“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.”—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
It is an increasing impossibility to read an essay on the definition of womanhood that does not slip into partisan hostility. Patient inquiry has given way to provocative insults. Given the intensity of the tensions and emotionalism of the gender politics involved, we are seeing a decline in discussion and argumentation in writings on the subject. Overbearing sensations of absolute correctness are taking up most of the space now. Sanctimony overrides analysis. Amidst all of this postured drama, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the most eminent feminist philosophers of the twentieth century, is frequently invoked as proof of gender as self-identification, via vague appeals to her as an authority. Given the stakes, one can appreciate how useful having her as an ally would be if her philosophy supported the gender thesis being championed. Yet, despite the many times she is referenced, most authors only bother to cite a sentence or two from the entirety of The Second Sex, almost always without context, to claim her support. While what Beauvoir actually might say to us now may seem like an obscure detail of academic frippery, the fact is that Beauvoir is being misrepresented and miscast, falsely, as a supporter of gender self-identification. Indeed, a more considered examination of her feminist analysis reveals the exact opposite.
You might think I’m exaggerating the eagerness to portray Beauvoir as the iconic precursor of today’s anti-TERF movement, based on how gender idealists will cut and paste a single sentence or two. But such claims are now very prevalent, repeatedly accepted as accurate and continually circulated as incontestably true. So often have I seen shorthand citation passed as evidence without informed context that I’ve taken to calling it Beauvoir bluffing: that is, extrapolating contemporary political viewpoints from her work based on very narrow, and tellingly selective, readings of her writing. One recent example of this presumed allyship by summary can be found in Professor Carol Hay’s much discussed opinion piece on womanhood as self-identification, which appeared recently in the New York Times. Hay, from the outset, employs Beauvoir quotation as both precedent and justification, taking advantage of Beauvoir to attack the gender-critical point of view. Hay summarizes her French feminist foremother as follows: “Ever since Simone de Beauvoir quipped in 1949 that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, feminists have been discussing the implications of understanding gender as a cultural construct.”
Rather than base our argument on a paraphrase, however, let’s consider Beauvoir’s actual language. The quotation to which Hay (and so many others) refers can be found in the first section of The Second Sex: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. (On ne naît pas femme; on le devient.)” Hay, and gender idealists in general, interprets becoming as an idealistic call to ultimate self-agency, the ability to fashion and create womanhood out of process, rather than its being pre-determined by biological origination. This emphasis on become is meant to imply that Beauvoir saw womanhood as liberating in its flexibility. Hay further argues that Beauvoir understood that there can be no singular experience that defines woman, since women create their own definitions through the uniquely distinct process of actualization as individual freedom. Womanhood is therefore an identity, a personal possession, one that is self-fashioned and autonomically produced by personal intention and action.
I refer to this concept as gender idealism because of two premises: (1) Hay contends that both sex and gender are ideas—ideological constructions produced through language and articulation that have no consistent material correlation. For example, there is no such thing as female biology as a consistent physical category. (2) Furthermore, this view is idealistic, since it privileges a Romantic sensation of gender as an internal state that operates independently of the body and its anatomical components.
So is Beauvoir likewise one of the gender idealists, based on this one citation that is continually served up as proof?
Beauvoir: Foe of TERFs Everywhere?
I wish to pursue several questions, in response to Hay’s presentation: is Beauvoir stipulating that sex must be construed as a made (invented) category arising solely from personal declaration as cultural commodity? Did Beauvoir argue therefore that womanhood has no connection to specific material referents, in particular female biology?
Beware of simplistic answers. Beauvoir did not “quip,” as Hay puts it, when she made this pronouncement about the birth and making of womanhood. Far from being merely a gotcha-style zinger of tweet-worthy brevity, Beauvoir’s statement forcibly directs our attention to the primary ascertainment of female biology, which is one of the main themes of the first section of The Second Sex as a whole. Regardless of individual opinions about gender self-identification, it is difficult to perceive Beauvoir as a defender of gender idealism, if one applies more than a cursory reading to The Second Sex. More considered analysis reveals that Beauvoir had a great deal to say about the specificities of female embodiment as a condition that exists prior to language. Therefore it is very misleading to summon her name and ideas to create an aura of authority in contemporary debates about the nature of gender.
But we are to assume, Hay argues, that Beauvoir is definitely not a TERF. Hay isn’t coy about her objective: she announced on Twitter that her New York Times essay was “some TERF-bashing I just published.” Since she is the first philosopher enlisted by Hay for support, presumably Beauvoir is meant to be a cudgel to inflict the hammering. By lifting this single line about becoming rather than being born, authors such as Hay are attempting to boost arguments based on prior assumptions with Beauvoir as political amplifier. The expediency of this bluff is readily apparent. Contemporary debates about gender are rife with vague terms, discursive gaps and overbearing speculations. What or who is a woman? What or who is a trans woman? What conditions are required, if any?
The Beauvoir bluff elides these uncomfortable uncertainties by positing that no definition is needed. A woman is whatever a woman says she is, irrespective of any external factors. In this way, citing Beauvoir has become a stopgap trick to shore up rational absences with a stable voice that seems confident in addressing the inscrutability of sex. Relax and enjoy the gender ride. Many are content to leave Beauvoir right there, as is, without having to undertake any of the dirty excavation work necessary to understand her more skeptical assessments of identities and situations.
Pippa Bunce: Fashioning Womanhood on the Installment Plan
One clue to Beauvoir’s actual thesis lies in her title, The Second Sex—after all, she did not call it the second gender. Arguably, the way we use gender now in common parlance would have been very unfamiliar to Beauvoir, who would have understood the word differently, especially its connotations in the French language.
Hay suggests that Beauvoir sees the female body as an entirely arbitrary construct, and that correspondences between womanhood and femininity and a female body are accidental, or conceived as a false relationship created by contrived cultural determination. If there is no natural female body, there can be no natural womanhood. Instead, both female and woman are identities acquired through process of ideation, not the anatomy observed at birth.
To explore the implications that Beauvoir herself might hold such a belief in sex as symbolic reference, let’s look at a contemporary example of woman as self-definition: Pippa Bunce (Phillip Bunce).
I am not deadnaming by referring to Pippa’s male name in brackets. In fact, Phillip is the name Pippa frequently uses throughout her work week, during which she often conducts her duties as a man, uses her legal name Phillip, wears male clothes and identifies as male. Pippa therefore appears part-time, entirely based on Phillip/Pippa’s self-identification on any given day. Thus, even as a matter of style, I am not certain as to what is the proper pronoun for Pippa? Is she in Pippa-mode, right now as I type this? If she is not Pippa at this moment, am I misgendering Phillip by referring to him as Pippa? Where does Pippa end and Phillip begin? How could I or anyone else know, if womanhood is a movable feast?
Pippa Bunce garnered international attention when she, as a director of the Credit Suisse financial conglomerate, received the honor of being ranked among the Financial Times’ list of 100 Top Female Executives for the year 2018. This is quite an accomplishment for a woman who only conducts business as a woman on an inconsistent, on-and-off basis. Certainly, Pippa fits well within the broad understanding of being trans, and has undoubtedly received a great deal of support at his/her place of employment as transgender. But what is the definition of woman here? A woman, sometimes. A female, sometimes. And a man and a male at other times. The only difference being wardrobe selection and a temporary statement of identity.
Just how is Phillip/Pippa female? Since his/her presentations fluctuate based on internal states of mood and feeling, how does an observer know whether it is Phillip or Pippa in a particular circumstance? Embodying Pippa is entirely a matter of visual cues—such as clothing, jewelry, footwear—as well as verbal pronouncement. Pippa wasn’t born: she was made by identification. Pippa feels like a woman today—therefore, Phillip is now Pippa. Nobody is sure who will be there tomorrow. Womanhood is a word.
Now, is this what Beauvoir meant by “becoming” a woman—an actualization through self-utterance based on capricious circumstances chosen by the individual? In regards to the manner in which Pippa makes her femininity, and the resources from which she fashions herself as the-woman and is no longer a–man, her femaleness is a product of rehearsed conventions, in the form of prescriptively female signifiers. This is how she or he communicates her or his gender to an audience, including the bankers who awarded her a prize. It’s Pippa today, not Phillip, because Pippa is wearing a pink dress and a wig of long, blond hair. It was Phillip yesterday, as he wore a somber suit and no make-up.
In the gender idealist view, womanhood has nothing to do with anatomical facts: instead, sex and gender are fashioned out of stylized stereotypes, deployed as a form of social collateral for expression. If woman is a cultural construct, than Pippa made use of culture to construct her own womanly self. She has sole jurisdiction over the making and maintenance of Pippa as the-woman. And, so, Pippa is the woman in business even during those times she conducts business as Phillip a-man. Pippa was not born a woman, but became one, through self-identification. And she comes and goes as she pleases.
Back to Beauvoir: The Biological Concerns of Female Embodiment
According to Hay, we are to think Beauvoir would endorse Pippa’s interpretation of womanhood as an on-the-trot invention. But this is based on a very selective, even glib, presentation of The Second Sex based on a brief excerpt.
The original French (and the English translation of the frequently cited passage) does not imply or ascribe agency and empowerment to the individual in the process of making or becoming woman. Far from a declaration of autonomy, in describing the becoming of woman, the passive voice prevails. Beauvoir did not write she makes herself or she becomes herself, nor does she argue that female-specific biological concerns are disembodied myths. Quite the opposite. For example, Beauvoir also writes this, in the immediate context of the infamous citation: “Woman has ovaries, a uterus: these peculiarities imprison her subjectivity … the body of a woman as a hindrance, a prison weighed down, by everything peculiar to it. In this passage, and throughout the book, Beauvoir first locates womanhood and female embodiment as a biological precedent. One may not be born a woman; but one is born female, and therefore is an embodied cognition that interrelates with the female anatomy of gestation.
This does not mean that Beauvoir has a naïve obsession with genitals, and only sees womanhood as the automatic domain of ovary-havers. But she is claiming that woman as subject—that is, both the cultural notion and the self-awareness of being-a-woman in the world—is preceded by the condition of the female body. Nor does Beauvoir dismiss the potential freedoms of a potential feminist self-awareness during the processes of acquiring gender. However, regardless of what comes later, the female body exists prior to these acquisitions of the language and symbols that are retroactively used to identify it. This is a crucial aspect of Beauvoir’s existentialism, and a conditional limitation on autonomy and agency. Existence precedes essence: femininity is an imaginative response to the reality of pre-existing female-specific embodiment. Beauvoir posits that femininity—the cultural construct of woman as an idea—adheres to the female body as it matures under cultural surveillance, through the impositions of social prescription by masculine supremacy, which radical feminists understand to be the operations of gender. No notion of gender can be comprehended without corporeal awareness: hence Beauvoir describes the body as a situation.
This is absolutely different from claiming that womanhood is a personal assertion bearing no relation whatsoever to the physical. For Beauvoir, unlike Hay, becoming woman entails a material negotiation with culture that commences because of the inescapable facticity of the female corporeal body—the prison of subjectivity, as she states above. Only after the materiality of femaleness has been born, which does not disappear into language but instead sexually develops into adulthood, do these interpretive narratives about womanhood arise. And they do not arise through autonomous self-articulation, but through patriarchal imposition.
Beauvoir wants our attention to focus on biology first, before the application of interpretations: “Biological considerations are extremely important …. But I deny that they establish for [a woman] a fixed and inevitable destiny.” In this way, Beauvoir does not endorse a simplistic view of biology as destiny. She understands that interpretations of biology are prone to fallacies derived from cultural interpretations. For example, she decries the presumption that being born with a uterus predisposes someone to being a more effective dishwasher or housemaid. However, her rejection of the mythologizing of woman as universal does not mean that Beauvoir saw female embodiment as arbitrary and therefore negligible: “Thus we must view the facts of biology in the light of an ontological, economic, social and psychological context.” In these regards—and Judith Butler is especially optimistic about this potential—Beauvoir can be useful to feminists critiquing the ways in which femininity functions, illusively, as a standpoint assumption based on fantasies of sameness, disguised as observable details.
However, no one wants to talk about Beauvoir’s existentialism in which existence precedes essence. The fundamental relationship of sexual differentiation between male and female “constitutes an essential element in [a woman’s] condition.” Beauvoir’s psychology of sex thus makes frequent references to the mammalian binary of male and female as an asymmetry of sexuated forms, and claims that bodies operate before the construction of ideas and ideation thereof. Sex must be understood as combining physical and cultural instances as constitutive of female experiences. The essences of ideas, identities and terms for womanhood are always based first on the existence of a female body, which exists prior to the later application of myths.
What Beauvoir is suggesting to us as readers—whatever banner of feminism we happen to operate under—is that, far from being able to be reduced to proverbial quips, biology and culture as concurrent factors in the becoming of womanhood require close examination—something lacking in the current climate of retweets of preferred sectarian opinions. Whatever contemporary view we might hold on gender-as-identity, Beauvoir bluffing is unfair to the legacy of Simone. Her analysis of womanhood as both situation and condition is too complex to be rendered into sleight-of-hand citations.
At her request, we have donated the author’s fee for this essay to Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter.