The second sex, the first race

Jessica Syed interrogates the allure of bistro feminism

For some unfortunate reason unknown to me, I recently watched a Vice documentary called “Date The World”. The idea was that the narrator went on a ‘date’ with a city; in this case, Paris. She met up with a brooding Frenchman dressed in a black leather jacket, and black everything else. He took her to his favourite Parisian nooks and crannies in order to make her fall in love with the city.

The first stop on their trip was the Café de Flore, a bistro in the Saint Germain area. In the 1960s, Café de Flore was frequented by French philosophers and writers. It was a fertile intellectual period for them, egged on by in-fighting in left wing spaces, a blush of student protests here and there, and general women’s liberation activity.

Or so explained this mysterious Frenchman in the Vice documentary. “Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre used to hang around in here…” he pondered, intellectually, sipping his café noir and hitting on the narrator.

As far as I knew, Sartre and Beauvoir were pretty left-wing, had socialist leanings, and were shrouded in a certain air of cool as according to my cultural psyche (which developed in part due to my French studies at uni, and in part due to my Tumblr indoctrination dating back to 2011). However, the fact that this wanky, pseudo-philosophical, chain-smoking white French bro admired Simone de Beauvoir as much as I did made me a little suspicious.

Of course, one of the most popular examples of sexism in academia is no doubt enshrined in the relationship between Beauvoir, and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre. There has been plenty of peer-reviewed scholarship which argues that Beauvoir’s seminal work, The Second Sex, would not be half the work it was without Sartre’s input. These claims are self-evident in their debasement of Beauvoir as only being relevant due to her romantic link to Sartre. But there is still a profound critique to be levelled at The Second Sex, particularly with regard to how it deals with the relationship between gender and race.

The Second Sex is seen as a fundamental feminist text, lauded as being the starting point of the second wave. Although, within it, Beauvoir is problematic in joining the dots between minority status and oppression. For her, women’s subordination is the most highest form of oppression, above that of Jewish people, of African-American people, of colonised people, of the proletariat. She argues that this is because there is no specific point of time in history where women’s oppression started; women have always been subordinate to men. On the other hand, she argues that colonised people can point to their, uh, colonisation as the starting point of their oppression. Therefore, women are, on the whole, the most oppressed group.

How logical.

From the point of view of Beauvoir, it’s as if you can’t simultaneously be a woman, and Jewish, African-American, colonised, or poor. All oppression is mutually exclusive. Of course we can’t be anachronistic in expecting Beauvoir to incorporate tenets of third wave feminist intersectionality into her work. But for someone who is praised for being so progressive, and even in her work recognising the strife of other oppressed peoples, would it be so hard to stray from the definition of oppressed women as solely white and European? Is it really that difficult to understand that someone may be a woman, and Jewish, or a woman, and African American? Perhaps not, if one, like Beauvoir, grew up in a bourgeois Catholic family in Paris and went to a prestigious convent school.

Simone de Beauvoir may be chic, French, and even “left-wing”. But before we get excited about reading the work of someone who is a so-called renowned feminist, and who, as it happens, moved in interesting circles, we must critique the Eurocentrism which comes with their point of view at the expense of the non-white bourgeois woman.

This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.