5 Pages

Sexual politics

Mary Evans states at the beginning of her study that Simone de Beauvoir’s stature as a feminist does not mean her arguments should not be subjected to critical appraisal. Such an attitude can only be welcomed, since writing on Simone de Beauvoir can indeed verge on the hagiographical. Unfortunately, the result here appears so perversely dismissive of her work, basing its analyses on extremely selective quotation and presentation, and inadequate contextualization, that far from engaging with a critical analysis one feels rather constrained to set the record straight. Evans heaps praise on her subject in general terms-on her courage, commitment, opposition to oppression, honesty, inspiring examplebut at the level of specifics the charges are damning: Beauvoir’s idea of emancipation for women is to assume male values and modes of living; her model of social relations is simplistic, either positing the total autonomy of the individual or, in a crudely materialist reversal, subordinating the individual totally to capitalism; she had little practical experience of politics; her universalist model of sexual difference led her to underestimate class factors; she condemned lesbianism, celebrated heterosexuality and had a negative view of women; her fiction serves up didactic morality tales, and fails to cope with the complexity of individual motivation. What is feminist in all this? Not much, the author seems to conclude (although she does trace similarities with some feminist positions). Simone de Beauvoir should be seen as an educationist, she argues, a reformer in the Western liberal tradition. To support her arguments, Evans discusses in detail primarily the autobiography (especially the early volumes), The Second Sex and the fiction. A major drawback, therefore, in a book which sets out to evaluate a feminist mandarin (though by the end of the book the accent is rather on the ‘mandarin’), is that it ignores virtually all the articles and interviews which date from Simone de Beauvoir’s explicit espousal of feminism. Les Écrits de Simone de Beauvoir (a massive work published in 1979 but not in the bibliography) lists twenty-one separate articles, prefaces and interviews specifically devoted to feminist issues

in the six years between 1972 and 1977, when it stops. It also reprints several of them which flatly contradict some of Evans’s comments-for example, on political lesbianism and friendships between women-and throughout the book the general statements on Beauvoir’s attitudes and positions should be treated with extreme suspicion because of this absence of any historical perspective. Evans writes: ‘Indeed, if Simone de Beauvoir had not written The Second Sex, it is not inconceivable that she would never have been identified with feminism at all’ (p. x). This effectively wipes out the last fourteen years of her life, when she described herself as ‘une militante féministe’ and was actively involved in a whole range of campaigns and projects. The way Evans acknowledges this is also, therefore, something of a distortion. She continues:

It is true she may well have given her support to causes such as the liberalization of the French abortion laws, but then so did many other women, and men, who had no significant or specific commitment to or identification with feminism. (pp. x-xi)

Part of my irritation with the text stems from sentences such as this, for its condescension and wrongheadedness. Since from the 1970s Simone de Beauvoir did have both a specific commitment to and an identification with feminism, the fact that others did not is really neither here nor there. But the hostile message is clear. More importantly, the significance of her contribution isn’t even broached.