Victim or Oppressor?
The Second Sex and Her Complicity
Written & Illustrated by: Anna Mohan
Edited by: Clarissa Lilananda, Jesie Randhawa
“For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on women. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it.”
Simone De Beauvoir, wrote this as the introduction to “The Second Sex” in 1946. She intended to write a short autobiography, and the first sentence she thought to define herself with was:
Beauvoir was a French feminist and social theorist, existentialist, philosopher and writer. Her works spanned across essays, novels, short stories, and monographs on the topic of social and feminist theory. Her conception of gender allowed for a radical reconfiguration of what it means to be a woman.
Nearly eighty years after she claimed that enough ink had been spilled speaking on feminism, we’re here to spill some more...
The concept of ‘Woman’ as Beauvoir puts it, is a state that is both thrusted upon individuals as well as chosen by them. This has powerful ramifications. It provides an argument for promoting the freedom of other women even when they are content in their oppression. The position of women, as imagined by Beauvoir, presents the identity of being a woman as a complex product of social and personal expectations. She explains the reasons for the subjugation of women, as well as the reason that they have not been easily able to step out of it.
What does it mean to be a woman?
Beauvoir denounces the ‘myth of femininity’, she claims that there is neither a biological basis for femininity, nor is there a singular femininity.
The myth that there is a singular femininity, or only one way to be a “woman” is dismantled when women confirm that they have different experiences. Their different relationships with their bodies, with their thoughts, and their surroundings lend to the idea that there is no one way to be a woman.
Secondly, Beauvoir claims that biology does not make a woman. The problem with biology is that it defines people by what they have, rather than what they do. This circumscribes the ranges of meaning possible, limiting women to these prescribed characteristics. Biology is insufficient to explain the social conditions of women, but it is necessary in understanding the position of women.
A woman is not simply a female, she is the complex relationship between her individual self and the culture in which she is situated, hence her position in society as being the ‘Other’ is not merely a result of her biology but of the social conditions in which she exists.
Beauvoir’s conception of gender opens up the possibility of a different way of viewing gender and gender relations. Her views acknowledge the limitations women face while stating that their submissive state is not their ‘fault’. Beauvoir also recognises women’s potential to exist beyond this state.
If women can define themselves – why are they still oppressed?
According to Beauvoir, it’s for three key reasons:
Firstly, a woman lacks the concrete means to pursue her own claims she doesn't have the material conditions that she would need to achieve equality.
Secondly, the woman is aware of her relation to man, but lacks awareness of the man's reciprocal relationship to her.
The woman is satisfied in her role as the ‘Other’, hence, making her complicit in her own subjugation.
Both men and women are two halves of a whole, yet without understanding the reciprocal nature of this relationship the woman finds herself submitting herself to men, her facticity is limited when she does not understand herself as a being who can create herself.
Beauvoir states, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”. This is the same for women as it is for men, to become a woman is to undertake a project, to accept one’s freedom and to live in recognition of the freedom one has to create oneself. However, there is a distinction in what it means to become a woman from what it means to become a man. While the young boy gets to become himself, and is encouraged to do so, the young girl is taught to renounce her autonomy.
Freedom, defined by Beauvoir
Beauvoir posits that there are two types of freedom: the first, a freedom which everyone is born with, and the second, a radical freedom that one that we must strive towards through our actions. This freedom allows us to create meaning in our lives.
“The freedom of man is infinite, but his power is limited.”
According to fellow French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, power is freedom from material and social constraints. While one’s base freedom cannot be curtailed, power can be curtailed by external forces. Acts of oppression, social and material inequalities, violence all contribute to the curtailing of one’s power and moral freedom. Freedom is not an abstract concept but instead is something rooted in reality.
Furthermore, individuals exist contextually. As social creatures, we are bound to other people and the me-other relationship obliges us to free other people from their oppression.
Humans are not solitary beings, and our own individual freedom cannot be advanced without the advancement of the freedom of others.
Essentially, to satisfy Beauvoir, we have to first practice our own freedom through making moral choices and accepting moral responsibility. Not only are we required to will our own freedom, to do so we must also actively will for the freedom of other people. While one’s existence stem’s from inside her, she is defined only by the world and regarding other individuals.
What does this have to do with feminism?
The freedom of a man is different from the freedom of a woman. Because young girls are denied the opportunity to project themselves freely, they grow into adult women who are content with this situation. Society has conditioned young women to position themselves in relation to men consequently the adult woman internalises her role and finds solace in it. It’s tempting to accept this situation, it frees us from the ambiguity of existence and moral responsibility. Her content-ness in this role thus marks her complicity in maintaining oppressive relations.
Prevailing cultural norms and positioning women as the ‘Other’ complicates the process of this desired freedom. To be a woman is to make a choice. It is to undergo a continuous process of becoming and exercising one’s freedom.
A woman’s knowledge of a potential freedom is limited by her situation. Freedom is never fully achieved, there is no moment when the process is complete – instead it’s a choice that one needs to deliberately make. It is a project intertwined with ambiguity – to create meaning in one’s life it to exercise freedom. This project marks gender as both a social construction, and a project of self construction. A woman is thus both a construct, and a project.
The origins of oppression are complex – they are a result of the social and material conditions that one is subject to, and therefore it cannot be entirely a choice. However, women play a role in subjugating themselves, and oppressing themselves, and in the oppression of other women.
For example, mothers who may encourage their daughters to marry extremely young – they do this because it helps them survive and provides them with economic stability. They accept the social conditions in which they are born, and their position in lower standing to men, they also force their daughters into a life of submission – however because of the systems of oppression their choices are limited, and they pick the options which lend to survival.
The woman cannot be blamed, her inclination towards staying in this complacent state can be understood. To choose an alternative path can lead to dangerous consequences, being a social outcast, violence, or even death. Women play a role in subjugating themselves, they are complicit in the oppression of themselves, and yet they are not to blame. When our freedom is limited by material conditions, our project is limited and women cannot realise themselves because they do not have the material conditions to do so. Conversely, because women do not feel united as a subject they also lack the drive to seek the material conditions they are unaware they have a right to.
Studies show that, depending on its structure and formation, social groups can play a crucial first step in women's empowerment, through boosting solidarity, feelings of representation and confidence.
We have reason to encourage the freedom and liberation for other women, despite the disagreement some women may have with acknowledging their freedom while also respecting their autonomy. They are not faulted for their oppressed state, but they are also not powerless. She credits women with an existence and experience that is valuable outside of being related to men – her position as an other it understood and not judged, and she is now seen as being able to exist beyond this previously assumed destiny.
The truth is, women can answer to the names of both ‘victim’ and ‘oppressor’. Through this realisation, we are encouraged to renounce our role as an oppressor for others, and for our own sake. Once we stop enabling these cycles of oppression, we may liberate ourselves from victimhood.