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Study notes

Simone de Beauvoir (1908−1986)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Simone de Beauvoir is one of the leading figures within the strand of thought known as socialist feminism.

As the term implies, this approach seeks to highlight the problems inherent within patriarchy and capitalism. She offered insights into a wide number of issues with regard to socialist feminism, most notably on the role of patriarchy in regards to the creation of woman. She claimed that men construct a notion of femininity and the feminine ideal that served their own economic and physical ends. Whilst biological experiences are of some significance, the entire notion of what a woman should be is socially rather than biologically constructed. This is primarily determined by men and what they would like women to be (and to appear like). As a result, women’s bodies are deliberately emphasised and displayed – an observation as pertinent now as ever before. This is reflected in her most famous quote that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”

Simone de Beauvoir therefore claims that the social construct of women is deliberately created for the benefit of men. Women are conditioned into accepting a passive role in life and in taking inordinate care over their appearance. This occurs via the process of socialisation. From an early age, the agents of primary socialisation encourage young girls to adopt a feminine identity. They may have certain toys purchased for them that reinforce gender stereotypes concerning the nurturing mother. Girls (and boys) are therefore presented with a clear line of separation between the male breadwinner and the female caregiver. There is also an unmistakable emphasis upon the female’s appearance. In later years, agents of secondary socialisation continue to reinforce these gender roles to the detriment of the female potential (particularly the media).

In response to this, Simone de Beauvoir believed that women should be free to reject male stereotypes of feminine beauty. In doing so, there would be greater equality between men and women. This would be preferable to a patriarchal society in which women were treated as abnormal and thereby prevented from fulfilling their true potential. Indeed, this sense of otherness is all-pervasive within a patriarchal society and a major barrier towards female emancipation. For instance, she points out that the masculine is routinely presented in positive terms (or simply as the norm) whereas the feminine is depicted as the other and therefore inferior. Women are therefore presented with a social construct that relegates them to a secondary status.

Simone de Beauvoir also advocated the destruction of patriarchal institutions. Like many feminists, she was highly critical of the traditional nuclear family. However, her solution was undoubtedly a radical one as she favoured abolishing the family unit altogether. She was also a staunch advocate of the ‘politics of sameness’ in which equality could only be achieved via an androgynous ideal. In her words; this would occur “when there would no longer be men and women but only workers equal with one another.” Both women and men would benefit from a society built upon the principle of equality.

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