DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

5. The pervasiveness of male domination

It has become customary to distinguish a first wave of feminism, dating from the mid nineteenth century to the 1930s, from a second wave, breaking in the 1970s. This chronology is designed to highlight the absence of specifically feminist political campaigns in the intervening period, but is misleading if applied more generally, since one of the most influential works of modern feminist philosophy, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, was published in 1949 (see Beauvoir, S. de). Dissatisfied with existing accounts of women’s subordination to men, Beauvoir confronted the question ‘What is Woman?’ by exploring the limited answers offered by historical materialism and psychoanalysis. Both these theories, she claims, beg the question. In The Origin of the Family, Engels asserts that the institution of private property results in the enslavement of women, but offers no means of explaining why this should have been so. Equally, Freud’s account of sexual differentiation fails to say what previous evaluation of virility makes boys proud of their penises and makes girls attribute special significance to their lack of this bodily part. To explain women’s oppression, in which women themselves are complicitous, it is not enough to appeal merely to economic categories or patterns of psychological development already imbued with the evaluations that constitute male power. What is needed is a theory grounded on dynamics of consciousness running deeper than physiological, psychological or economic forces, capable of doing justice to the vast variety of practices that contribute to women’s subordination.

Beauvoir derives her analysis of woman from the existentialist view of consciousness articulated by Sartre in Being and Nothingness (see Sartre, J.-P.). Each consciousness faces the world alone, and must create itself through its own choices by responding to the things around it, whether these are passive natural objects or other consciousnesses. Adapting Hegel’s account of the relations between master and slave, Sartre portrays the meeting of one consciousness with another as profoundly disturbing (see Hegel, G.F.W. §5). In the gaze of the Other, a consciousness recognizes a point of view which is different from its own and unattainable, a mark of its own incompleteness. At the same time, the gaze of the Other threatens to destroy it by turning it into an object. In response, the consciousness can choose to retaliate – to objectify the Other. But in doing so it destroys an external view of itself and must resign itself to the incompleteness of its self-understanding. The consciousness is therefore caught: it can dominate the Other, or live with the threat it poses.

It is through woman, Beauvoir argues, that male consciousness alleviates this conflict. Like men, women are conscious beings capable of returning the male gaze, and yet they allow themselves to be dominated. By possessing them, men are able to control the Other without destroying it, to withstand a gaze which is not unbearably threatening. Why do women occupy this position? Why do they not try to dominate men? Although Beauvoir suggests that the comparative passivity of women originates in childbearing, she is more interested in analysing the multitude of social practices which conspire to keep women in the position of the Other and prevent them from seeking their own transcendence. These practices, she argues, are sustained both by men, who encourage and reward female passivity, and by women, who cooperate in their own domination. The latter, however, is an example of bad faith. To allow oneself to be treated as an object is to fail to realize one’s being by making ones own choices, and to shirk the painful project of becoming free. How, then, are women to liberate themselves? To avoid becoming Other, Beauvoir suggests, women must abandon the roles of wives and mothers in which they are most easily objectified and compete with men through work. Once they begin to exercise the assertiveness and courage essential to freedom, conceptions of what it is to be a woman will alter, and women and men will find ways to treat one another as equals.

One of Beauvoir’s most profound contributions to feminist philosophy lay in her insistence that women are dominated in all aspects of their lives. Their comparative lack of freedom does not consist merely in lack of civic rights, or in particular institutions of motherhood and marriage, although these are contributory factors. Rather, they are kept in their inferior place by ‘the whole of civilization’ – by a multitude of evaluations and social practices (tellingly described in chapters on childhood, the young girl, sexual initiation and so on) which shape our understandings of male and female, masculine and feminine. As she indicates in her celebrated remark, ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a women’, Beauvoir holds that it is through social practices that bodies come to be understood as sexually differentiated, and through these same practices that the differences between them are invested with evaluative significance. Becoming a woman is a cultural and historical process which is never completed. Although Beauvoir allows that there will always be differences between women and men deriving from their bodily distinctions and the effect these have on their sensuality, there is no one thing that women intrinsically or naturally are. Correspondingly, there is no discernible limit to what they may become.

Citing this article:
James, Susan. The pervasiveness of male domination. Feminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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