‘For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. 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.’ Often quoted as they are, these opening sentences of The Second Sex can still amaze. Yet on reflection one can come to agree with their author in some sense, or at least to see what she meant. For the subterranean forces that were to erupt as modern feminism were still so far buried in 1949 that their rumblings were scarcely audible even to the more sensitive ear; and what Simone de Beauvoir then meant by ‘feminism’ was a surface discourse about a segment of reality supposedly so culturally marginal that ‘to spill more ink on it’ might well have seemed disproportionate—the mark of some intellectual obsession or lack of balance.
If today these words of apology seem anachronistic to the point of quaintness, then it is the work they preface which more than any other has been responsible. This is the measure of de Beauvoir’s achievement for feminism. One cannot help feeling, moreover—and it is a further twist in the irony—that had she focused more narrowly on ‘woman’, or spilt her ink exclusively there, the enterprise of The Second Sex might not have meant so much to so many, nor occupied so ‘founding a role in a movement she herself was only to join’ around her sixtieth year. For the intellectual appetite, wide learning and breadth of vision which went to make that work so uniquely influential in character, are the same qualities which have always made her seek more registers than that of ‘women’s studies’ alone.
Indeed, what one values in her work as much as any discussion of feminism, is the record she provides of a life as it is lived: her capturing of the joys and miseries of living out her span in a world of infinite potential, but under the constraints of limited time and perishable flesh. At the same time, the sheer volume of her fiction and writings on topics other than gender is a reminder that the latter was never the sole—nor even always a central—thematic of her work.
It is this integration of more specifically feminist interests with other studies which has recommended her to many of her readers. And the same might be said of the stance on feminism itself which she thereby embodies, equivocal as it is between two contrary but equally compelling assertions of identity: ‘I am a woman’—‘I simply am’. But it is the sustained expression in her work of this ‘woman–person’ doublet which has also resulted in a compartmentalizing tendency in the commentary upon it. De Beauvoir’s fiction, her existentialism, her politics and her writing on women have all received extensive treatment;footnote1 but her work as a whole has not hitherto been submitted to a distinctively feminist scrutiny. Of course, it is not just the multifaceted nature of de Beauvoir’s contribution which is responsible for that, but the temporal anomaly of The Second Sex—its ‘prehistoric’ status, as it were, relative to the movement of modern feminism. The vexed issue of Sartre’s influence has also made objective feminist assessment that much harder. As Michel Le Doeuff has suggested, it is one thing for Sartre to promise at the time of de Beauvoir’s aggregation: ‘From now on I will take you in hand’, and another—and much more difficult to understand—for de Beauvoir to relate the episode years later without a hint of critical hindsight, even after writing The Second Sex.footnote2 These difficulties have to be faced. Only an ultra-feminism with no real grip on de Beauvoir would attempt to accommodate her ‘Sartreanism’ by pretending it did not exist. Equally to be resisted, however, is the converse attempt to circumvent her femininity—the route taken by those like Bieber who think they are complimenting de Beauvoir by ‘forgetting’ about her sex.footnote3
The works under reviewfootnote4 here avoid both errors. More importantly, they also make good the absence of any extended feminist critique. They are thus in refreshing contrast to academic recuperations of de Beauvoir, and attempts to restore her to ‘honorific male’ respectability. Mary Evans has written a timely and readable biography which for the first time discusses de Beauvoir’s work in the light of the divergent currents of argument comprising contemporary feminism. Coming hard on its heels, Judith Okely’s more personal assessment is less comprehensive but sets itself a similar critical task.