The Means to Transcend Biology as Destiny

My first attempt at re-entering academia goes something like this (be forewarned, it's a weak attempt):

What is female and what has caused her always to be the second sex? These two fundamental questions are at the heart of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and provide the frame which we must consider in a reading of the first section of the text, Destiny. Three projects are laid before us, each of which provides a lens through which we can begin to discover some insights into these questions. Biology will provide us with the grounding idea of female as one of a pair necessary for the continuation of the species in many living beings, but not all. Psychoanalysis will offer the Electra complex as a mirror of the Oedipus in an attempt to parse down the description of woman to one essentially of sexuality. Historical materialism will place woman as the victim of the progress of the idea of private property.

While each of these projects will offer up some guidance, none alone can completely elucidate the situation of woman; however, of these three it is biology that today is still most often advanced as a reason, a justification for her Otherness. While the other two ideas have fallen out of fashion, biology remains a potent force entrenched in our mores and enshrined in our laws. Biology, though, finds its teeth only through perception, only by way of our existence as beings in the world. By virtue of this, biology is not a prison for woman but a project. Woman can transcend biology as we understand it today by resituating herself in the world, by redefining our common experience through a reworking of our laws, advancement of our tools, and a reexamination of our common goals.

In biology we find woman as the female of the human species. In this role she, as the female of all mammalian species and many others, is subjugated not only to the male by virtue of her muscular weakness and the prevailing social norms, but also to the species itself. She exists for biology as a body, a conglomeration of systems - more or less complex - that ingest, digest, respire, perspire, ambulate, and procreate. The body functions to maintain the individual in an effort to extend the species temporally. As such, woman is bound by biology to the reproductive role.

Where man transcends via his biology and reproductive organs, woman finds hers alienating. At puberty, her body changes to something she cannot immediately recognize as herself. From this point on to menopause (when nature returns her sovereign body to her) woman is at the service of the species. The ovarian cycle ties her to a monthly period that at times in history has been considered everything from unclean to vile to evil by man. Not by man’s perception alone is her period subjugating, though, as it can also be extremely painful and is accompanied by hormonal shifts. The monthly cycle may be interrupted by pregnancy which is the ultimate exertion of the species’ autonomy over woman. Not until the child is born and weaned do nature and society return to her small piece of her autonomy.

The trick played here by nature is that woman, as the most developed female in nature, both is bound most tightly to it and suffers it the most, as she alone among females has a nature of transcendence. This transcendent nature of the human being is in stark contrast to the subjugation by the species and makes woman feel this subjugation more strongly than any other female. As Beauvoir says, “The individuality of the female is opposed by the interest of the species; it is as if she were possessed by foreign forces – alienated (25).” But biology alone cannot explain fully the second sex for it ignores woman’s own perceptions of herself and her activity in the world outside of procreation.

The psychoanalytical view provides first for us the idea that the body exists not as the physical structure described by biology, but only in so much as it is a “body as lived in by the subject” (Beauvoir 38). Woman is not just the biological partner of the male of the human species; she is defined by her experience of the world and the objects she encounters in it. Not defined solely by biology, woman is also not bound only to her biological functions but also to her perceptions of the world and of herself as an emotional being. The psychoanalytic description of woman falls short, though, in that it is not one of woman as herself but, instead, a description of woman which mirrors its description of man. “He [Freud] declines,” Beauvoir states, “to regard the feminine libido as having its own original nature, and therefore it will necessarily seem to him like a complex deviation from the human [read male] libido in general (39).” Woman defines herself not as subject meeting the world but in relation to the sovereign subject immediately as Other. The Oedipus complex advances the idea that the boy defines himself in relation to his desire for his mother. He both fears and identifies with his father through this desire, and in doing so is able to define himself as a subject. The Electra complex, an inversion of this idea based still on the idea of a masculine libido, posits that the young girl’s desire shifts from mother to father. Her identity as a sexual being is bound up in this shift and manifests itself always as a desire to be dominated. So we find that while the ideas of body in the world are useful, psychoanalysis neglects to define woman as herself and as a subject.

The project of historical materialism presents for us a world in which the proletariat, the downtrodden masses, finds within its history the possibility for its own salvation. Only parallel to this greater drama is the manifestation of woman as subject able to unfold. Beauvoir elaborates that “the fate of woman and that of socialism are intimately bound up together” within the framework provided by Engels and others (55). Woman, like the proletariat, was bound to otherness by the advent of private property. Man seeks alienation, to see himself in something other than himself. In this quest he discovers himself in ownership of property, as the master of land, of slaves, of woman. Woman cannot, by virtue of her biology, carry the weight of man. She is not strong enough to wield his tools, the tools of subjugation. It is in light of this that she can only transcend her otherness through the realization of the socialist economy. As part of the force of production, as one of the many workers, she can come into her own being. But this ignores that woman is woman. Historical materialism focuses on the productive force of woman but ignores the reproductive force. When it must be reaffirmed, it is done so not as a project of woman, but forcefully by law and mores as in the Soviet Union’s paternalistic laws requiring femininity, banning abortion, birth control and divorce, and firming up the institution of marriage. The project of historical materialism provides us with a more concrete idea of the project of becoming. The existential framework of transcendence is devoloping, but woman is still not examined as such.

Looking back toward biology through the layered lenses of psychoanalysis and historical materialism, we can begin to recognize woman as the biological female who is transcendent in nature, capable of self definition, and in need of a means by which to realize transcendence and self definition. Woman is in need of economic freedom as pointed out by Engels’ project, of a means of self definition all her own not tied to man’s as Beauvoir’s critique of psychoanalysis elucidated, and in need of means of breaking free from her subjugation by the species. All three of these needs, it seems, are intricately intertwined within economics, politics, and science and technology. Woman is not confined by her femaleness, for it takes on meaning “only in light of the ends man proposes, the instruments he has available, and the laws he establishes (Beauvoir 34).” These needs constitute a project, a portion of the project of feminism, a project that can come and is coming to fruition today.

In the scope of changing laws, in economics, and in technology we have already seen great advancements for woman now defined as an equal in the eyes of the government from suffrage to employment law and beyond. She has entered the workforce with full force and taken up projects beside man. She has begun to break the economic grips of man on her autonomy. Woman has also begun breaking the grip of the species through advancements in birth control (now capable of allowing a woman even to forgo her period for a time) and women’s health in general.

So we see that there are hurdles being overcome in laws and in instruments that have allowed woman greater degrees of autonomy from both man and the species, yet she has still not been defined as herself and as a subject. Woman still is, at this time, defined and self-defined often in relation to the species and to man. One area where the project beginning to take shape in this early section of the text has not advanced is in a redefinition of “the ends man proposes.” It is in redefining these ends and taking equality and similarity over differentiation, social good over personal gain, accumulation in the public trust over personal wealth, humility over strength, and compassion over power that we can continue to further this project. By creating a living situation in which man and woman take equal responsibility for child care, care of the home, economic well being, and care of each other as well as a society which is willing to forgo miniscule losses in production and wealth for the good of its citizens woman can take another step toward defining herself as the One. She can stand face to face with man each One the others Other but on common and equal ground.

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