I wanted to start by talking a little about Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quote. As ridiculous as it may seem, I have seen this quote used by various shades of anti-feminists and deconstructionists to support their contention that ‘woman’ is a category that cannot be defined or determined. Even de Beauvoir, they claim, recognised that ‘woman’ was a construction and that, therefore, anyone can self-construct as a woman and get in on the act.
Which shows, of course, that they have never even bothered to pick up a copy of The Second Sex and find where that quote is situated and what its context is. Let’s take a look, shall we? The quote is found at the opening of Book II: Woman’s Life Today. The entire paragraph reads:
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.
This makes it clear that what de Beauvoir is concerned with is the process by which ‘human females’ are transformed into culturally constructed ‘femininity’ by [patriarchal] ‘civilization.’ What follows in the subsequent chapters is a detailed and quietly gruesome description of the ways in which patriarchal civilization breaks young girls and turns them into appropriately feminine and subservient wives and mothers. As seen in chapter headings like Childhood, The Young Girl, Sexual Initiation, The Married Woman, The Mother and so on.
The chapter on lesbians that sits in the middle of all this is an intriguing departure, but I would really prefer to explore it in more depth than is possible in this post, so regretfully I will put it aside for another time.
What I wanted to do next was to think of some examples that would highlight this breaking process, and, peculiarly perhaps, what came to mind was some of Charlotte Brontë’s letters. I find her a particularly interesting example, given that her marriage to her father’s curate Arthur Nicholls is generally viewed in such positive terms. Biographers wax lyrical about how wonderful it must have been for Charlotte to finally get ‘sexual fulfilment’ and other such things after a lifetime of ‘denial’. In my mind, these sorts of assertions sit uneasily alongside the fact that her death was most likely caused by hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness), as a result of being pregnant. However, the mad dash towards sex positivism also overlooks the rather more ambivalent comments Charlotte herself made about her marriage. Take this, for example, written to her lifelong friend Ellen Nussey:
Dear Nell, during the last six weeks [i.e. since marriage], the colour of my thoughts is a good deal changed: I know more of the realities of life than I once did. I think many false ideas are propagated, perhaps unintentionally. I think those married women who indiscriminately urge their acquaintance to marry, much to blame. For my part, I can only say with deeper sincerity and fuller significance what I always said in theory, ‘Wait God’s will.’ Indeed, indeed, Nell, it is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife. Man’s lot is far, far different.
Perilous indeed. The tone of this letter, to me, is one of disillusionment and bewilderment; not happiness. Charlotte, like many women before her, had discovered that marriage was a con; one that had no way out, and which killed her through pregnancy nine months later.
Meanwhile, what was the man’s lot in all this? Attempting to destroy evidence of his wife’s friendship with Ellen Nussey, amongst other things. In another letter after her marriage, Charlotte writes to Ellen:
Dear Ellen, Arthur wishes you would burn my letters. He was out when I commenced this letter, but has just come in. It is not ‘old friends’ he mistrusts, he says, but the chances of war – the accidental passing of letters into hands and under eyes for which they were never written. All this seems mighty amusing to me; it is a man’s mode of viewing correspondence. Men’s letters are proverbially uninteresting and uncommunicative.
Thankfully for us, Ellen did not comply with this request. Chances of war my eye – quite frankly, I think Mr Nicholls was just jealous because he sensed, in some indescribable way, that the relationship Charlotte shared with Ellen was far more significant than that which she shared with him.
Charlotte met Ellen Nussey when they were at Roe Head school together; aged fifteen and fourteen respectively. They remained lifelong friends and corresponded frequently, leaving us (no thanks to Mr Nicholls) with a whole wealth of written material. There is one final snippet I would like to share; one which I think both gives further insight into what it means to break human females into patriarchal femininity, and perhaps in part explains why the breaking has to be so brutal and complete.
Charlotte sent this to Ellen when she was twenty years old, and already a teacher at Roe Head. She writes,
I wish that I could live with you always, I begin to cling to you more fondly than I ever did. If we had but a cottage and a competency of our own I do think we might live and love on till Death without being dependent on any third person for happiness.
So, this is one women’s vision of an ideal world. Living together in independence with her female best friend, dependent on no one for happiness. Men do not figure in this ideal world at all. Men are irrelevant. And on some level, they know it. They know that secretly we all long for our own little cottage, our independence, our uninterrupted time with our female friends/lovers/mothers/daughters, and they know it would spell the end for them if we ever got it.
And they know that the only way to prevent this is to keep us as slaves; to convince us that this slavery is freedom; to convince us that this distorted image is our true nature; to keep us always alone and divided, desperately searching for female reflection in a world made entirely of men; to make any expression of sexual or emotional intimacy unthinkable without the intervention of an erect penis shoving its way into a vagina, wanted or not.
To break us long before we reach adulthood, and have any chance at all of establishing even one tiny corner in this world that is out of their violent reach.
This is what de Beauvoir means when she speaks of ‘becoming a woman’. She is talking about the deliberate mechanisms by which females are enslaved. A process that begins in childhood, carries on through adolescence and culminates in enforced heterosexuality, marriage, intercourse and motherhood. This is no pomo playground. This is the fucking nightmare that almost every female on this planet has been forced to live for the last 5000 years.
This afterword may actually be more important than the main essay, and probably deserves its own post. But I am pressed for time, so I will have to tack it on here. Pay attention to erasure. Going back to the Brontës, when you read biographies about the sisters, and how amazing they were, and how they achieved the things they did, biographers often point to their father as being an unusually supportive and encouraging influence. This may or may not be true; I don’t really care. Because what strikes me when I read about Charlotte and Emily and Anne is that they were all there for each other, and that’s why they achieved what they did. They were there for each other creatively, intellectually, financially; they read to each other, encouraged each other, helped one another deal with the continual knock backs and ridicule and all sorts of other things they got as women who wouldn’t know their place. That core of female support is why they achieved what they did, and any men along the way were really quite secondary.
Same goes for Jane Austen. The most significant relationship she had was with her older sister Cassandra, yet that is invariably passed over in favour of stories, real or imagined, about the men she may or may not have loved. Because patriarchy really can’t comprehend significant female relationships, and it doesn’t want women getting the idea to band together anyway. Now, it is true that men often control the means of production – in this case the publishing industry – and that women will have to negotiate with men to some degree in order to get them onside so their words can actually get out there. And then it may also help to have male champions in the literary world to lend credence. But it doesn’t follow to laud those men as being the ‘driving force’ in the lives of these women writers. The driving force was the female community that allowed the women to even get to the point of writing something they believed worthy of being published, and going after their goals with strategic determination – yes?
Would Charlotte have even considered marrying any man at all had her beloved sisters still been alive? I really can’t imagine so.