Simone De Beauvoir is a French novelist responsible for writing the groundbreaking book The Second Sex. She is regarded as one of the best known existential writers in the nineteenth century thanks to her many novels, essays and biographies on philosophy, politics and societal issues. She writes 'One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman' Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949). This essay will be delving into the meaning of this quote and what it says about how gender is regarded in our society.
How it supports the idea that the roles we assign ourselves are not to do with the gender we are born with, but rather societal expectations, which we are expected to meet. The idea is that gender a social construct, and that a woman's role in society is not one of natural differences, but differences of upbringing and social pressures that shape the personality and mentality of an individual. The essay will delve into the novels Room At The Top by John Braine and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in order to support the idea that gender is a social construct, and to provide an example of this philosophy in context.
When Beauvoir states that “one is not born, but rather becomes woman.” It can be interpreted to mean that one becomes a woman due to their childhood and upbringing. Which leads to the topic of social constructionism. Social constructionism is a theory that examines the formation of jointly constructed ideas and understandings of reality and how the world works. The theory revolves around the fact that meanings are formed together as a collective, and not separately as an individual. A good example of this is when looking at money and government. According to West and Zimmerman, the notion of gender is also formed due to social constructionism. They state that it is 'an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of, and a rationale for, various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society'. By this logic, Beauvoir is correct in her statement that “one is not born, but rather becomes woman”.
Historically, the term gender was used as means of telling the difference between biological sex and social aspects of femininity and masculinity. These were learned and considered permanent after early childhood. When De Beauvoir talks about “becoming” a woman, it could be interpreted that she is talking about the gender aspect of a person, instead of their sex. Research shows that it is clear that someone is shaped and moulded into their corresponding gender by society based on their sexual traits. Firstly, many people who might otherwise be very talented in a certain field would not realise their talents, as they perceive that there is a certain path that society would deem correct for them to follow. Furthermore, it can end with a large proportion of the population feeling as if they are inferior. This could very easily lead to tension between citizens, and bring about the question of 'immoral' behaviour, and its definition. In support of this, in Room At The Top, Joe finds out that Alice was once an artist’s model, in response to this he describes that he felt 'sick and betrayed and dirtied' (Braine, 1957). Through free-spirit and spontaneity, Alice acted in way way that is deemed inappropriate for a woman by society. Joe's reaction is a clear representation of this, and how society views women who do not conform to the stereotype of a 'proper lady'.
A ‘proper lady’ is a term that Jane Poovey uses in her book, ‘The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer’. Dressing up properly, being modest, and not having strong views are all traits that Poovey states a ‘proper lady’ should have. The prominence of this paradigm in our society has led to a significant difference in rights over the last few hundred years. As a consequence, this has meant that our society has evolved into a patriarchal society. A patriarchal society is where the majority of influential roles, such as politicians and owners of large companies, are men. Thereby living as part of a patriarchal society, favours those who are born male. Subconciously, those born with male traits are seeing similarities in those who they aspire to be, whereas those who are born female see the most influential people in our society as being men, which subconciously beats them down, and further shapes them into what society deems correct.
Traditionally, there is a big difference between the opportunities that men and women face in their lives, and we can put this down to the different types of upbringing that a person would receive based on their sex. Beauvoir talks about Immanence and Trancendance. People who are born male being encouraged to act with trancendence; to act creatively, productively and to assert dominance and power. Whereas women are expected to act with immanence; to have humility, dpend on others, and to be transfixed on their beauty in order to satisfy the needs and requirements of men. “Men succeed in the world by transcendence, but immanence is the lot of women” (The second Sex, De Beauvoir, 1949)
‘Mrs Dalloway’ is a novel written by Virginia Woolf in 1925, and provides us with a representation of some of the views held by Beauvoir. The domination of women through the societal pressures of our patriarchal society is clearly shown to us in the novel with the character development of Clarissa, who in her younger days was smart and free spirited, but is moulded into an example of our societies ‘perfect’ woman. Her and Sally plotted to reform the world together when they were young. When they reunite at Clarissa’s party, they are both married. Something they considered a “catastrophe” as younger women.