one hope of men is to transcend is through art/work, whatever, then women are screwed. Women are screwed because our social roles as sex objects/helpmates means that we are unable to reach for what is offered to men, which is the chance to transcend our hopeless humanity by making art or beauty. Brainless helpmates/objects don't make shit.
She makes her case very beautifully, by bringing up examples that still hold true today, which often involve how women live through their own beauty by hoping men appreciate what is already there rather than taking ownership over it. Existentialist theory really meshes well--if transcending is the key to life, what for women whose existence as women prevents this?
Simone de Beauvoir also introduced the concept of the "Other", which has been stolen and attributed to men, of course. (This past month my boyfriend and I had dinner at a friend's house with his parents. Our friends told the hilarious story of how another non-present friend got an unfortunate but funny nickname. The credit for the nickname was given to my boyfriend. I pointed out that it was in fact it was I who had given the nickname. While my boyfriend concurred, the general audience acted like I was a spoilsport. My near mother-in-law leaned over and said, "The struggle continues.") The idea is that people have a standard of "normal" and everything else becomes "Other". It's one of the most useful ideas in modern life. It does a world to explain how not only systematic oppression works, but how different oppressions are related--how homophobia, sexism, and racism are interrelated. de Beauvoir's work is the underpinnings of the modern leftist/identity movement--she is the person who first articulated how standards/norms are created and why they must be resisted.
And she is victim of the very sexism she singled out. Historically, she is the lover of Sartre. I've read both and found Sartre's insights interesting, but de Beauvoir's profound. Everyone should read her book. Her inclusive view of existentialism is by far the best argument for that philosophy. Only she spends time acknowledging that the insights of existentialism are pointless exercises without a social push towards equality. Sure, others suggest it, but only she makes it real.
There's a story in The Second Sex that brings the very earthy reality of philosophy home in a way that Sartre never did for me. A French brothel is busted and all the whores brought before the law. Two young women, like 12 or 13 plead that they will turn in their johns if only they are shown mercy. The judge chastises them for daring drag the names of "good" men through the mud. Men's entitlement and women's subjugation outlined in a sorry story of how even children are not exempt from these ways of thinking. de Beauvoir's point, one we should all remember, is that the social structures against women's individuality are so strong that even our sense of common decency, the very belief that children should not be molested, is worth sacrificing for male dominance.
I don't mean to bore everyone to death, but my sense of feminism is very rooted in this philosophical history. While I am sympathetic to feminisms of the plurality, I am much better at understanding feminism of individualism. That's also why I lose my temper quickly on men so daft as to suggest that individuality should trump social factors--if the marvelous Simone de Beauvoir, an icon of brillant womanhood that everyone steals from and no one give credit to, cannot truimph without argument, what chance do the rest of us have?
I'm not a Marxist. For fuck's sake, if you're gonna crack on my ass, at least know what you're talking about. And if you don't know what Marxism or existentialism is, at least learn before you shoot your brainless mouth off. Knowing a big word ain't understanding it.