Updated: Jul 21
DAYO'S NOTE: if you haven't noticed already, I love writing about Gender. This essay is no exception. I hope to explore this topic more in depth in a property blog post, but in the meantime please enjoy this essay about Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
Black Women Are Not Dark-Skinned White Women: A Review
Philosophers carry the burden of crafting the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence that is used to understand specific concepts and structures. One such recognized philosopher is French writer and activist Simone de Beauvoir. Many regard her 1949 book, The Second Sex, as a monumental contribution to feminist philosophy. Her existentialist perspective, thorough analysis, and strict framework is regarded as one of the most scholarly views on the nature of women and is thus used as evidence to condemn patriarchal, sexist systems. Beauvoir herself was the youngest person ever to gain the highly competitive certification, agrégation, to teach philosophy. She was awarded the Prix Goncourt and was not only considered as an existentialist leader but as “one of the most influential thinkers of her generation” (front matter). According to Judith Thurman, who wrote the introduction for the 2010 translation of The Second Sex, the book itself is nicknamed a “feminist bible”. Thurman writes how The Second Sex, “marshaled a vast arsenal of fact and theory; she galvanized a critical mass of consciousness- a collective identify- that was indispensable to the women’s movement” (Beauvoir xv). Needless to say, Beauvoir is a very important figure in the world of feminist philosophy, and she is accepted as a crafter of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence of women. Her words have weight. From here, it is important to emphasize that she is not merely tasked with carrying the burden of understanding the white European woman, but the woman herself— and Beauvoir actively takes on this challenge by making it her goal to find the common ground that all women can relate to. However, even if you apply her philosophy, her answers to “what is woman?” to only women in the West, her answers lack any mention of the specific lived experience of Black woman, specifically African American women. This is not surprising granted that it took her until 1947 (two years before the publishing of The Second Sex) to be exposed to racism while she was visiting America. That experience left her with a greater understanding of oppressed groups and informed her opinion that “there are deep analogies between the situations of women and blacks” (Beauvoir 12). This opinion lacks any particularity in regards to the experience of the black women which is disappointing given that she critiques how women, black people, and Jewish people are not given any “ particularity as human beings [and are] reduced to a lazy abstract cliché that served for a rationale for their subjugation” (Beauvoir xiv). Black women are not dark-skinned white women. Their experience is complex and is layered by systems of racism and sexism as well as the subsequent hardships that are created when they work in tandem. This is especially unsettling because to accept Beauvoir’s writing as a foundation for feminist theory would be to also accept an understanding that neglects the needs of black women who have been historically abandoned for generations, even by contemporary feminists. To accept this erasure would be to support a philosophy that is non-inclusive, and it will affirm that it is okay to use exclusive philosophy to inform understanding of concepts and structures. Therefore, although Beauvoir is seminal and revolutionary in her investigation of women, in this essay I will first describe Beauvoir's ideology on the process of becoming a woman, specifically analyzing sections from chapter two “The Girls” in volume two. Then, I will argue how this philosophy is inapplicable to a black woman and to do this I will apply her framework of analyzing the concept biologically, psychoanalytically, and historically. With this understanding, I will then compare and contrast her accounts with the accounts of black feminist writers like Claudia Jones and Frances M. Beal to show how Beauvoir fails to craft a fundamental knowledge about women that includes the particularity of the African-American woman.
Volume Two “Lived Experience” explains the transition for a girl to woman and their subsequent roles in society and hopes to describe the common ground “from which all singular feminine existence stems” (Beauvoir 279). Following this standard, we must assume that the experience that she attempts to explain in the second volume includes that of black women and should be read with that understanding. Beauvoir believes that in order to understand the problems that women are faced with one first the universe that she is enclosed in. Second, how she was taught to assume her position based on the universe, third, how she experiences this position, and fourth what escape mechanism are permitted to her (Beauvoir 279).
The first half of The Second Sex attacks the status quo and exposes the damaging ideology that created the universe of patriarchal inequality which informs how “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (Beauvoir 283). This inequality is present in how science, history, and psychoanalysis, traditionally painted women as the Other, a subordinate to men. The Other is in a dialectical relationship with the Subject, where the former is inessential, the latter the absolute—yet they need each other equally in order to survive. However, despite this dependence we live in a world where the Subject exploits the Other and denies the Other, in this case, of her humanity. The denial makes women inferior; it justifies viewing women as passive, and without agency. Men are motivated to push women into “othering” roles in an effort to subjugate women economically, but also to ameliorate their ontological insecurities and moral ambitions which stem from their constant desire to gain ownership of the world and prove their sense of being (Beauvoir 164). The environment in which the Other is established is used to socialize girls and forces them to consistently accept male authority.
Then the second half explains how girls become women through social education and how they assume the positions that the world etched out for them. The process begins during puberty when girls are formally raised differently from boys. To Beauvoir, “once [a girl] enters puberty, the future not only moves closer: it settles into her body; it becomes the most concrete reality” (Beauvoir 341), therefore puberty is essential to the reality of women. In this way, the experience of a girl is equal in importance to the experience of a woman. Beauvoir's analysis of girls tells the story of a girl that is treated more gently than boys and is compelled to rely on the protection that reinforces her sense of weakness. During this time, she is given more responsibilities in the house. She is made to renounce rough games and denied “conquering actions”. While puberty transforms the girl’s body biologically, psychologically, she is trained to see these changes as shameful and simultaneously gains erotic transcendence by being objectified and treated like prey. This culminates into a general lack of confidence and lack of feeling of autonomous. This factor is especially important to Beauvoir who believes that “to lose confidence in one's body is to lose confidence in one’s self” (Beauvoir 344). Therefore, the world first trains the women to assume the role of the Other by attacking her body. These pressures culminates in “a state of constant denial” (Beauvoir 365) which results in an existence where “the girl rebels against her future enslavement through her present powerlessness; and her vain outbursts (in reference to girls tend to engage in sadomasochistic practices), far from freeing her from her bonds, often merely restrict her even more”(Beauvoir 367). The sum of these parts is the female experience.
To support this account Beauvoir provides numerous fictional/non-fictional stories in about women in chapter two. This includes Rosamond Lehmann's character Olivia from Invitation to the Waltz, which Beauvoir believes narrates an internalization of objectification, she also pairs it with characters like Maggie from The Mill on the Floss, who for her embodies female rebellion. Throughout the course of the chapter, Beauvoir mentions roughy nineteen separate accounts and stories to justify the experiences of women but not one of these pieces include the experience of a woman of color, and for the purposes of this essay, none include that of a black woman.
Therefore, in order to get an account of black women, a reader must look to black feminist writing like Frances M. Beal’s Black Women’s Manifesto (1969). Beal writes that “the black woman in America can be justly described as a ‘slave of a slave’” (Beal 323). Juxtaposed to Beauvoir’s image of slavery in marriage in childbirth, a conflict arises in how women’s roles are created when presented with a black women who is not afforded the full ownership of household. In this way, Beal is essentially describing black women as the “other Other”, they are the inessential to the majority women’s absolute. They are a group too consumed by current slavery to position their lives for “future enslavement”. Black journalist Claudia Jones encapsulates this idea when she writes, in her appropriately named essay “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” (1949), how “[black women] cannot with equanimity or credibility, speak of the Negro woman’s ‘place’ as in the home; for Negro women are in the other people’s kitchens” (Jones 80). Beal further adds to this and writes how “...the black woman had no protector and was used, and is still being used in some cases, the scapegoat…her physical image has been maliciously maligned, sexually molested and abused... it is the depth of degradation to be socially manipulated, physically raped, used to undermine your own household” (Beal 323). This quote in itself deviates from Beauvoir’s narrative of the girl who relies on protection, who is desired by men, who is obsessive and narcissistic. The black girl cannot even rebel against future enslavement because she is forced to deal with the effects of slavery in the present. Historically, her experience goes deeper than just a “state of constant denial” she is constantly deprived. As Beal shows she is actively detached from the “bourgeoisie white model” that Beauvoir, a descendant of the French bourgeoise, describes. She is denied working privileges, subjected to sterilization, and excluded from the white liberation (Beal 326). Even Beauvoir’s account of youth rebellion is not quite inclusive of the black experience. Beauvoir believes that when girls begin to start being desired by men, they are then objectified, and this objectification exposes her to a lack of agency. This then pushes her to act against her body as well as strive to be pretty in order to be attractive to men. Black girls don’t just damage their body on their own accord, they bleach skin, put harsh chemicals in their hair, and internalize a Eurocentric beauty standard that completely counters their biological composition just to be able to sit at the same table as a white woman. Although there is a clear comparison in damage done to oneself, the difference is in the end rather than the mean. The end of the damage done by black girls is sense of acceptance not just by the world but a hope to accept themselves in order to appease the voices they internalize.
There is also an anticorrelated maturity that manifests in the black girl being seen as tough and not capable of vulnerability, as Claudia Jones puts it, “the Negro woman became schooled in self-reliance, in courageous and selfless actions” (Jones 76). For Jones, this is backed by historical evidence from slavery where black women were captured as slaves, starved, and still expected to take care of the children. Even biologically, a common myth was that black women had a lower pain tolerance than white woman and were often seen as less priority for treatment and medication, detaching them from being seen as weak. Black girls do not even have the ability to remain an eternal child (Beauvoir 638) because she has to regularly push back against stereotypes that paint her as a Negro slave mother (Jones 76) or a rough, violent, and angry black woman. The premise of The Second Sex is to demystify the romantic feminine myth of women that influences her inferiority but ignores the women who are not romanticized in the first place and are not even equal among women.
The Second Sex is a great work that made many contributions to attacking oppressive systems. Beauvoir was tasked with surveying the broad lived experience, which is extremely hard to do. It can even be argued that aspiring to include the nuances of female life would require an eternity and access to information that is not readily available and easily acceptable. Plus, Beauvoir herself does not call herself a philosopher which would indicate that she would reject being seen as a crafter of the fundamental nature of women. In addition, many black feminists themselves, like Claudia Jones, believe that “the Negro question in the United States is prior to, and not equal to, the women question” (Jones 82). This conflict would not be satisfied by just including the particularities of black women even though they are extremely important.
An inclusive feminist philosophy would also include the experiences of the aborigine woman in Australia to the Nepali women in the Himalayas and to transgender women. Beauvoir cannot only exist within her own community and that is where she can do the best work to understanding its condition. Even though she mainly analyzes the nuances in her own community, she regularly reminds the reader to do the same within theirs. Knowing this, Beauvoir is still seen as an important philosopher even particularly by the women’s movement. In order to remedy this, disconnect and to amend the exclusivity the conversation now should be to praise and acclaim more black female writers and writers from many different backgrounds. To add to the preexisting philosophy is to place women of color in our schools and accept their leadership in crafting our reality. It would mean giving writers like Frances M. Beal the same weight as Simone de Beauvoir.
Beal, Frances M. “Black Women's Manifesto / Women's Liberation Movement Print Culture / Duke Digital Repository.” Duke Digital Collections, 1969, repository.duke.edu/dc/wlmpc/wlmms01009.
Beauvoir, Simone de, et al. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2011.
Jones, Claudia. “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman!” Libcom.org, 1949, libcom.org/library/end-neglect-problems-negro-woman.