As soon as we accept a human perspective, defining the body starting from existence, biology becomes an abstract science.
—The Second Sex
After the United States presidential election in 2016, I overheard a woman say, “I’m glad a man won. Women are just too emotional to be president.” This is one example of the persistent myths about women’s capabilities: that having a woman’s brain and hormones means that you’re prone to hysteria and incapable of taking on senior roles in most public and private realms, or that people in senior roles should not behave like women (whatever that means).1 Beauvoir wrote extensively about myths—what she often refers to as “mystifications”—about women. Mystifications are false ideas about who we are and what we’re supposed to be. Mystifications are a problem because they are illusions that get in the way of authenticity.
One of these mystifications is the assumption that people have inbuilt essences that define them in an absolutist way—for example, that women are emotional and men are rational, which enables men to be better presidents and leaders than women.2 The assumptions we make about being human can add up and ossify into rigid and oppressive structures. It’s important for us to understand our situations so we can consider what’s determined by our environment and what’s within our control. You may have heard of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Beauvoir was an atheist and didn’t subscribe to the Serenity Prayer, but she did attempt to untangle facts about the human condition from myths. And distinguishing between things we can’t control and things we can is incredibly tricky because webs of assumptions, biases, and prejudices get tangled up with the facts about what it is to be human.
Modern science is exploring and sometimes unraveling some of these complexities, such as between free will and determinism. There is some evidence to suggest that although there are parts of our being that are determined, we seem to be able to override our impulses, and perhaps even train our brain to create new pathways.3 Even if some of our brain is determined, what’s interesting from an existential perspective is our window of freedom.
Making mistakes about what we can and can’t control leads to all kinds of problems, such as warped images of ourselves and others, which limit our possibilities. In order to create better and clearer opportunities to shape our own futures and essences, we need to expose the mystifications and how they operate. We can only live authentically if we are accurate about what we can and can’t control and then pursue our lives with as much awareness as possible. Unfortunately, patriarchal culture constantly seeks to subvert a woman’s capacity to live authentically.4 Fortunately, patriarchal culture does not wholly prevent authenticity either because our lived experiences are not completely defined by our situations.
* * *
An “existential infrastructure,” as Beauvoir calls it, can help us to expose common mystifications and make sense of our situations.5 Beauvoir describes the nature of human existence as both freedom and facticity. “Freedom” is a movement toward being, but also a never-attaining, open-ended way of existing. “Facticity” is the given—or unchosen—facts of our lives, including our parents, the bodies and brains we’re born with, other people, and where we exist in relation to others.
Beauvoir teaches us that we are our facticity (bodies and situations) but we are also transcendence (our goals and intentions). We live free lives by transcending our facticity: holding ourselves in question, making definitive choices, striving toward our goals, and concretely engaging ourselves in the world. This is the foundation of the existential idea that “existence precedes essence,” which means that we are cast into the world and then each of us must figure out who we will become.
Yet we all are born into different situations with different bodies. We grow up in different environments. We are socialized in different ways. Ethical problems arise when we are cut off—or we cut ourselves off—from our freedom, such that we become mired in our facticity. Being stuck in our facticity is what Beauvoir calls “immanence.” Exercising our freedom is transcendence. (And by transcendence, I mean transcendence of facticity.)
To live authentically, we must transcend our facticity into the future, freely pursuing self-chosen goals, or what Beauvoir often refers to as “projects.” Human existence involves us spontaneously projecting ourselves into the world. We set up goals in our life, and we project ourselves toward them. Projects are activities that bring coherence, meaning, and justification to our lives. Any activity can count as a project—a career, a passion, a hobby, a home, a social or creative work—but to be authentic, these activities need to reflect our own choices and support collective freedom.
The opposite of authenticity is inauthenticity, sometimes called “bad faith,” which (in an existential sense, as opposed to a legal one) means to deny one’s own or others’ freedom. People in bad faith may wish their life were otherwise but do nothing about it, fail to confront the truth of their lives and situations, or deny their responsibility for their actions.6
Beauvoir’s collection of short interwoven stories When Things of the Spirit Come First sketches a series of case studies in bad faith. The character Chantal presents a glittering and glamorous image of herself to others, which is entirely fake. Bad faith exists in her failure to confront the truth of her life and her lies to try to manipulate how others see her. Her inner monologue and diary reveal the chasm between her private and public lives.7
Bad faith isn’t only about misrepresenting oneself to others, but also annihilating oneself for others. Another character Marcelle dreams of surrendering herself to great love. Her bad faith reveals itself in her obsession with being a dutiful and supportive wife at all costs and transforming her passivity and tolerance of bad sex into false virtues: “She took every one of Denis’s piercing thrusts with passionate submission, and to make his possession of her the more complete she let her consciousness glide away into the night.”8
It’s also bad faith to deny responsibility for our lives, such as when we believe that our choices and the consequences of our actions don’t matter. Denis makes commitments, like marrying Marcelle, but promises don’t bind him. He believes that things just happen to us, we have no real choices in our lives, and all we can do is submit blindly to fate.
The characters in When Things of The Spirit Come First show that, as Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, “Inauthenticity does not pay.”9 Marcelle cowers in her abusive relationship with Denis. Denis flounders in despair and depression. The story closes with Marguerite, Marcelle’s sister, grieving that her loved ones “will die without ever having known or loved anything real.”10 By contrast, when we face the world authentically—welcoming our freedom, seizing responsibility for our choices, refusing to annihilate ourselves before delusions and false idols—the world reveals exhilarating possibilities.
One way to think about Beauvoir’s existential infrastructure—facticity, transcendence, freedom, and bad faith—is as follows: facticity is being born into an English-speaking family, while transcendence is choosing to study French. Though you will never be a native French speaker—because you can’t change the fact of where you were born—you can transcend beyond your English-speaking facticity. You might diminish your own freedom, through bad faith, if you were to discount your own ability to learn French on the basis of throwaway excuses such as being “too old” or “not smart enough.” Or you can exercise your freedom toward becoming fluent in French. When you learn a language, you create yourself as a bilingual person: a person who is reaching toward being bilingual. If you are forbidden to learn or are told you’re not capable, or if basic resources to learn (such as library books and the internet) are denied to you, then the ways you can exercise your freedom shrink.
One might argue that it’s bad faith to suggest that there are external limitations on our freedom. But to ignore limitations entirely is like a scene in a horror movie where a torturer chops off a captive’s feet and then says they are free to go. It’s the same with meritocracy and white privilege: working hard doesn’t always lead to success for many people because of systemic racist obstacles.
If you don’t have the power to act on your freedom, then it’s a shallow notion of freedom. You have to be free from oppression in order to be free to reach for authenticity. This means that it is bad faith not to acknowledge the structures that prevent people from exercising their freedom. Beauvoir’s philosophy is so powerful because she recognizes that human existence is a complicated mix of tensions between freedom and facticity. We can’t control our facticity, but to be free is to be able to control our lives by transcending the situations that we’re thrown into.
* * *
People don’t arrive in the world tabula rasa, with absolute freedom. While we have to create our essence from scratch and invent our lives as we would compose a poem, we’re not writing on a blank sheets of paper suspended in a vacuum. The world we are born into contains a moiling mass of human history and on top of it is heavy-duty societal and cultural architecture. These structures form the background of our creations and frame our movements toward authenticity.
Beauvoir argued that one of the primary features of our social and cultural architecture is the mystification that women are the second sex. Women are defined in relationship to men, who are defined as the universal. Men have assumed the essential role (Subject) while women have taken on the inessential role (Other).11 “Other” is capitalized when a person’s subjectivity is denied, when they are treated as an Other only and not a subject also.
In Beauvoir’s view, this process of “othering”—of defining people in relation to and in contrast with others—is profoundly human. Othering has always happened and continues to happen, among people of different origins, races, religions, abilities, classes, ages, and sexual preferences, for example. The effects are much more drastic for people who experience othering on multiple dimensions. The question Beauvoir puts forth in The Second Sex is: Why are women so often men’s Other? Why have women submitted to men so reliably? Why have the relations between the sexes so consistently failed to be equal? How have men oppressed women so effectively?12
Humans are both subjects for themselves and objects for others. For Beauvoir, as for Sartre, humans are being-for-themselves, while objects such as rocks are being-in-themselves. The key difference is that a human is conscious, that is, a human being is a transcending consciousness who can question themselves and overcome their facticity. A rock is not. We come to recognize our being-for-others when we realize that we are objects for other people. We are not self-conscious around a rock but we are with another person. Ideally, we might achieve being-with-others, that is, solidarity and friendship.
There is a tension for each of us between being-for-ourselves and being-for-others: defining ourselves as we wish and realizing others judge us as well. Focusing too much on being-for-yourself is self-centered and other people will very likely find you intolerable. Focusing too much on being-for-others at the expense of being-for-yourself turns you into a doormat, and you risk losing yourself.
Oppression reduces people to being-in-themselves, like the rock, and denies their claim to being-for-themselves. Oppression downgrades people to objects, denies their subjectivity, and excludes them from being-with-others in reciprocal ways. Women have been Other to men, not only economically because they were dependent on men, but also existentially, and this dynamic has generally worked in men’s favor.
As a person asserts themselves in the world to understand their being, they come up against obstacles: against a subway that’s running late, against other people trying to squeeze into the train car in rush hour, or against their own needs and desires such as hunger and free Wi-Fi. Objects in the world can either be abstract and remain foreign to me, such as the delayed train, or they can be objects that passively submit, such as a juicy peach that I can possess, consume, and destroy. When we treat Others as objects, we contradict their experience as another free consciousness with a robust being-for-themselves.
There are two key implications to Beauvoir’s philosophy here. One, when we oppress another, we treat them as an object to be possessed, consumed, or destroyed, instead of treating them as an authentic subjectivity in themselves. And two, interactions with objects like peaches don’t give me any deep understandings about myself. To begin to understand ourselves, we need other people. Only other freedoms, other subjectivities, can disclose aspects of our being that we can’t see on our own.
Jean-Paul Sartre suggested this dynamic, this pull away from being-for-oneself and toward being-for-others, meant that “hell is … other people!”13 Beauvoir recognized that others can just as easily be friendly as hostile, depending on how each person approaches an encounter. To relate authentically to another is to be friendly because it calls for reciprocal acknowledgment of others as subjects, transcending the desire to possess and control one another, continually overcoming the compulsion to make ourselves the center of our own universes, and treating each other with respect and generosity. Authentic relationships, for Beauvoir, are the best things humans can achieve.14 The risk is that we never know if another person will reciprocate in a relationship, romantic or platonic. While we can’t choose whether other people will cast us as Other, we can choose how we treat other people.
* * *
The mystification of the “eternal feminine” is one way that some have tried to solve the tension between being-for-themselves and being-for-others and to avoid the risk and vulnerability of authentic relationships. The eternal feminine is an idealized image of women as essentially being-for-others: unthreatening, generous, companionable, saintly, and subservient. Beauvoir noted that the Virgin Mary is the pinnacle of the eternal feminine.15
When Beauvoir wrote that one becomes a woman, she meant that it’s mostly civilization that habituates women to conform to the mystification of the eternal feminine. “Habituates” is the right word: Women learn how to live within the expectations of their roles, and they are constantly tutored in the expectations of the eternal feminine. Women’s subservience is written into the deepest cultural scripts that continue to dictate modern behavior.
Creation myths in many Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions play to the mystification of the eternal feminine. Genesis 2 asserts Eve was created for Adam, designed to be his submissive companion. Adam came first and as such, his presence in the world was primary and Eve’s was secondary. Mystifications such as these set a precedent that men are the standard of the world, the universal humankind, the creators, while women are handy, nice-to-have sidekicks. In existential terms, Adam is the essential being while Eve is the inessential. She is his complement, a subservient (but untrustworthy) Other created from him and for him.
For Beauvoir, one of the main ways the mystification of the eternal feminine frustrates relationships between the sexes is that men want women to be Other. Men attempt to constrain women’s facticity—so that women are secondary to men’s primacy—to the point of enslavement. Still, there’s no way that women’s transcendence can be fully bridled, which frustrates men who want to control women.16 These conflicts come about because men want what isn’t theirs (women’s freedom). Such delusions go some way to explaining why men have been so obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and stifling women’s voices.
Beauvoir challenged reductive and restrictive mystifications such as the ideal of the eternal feminine and was punished for not conforming. Upon publication of The Second Sex, when Beauvoir was forty-one years old, she received a deluge of praise and hate. Beauvoir had written openly about women’s experiences, including detailed discussions of taboo topics such as menstruation, puberty, sex, lesbians, and women’s oppression.
Some readers were ardent admirers of her candor and bravery. Others were scandalized that she revealed so many intimate secrets about women’s bodies. Some people criticized her for not revealing enough about the diversity of women’s experiences—in particular, not focusing on women of color. Beauvoir said the torrents of coarse slurs and snickers, particularly from men, were violent and spiteful: “Unsatisfied, frigid, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother. People offered to cure me of my frigidity or to temper my labial appetites.”17
The philosopher Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature and once a friend, said that she humiliated French men.18 Some condemned her writing as pornography. In later memoirs, recounting the reception of The Second Sex, Beauvoir pointed out the double standards that applied to her: while it’s normal for men to discuss women’s bodies, when women talk about it, they’re branded as indecent. Beauvoir recalled, “One might almost have believed that Freud and psychoanalysis had never existed. What a festival of obscenity on the pretext of flogging me for mine!”19
The Second Sex clearly touched a vulnerable nerve for men and exposed many of their insecurities: that they might not deserve their superiority over women; that they aren’t as great in bed as they had hoped; and that women do not need them for sexual satisfaction. Some feared the book would help women to realize that they don’t have to tolerate men’s bad behavior.
In an unfinished 1957 commentary on The Second Sex, Lorraine Hansberry recalled the ambivalent reactions to Beauvoir’s book in the United States. American men, Hansberry observed, took The Second Sex more seriously than American women. Men interested in equal rights admired Beauvoir’s book. Some men disagreed with Beauvoir but respected the work enough to attack it for what Hansberry described as “its formidable solidity and undeniable brilliance.” Some women revered the book too. Hansberry knew of a playwright-actress who, to the horror of the male director, read The Second Sex aloud to her colleagues, “indoctrinating” them in between curtain calls. Other women read the book diligently, seeing their “liberation” and calls for “égalité, fraternité, liberté—pour tout le monde!” within its pages. Yet many women, even intelligent and feminist women, were cool toward The Second Sex and criticized it for being too harsh on marriage and motherhood or too preoccupied with sex. Hansberry recounted, “I have seen clear thinking, crisp American types of women (women intolerant and contemptuous of the more blatant codes of a male supremacist universe) puzzling briefly and inadequately over the work and then dismissing it.”20
The Vatican apparently deemed The Second Sex too dangerous to dismiss and added it (along with The Mandarins) to the (now defunct) index of banned books in 1956.21 Sometimes any publicity is good publicity: The Second Sex sold incredibly well. Around 55,000 copies were printed within the first five months, which is a lot for any book, let alone a philosophy book in 1949. The book has since been translated into around forty languages and millions of copies have been printed.22
Still, Beauvoir was in a privileged position. For many women the cost of not conforming to the eternal feminine—male standards of what a woman should be—is mortally dangerous. Many people who don’t fit the cisgender and heterosexual model are facing lethal challenges. Black women in America have always suffered under worse conditions than most white women from the time they were slaves and their bodies not their own. While white women may sometimes be treated as objects, Black women literally were objects, and the legacy of that white gaze still exists today.
* * *
Biological mystifications often get in the way of progress. Biology is commonly used to explain differences between the sexes. Male and female animals are defined in terms of their role in reproduction, though there are exceptions. Comparing ourselves to animals can give us information about some biological processes of living creatures. But our biology tells us nothing about the meaning of being human.
Existentialism offers its own answer about what makes humans unique: non-human animals act instinctively while humans transcend. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir argued that humans take risks to overcome our natural condition, stretching beyond our given situations, and looking for meaning in our lives.23 (Non-human animals think and feel and create social bonds, but as far as we know, they don’t philosophize.) To be human is to transcend the facts of our existence through our actions to create meaning.
Beauvoir wrote, “As soon as we accept a human perspective, defining the body starting from existence, biology becomes an abstract science.”24 Biology defines the facts of our lives, but not the meaning of life. Meaning comes from how we live, what we do, and how we act. We create this meaning with our choices, choices we make from the position of having the sex organs we find ourselves with, choices we make while navigating the human social world which has assigned certain values to certain sex organs.
Of course, biology can create complexities and tensions between facticity and freedom. Bodies sometimes get in the way of living full and rewarding lives. In my twenties, menstrual cramps brought so much pain that during breaks at work I’d curl up in the fetal position under my desk or on the nearest bathroom floor. For many women, menstruation is inconvenient if not agonizing, childbirth is excruciating if not mortally dangerous, and breastfeeding is exhausting if not grueling.25 Nevertheless, with technology, birth control, and medication, all these can be more easily managed. For me, either birth control pills or a single codeine tablet each month completely erased my pain.
What defines us is not simply what sort of body we have. What’s important is what we do with our particular body, and what we’re allowed and enabled to do with it. The problem for women is that the meanings of our bodies—the meanings of our biology—have been mostly dictated by men in power on the basis of a mystification. The biological mystification is often used to justify discrimination, but biology can’t account for socialized value systems.
Beauvoir points to psychoanalytic theories as another potential mystification that obscures authenticity. The idea that women think differently because of their “female brains” is contentious but widespread. Beauvoir blames psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud for sprouting this idea. Freud famously thought most of women’s problems came from not having a penis—an idea that says a lot more about Freud than it does about women. Freud didn’t examine a wider context of why men rose to dominance, for instance, or the effect of social and economic structures, or the role of choice and values.
Freud and psychotherapist Alfred Adler described children as being torn between identifying with the father or mother, between the masculine and feminine. Beauvoir maintains that this theory is a mystification, and a more accurate explanation of childhood turmoil is that girls are torn between exercising their freedom and being a “good girl.” Good girls conform to the eternal feminine. Good girls do what they are told, speak only when spoken to, make themselves pretty, don’t take up too much space, and always smile.
Beauvoir points to historical materialism as still another mystification that gets in the way of authenticity, specifically Friedrich Engels’s idea of homo economicus. Homo economicus is the notion that tools (like materials and technology) have shaped the means of production and, consequently, the organization of society and the division of labor between the sexes. Homo economicus is based on the idea that in the Stone Age, men were suited for hunting, while women were suited for using smaller tools such as spades in the garden and weaving implements. Later, with the development of the plow, agriculture intensified, and some people enslaved Others to cultivate fields and established private properties to manage slaves. Men worked with bigger tools, which created more profit and thus became more valuable—by superficial and limited financial measures—than the work women did to maintain homes and care for families.
One of the most famous historical studies of inequality, Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy (1987), gels with this idea. Lerner dated the creation of patriarchy to a process during the period between 3100 BC to 600 BC. Inequality rose with agriculture, Lerner contended, as men took control of land and women’s bodies (and children) as economic resources, which were then consolidated with private property.26
Private property and inheritance laws cemented the inequality, encouraging women to be dependent on men because they had little to no rights over any wealth. These laws institutionalized the patriarchal family and the idea that women were assets. Over time, the oppressive relationship between men and women became a habit. Men continued transcending—inventing, creating, realizing, and risking themselves—and turning these activities into values associated with masculinity. Most women were caught in the facticity of their animal nature—caring for and providing food for themselves and others—and blocked from creating their essence in ways that were authentic to them.
Beauvoir points to two key historical factors that transformed women’s situations in the twentieth century: freedom from reproduction and freedom to participate in production. Technology rendered physical differences between men and women, for the purpose of work, largely obsolete. Birth control opened up possibilities for many men and women to free themselves from large families or parenthood—although this still varies greatly by culture and class. Some privileged women didn’t need to work, but women who did paid work were doubly oppressed: even when they were granted the right to work, they weren’t granted rights at work. They were paid less, given more boring work, and faced discrimination and sexual harassment.
These historical developments reinforced male domination over women. However, Beauvoir argued that such theories as homo economicus are superficial and abstract because they don’t explain how tools alone were a sufficient means to shift society from communitarianism to individualism. They don’t explain exactly how private property caused women’s oppression, nor why the division of labor was based on subjugation instead of friendship.
While differences in bodies are biological, differences in power are cultural. Though many have justified men’s domination as natural simply because “it’s always been this way,” this message is an obfuscation and a means of oppression. It’s like saying that people have always died of diseases so we shouldn’t look for cures and vaccines, and that’s absurd. Beauvoir urges us not to confuse the verb “to be” when it is used about women in sentences like “Women are docile.” “To be” does not mean ought, it means “to have become.”27
Although we can’t control our biology, psychology, or history, we can control—or at least we should be able to control—how we structure the workplace and jobs and use technology to overcome historical inequalities in the division of labor. To reduce people to only their facticity is oppressive, immoral, and dehumanizing. It’s human to want to stretch beyond the given. To be human is to put being into question, to seek reasons to live, to justify oneself. Put simply: to transcend.
* * *
Freud’s theories have largely been discredited.28 But biological, psychological, and historical theories still operate effectively in contemporary culture, perpetuate damaging mystifications, and thwart authentic living. In the New York Times best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari agreed with Beauvoir (although he doesn’t mention her) that roles, rights, and duties allocated to men and women are cultural, not biological. But he also insisted that there is probably a biological reason why men have dominated women, even though he readily admits that there is no evidence of this.
Harari pointed out that while it’s true that on average men are more muscular, women are stronger than men in many other ways, such as resisting hunger, disease, and fatigue.29 Moreover, there is little—and sometimes inverse—correlation between social power and muscles. Those who rise in the ranks of political, religious, and legal leadership have rarely been the most buff and fit, let alone the most successful.
Some theories propose men are dominant because they’re more aggressive—the assumption being that more testosterone makes men more hostile. Yet it’s not at all clear that men are more aggressive than women. Some studies have found that women are more aggressive than men, although men are far more likely to inflict injury.30 Harari notes that while aggressive soldiers probably help win wars, leading armies is more about stamina, organization, manipulation, cooperation, and imagining situations from the enemy’s perspective. And there’s no evidence that men are better at those skills than women.
Still other popular theories claim that men have had to compete with other men to procreate with women, and women need protective men who are going to stick around for the pregnancy and first few years of the child’s life. But there’s no reason why women would have had to rely on men for anything other than sperm. Species of animals such as elephants, lions, spotted hyenas, and bonobos form matriarchal societies where females support each other in childrearing while the males fight amongst themselves. Still, non-human animals don’t dictate how humans should organize our social systems.
In Beauvoir’s existential terms, pushing women toward destinies that aren’t the result of their free, authentic choices—by discouraging them from male-coded roles—cramps their attempts to live authentically. So when does stereotype indoctrination start? Very, very early. By age six, children are already starting to believe that girls are less intelligent than boys and less suited to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, even though girls outperform boys in grades and standardized tests.31 A counterargument could be that even if men are not better suited to STEM on average, there are some men who excel more at it than most women; but the evidence for this is also rickety.32
Theories that purport that men are naturally better at STEM are inherently sexist because they ignore socioeconomic and cultural factors that pointedly discourage young women from pursuing careers in STEM. Silicon Valley is a notoriously unwelcome place for those who don’t fit the mold. STEM subjects are still perceived as a masculine pursuit, but that is because of the ways men have valued them—not because of inherent biological differences. Beauvoir explained: “In creating universal values—by which I mean mathematics, for example—men have often left their specifically masculine, male, virile stamp on them … in a very subtle and devious way.”33
A key step toward equal opportunity—the right for each person to be important and relevant—so that everyone can assume themselves authentically, is to untangle the mess of values that says men should be masculine and women should be feminine. Values such as mathematics and science should, Beauvoir noted, be properly assigned as universal values. We can’t change value systems overnight, but it’s important to keep challenging mystifications of values because they can change and when they do, it will be revolutionary.
* * *
In my junior year of college in Australia I joined the university’s Army Reserve regiment. I didn’t look like the type of person you would imagine signing up to the army. I enrolled with the hope of earning money, having a completely new experience, and making friends. My first day trying to deconstruct a rifle—an old hunk of metal of the type that were used in World War II—was the opposite of fun.
Having never touched anything more serious than a water pistol before, I left with scrapes, blisters on my fingers, and aching arms. But I wasn’t easily deterred. During my training, many incredible teachers and mentors (mostly men) encouraged and supported me. Most of the women who started the training with me dropped out over the years, and I became a token woman. I was proud of myself because I completed exactly the same training and tests as the men, even though they were physically bigger and stronger than me.
At twenty, I became a lieutenant. One of my roles was as a platoon commander. On boot camps, I was in charge of thirty new recruits, teaching them skills such as navigation. At the beginning of one training course, I introduced myself to a full-time army sergeant, around twice my age, who would be reporting to me. I held out my arm for a handshake. He didn’t shake it; he looked me up and down, burst out laughing, and walked away. As I said, I didn’t look like an army person. I ignored it, focused on my job, and did it well. At the end of the course, he said he had misjudged me and apologized for being disrespectful. I might have believed his apology was sincere if it weren’t for the fact he then asked me out on a date. (I declined.)
On another boot camp, at the end of a week in the bush spent digging holes and filling them up again, patrolling through thick scrub, and sleeping under plastic bivouacs, it was time for a fifteen-kilometer (nine-mile) route march. We were headed back toward the barracks, each with a twenty-eight-kilogram (sixty-two-pound) pack and webbing. It was long and it was tough, but I had done it many times before with a full pack and webbing. As we lined up in formation, an order came down the hierarchy that all women were to load their backpacks into the trucks and march without them. Only the women.
My insides roiled with fury and adrenaline. Shaking in my dusty boots, with green and brown camouflage cream smeared on my face, in a stinky uniform drenched in days of sweat and dirt, doing my utmost to keep my composure, I spoke with my superior. I told him women were capable of doing the march too and should be held to the same standard as men.
He was a lovely, kindly middle-aged man, who could have been outraged that an indignant young woman was questioning his orders, but extended his generosity to explain that it was about health and safety because the weather was too hot, something something something. The order for women to drop their packs was more deeply entrenched than the whim of my superior: the advice had come from medics (I don’t remember whether they were men or women). But my orders were final: if I didn’t follow instructions, I was told I might face court-martial proceedings.
Some people gave me supportive looks and stood close to me in solidarity. But it was the military. Disagreeing with authority had serious consequences. “Why do you care so much?” one person whispered, and another: “Why aren’t you glad we don’t have to do that?” Had the directive been changed at my request, some of the women would have been furious. I didn’t want other women to be angry with me. And I didn’t want to be a martyr.
Defeated, I dropped my pack. The shame weighed more heavily than any baggage could, making it doubly difficult to compose myself as a leader in front of dozens of curious eyes. Every step along those fifteen kilometers, I suppressed tears of humiliation, anger over how I had been treated differently, and a feeling of failure for having obediently stepped in line with what I was told to do, to keep the peace.
One might think that I should have been relieved that I was held to a lower standard than men. If an easier path is offered to you, why shouldn’t you take it? Beauvoir knew about the temptation to settle for easy solutions. Skirting our freedom is tempting because it’s easier to avoid the anguish of transcending. But dodging our freedom makes us passive, prey to others’ freedoms.34
I didn’t know about Beauvoir and her ideas at the time, but I cared because we all passed the same physical tests. I knew I could do it. I wanted others to know I could do it. I wanted new recruits to know that I was a legitimate leader, and that women could be legitimate leaders.
The orders weren’t in my control. My biology as a woman wasn’t within my control. My choice should have been clear: follow the order or don’t follow it and accept the consequences. In retrospect, Beauvoir’s philosophy has helped me to understand that there is something crucial missing from this either/or interpretation of my situation on the march: the orders were sexist. The assumption underlying the order was that women’s biology means they are not as strong as men and therefore should be required to do less. The view also claims that women need to be protected, and if need be, against their will.
Beauvoir also taught me that the existential issue I faced on that sandy march in the Australian outback was that I was being othered. Othering reduces people to brute stereotypes and overlooks the fact that each person is so much more than a fixed essence can capture. I was reduced to my immanence (the facts of my body). My alleged female fragility was prioritized over my will to do my job and my desire to have the same access to possibilities as men. I was treated as an Other that needed to be protected from herself.
For Beauvoir, we are what we do. Our acts measure who we become.35 The “act” in this example was the march with packs. Men were given the opportunity to measure themselves and to be measured by others. Women were denied the same opportunity to seek growth and self-knowledge, to challenge themselves, and to discover their capabilities. I was, in effect, being told that my judgment about my capabilities was wrong.
Many factors—such as the facticity of each recruit’s body, their goals, or their willpower—mediated the difficulty of the march, not their sex. Some of the recruits were better equipped for marching physically, others were better equipped psychologically. It wasn’t possible to determine that the march with packs was too hard for women but achievable for men. When a male recruit was struggling mid-march, I offered to carry his pack. He thought about it and ultimately said no. I understood: to be perceived as weaker than a woman would have been humiliating and too great a price to pay.
I still think about what I should have done differently on that march. Should I have refused to put down the pack? Should I have petitioned for the men to be required—or at least given the option—to put down their packs too? Should I have launched a campaign to challenge sexist rules? Had I had the courage and patience, I could have done all of the above. Instead, I transcended the military altogether and was free to pursue career paths that didn’t limit me (at least so explicitly) simply for being a woman.
Mystifications about women’s capabilities are among the reasons why women are still paid less than men for the same work: because often women aren’t perceived to be as competent as men. It’s one of the reasons why many women aren’t listened to: It’s assumed that they don’t know what’s best for them; they can’t be trusted to think rationally because their brains are designed to prioritize procreation; decisions need to be made for them; and their opinion isn’t valid. Our culture continues to relentlessly reinforce these mystifications.
* * *
Feminism has benefited a privileged few. But in many ways even feminism conforms to the rules men have created and supports the institutional status quo. It valorizes individual success, holding out the elusive ideal of “balance” while blaming those who fail. For those superwomen who do strive to have it all, one of Beauvoir’s characters in her novel Misunderstanding in Moscow suggests,
They have some sort of career, they claim to dress well, to engage in sports, look after their house perfectly, bring up their children very well. They want to prove to themselves that they can be successful at all levels. And, in fact, they spread themselves too thinly, they succeed in nothing.36
While this is a dramatization—many women succeed in many things—it does highlight the ongoing dilemma that women face: feminism has not sufficiently acknowledged the structures that thwart success, it has widened the intersectional gap between the privileged and the exploited, and it pays only lip service to collective justice and equality.37
We don’t know what Beauvoir would have thought about our current situation, but I suspect she would have been painfully disappointed with the “progress” we have made. In the United States, an American is sexually assaulted every sixty-eight seconds and ninety percent of them are women.38 Worldwide, more than one in every three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.39 Females are more than twice as likely as males to be victims of human trafficking.40 Family members kill twice as many women as men and more than four times as many women are killed by an intimate partner as men.41 Women are more likely to live in poverty than men because on average they earn less and their jobs are less stable.42 Women of color are particularly at risk because they face more structural barriers in the workplace and bear the physical and emotional brunt of racial violence.43 Fewer—far fewer, pathetically fewer—women than men run companies and countries, and even fewer women of color.44
For many women, mystifications compound in multiple ways. Some women, particularly privileged white women, have escaped or overcome most of the obstacles Beauvoir analyzed. But many women face the same obstacles and greater, compounded challenges. Beauvoir is, to an extent, guilty of the same mistakes that we see in early American feminism where activists fought for suffrage and rights for white women and then didn’t bother to keep fighting for women of color.45 Some white feminists continue to neglect women of color.
Before we go any further with Beauvoir’s philosophy, it’s important to take a detour to look at a few of the critiques about her work. Some people argue that Beauvoir focused too much on the obstacles that hold mostly white, privileged women back and didn’t go far enough to acknowledge how age, class, race, and other differences intersect to create more extreme oppression—or to use Kimberlé Crenshaw’s famous term: intersectional oppression.
Philosopher and activist Angela Davis argued that analyses such as Beauvoir’s undervalue the complex ways that oppression intersects. Davis points out many examples of racial, sexual, and class oppression, such as that historically white men couldn’t be charged with raping Black women—because Black women are assumed to be consenting seducers—and that white women very often treat Black men unjustly.46
White women still do: consider Amy Cooper, a white New Yorker who, in 2020, called the police on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper, saying she felt threatened by him when he asked her to leash her dog in a zone that required it. And white men still do too: consider Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw who in 2016 sexually assaulted at least thirteen African American women. He targeted vulnerable women with criminal histories in poor neighborhoods because he thought no one would take their claims seriously.
Another criticism of Beauvoir is that she was wrong to set sex as the fulcrum of oppression because there are many other factors that shape a person’s freedom and facticity. While bell hooks admired Beauvoir as an intellectual, hooks also criticized Beauvoir for not paying enough attention to intersectionality: “While Beauvoir separates issues of class, race, and gender—a perspective that distorts the true reality of human being—I continually insist that we cannot understand what it means to be female or male without critically examining interlocking systems of domination.”47
Some criticize Beauvoir for discounting her whiteness. In Against White Feminism (2021), attorney, human rights activist, and author Rafia Zakaria argued that not all women face the same disadvantages because white women benefit from whiteness. Zakaria said that Beauvoir should have known about how much worse the situation was for women of color, and not to have done so obscures their suffering.
HOW TO BE AUTHENTIC. Copyright © 2022 by Skye C. Cleary. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10271