By Charlotte Thomas Hébert
As Critique 13/13 seeks to investigate how re-reading the foundational texts of critical theory can contribute to serve our political project to address today’s crises, it is particularly timely to go back to one of feminism’ seminal books. Macro-political contexts contribute to shaping the way readers respond to a text or to an event. It was therefore impossible to ignore that this week’s Paris seminar was taking place under broader and distressing circumstances that are affecting and targeting sexual and gender minorities in France. I am referring here 1) to the drafting of the new law that will open up IVF to single women and lesbian couples, a long-belated measure that still does not overhaul the State’s patriarchal and cisheteronormative notion of kinship, and that keeps on depriving trans would-be parents of their reproductive rights; 2) to the ongoing wheatpasting campaign against femicides and France’s endemic culture of gender violence that has spread all over the country, where activists have been plastering public space with the names of women that have been killed by their male partners; 3) to the latest surge of islamophobia and the country’s obsession with Muslim women’s veils, with a far-right local elected official publicly humiliating and harassing a Muslim mother wearing a hijab on a school trip while the education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer went on record to say he believes that “the headscarf is not desirable in our society” (quoted in Fouteau 2019).
The American context for those like me attending the seminar in New York is not exactly bright either. If the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots have demonstrated how far the LGBTQ+ movement has come, and if the US is slowly starting to acknowledge the wide spectrum of gender identities, the current socio-political climate is rather bleak, as attested by Trump’s global gag rule, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the restrictions on abortion laws that are challenging Roe v. Wade, the further criminalization of sex work through the adoption (with bipartisan support) of the Sesta/Fosta Act, or the wake of #MeToo and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh that illustrate how difficult it is for victims of sexual abuse and/or harassment to be recognized as such by legal institutions (this list is by no means exhaustive).
Judith Revel noted at the start of the seminar that is it difficult to separate The Second Sex from the conditions of its production and from how it was received upon its publication. Critique 13/13’s purpose is not to historicize texts. But re-reading de Beauvoir is taking place at a time when, even if it is still met with strong (and unfortunately growing) opposition, her groundbreaking claim has been vindicated thanks to the work of material feminism and queer theory, as evidenced by Judith Butler’s formidable success: inside and outside of academia, biology, gender and destiny are not synonymous anymore. However, says Judith Revel, even if The Second Sex identifies systemic discrimination and how diverse the types of patriarchal domination are, it is still constrained by the times in which it was written, one where the white bourgeoise de Beauvoir could not articulate the multitude of oppressions that women faced all at once. This is exemplified by her use of “the woman”, an expression that now sounds universalist and hides the great diversity of subjects and topics that makes The Second Sex almost feel like an encyclopedia, but that ultimately contributed to desubstantializing “woman” and “women” as collective subjects.
De Beauvoir is not a perfect forebear for a time characterized by the intersectional imperative, but it does and should not matter. As Judith Revel mentions, the book is dated in its re-reading of Hegel and by the substitution of the master-slave dialectic with the worn-out categories of “men” and “women”. So is the choice to hierarchize different types of struggles and oppressions by favoring a Marxist approach that equates the patriarchy with capitalism and contends that women could gain collective emancipation through work. But as later strands of feminism have demonstrated, and as de Beauvoir acknowledged herself once she became involved with the French Movement for Women’s Liberation (MLF), social equality does not produce gender equality.[i]
Judith Revel offers to go back and beyond The Second Sex’s aged definition of work in relation to production and reproduction, in order to shed light on our current crises. De Beauvoir, as a good Marxist, separates both notions: work is transformative and generates profit, and in such is diametrically opposed to domestic labor since it does not produce surplus value and disappears after it is consumed. Both are, of course, gendered along strict binary lines. Seven decades of feminist scholarship and the evolution of neoliberalism into an even more predatory form of capitalism have made de Beauvoir’s claim obsolete. In a striking demonstration, Judith Revel contends that with the financialization of the economy and the spurt of on-demand companies (Uber, Postmates, AirBnB, TaskRabbit, GrubHub), work has also been reduced to the private sphere.[ii] Labor has now become un-productive and invisible: forced to having a “gig” (as opposed to a job), which comes with a blurry legal framework, workers regardless of their gender are required to gain skills that are traditionally labelled as “feminine”: smiling, caring, doing customer support, practicing active listening, and so on. Conversely, the line between private and professional life is eroding as work is invading the private sphere through the development and embrace of new technologies. This, for Judith Revel, is where re-reading The Second Sex in 2019 is enlightening. It helps see how capitalist exploitation has evolved and that, taking after de Beauvoir’s famous aphorism, “men are not women, but more and more they’re engaged in becoming-women”. Thus, since reproduction is production, women are the new vanguard that will help men understand their new condition as exploited subjects.
In his remarks on Judith Revel’s intervention and on The Second Sex itself, Bernard Harcourt brought forth the dilemma that current progressive social movements are facing, mainly the tension between identity politics and the more “traditional” (i.e. Marxist or broadly socialist) left, or between subjectivities and the collective. He insisted that reifying the differences between the two, or between recognition and distribution, leads to a dead end. The Second Sex’s historical and most important contribution – undoing the relationship between sex and gender – demonstrates that, by starting from a minority position (or from what is thought to be or labelled as a minority position), de Beauvoir was able to start unraveling a much bigger thread that has led to a “Big Bang” in the way sexuality, reproduction, and gender are articulated. Of course, she could not have foreseen any of this, and it pretty much remains in the making as this revolution is mostly accessible to the urban elite, and which for many (one can think here of trans women of color) comes at the cost of violence, precarity and even death. Still, Bernard Harcourt suggested that by tracing the genealogy of marriage equality (one of the many strands of de Beauvoir’s initial un-naturalizing of gender norms) and by identifying what made it possible (even if one could argue that gaining access to and recognition from institutions is a form of cooptation), we might be able to use it as a model to resist other forms of exploitation.
In her response, Judith Revel was quick to mention that the “Big Bang” does not erase the patriarchy and in many ways contributes to re-hierarchizing power relations. She mentioned how enforcing strict gender parity in the French university system has led to women – who are a minority in her department – taking on even more administrative work since there are less of them to join juries and committees. She also noted how every generation re-reads and re-positions itself against the previous ones – where marriage was deemed horrifically normative to 1970s feminists, the mainstream LGBTQ+ movement of the 2010s has reinvented its relation to institutions by trying to make them its own.
Finally, the conversation addressed identity politics and resistance directly. Revel believes that one cannot objectively and permanently define oneself, and advocates for a fierce critique (if not queering) of identities. She argued that “one can be somebody without being something”, reminded us that life is a process, and invited us to think of ourselves as beings in the making. This does not mean that she completely rejected identities as she recognized that they can be strategic in obtaining rights. Bernard Harcourt raised the issue that dismissing identities altogether can be dangerous as it tends to erase power dynamics, the way colorblindness is often used as an excuse to justify discrimination and reinforce structural racism. But then, how do we apprehend and mobilize political subjects as they each lie at the crossroads of multiple systems of oppressions and identity regimes that overlap in specific and idiosyncratic ways? Or, in other words, what would intersectionality in practice look like? Does it entail different forms of resistance or new repertoires of action? In her different remarks and closing statement, Judith Revel offered three suggestions. The first one was to acknowledge the historical role separatist spaces or caucuses (espaces de non-mixités) have played in organizing – the MLF for example gained tremendous insight and power from their closed meetings – and recognizing how instrumental they can be as long as they remain temporary and non-essentialist. The second (and eerily Marxist) one was to identify the “care sector” as the critical pressure point that could shut down a whole country if all reproductive workers (nurses, assistants, childcare provider) went on strike. Lastly, bringing to mind Judith Butler’s recent work on vulnerability as well as the “emotional turn” of social movement studies, Judith Revel brought up James Baldwin’s remark that white people do not know what it is to constantly live in fear. She rephrased it as a constant anxiety at being subjectified. Perhaps this shared experience (that cuts across identities) could be a common ground towards political mobilization.
While drafting the first version of this epilogue, I meant to put my following comments and takeaways from the seminar in the footnotes. They are, in many ways, the private sphere of academic writing, where it feels more comfortable to adopt a personal register and share anecdotes, which is often what happens when one engages with feminist texts. This is one the things that going back to de Beauvoir this week has given me: making me realize how much I had internalized the idea that the body of a “serious” text is reserved to (supposedly) objective writing.
Therefore, I will address here how time affects reading The Second Sex, and more broadly how we position ourselves in relation to those who came before us. For me, going back to de Beauvoir meant going back to the first time I read the book as a high school senior in the early 2000s. It is quite typical for a French national given that the book has become a classic and that it is now a rather standard and safe read for (aspiring) middle-class and up teenagers who are in their « impressionable years » (Sears & Valentino 1997: 46). And it is a good gateway drug – in my case I quickly graduated to reading what are more radical and queer books. Yet, I have to admit that, even if I had not given much thought to it since, I still have a personal relationship to The Second Sex, one that is more meaningful than the one I have with other classics. For example, reading Adorno and Benjamin later felt equally exciting and enlightening, but never as personal and urgent. Conversely, I do not recall anyone that has attended Critique 13/13 mentioning having a personal and intimate connection to the texts we are reading (though this might change when we discuss Zami and Black Skin, White Masks). Going back allows me to remember who I was then, by which I mean to measure how far I have come in my own intellectual trajectory and feminist understanding of the world. I suspect this feeling is widely shared – Judith Revel herself mentioned her own relationship to the book, and by extension, to de Beauvoir.
But more importantly, the issue of time is something I want to address as it has become customary to refer to the history of American feminism as being split along generational waves (a word that, in itself, comes already gendered – Helmreich 2017). Several scholars (to give a few: Taylor 1989, Staggenbord & Taylor 2005, Hewitt 2010) have challenged and called out the notion for promoting a hegemonic, white heterosexual and middle-class interpretation of the movement. As if, between the ratification of the 19th Amendment and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique women had remained idle and passive. Each new wave has portrayed itself as more radical, inclusive and sophisticated than the preceding one. As Lori Marso (2010: 265) points out, “feminists rarely seek to identify with the lives of their mothers. Instead, we seek to distinguish ourselves from our mothers, rather than note our similarities, overlapping struggles, and issues in common”. However, going back to The Second Sex in order to read it for plunder has given me the opportunity to reconsider my forebears. Mostly, it has made me realize that feminism needs to reassess and abandon its hierarchical matrilineal descent system. Following in the footsteps of Saidiya Hartman (2019), we need to go back to the archive and put an end to the liberal idea that time is linear and progressive so that we can look for the clues we have missed but that have always been here – let’s just consider for example how Gertrude Stein, a butch lesbian who always wore skirts and whose work and life defied categorization, quipped as early as 1903 in her novel Q.E.D, “Thank god I was not born a woman” (Newton 2018). It took seventy years, The Second Sex and then Monique Wittig to make us understand the many layers and truths of that joke. Let’s go back and look for more.
* PhD student, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne – doctoral school of Political Science, Visiting Scholar at Columbia Law School (Fall 2019)
Fouteau, Carine. October 17, 2019. “How Macron (re)opened the door to Islamophobia”, Médiapart, https://www.mediapart.fr/en/journal/france/171019/how-macron-reopened-door-islamophobia (retrieved 10/22/2019).
Hartman, Saidiya. 2019. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York, W. W. Norton & Company.
Helmreich, Stefan. 2017. “The Genders of Waves”. WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 45(1-2): 29–51.
Hewitt, Nancy. 2010. No Permanent Waves. Recasting Histories U.S. Feminism. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press.
Marso, Lori. 2010. “Feminism’s Quest for Common Desires”. Perspectives on Politics, 8(1): 263-269.
Newton, Esther. 2018. My Butch Career: A Memoir. Durham, Duke University Press.
Sears, David O.; Valentino, Nicholas A. 1997. “Politics Matters: Political Events as catalysts for Preadult Socialization”. The American Political Science Review, 91 (1): 45-65.
Sharma, Sarah. Summer 2018. “Going to Work in Mommy’s Basement”. The Boston Review. https://bostonreview.net/gender-sexuality/sarah-sharma-going-work-mommys-basement (retrieved 10/22/2019).
Staggenborg, Suzanne; Taylor, Verta. 2005. “Whatever Happened to The Women’s Movement?”. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 10 (1): 37-52.
Taylor, Verta. 1989. “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance”. American Sociological Review, 54 (5): 761-775.
[i] As Judith Revel reminded us, The Second Sex is not the end of de Beauvoir’s feminist trajectory – it is the stepping stone of her feminist career.
[ii] This resonates with Sarah Sharma’s observation (2018) that tech companies’ workspaces are a replacement for “Mommy’s basement”, and that what she calls tech(bro) culture has created the “post-mom economy”, which extends “the maternal mandate to all other care providers and expand(s) the realm of consumption”.