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Feminist Writings$

Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret A. Simons, and Marybeth Timmermann

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780252039003

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.001.0001

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The Condition of Women

The Condition of Women

Chapter:
(p.88) The Condition of Women
Source:
Feminist Writings
Author(s):

Simone de Beauvoir

, Marybeth Timmermann
Publisher:
University of Illinois Press
DOI:10.5406/illinois/9780252039003.003.0012

Abstract and Keywords

The conclusion that strikes the reader at the end of this study is that in France, things are not going well for women.1 They are not going well for adolescents either, or the elderly, or children, or male adults. The country is sick and all its members bear witness to this infirmity. It is impossible to heal any of them by amending the law, however considerably [...

The conclusion that strikes the reader at the end of this study is that in France, things are not going well for women.1 They are not going well for adolescents either, or the elderly, or children, or male adults. The country is sick and all its members bear witness to this infirmity. It is impossible to heal any of them by amending the law, however considerably [par des amendements importants]; the entire body must be treated. Because the structures of our society have not budged, the condition of women has not improved since 1919 and, as Andrée Michel has clearly shown, has even degraded at the same time as democracy has regressed.*2 The only hope permissible to Frenchwomen today is that France might change.

Women suffer even more than men do from the turmoil, injustice, and anachronism in which we live. It is in men’s interest to affirm that the second sex has never been better off, and certain women whose first concern is to please men agree. “Well,” they say, “statistics show that 39.6% of women are wage-earners, while about two-thirds stay at home, which means that (p.89) each one is free to choose according to her aspirations between those two lives. Men are not as lucky; they are obliged to work whether they want to or not.” It takes a good deal of bad faith to let oneself be taken in by this sophism. First, in the immense majority of cases, women do not have a choice, and for the very rare ones to whom a choice is given, it does not represent an advantage but a predicament. Certainly neither of these two paths results in a satisfying situation. I have received a large number of letters from women during the last ten years and have spoken with many women, and recent studies confirm my personal experience: their difficulties have only increased and are essentially due to the current conditions of women’s work.

Except for a privileged few, all women work. Some—housewives, peasants, laborers or employees in a family business—are not remunerated; others earn a salary. All have serious reasons to complain.

As for the life of the housewife, my opinion has not changed. To varying degrees, according to her monetary resources and the number of her children, she is exhausted by infinite and conflicting tasks that no social legislation regulates and that gain her no marketable skills. If the husband of a woman who has slaved away for twenty years in the house dies, or leaves her, or if she wants to leave him, she will have nothing to show for it, not even a certificate that helps a cook find a job, and as she gets older, she will see her economic value diminish. No one willingly hires a forty-year-old woman with no specialized skills. She is indeed as indissolubly attached to the home as the serf was to the glebe in the days of old. Socially, she is reduced to isolation; the vague exchanges between neighbors are no substitute for the professional solidarity that is created in the factory, office, or labor union. The only group into which she is integrated is the family, which reinforces her dependence with regards to her husband. Psychologically, dependence is still her lot, for she receives no other compensation than the gratitude and affection of her spouse and children—a precarious reward that is often lacking—which turns her life into a series of arid chores to which she submits with a growing resentment. In general, for a few years the “housewife” finds a certain equilibrium in accepting her mutilations3 and getting carried away by devotion; and then resignation turns into rancor. If she can, she decides to work outside the home and deplores the lost years; she would have gotten a better position if she had continued her studies or started earlier in her career. Many do not have the opportunities or the courage necessary to tear themselves away from their stagnation,4 but when feelings are laid bare, domestic slavery is experienced as a degradation. Then conjugal hatred flourishes, and the couple struggles in one of those hells so numerous (p.90) and so common that it is hardly noticed, and yet is one of the worst blights of our society.

However, women wage-earners can hardly congratulate themselves on their fate either. Even for men, in this world of capitalist exploitation and individualistic solitude, work is generally nothing but an unrewarding necessity; it rarely possesses an intrinsic interest. But at least men are stimulated by a double ambition: to make money and to assert themselves socially through professional success. Women have practically no recourse against the monotony of the job. From the start, girls are offered many fewer possibilities than boys. Andrée Michel reports that for boys, technical schools offer 392 occupations; for girls only 174 are available, and these are specifically feminine: sewing, fashion, etc. They are doomed to tasks that are monotonous, very poorly paid, and with no future. In her book on the Promotion of Women, Célia Bertin notes that, concerning the professions, parents are willing to make a considerable investment for the education and training of their son but would consider it unwise to invest in a girl; she will get married and in any case5 will not climb very high. A situation as secretary or nurse is enough for her; it’s useless to make sacrifices to train her as a lawyer or a doctor. Then the barriers come into play, and on this point, all the testimonies are in agreement. I personally have gathered some gripping ones. All other things being equal—work, zeal, capacities—women remain confined to inferior positions while their masculine counterparts rise; the clientele does not have confidence in a woman lawyer or a woman doctor, and their colleagues do not support them. In the spirit of competition, men very deliberately maintain the myth of feminine inferiority, and this propaganda is effective. Women contribute to making the barriers insurmountable by their certainty in having to face them. “In any case,6 a woman can not make it to the top [arriver], so it is useless to struggle.” She gets comfortable in the mediocrity that is imposed upon her, and by her example and words she encourages other women to the same resignation. But this way she gains almost no benefit from her efforts. Her mediocre tasks in themselves provide her with no joy; they don’t permit her to happily fill her pockets and they don’t flatter her pride. Only the real but austere satisfaction of earning one’s daily bread remains.

What is still more serious is that this autonomy is very costly. The wage-earning woman obviously does not renounce love, and love brings about children. And besides, she wants children; but in order to smoothly reconcile her occupation with motherhood, she must, thanks to birth control methods, be able to decide when to procreate. Nurseries, day-cares, domestic help and all (p.91) those elements effectively organized by States that encourage working women must exist on a large scale. In our country, children are born by chance, the mother raises them with no help, and conventions require that she assume the responsibility almost exclusively; the cooperation of the father is secondary even if she works and earns as much as him. With two or three children and modest resources, she can not continue to pursue her profession without performing exhausting acrobatics. A woman doctor, employed by a large Parisian factory, was telling me that the workers who were also mothers of a family constantly lived on the verge of a nervous depression. “They sleep only five hours; they are always sleepy and tired; they never make it up. All it takes is a trifle—a sickness, an unexpected expense, a big worry—and everything comes apart; they collapse.” Even in the better-off strata of society, a woman who works and raises children experiences chronic fatigue, an imbalance that often leads to a break-down.7 Three days ago, I received a letter from a woman engineer who is thirty-five years old and who is just now coming out of one of these crises. In her letter she told me:

Yes, I thought that it would be possible to lead several lives at the same time: the life of a wife, a mother, a professional, and a participant in the world around me. I felt I would be able to coordinate them. Well, due to lodging and personal conditions, I led the life of a tightrope walker, and I struggled against getting bogged down by household chores. Was trying to keep my mind alive worth the resulting trepidations of the heart and the impossible schedules? If I had simply been the mother of a family who believed in her household activities, wouldn’t I have been more balanced? Or if I wanted a professional life, should I have refused to have children, children being acceptable only in a future world “made of great communities [ensembles] with parks and nurseries”? It is the same thing for the other women I know. Marriage has sorted the intellectual girls into the many who returned to the traditional life of housewife and the few who sought to live for marriage with children and at the same time for the intellect. None of this latter group has serenity (they are engineers, college professors, fashion artists, etc.).

What struck me the most in this letter is the anxious interrogation: “Was I wrong?” I have often heard this; the housewife overwhelmed by her slavery moans, “If only I had an occupation!” while she who has an occupation murmurs, “If only I didn’t need to work!” or if the need is less pressing, she hesitates, “Wouldn’t it be better if I gave this up?”

In truth, with only a few rare exceptions, women do not choose their kind of life. Single or married to a man who earns little, women laborers (p.92) and employees could not live without their pay. In a negative way, therefore less visible but just as imperious, domestic confinement is inflicted upon the housewife; for two-thirds of Frenchwomen there are no career prospects outside of the home. However, due to the fact that a double life is opening up to women—while men know only one—each woman thinks she sees a sort of contingence at the heart of her destiny, which renders it more unbearable. A malcontented man blames the very foundations of society; he thinks that in this world as it is, things could not have happened otherwise for him. Women—because they are victims of a carefully orchestrated mystification and because, due to their situation as secondary beings, they are less solidly integrated into the collectivity—give much more importance to occasional causes. They think they are dealing not with a system, but with people; those responsible for their troubles are their parents, a certain boss, their husbands, or themselves. They repeat, “It’s his fault,” or “It’s my fault.” Rancor as well as remorse can easily turn into neurosis, and even more than fatigue, the perpetual rethinking of their fate leads to an imbalance in women. Those who had the freedom of a choice react to failure with feelings of guilt; they reproach themselves for having sacrificed their home, their children, or on the contrary for having shirked in their work. They reproach themselves for living as a parasite instead of bringing money home. They end up deciding to change their path; the domestic woman seeks a job and the lawyer closes her office; and they run into new obstacles. Some wear themselves out in this coming and going. Far from giving an advantage to women, the mirage or the existence of another possibility feeds her dissatisfaction.

Yet between the two situations I have just described, there is no equivalence; studies have shown that the majority of women aspire to a paid job. I spoke with some female employees in the Hispano-Suiza factories one evening; none of them would have agreed to give up her job. They all emphasized the feeling of dignity that they derived from it, and they vigorously protested when a man objected that they were neglecting their duties as mothers. “Our children are as well brought up and as happy as any others. We take care of them.” In September of [19]58, during the referendum campaign, I knew some young women who found ways to hold meetings until midnight, and who at six in the morning distributed fliers and hung posters, who woke their children at seven and gave them breakfast, and who had to be at their office by eight thirty; they seemed serene. Perhaps they wore themselves out in the long run. But the nervous depressions caused by this (p.93) type of overexertion, as dramatic as they might be, can be cured. The slow wasting away of the domestic slave is not as noticeable, yet the mutilations she endures, the disgust and rancor which consume her, are incurable. The most painful letters I have received come from housewives.

So there is no question of going backward. Besides, history never goes back to where it used to be. Throughout the entire world, women are becoming emancipated. The only solution for them is to forge ahead; women today suffer from being pulled in all directions, but that will come to an end when this transition period is over.

The most well-balanced women I have met are in China, among high-ranking professionals: doctors, and engineers. They were lucky to have participated through their work in a great collective endeavor: the construction of the New China, for which they cared passionately. But what was especially interesting to me was that their private life was troubled by no conflict. In their eyes, working was a given. Practically, everything was put into place so that they could, like men, devote themselves to their families and to their occupation at the same time, and within their profession, no discrimination worked against them. Ideologically, they were victims of no prejudice, no myth; the Chinese jumped from the feudal family to the conjugal family without passing through paternalism. But during this same period in the Occident, men internalized, in the form of a superiority complex, traditional values, which remain engraved in their hearts, whereas the Chinese man rejected traditions and values in one fell swoop. In any case,8 ideology is practice insofar as it is articulated in words; treated as equals, women are thought of as equals. The State needed her, which gave rise to her promotion; high-ranking professionals were lacking, and mobilizing the elites of both sexes led to treating them with perfect equity.

If one day the French economy, in a similarly ingenious way, were to make an appeal to French women to work, we would see all the objections brandished by the antifeminists crumble. The government would create laws and institutions necessary for the reconciliation of factory and home; the barriers, victimizations, and roadblocks that hinder women’s success would be abolished. The so-called psychological problems that reflect, in truth, an objective situation would immediately disappear; there would no longer be scruples, rancor, remorse, doubts, neuroses. If men found it natural for their wives to work, they would see themselves obligated to take on the consequences of this situation and adapt their sensibility and sexuality to it. Women would be freed from the fear of displeasing in accomplishing (p.94) themselves. And the children? They supposedly require the constant presence of their mother and complain, “The neighbor lady across the way stays home all day. Why do you work? Is it because Papa doesn’t earn enough money?” One forgets that a child is not an innocent spontaneity, nor the voice of nature; he is conditioned by his entourage, and no one is more conformist than a child. It is only the anomaly of the situation that is shocking; he would accept it unquestioningly if it were taken for granted.

And the “petite différence”?9 The physiological givens will still remain, remarks Mr. d’Ormesson in his article in this issue.10 We know that physical strength loses its importance with the progress of automation. As for resistance and skill, women have plenty of those. A well-organized economy would easily make room for maternity leaves; if they are planned and accepted, they will hinder neither production nor the worker. The only thing left is the menstrual cycle, wherein, according to Mr. d’Ormesson, lies the specificity of women’s destiny. Let us reassure him: if they have mental health and good hygiene, the majority of women take care of it very well. Masculine mythology makes it into a distressing and somewhat shameful sign of our weakness; if it were imposed upon men, they would find the monthly gift of their blood superbly virile. As long as women remain an underdeveloped sex economically speaking, any masculine singularity will symbolize, to the males, their own superiority.

Everything would change—ideologies, myths, relations between spouses and within each person, between parents and children, and between everyone and society—if society were to be transformed. Inversely, only an economic upheaval can finally make women into full-fledged individuals. It is in the best interests of a regime based on exploitation to maintain discriminations between individuals; equality cannot appear without the coming of a socialism. This condition, although necessary, is not immediately satisfying. Historically, the second sex has gotten off to a bad start because, during the times of elementary technology like hunting and fishing, and in the context of scarcity, the physiological difference between men and women worked in favor of men. These past millenniums may continue to condition us for a long time.11 In order for women to obtain this professional equality upon which all the rest depends, there must be work for everyone. This implies a great increase in earthly prosperity and a rationalization of production on a universal scale. In vain do we speculate over these tomorrows of our prehistory. What is certain is that this march toward abundance and reason can happen only if there is an overthrow of the system of production. (p.95) If women do not want to content themselves with finding individual solutions to their singular problems, they must fight alongside the men who want to hasten this overthrow.

Notes

“La condition féminine,” La NEF (La nouvelle équipe française) 5, January–March 1961, 121–27; reprinted in Les écrits de Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 401–9; © Éditions Gallimard, 1979. This article served as the conclusion to La NEF’s multivolume series on “The Frenchwoman Today” (La Française aujourd’hui). There were a few minor changes made to the original article in the Écrits version that have been noted here.

This article was preceded by the following editorial introduction:

We have come to the end of the study undertaken by La NEF on the situation of “the Frenchwoman today.” In the first issue, appearing in October of 1960, La NEF studied the relationship between French women and work. In this current issue, La NEF covers the problems of “women and [love].” We do not claim that this study is complete and definitive. We are aware that there are many aspects of “the Frenchwoman today” that we were not able to tackle and have not included here. However, we think that the articles published in these two issues of La NEF provide new research and information to the study of a question that one might think is well-known, but in reading these articles, one will see that in reality it is very poorly understood. This picture of the condition of women in France in 1960 needed a conclusion, which we have asked Simone de Beauvoir to write.

(1.) Beauvoir is referring to the inquiry into the current situation of Frenchwomen, undertaken by the French periodical, La NEF, and published in their October–December 1960 and January–March 1961 issues. The articles in the October–December issue focused on the questions of women and work, while the January–March 1961 issue focused on women and love. The editors invited Beauvoir to write the concluding article for this special series.

(2.) The following note appeared in the Écrits edition of this article: “Andrée Michel and Geneviève Texier, The Condition of the Frenchwoman Today, 2 vol. (Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1964).

(3.) This is “mutilations” in Écrits, apparently a correction of “mutalisations,” which is how it appears in the La NEF article.

(4.) In Écrits, this reads “s’arracher à leur marasme”; this is apparently a correction of how it appears in the La NEF article, which reads “s’accorder à leur marasme” (to consent to their stagnation).

(5.) In Écrits, this appears in the singular (“de toute façon”); in the La NEF article, it is plural (“de toutes façons”).

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) “break-down” is in English in Beauvoir’s text.

(8.) In Écrits, this appears in the singular (“de toute façon”); in the La NEF article, it is plural (“de toutes façons”). (p.96)

(9.) In La NEF, the grammatical article is also inside the quotation marks (“la petite difference”).

(10.) Jean d’Ormesson (1925–present) is a French writer and member of the Academie Fran-çaise since 1973. His letter to the editors of La NEF was included in the January–March 1961 issue of their series on “The Frenchwoman Today.” See Jean d’Ormesson, “Lettre à La NEF sur la ‘petite différence’ entre les hommes et les femmes” (Letter to La NEF on the “little difference” between men and women), La NEF 5 (January–March 1961): 29–32.

(11.) In Écrits, it reads “continueront peut-être longtemps à nous conditionner”; in the La NEF article, it is “continueront peut-être longtemps de nous conditionner.”

Notes:

(1.) Beauvoir is referring to the inquiry into the current situation of Frenchwomen, undertaken by the French periodical, La NEF, and published in their October–December 1960 and January–March 1961 issues. The articles in the October–December issue focused on the questions of women and work, while the January–March 1961 issue focused on women and love. The editors invited Beauvoir to write the concluding article for this special series.

(*) Andrée Michel, “La Française et la démocratie,” [Frenchwomen and democracy] La NEF 4, October–December 1960: 20–36.

(2.) The following note appeared in the Écrits edition of this article: “Andrée Michel and Geneviève Texier, The Condition of the Frenchwoman Today, 2 vol. (Paris: Denoël-Gonthier, 1964).

(3.) This is “mutilations” in Écrits, apparently a correction of “mutalisations,” which is how it appears in the La NEF article.

(4.) In Écrits, this reads “s’arracher à leur marasme”; this is apparently a correction of how it appears in the La NEF article, which reads “s’accorder à leur marasme” (to consent to their stagnation).

(5.) In Écrits, this appears in the singular (“de toute façon”); in the La NEF article, it is plural (“de toutes façons”).

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) “break-down” is in English in Beauvoir’s text.

(8.) In Écrits, this appears in the singular (“de toute façon”); in the La NEF article, it is plural (“de toutes façons”). (p.96)

(9.) In La NEF, the grammatical article is also inside the quotation marks (“la petite difference”).

(10.) Jean d’Ormesson (1925–present) is a French writer and member of the Academie Fran-çaise since 1973. His letter to the editors of La NEF was included in the January–March 1961 issue of their series on “The Frenchwoman Today.” See Jean d’Ormesson, “Lettre à La NEF sur la ‘petite différence’ entre les hommes et les femmes” (Letter to La NEF on the “little difference” between men and women), La NEF 5 (January–March 1961): 29–32.

(11.) In Écrits, it reads “continueront peut-être longtemps à nous conditionner”; in the La NEF article, it is “continueront peut-être longtemps de nous conditionner.”