Thursday, March 11, 2010

Excerpted from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex...

DSC_0185, originally uploaded by Snowdrops in Spring.

Thanks to the kind comment by Alice on my last post, it's got me thinking that there is indeed a serious lack of education about women's rights (or perhaps any kind of civic rights) in Hong Kong. She made the brilliant suggestion that Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex should be required reading for all secondary school girls in Hong Kong.

The only thing I would add is that it should be required reading for all boys and girls, as there are much within it which would lend itself to opening the eyes of hitherto unenlightened men. And indeed, it would be futile if only women are enlightened rather than men when it is the latter who hold the cards. (Even in Brazil, guys are familiar with de Beauvoir's works, as shown by the comment on my Flickr photo above, which was uploaded quite some time ago. So why not Hong Kong?)

So I have taken the book down from my bookshelf again (and yes, in the photo below, that is indeed a McDull calendar I got from Hong Kong last summer :D And I think the quote on the engraved stone is rather apposite for the current post!)

I thought perhaps I could quote some passages from the book which may be of interest to both men and women, especially if people are put off by the 2-inch-thick veritable brick of a book. (Somebody should include excerpts from this book as required essay reading for the secondary school syllabus!).

Anyway, the below are among my favourite passages:
At the beginning of the nineteenth century woman was more shamefully exploited than were male workers. Labour at home constituted what the English called the "sweating system"; in spite of constant toil, the working-woman did not earn enough to satisfy her needs... It is understandable that they made haste to get out into the factories; besides, it was not long before nothing was left to do outside the workshops except needlework, laundering, and housework -- all slave's work, earning famine wages... The employers often preferred them [women] to men. "They do better for less pay." This cynical formula lights up the drama of feminine labour. For it is through labour that woman has conquered her dignity as a human being; but it was a remarkably hard-won and protracted conquest (de Beauvoir, 1949[1997]: 144, emphasis added).
But a woman hardly has means for sounding her own heart... For a great many women the roads to transcendance are blocked: because they do nothing, they fail to make themselves anything. They wonder indefinitely what they could have become, which sets them to asking about what they are. It is a vain question. If man fails to discover that secret essence of femininity, it simply because it doesn't exist. Kept on the fringe of the world, woman cannot be objectively defined through this world, and her mystery conceals nothing but emptiness (de Beauvoir, 1949[1997]: 288, original emphases).
Furthermore, like all oppressed, woman deliberately dissembles her objective actuality; the slave, the servant, the indigent, all who depend on the caprices of a master, have learned to turn towards him a changeless smile or an enigmatic impassivity; their real sentiments, their actual behaviour, are carefully hidden. And moreover woman is taught from adolescence to lie to men, to scheme, to be wily. In speaking to them she wears an artificial expression on her face; she is cautious, hypocritical, play-acting (de Beauvoir, 1949[1997]: 288, emphases added).
But the Feminine Mystery as recongized in mythical thought is a more profound matter. In fact, it is immediately implied in the mythology of the absolute Other... In the same way it is true that, beyond the secrecy created by their dissembling, there is mystery in the Black, the Yellow, in so far as they are considered absolutely as the inessential Other. It should be noted that the American citizen, who profoundly baffles the average European, is not, however, considered as being "mysterious": one states more modestly that one does not understand him. And similarly woman does not always "understand" man, but there is no such thing as a masculine mystery. The point is that rich America, and the male, are on the Master side and that Mystery belongs to the slave (de Beauvoir, 1949[1997]: 288-289, emphasis added).
Man would have nothing to lose, quite the contrary, if he gave up disguising woman as a symbol. When dreams are official community affairs, clich├ęs, they are poor and monotonous indeed beside the living reality; for the true dreamer, for the poet, woman is a more generous fount than is any down-at-heel marvel. The times that have most sincerely treasured women are not the period of feudal chivalry nor yet the gallant nineteenth century. They are the times -- like the eighteenth century -- when men have regarded women as fellow creatures; then it is that women seem truly romantic, as the reading of Liaisons dangereuses, Le Rouge et le noir, Farewell to Arms, is sufficient to show. The heroines of Laclos, Stendhal and Hemingway are without mystery, and they are not the less engaging for that. To recognise in woman a human being is not to impoverish man's experiences; this would lose none of its diversity, its richness, or its intensity if it were to occur between two subjectivities. To discard the myths [of and about women] is not to destroy all dramatic relations between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to men through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behaviour, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth (de Beauvoir, 1949[1997]: 290-291, emphases added).
I hope the above quotations would also clarify for those who happen to labour under a misapprehension that feminism is about "doing without men", that nothing could be farther from the truth. I hope you can all see that now.

Thanks again to Alice for her kind suggestion, I actually really enjoyed re-reading some of the above passages. We can do it boys and girls!

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