Toril Moi What Is A Woman And Other Essays On Abortion

In the 70s and 80s, many women found the female in literature inspiring but then Nathalie Sarraute snarled in an interview: "When I write I am neither man nor woman nor dog nor cat." To her, the notion of female or male writing -- écriture féminine ou masculine -- was totally void of meaning. Moi finds that since then the discussion has gone nowhere. "To make women second rate citizens of the world of literature is to say that the female experience of the world carries less value than the male."

Why is the question of women and writing such a marginal topic in feminist theory today? The decline of interest in literature is all the more striking given its central importance in the early years of feminist theory. Although I shall only speak about literature, I think it is likely that the loss of interest in literature is symptomatic of a more wide-ranging loss of interest in questions relating to women and aesthetics and women and creativity within feminist theory. I shall begin by discussing some of the theoretical reasons why the topic fell out of favour. When did it happen? What are the theoretical reasons for the feminist disinvestment in aesthetic questions? In this way, I hope to show that there actually is a theoretical problem here, and one that it is well worth working on. I then begin the theoretical work required to refocus the question. In this paper, I shall begin by analysing the situation of the woman writer in society. I think of this as a kind of speech act analysis. Why are some women writers reluctant to acknowledge that they are women writers? How are we to take the claim “I am not a woman writer”? To help me analyse this question, I shall draw on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I shall also show that Beauvoir’s analysis helps us to understand how Virginia Woolf thinks about the question of women and writing. I shall end by saying something about why literature matters. My few remarks on that topic are simply intended as a starting point for further analysis.

History: diagnosing a problem

In the decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, women’s writing and écriture féminine were hugely popular, inside and outside of academia. Books with titles like A Literature of Their Own (Showalter, 1977), Women Writing and Writing about Women (Jacobus, 1979), or, in a different vein, Fictions of Feminine Desire (Kamuf, 1982) and The Poetics of Gender (Miller, 1986) were rolling off the presses. To those of us who were young and impressionable at that time, this was exciting, challenging, and theoretically significant stuff. In the 1980s, feminist theory was hugely preoccupied with questions relating to women and creativity, women and writing, women and the production of art.

At the time, women’s writing was often defined as writing by women, about women, and for women. The concept of écriture féminine, championed in France by writers and psychoanalysts such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, was a parallel development, more intimately bound to psychoanalytical ideas of femininity. Écriture féminine promoted writing marked by femininity, which in general meant writing by women, although it was acknowledged that femininity could occasionally be found in men’s texts, too.

For many women writers, this wave of interest in women’s writing was pure liberation: the previous decades had been more than usually rich in macho depictions of women. In the introduction she wrote in 1971 to her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing reminded her readers that:

ten, or even five years ago… novels and plays were being plentifully written by men furiously critical of women – particularly from the States but also in this country – portrayed as bullies and betrayers, but particularly as underminers and sappers. But these attitudes in male writers were taken for granted, accepted as sound philosophical bases, as quite normal, certainly not as womanhating, aggressive or neurotic. (Lessing, 1999: xiv)

Lessing had in mind not just American writers such as Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, roundly denounced by Kate Millett in her epochal book Sexual Politics (1969), but the whole generation of “angry young men” in Britain, led by Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, who came into their own in the 1950s (Millett, 1970).

Set against such a background, the passionate interest in women’s writing that exploded in the 1970s appears entirely justified. Finally, women writers were going to fully express their own passions and desires in writing; finally, women readers would find their own passions reflected in books written with women in mind.

No wonder, then, that many women writers flourished in this period. To other women writers, however, the constant harping on femininity and gender differences was simply irritating: “When I write, I am neither man nor woman, nor dog nor cat, I am not me, I am no longer anything”, Nathalie Sarraute snarled in a 1984 interview: “There is no such thing as écriture féminine, I have never seen it”, she added for good measure.1 Elsewhere, she declared that she found talk of “feminine or masculine writing (écriture féminine ou masculine)” completely meaningless.2

The author of The Golden Notebook, the epochal 1962 novel that quickly became a veritable bible for feminists all over the Western world, was quick to deny that her great novel was about sex differences. On the contrary, Lessing claimed, it was about the detrimental effects of differences: “Yet the essence of the book, the organization of it, everything in it, says implicitly and explicitly, that we must not divide things off, must not compartmentalize” (1999: xiv-xv). Towards the end of the novel, when the two characters Saul and Anna suffer a nervous breakdown, their distinct personalities disappear: “In the inner Golden Notebook, which is written by both of them”, Lessing comments, “you can no longer distinguish between what is Saul and what is Anna, and between them and the other people in the book” (p. xii).

Already in the glory days of women’s writing, then, dissenting voices could be heard. Who was right and who was wrong? Why did some brilliant women writers feel so exasperated at the very thought that their own work was defined by or marked by the fact that they were women? Today, cutting edge feminist theory can give us no answer, for it is no longer concerned with women and writing. We need to ask why feminist theory stopped being concerned with women and writing.

Clash with poststructuralist theories about authors and writing

The first reason why feminist theory fell silent on the question of women and writing is the rise of poststructuralism. In the late 1970s, Roland Barthes’s (1977) essay “The Death of the Author” was beginning to be quoted everywhere. Equally influential was Jacques Derrida’s (1988) systematic attempt to show that literary texts are just texts, that is to say a system of signs where meaning (signification) arises through the play of the signifiers, without any reference to a speaking subject, and Michel Foucault’s (1977) radical anti-humanism.

In the 1980s, such theories started to conflict seriously with the interest in women’s writing. Feminists who wanted to work on women writers at the same time as they were convinced that Barthes, Derrida and Foucault were right, began to wonder whether it really mattered whether the author was a woman. In the United States, the tensions involved in this position were expressed in a landmark debate between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy Miller about the status of the female author. This debate has two acts, the first consisting in two essays from 1981, the second in an exchange of letters from 1989. Read together, the two exchanges sharply register the evolution of the theoretical climate in the intervening decade.

Already in 1980, Kamuf had objected to the feminist “reduction of the literary work to the signature” (Kamuf, 1980: 285). In 1981 she claimed that the interest in women writers was simply a feminist version of the traditional, liberal humanism that Foucault had long since dismantled.3 Miller, on the other hand, thought that regardless of what Kamuf might consider to be theoretically correct, feminists still needed to work on behalf of women writers, otherwise these women would soon be forgotten, lost to history. To ignore the woman writer was to play directly into the hands of the sexist tradition.4 Their arguments read like ships passing in the night: Kamuf presents a theory that Miller never attacks; Miller stresses a political purpose that Kamuf never challenges.

When they returned to the issue eight or nine years later, the tone was different. Kamuf, who was now writing in a kind of incantatory high deconstructionist style, declared that she no longer wanted to call herself a feminist, since the word necessarily establishes a “closed system”, which inevitably would end up deconstructing itself.5 Miller, on the other hand, still thought that feminism was politically necessary, yet her text no longer has the fire, energy and optimism of the essay from 1981: “But… the moment of a certain jubilation about ‘identity politics’ has passed. Where we are to go from here, and in what language, however, is a lot less clear”.6

In 1981 the question of what the sex or gender of the author really has to do with literature remained unanswered. Kamuf did not even want to speak about authors, while Miller claimed – correctly, as far as I am concerned – that feminists at the very least have a political duty to be interested in women writers. If there were good theoretical arguments to be found against Kamuf’s principled rejection of the metaphysics of writing, however, they were not expressed in Miller’s essay.

In 1984 Gayatri Spivak tried to untie the knot by launching the concept of “strategic essentialism”, which she discussed in terms of “privileging practice over theory”.7 This corresponds to Nancy Miller’s position: when the theory does not work in practice, we should give priority to political practice. Yet such declarations do not do any theoretical work: the theoretical problem that gave rise to them in the first place remains unresolved. In 1989, Kamuf and Miller never even got to the question of the woman writer. As for Spivak, in 1989, she declared that she had “reconsidered this argument about the strategic use of essentialism”, and now felt that it was providing a “certain alibi to essentialism”, thus leaving the question entirely up in the air (Spivak, 1989: 127, 128).8 As far as I know, we have not had any influential new theories about women, writing and literature after the debate between Kamuf and Miller. The question of how to understand the importance – or lack of it – of the gender or sex of the author remains just as unresolved as it was twenty years ago.

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: neither women nor literature

The second reason why the question of women and writing was left behind by theorists was the influence of Judith Butler. Only one year after Kamuf and Miller completed their somewhat downcast, almost postfeminist dialogue, Butler (1990) published her hugely influential Gender Trouble. Challenging the very category of “woman”, Butler argued that we ought to speak about gender instead. Gender, moreover, was a performative effect of heterosexist and heteronormative power structures.

Gender Trouble created an intellectual climate in which the very fact of using the words “woman” and “man” was taken as conclusive evidence that the unfortunate speaker had not understood that there are human beings in the world that do not fit into conventional, stereotypical categories of femininity and masculinity.9

By claiming that gender is performative, Butler basically meant to say that we create our gender by doing gendered things. Our behaviour either cements or undermines social gender norms. This view has a lot in common with Simone de Beauvoir’s “One is not born a woman, but rather one becomes one”, since Beauvoir too thinks that human beings make themselves what they are through their actions in the world. Both Butler and Beauvoir, moreover, are anti-essentialists, who – in very different ways – believe that gender is produced in society and that it therefore also can be changed in society. On the other hand, Butler and Beauvoir have completely different views on the importance of the body and on the question of agency: Beauvoir believes that human beings are embodied subjects who act and make choices; Butler thinks of bodies as an effect of a discursive “process of materialization” and adamantly denies that there is a “doer behind the deed” (Butler, 1993: 9).

However different they may otherwise be, all such theories of gender are theories of origins. Both Butler and Beauvoir try to answer the question of how gender is created or comes into being. No specific political or ethical conclusions follow from such theories. Theories of origins simply do not tell us what we ought to do once gender has come into being. If I want to justify my view of women’s situation in society, or on the rights of gays and lesbians, I can not do this simply by explaining how these phenomena have come into being. I need, rather, to set out my principles for a just and equitable society, or for how people ought to treat one another, or explain why I think freedom is the highest personal and political value.

With Gender Trouble the vanguard of feminist theory shifted away from literature and literary criticism. Butler is a philosopher who with a couple of minor exceptions has never discussed literature. In the course of the 1990s, feminist theorists became far less invested in discussing aesthetic questions. At the same time it became difficult to speak of “women” except in inverted commas. By the end of the decade, the very foundation for developing a theory about women and writing had disappeared.


In 2008 brilliant literary critics still work on women writers. The intellectual level of the books in the field is high, and the achievements in the field are recognized in the academy in general. In 2006, for example, Paula Backscheider’s (2005) big book about eighteenth-century British women poets won the MLA’s (Modern Language Association’s) James Russell Lowell prize. Since the 1980s, moreover, a whole new generation of women writers has emerged, and many literary critics feel it is an urgent task to create an intellectual space for discussion of their struggle to be taken seriously. In Figuring the Woman Author in Contemporary Fiction, Mary Eagleton (2005) stresses that feminism always has been concerned with women’s struggle for authorship and authority. She shows that the figure of the artist or writer has remained deeply important in writing by women in English since the 1970s. Mary Eagleton has also co-founded a new journal, Contemporary Women’s Writing, devoted to literature by women after 1975.

Today, then, theory and practice appear to be just as out of synch as they were by the end of the 1980s. The result is a kind of intellectual schizophrenia, in which one half of the brain continues to read women writers while the other continues to think that the author is dead, and that the very word “woman” is theoretically dodgy. No wonder, then, that so many books and essays on women writers begin with a series of apologies. Usually, the writer begins by assuring us that she really does not have anything against Barthes or Foucault; or that she is not really writing about real, living authors, but only about the figure of the author in the literary text; or that when she writes woman, she really means “woman”, and so on. Such formulations are symptoms of a theoretical malaise. Instead of supporting women interested in investigating women’s writing, our current theories appear to make them feel guilty, or – even worse – scare them away from working on women and writing altogether. This is one of the rare situations today in which I would argue that there actually is a need for more theory (or more philosophy, if you prefer). We actually need to be able to justify theoretically a kind of work that many women and men clearly think is important, and that has no problem at all justifying itself politically.

I am not a woman writer: Beauvoir’s dilemma

At the beginning of The Second Sex, Beauvoir shows that in a sexist society, man is the universal and woman is the particular; he is the One, she is the Other. This is Beauvoir’s definition of sexism, and it underpins everything she writes in The Second Sex. This analysis is so simple that it is easy to overlook how brilliant it actually is, and how much work it will still do for us.

Beauvoir arrives at this conclusion by telling a story about a conversation:

I have sometimes been annoyed, in the middle of an abstract discussion, at hearing men say to me: “You think this or that because you are a woman”; but I knew that my only defence would be to reply: “I think it because it is true,” thereby removing [éliminant] my subjectivity. It would be out of the question to retort: “And you think the contrary because you are a man”, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. In fact, just as for the ancients there was an absolute vertical with reference to which the oblique was defined, there is an absolute human type, namely the male. Woman has ovaries, a uterus; there we have [voilà] the particular circumstances that imprison her [l’enferment] in her subjectivity; one often says that she thinks with her glands. In his grandiosity man forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones, and testicles. He thinks of his body as a direct and normal connection [relation] with the world which he believes that he apprehends objectively, while he considers the woman’s body to be weighed down by everything specific to it: an obstacle, a prison. (Beauvoir, 1984: xxi-xxii, translation amended)10

We note that Beauvoir feels obliged to eliminate her subjectivity in response to a hostile remark. We also note that Beauvoir sets up a crucial contrast between forced elimination of her gendered subjectivity and forced imprisonment in it. For Beauvoir, this is the philosophical essence of sexism.

Here is one example from contemporary life that shows that this sexist logic is still at work. In February 2007, Drew Faust was named the first female president of Harvard in history. In the media, the emphasis on her gender was so intense that it was easy to get the impression that this was the major reason why she got the job:

On Sunday, Harvard University named Faust the first female president in the school’s 371-year history.

“I hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago,” Faust said. But she also added, “I’m not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard.”11

I think Faust handled the situation as well as she possibly could have: she acknowledged that she was a woman, and insisted on the importance of that fact, before stressing that she did not want to be perceived as the woman president of Harvard. But she should not have had to do this. No male president of Harvard has ever been placed in a situation where he had to deny that he was the male president of Harvard.

To understand what is going on here, it is helpful to consider the kind of speech act “I am not a woman writer” actually is. (J. L. Austin (1975: 73) calls this asking about the force of an utterance, that is to say, asking “how… it is to be taken”.) First of all, when a woman finds that she has to say “I am not a woman writer” or “I am not the woman president of Harvard”, it is never a general claim, never a philosophical maxim. (If it were, the statement would be patently absurd.) It is always in response to a provocation, usually to someone who has tried to use her sex or gender against her. Such statements, in short, are a specific kind of defensive speech act: when we hear such words, therefore, we should look for the provocation.

Not long ago, I heard a radio show in which a caller (a man) claimed that all the talk about race and gender in the Democratic primaries was absolutely irrelevant: “We are choosing a president”, he said, “not a race or a gender”. The lesson we should learn from Beauvoir is that in a sexist (or racist) society, the result of such well-intentioned claims is to force women and blacks, and other raced minorities, to “eliminate” their gendered (or raced) subjectivity, or in other words to masquerade as some kind of generic universal human being, in ways that devalue their actual experiences as embodied human beings in the world. The option, which is to run for office as the “black” or the “woman” candidate, will cut them off from what Beauvoir calls the “universal”, the general category, and hence imprison them in their gender (or race).

If I try to imagine a situation in which a man might say “I am a writer, not a man writer”, I can only think of it as a response to some kind of provocation from a feminist. Even when they work in a profession dominated by women, men do not appear to feel compelled to deny their sex or gender. In the USA, I have discovered, a man trained as a nurse is called a “male nurse”. There is even a Web publication called Male Nurse Magazine.12 Judging from its website, male nurses are quite easy about their access to the universal: they speak of themselves as nurses, male nurses, or as men in nursing, without any sense of strain, even when they complain that male nurses suffer discrimination from female nurses. There seems to be no situation in which a male nurse would feel compelled to say: “I am not a male nurse, but a nurse”. This goes to show that in a sexist society, one can not belittle a man by reminding him of his gender. (This is a hypothesis, so far.) The male or the masculine is still the norm, the female or feminine remains the deviation.

For writers who are women, it can be incredibly frustrating to be told that they have to write as a woman or like a woman. For what is this supposed to mean? That she has to conform to some stereotypical norm for feminine writing? This is surely what Sarraute thinks, and why she gets rather aggressive at the very thought of écriture féminine. On the other hand, it can be just as frustrating for a woman writer to feel that she has to write as a generic human being, since this opens up an alienating split between her gender and her humanity. This, I should point out, is the side of the dilemma that Sarraute never mentions. But even if a writer like Sarraute thrives on impersonality, it does not follow that every other woman writer feels the same way.

There is no correct solution to this dilemma. All we can do is to hope that we have the presence of mind to look for the provocation, to show others that there was a provocation, which means pointing out that we have just been placed in a quintessentially sexist dilemma, and then – as far as possible – refuse to choose between two equally hopeless options, which is precisely what Drew Faust did.13

At this point, someone might want to exclaim: “But what about performativity?” Am I not taking the category “woman” entirely for granted? How can I be so sure that I know who is a woman writer and who is not? But this would be to miss the point. Beauvoir’s analysis of sexism only applies once somebody has been taken to be a woman. It has nothing to say about epistemology, or about truth or essences. In the kind of situation I am discussing here, theories of how gender is produced, constructed or performed, in short, theories of how gender comes into being, are irrelevant. The woman in my examples might very well be transsexual or intersexed, a lesbian or a man taken to be a woman. This argument does not prevent us from believing that we “do our gender”, either in the sense Beauvoir would have given to that sentence, or in the sense Butler would have given it. All it takes for Beauvoir’s dilemma to get going is that the person in question has been taken to be a woman by someone else. No theory about the origins of gender will change the fact that in a sexist society people who are taken to be women will be perceived as Other in relation to a male norm. When I claim that Nathalie Sarraute or Virginia Woolf are women writers, then, all you need to acknowledge is that they have been perceived as women who write, and that they also took themselves to be women.

Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own

Beauvoir’s analysis has remarkable diagnostic and analytical powers. This becomes apparent if we take a closer look at A Room of One’s Own. Many feminists have felt that Woolf’s classic analysis of women and writing is contradictory.15 On the one hand, the whole book is a passionate plea for women’s access to literature. Women writers, she declares, need a female tradition: “we think back through our mothers if we are women” (Woolf, 2005: 75). But she also writes that “It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex… It is fatal… in any way to speak consciously as a woman” (pp. 102-3), and praises the fictive young writer she calls “Mary Carmichael” by saying that “she wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (p. 91).

For Woolf, the writer’s task is to attend to reality with the deepest core of her being. That core, one of my undergraduate students, Erin Greer, showed in her 2007 honours thesis, is neither sexed nor gendered (Greer, 2007). The “wedge-shaped core of darkness” that defines Mrs Ramsay when she sits knitting in the window in To the Lighthouse, is imagined to be beyond all identities, beyond personality, to be impersonal and universal. For Woolf, therefore, the writer must attend to reality without troubling herself with identity claims. “The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace” (Woolf, 2005: 103).

Women must write, but when they write, they must not think of themselves as women; they must simply be themselves, and, above all, they must “think of things in themselves”, that is to say, attend to “reality”, so as to “find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us”. Strident “sex-consciousness” prevents good writing, because it prevents the writer from seeing things in themselves. “No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own” (Woolf, 2005: 98); the effect is to make men as well as women “sex-conscious”, to the detriment of good writing. Women must write, but they can not write if they are not allowed to forget their sex.

No wonder, perhaps, that critics have sometimes found Woolf’s views on women and writing incoherent. But if we bring Beauvoir’s analysis to bear on Woolf’s ideas, it is not hard to see that Woolf is struggling to avoid choosing one side or the other when faced with Beauvoir’s dilemma. She is trying to avoid having to choose between her gender and her humanity, between being a woman and being a writer, between her particular way of being embodied, and her sense that writers must attend to things as they are in themselves. What provocation is she responding to? That she was not allowed to cross the lawn? That she could not enter the library? Or the endless attacks on women emanating from the gruesome Professor von X, author of the “monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex” (Woolf, 2005: 31)?

If there is a difficulty with Woolf’s view, it is that she argues as if it were always wrong to write as if one were a woman. In the end, the danger of identifying with the despised category, namely femininity, is more terrifying to her than the danger of having to pretend to be entirely genderless. That she feels this way is surely Professor von X’s fault. In my view, if a woman’s vision of the world is strongly marked by her gender, that is as potentially interesting as the absence of a gendered view. The whole point, after all, is to avoid laying down requirements for what a woman’s writing must be like. Every writer will have to find her own voice, and her own vision. Inevitably, a woman writer writes as a woman, not as a generic woman, but as the (highly specific and idiosyncratic) woman she is.

What is literature?

One final question remains. Why should women write? Why should we care about literature? For Woolf, literature arises when a human being tries to attend to reality with as much integrity and truthfulness as she can muster, and then tries to communicate that vision to others. When Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse finally finishes her painting, Woolf ends her novel simply by saying: “She had had her vision”.

Literature is the archive of a culture. We turn to literature to discover what makes other human beings suffer and laugh, hate and love, how people in other countries live, and how men and women experienced life in other historical periods. To turn women into second-class citizens in the realm of literature is to say that women’s experiences of existence and of the world are less important than men’s.

A novel or a poem or a play, or a theoretical essay for that matter, is an attempt to make others see something that really matters to the writer. Inspired by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, I want to say that when a writer presents a work, she is really saying: “This is what I see. Can you see it too?” In this gesture there is a hope – not certainty – that perhaps others may come to share her vision, if only for a moment.

This hope makes a writer vulnerable. She has to be willing to say what she sees, to stake everything on her vision without any guarantee that she will be understood. To write is to risk rejection and misunderstanding. To create a work of art, Sartre writes, is to give the world a gift nobody has asked for (1988: ch. 2). But if we do not dare to be generous, if we don’t dare to share with others what we see, the world will be the poorer for it. And sometimes someone actually does get it. When a reader feels that a book really speaks to her, she feels less lonely in the world. Literature holds out the hope of overcoming scepticism and isolation.


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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty ([1989] 1993b) “In a Word: Interview with Ellen Rooney”, pp. 1-23 in Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge.
Woolf, Virginia (2005) A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt.

In June 1946 Simone de Beauvoir was 38. She had just finished The Ethics of Ambiguity, and was wondering what to write next. Urged by Jean Genet, she went to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, on show for the first time after the war. Citizen Kane was also being shown in Paris for the first time, and Beauvoir was impressed: Orson Welles had revolutionised cinema. Politics was not an all-encompassing consideration, for the Occupation was over, and the Cold War had not quite begun. In the short space of time since the Liberation, Beauvoir had established herself as a writer and intellectual. Her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, had been well received, and in 1945, her second novel, The Blood of Others, had been praised as the first novel of the Resistance. In the public realm, her name was firmly linked to Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and to existentialism, which was becoming so fashionable that Sartre had to hire a secretary. No longer a beginner, no longer unknown, Beauvoir had nothing to prove; she could write about anything.

She decided to write about herself. She was inspired by Michel Leiris’s Manhood, which had just been reissued in Paris with a new introduction comparing writing to bullfighting (the torero and the writer need the same kind of courage). She would write a confession. Thinking about the project, she realised she had to begin by asking: ‘What has it meant to me to be a woman?’ At first, she thought of the question as a formality, a preliminary exercise to get her into the real work: ‘I had never had any feeling of inferiority, no one had ever said to me, “You think that way because you are a woman”; my femaleness had never bothered me in any way. “In my case,” I said to Sartre, “it hasn’t really mattered.”’ Sartre urged her to think again: ‘But still, you weren’t brought up in the same way as a boy: you should take a closer look.’ She did, and was amazed:

It was a revelation. This world was a masculine world, my childhood was nourished by myths concocted by men, and I hadn’t reacted to them in the same way I should have done if I had been a boy. I became so interested that I gave up the project of a personal confession in order to focus on women’s condition in general. I went to do some reading at the Bibliothèque nationale and studied myths of femininity.

The roots of The Second Sex are here, in Beauvoir’s realisation that her life had been affected in countless ways by her having been born a girl. This massive book was written fast: the first volume appeared in Paris in June 1949, the second five months later. But Beauvoir did not spend all the intervening time on her analysis of women’s condition. In January 1947 she travelled to the United States for the first time, and in 1948 she published America Day by Day, a deeply perceptive book about the experience. Moreover, she met Nelson Algren there. The writing of The Second Sex thus coincided with her discovery of America and with her passionate affair with Algren. It also coincided with Sartre’s transatlantic affair with the New York-based Frenchwoman Dolorès Vanetti, which caused Beauvoir much pain.

That much of Beauvoir’s personal experience went into the making of her investigation of the situation of women is beyond doubt. Judith Okely has drawn attention to Beauvoir’s ‘hidden use of herself as a case study’ in The Second Sex. The urgency of her style, the conviction that every scrap of evidence must be piled up to show the world the truth about women’s condition, surely comes from a sense that she was, after all, writing a kind of confession, offering the public intimate and unsettling truths about herself, and about other women.

In The Second Sex Beauvoir formulates three principles and applies them to women’s situation in the world. First is her foundational insight that man ‘is the Subject, he is the Absolute: she is the Other.’ Man incarnates humanity; woman, by virtue of being female, deviates from the human norm. The consequence is that women constantly experience a painful conflict between their humanity and their femininity.

The next principle is that freedom, not happiness, must be used as the measuring stick to assess the situation of women. Beauvoir assumes that woman, like man, is a free consciousness. In so far as the status of Other is imposed on her, her situation is unjust and oppressive. But with freedom comes responsibility: when women consent to their own oppression and help to oppress other women, they are to be blamed. The epigraph to the second volume is ‘Half victims, half accomplices, like everyone else’, a line from Sartre’s 1948 play, Dirty Hands. But Beauvoir’s true yardstick is concrete freedom: institutions and practices are to be judged ‘from the point of view of the concrete opportunities they offer the individual’. Abstract equality (the right to vote, for example) is not enough: to turn freedom into reality, women must also have the health, education and money they need to make use of their rights.

Finally, there is the insight that women are not born but made, that every society has constructed a vast material, cultural and ideological apparatus dedicated to the fabrication of femininity. Throughout The Second Sex Beauvoir attacks ‘femininity’ in the sense of patriarchal or normative femininity. To her, a ‘feminine’ woman is one who accepts herself as Other; ‘femininity’ is the badge of the unfree. For women to be free, ‘femininity’ must disappear. Taken together, Beauvoir’s major insights are the foundation of modern feminism. Whether they acknowledge it or not, all contemporary feminists build on Beauvoir’s achievement.

To face the French reception of her book, Beauvoir would need the courage of a bullfighter. The first volume was an unexpected success, selling 22,000 copies in the first week. But when the second volume appeared, with its detailed studies of female sexuality, Beauvoir was deluged: ‘Unsatisfied, cold, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother. People offered to cure me of my frigidity or to satisfy my ghoulish appetites.’ The Vatican put the book on the Index; Albert Camus accused her of having made the French male look ridiculous.

When The Second Sex was published in the US in the spring of 1953, it leaped onto the the bestseller lists. It has sold well ever since. In the 1950s, it was the only book women who wanted to think about their status in the world could turn to. From the 1950s to the 1970s, women all over the world were exhilarated and shocked by Beauvoir’s message. ‘It changed my life,’ is the refrain. Curiously, some of the best-known feminist pioneers of the 1960s failed to acknowledge her influence: there are hardly any references to The Second Sex in The Feminine Mystique or Sexual Politics; it was years later that Betty Friedan and Kate Millett admitted that The Second Sex had been a major source of inspiration for them.

In the 1970s, Beauvoir’s book became controversial in new ways. Second-wave feminists interested in building a strong sense of female identity, committed to valuing women’s traditional activities and to various theories of female difference, took Beauvoir’s critique of patriarchal femininity to be an expression of her hostility to women. Beauvoir’s existentialism is incompatible with identity theory. Many 1970s feminists disliked Beauvoir’s emphasis on freedom, her claim that ‘femininity’ is a form of ideological oppression, and her insistence that women are often all too happy to collaborate in their own oppression.

However intensely Anglophone feminists debated The Second Sex, the English translation, by H.M. Parshley, did not become an issue until 1983, when Margaret Simons, a professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, drew attention to it in her essay, ‘The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir’. Beauvoir had offered Parshley no help; she was already hard at work on The Mandarins before he was half-way through his translation. Now Simons estimated that Parshley had cut at least 10 per cent of the original text, and showed that the most savage cuts affected Beauvoir’s account of exceptional women in history. She also demonstrated that Parshley had made a hash of Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary. After reading Simons’s essay, Beauvoir replied: ‘I was dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr Parshley misrepresented me. I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.’

Simons’s discovery had no impact on Random House, which owns the English-language rights to the book through its imprints Knopf (for the hardback) and Vintage (for the paperback). By the time of the 50th anniversary of The Second Sex in 1999, there were still no plans for a new translation: that year, Elizabeth Fallaize and I decided to draw attention to the situation again. Fallaize, whose premature death at the end of last year Beauvoir scholars mourn, analysed the effects of the vast cuts Parshley made in the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’. I wrote about Parshley’s philosophical confusions, drew attention to a number of elementary French mistakes, and showed the way his mistranslations had affected recent feminist theory. I also wrote about the publication history, and stressed that Parshley should not be seen as the villain of the piece. A professor of zoology at Smith College, he was genuinely enthusiastic about Beauvoir’s book. It was the publisher, not Parshley, who insisted on cutting the text; in the end he cut 145 of the original 972 pages, or almost 15 per cent of the original.

The strength of Parshley’s 57-year-old translation is that it is lively and readable. Parshley was, on all evidence, an excellent writer of English. When he understood the French, he usually found the right phrase and managed to convey nuances of irony and poetry. The most serious weaknesses are the unannounced cuts; but his complete lack of familiarity with Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary and the deficiencies in his knowledge of French also undermine his version of the book.

Demand for a new translation gathered force, but the publishers resisted. In 1988, Ashbel Green, then Knopf’s vice president and senior editor, summarised their view: ‘Our feeling is that the impact of de Beauvoir’s thesis is in no way diluted by the abridgment.’ After all, the book was making money: ‘It’s a very successful book that we want to continue publishing.’

In August 2004, Sarah Glazer published an article about the situation in the New York Times. Whether her article was the deciding factor is hard to say. In any case, at the end of 2005 Ellah Allfrey, then an editor at Cape, the British publisher of The Second Sex, persuaded Knopf to split the cost of a new translation. According to Le Monde the final cost was €35,000 (£30,000 or $50,000), one third of which was paid by grants from the French state.

Given the profile of the book, Beauvoir specialists hoped that the publishers would turn to a first-rate translator with a track record in the relevant field: maybe Carol Cosman, the translator of Sartre’s multi-volume study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, and of Beauvoir’s America Day by Day; Lydia Davis, a translator of Proust; or Richard Sieburth, translator of Leiris, Michaux and Nerval. Instead, the publishers chose Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, two Americans who have lived in Paris since the 1960s and worked as English teachers at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques. They have published numerous textbooks in English for French students (My English Is French: la syntaxe anglaise), and many cookery books (Cookies et cakes and Sandwichs, tartines et canapés among others). Their track record in translation from French to English, however, appears to be slim (I have found only two catalogue essays for art exhibitions in Paris, both translated by Malovany-Chevallier).

In a 2007 interview with Sarah Glazer, published in Bookforum, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier dismissed doubts about their competence. They explained that they first heard about the problems with the English translation at the 50th anniversary conference on The Second Sex in Paris. After the conference, they contacted a former student, Anne-Solange Noble, the director of foreign rights at Gallimard, to propose themselves for the job, and in due course Noble told Allfrey that she ‘already knew the perfect translators’.

Now we have the new translation. Many will turn to it with high hopes. Is it the definitive translation? Does it convey Beauvoir’s voice and style? Unfortunately not. Here is a sentence, chosen almost at random:

Ordinarily she can be taken at any time by man, while he can take her only when he is in the state of erection; feminine refusal can be overcome except in the case of a rejection as profound as vaginismus, sealing woman more securely than the hymen; still vaginismus leaves the male the means to relieve himself on a body that his muscular force permits him to reduce to his mercy.

The sentence doesn’t stand out as immediately ‘wrong’. On my first reading, I felt that I got Beauvoir’s point, but only after a struggle, for the sentence is cumbersome, and several expressions, above all ‘the state of erection’, and ‘relieve himself’ struck me as strange. I checked the French:

Normalement, elle peut toujours être prise par l’homme, tandis que lui ne peut la prendre que s’il est en état d’érection; sauf en cas d’une révolte aussi profonde que le vaginisme qui scelle la femme plus sûrement que l’hymen, le refus féminin peut être surmonté; encore le vaginisme laisse-t-il au mâle des moyens de s’assouvir sur un corps que sa force musculaire lui permet de réduire à merci.

The translation turns out to have a number of problems. ‘Man’ and ‘woman’ should be ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’, since we are dealing with generic examples (as in ‘the woman leads, the man follows’), not with universals (‘woman is night; man is day’). ‘Feminine refusal’ is also wrong: we are not dealing with a specific kind of refusal (the feminine as opposed to the masculine kind), but with the woman’s refusal or resistance. (Beauvoir is not trying to tell us how the woman resists, just that she does.) The sentence structure and the punctuation are awkward. There are several translation errors: s’assouvir doesn’t mean to ‘relieve oneself’ but to ‘satisfy’ or ‘gratify’; in this context profonde means ‘underlying’ or ‘deep-seated,’ not ‘profound’. The phrase ‘reduce to his mercy’ piles up errors: à merci is not the same thing as à sa merci; réduire in this context doesn’t mean ‘reduce’ but rather ‘dominate’ or ‘subdue’; thus réduire à merci actually means ‘subdue at will’. And force musculaire means ‘muscular strength’ not ‘muscular force’, which is a phrase mostly used by scientists trying to explain the physics of muscle contractions; permettre here means ‘enable’ or ‘allow’, not ‘permit’.

This isn’t an isolated example. After taking a close look at the whole book, I found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation.

Key terms first. Throughout The Second Sex Borde and Malovany-Chevallier confuse ‘woman’ and ‘the woman’, and ‘man’ and ‘the man’: le mythe de la femme is sometimes translated as ‘the myth of woman’ and sometimes as ‘the myth of the woman’, as if there were no difference; la femme becomes ‘women’ and ‘a woman’ on the same page. Even the most famous sentence in The Second Sex is affected. Parshley translated ‘On ne naît pas femme: on le devient’ as ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ This is an elementary grammatical mistake. French does not use the indefinite article after être (‘be’) and devenir (‘become’), but no such rule exists in English. (Comment devenir traducteur? must be translated as ‘How to become a translator?’) This error makes Beauvoir sound as if she were committed to a theory of women’s difference. But Beauvoir’s point isn’t that a baby girl grows up to become woman; she becomes a woman, one among many, and in no way the incarnation of Woman, a concept Beauvoir discards as a patriarchal ‘myth’ in the first part of her book. ‘I am woman hear me roar’ has no place in Beauvoir’s feminism.

The next mishandled key term is féminin. The translation teems with references to the ‘feminine world’, ‘feminine literature’, ‘feminine reality’, ‘feminine individualism’, ‘feminine magic’, ‘feminine destiny’, ‘the feminine body’, and so on. But this is very misleading: la littérature féminine really means ‘literature by women,’ not, as some readers might assume, a particular kind of ‘feminine’ as opposed to ‘masculine’ writing. While Borde and Malovany-Chevallier sometimes do translate féminin appropriately, they seem to have little awareness of the different ideological and cultural connotations of ‘feminine’ in English as opposed to féminin in French. Given that The Second Sex is intended as a critique of traditional femininity, this is a major problem.

Viril, consistently translated as ‘virile’, is another botched key term. The English ‘virile’ has much stronger sexual connotations than the French viril. In most cases the word in French simply means ‘manly’ or ‘masculine’, or as Le Petit Robert tells us, ‘having the moral characteristics often attributed to men: active, energetic, courageous etc’. In the chapter on ‘The Lesbian’, Beauvoir is constantly made to speak of ‘virile’ and ‘viriloid’ women, when she means women who are energetic and enterprising.

The second fundamental problem is the use of tenses. The translators stress that they decided to stick closely to Beauvoir’s use of tenses, particularly her use of the historical present. In the ‘History’ section, sentences lurch from past to present and back again without rhyme or reason. They don’t always respect Beauvoir’s use of the perfect tense and often overlook her frequent recourse to the conditional to indicate scepticism. When the translators write, ‘Engels retraces woman’s history from this point of view in The Origin of the Family; this family history depends principally on the history of technology,’ they ignore the more sceptical view that Beauvoir takes in her original sentence: ‘C’est selon cette perspective qu’Engels dans L’Origine de la Famille retrace l’histoire de la femme: cette histoire dépendrait essentiellement de celle des techniques.’ To convey this, something like ‘according to him’ or ‘supposedly’ is needed in the sentence. (That the second occurrence of histoire becomes ‘family history’ is another problem.)

The third fundamental problem is syntax, sentence structure and punctuation. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier decided to reproduce Beauvoir’s long sentences connected by semicolons in English, on the grounds that they are ‘a stylistic aspect of her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her arguments’. In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries. If English sentences are strung together in the same way, however, the impression won’t be the same. French and English differ significantly in their tolerance of relatively vague connections between sentence elements. The translation theorist Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher has shown that English requires more explicit, precise and concrete connections between clauses and sentences than French and, conversely, that French accepts looser syntactical relations. In other words, if French syntax is imported directly into English, sentences that work in French may come across as rambling or incoherent in English. This is precisely what happens here.

While Borde and Malovany-Chevallier fetishise Beauvoir’s semicolons, they fail to respect the structure of the sentences and clauses between the semicolons. Throughout the book they habitually move sentence parts around so that words and phrases placed in a stressed position by Beauvoir no longer receive any stress in English. The consequences are evident on every page. Far too often the translation fails to convey the nuances of Beauvoir’s arguments and destroys the rhythm and balance of her prose. The last sentence of the book offers a striking example of the translators’ tin ear:

Within the given world, it is up to man to make the reign of freedom prevail; to carry off this supreme victory, men and women must, among other things and above and beyond their natural differentiations, affirm their brotherhood unequivocally.

C’est au sein du monde donné qu’il appartient à l’homme de faire triompher le règne de la liberté; pour remporter cette suprême victoire il est entre autres nécessaire que par delà leurs différenciations naturelles hommes et femmes affirment sans équivoque leur fraternité.

The English version deprives ‘freedom’ and ‘brotherhood’ of the stress they receive in French, adds the extremely awkward ‘among other things and above and beyond’, and even manages to end Beauvoir’s book on ‘unequivocally’ rather than on the word she chose, ‘brotherhood’. The result is a rebarbative, bureaucratic sentence, rather than a utopian vision of a world of freedom and solidarity between men and women.

The book is marred by unidiomatic or unintelligible phrases and clueless syntax; by expressions such as ‘the forger being’, ‘man’s work equal’, ‘the adulteress wife’, and ‘leisure in château life’; and formulations such as ‘because since woman is certainly to a large extent man’s invention’, ‘a condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman’, ‘alone she does not succeed in separating herself in reality’, ‘this uncoupling can occur in a maternal form.’ The translation is blighted by the constant use of ‘false friends’, words that sound the same but don’t mean the same in the two languages.

And then there are the howlers. A character in Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides is made to kill her husband ‘in a fit of passion’, when what she really does is kill him ‘par l’excès de sa passion’ (‘by her excessive passion’). In the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’, Beauvoir quotes the famous line from Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage: ‘Ne commencez jamais le mariage par un viol’ (‘Never begin marriage by a rape’). Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘Do not begin marriage by a violation of law.’

At one point, Beauvoir discusses Hegel’s analysis of sex. In the new translation, a brief quotation from The Philosophy of Nature ends with the puzzling claim: ‘This is mates coupling.’ Mates coupling? What does Hegel mean? It turns out that in Beauvoir’s French version, Hegel says, ‘C’est l’accouplement’; A.V. Miller’s translation of The Philosophy of Nature uses the obvious term, ‘copulation’.

In a discussion of male sexuality, Beauvoir points out that men can get pleasure from just about any woman. As evidence she mentions ‘la prospérité de certaines “maisons d’abattage”’, which Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate as ‘the success of certain “slaughter-houses”’. But for a prostitute, faire de l’abattage is to get through customers quickly; as the context makes abundantly clear, a maison d’abattage is not an abattoir, but a brothel specialising in a quick turnover.

Aware of the widespread criticism of Parshley’s failure to recognise Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier claim that they have ‘maintained Beauvoir’s philosophical language’. This is not entirely accurate. First of all, the problems discussed so far also affect the philosophical aspects of the text. Mistranslation of key terms and unclear syntax do not promote philosophical clarity. But this isn’t all. Parshley mistook philosophical terms for ordinary words: Borde and Malovany-Chevallier treat ordinary words as if they were philosophical terms. They consistently translate s’accomplir (to ‘fulfil’ or ‘realise’ oneself, ‘to find satisfaction’) as ‘to accomplish oneself’; man is mysteriously said to be ‘unable to accomplish himself in solitude’; he also ‘hopes to accomplish himself as being through carnally possessing a being’. Parshley had no idea what ‘alienation’ means to Marxists, existentialists and psychoanalysts, and translated it as ‘identification’ or ‘projection’, or even, at one point, as ‘being beside oneself’. In contrast, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier doggedly translate ‘alienate’ and ‘alienation’ every time the word turns up, regardless of what it means. The result is that they translate ‘aliéner les biens immeubles’ (‘dispose of landed property’) as ‘alienate real estate’.

The translators fail to recognise many of Beauvoir’s references. Adler’s ‘masculine protest’ becomes ‘virile protest’; the ‘sexual division of labour’ becomes, on the same page, ‘the division of labour by sex’ and the ‘division of labour based on sex’; Bachofen’s ‘mother right’ becomes ‘maternal right’; and Byron’s epigram, ‘Man’s love is of his life a thing apart; ’Tis woman’s whole existence,’ loses all its wit on the round trip from English to French and back again: ‘Byron rightly said that love is merely an occupation in the life of the man, while it is life itself for the woman.’

The treatment of quotations is baffling. The headnote of the bibliography claims to list books ‘we consulted to translate Simone de Beauvoir’s French quotes’. This is only partly true. It seems to me that they have used the originals for fiction in English (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield etc), and to a certain extent published translations for French fiction (Colette but not always Balzac), and for medical literature (Stekel’s Frigidity in Woman is quoted correctly), and sometimes, but not always, for philosophy. Some quotations from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit are taken from published translations, but, as we have seen, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier have translated quotations from Philosophy of Nature themselves, although they list A.V. Miller’s translation in their bibliography of ‘consulted’ works. In the chapter on biology a sentence from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception loses all meaning, since Borde and Malovany-Chevallier drop a vital ‘not’, which Colin Smith’s translation (not used, but still listed in the bibliography) preserves.

The notes, bibliography and index are riddled with mistakes. Names are misrecognised and bibliographical references are botched. According to the translators, Stekel’s Frigidity in Woman was first published in French in 1949; in fact it appeared in 1937 (Sartre quotes it in 1943, in Being and Nothingness). Oxford University Press may be amused to learn that A.V. Miller’s Hegel translation is listed as published by Galaxy Press, the publishing house of the Scientologists. In the index, references to Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet turn out to be references to Stendhal’s Mme Grandet, a character in Lucien Leuwen. There is one entry for Johann Bachofen and another one for a character called ‘Baschoffen’ with no first name. In general, far too many index entries fail to provide first names. After all, to find out who Samivel was, all it takes is to type the name into Google.

The best I can say about the new translation of The Second Sex is that it is unabridged, that some of the philosophical vocabulary is more consistent than in Parshley’s version, and that some sections (parts of ‘Myths’, for example), are better than others. The translators claim that their aim was to bring ‘into English the closest version possible of Simone de Beauvoir’s voice, expression and mind’. The ambition is laudable, but the result is what Nabokov, a great champion of literal translation, called ‘false literalism’ (as opposed to ‘absolute accuracy’). The obsessive literalism and countless errors make it no more reliable, and far less readable than Parshley.

Whenever I try to read Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s translation like an ordinary reader, without constantly checking against the French, I feel as if I were reading underwater. Beauvoir’s French is lucid, powerful and elegantly phrased. Even in Parshley’s translation young women would devour The Second Sex, reading it night and day. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that with this version.

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