These essays are meant to recapitulate philosophical, feminist text for my own understanding and are in no way critiques that address some of the issues in the arguments made by the writers.
My hope in sharing these essays is to solely simplify and provide my interpretations of the text.
On Simone de Beauvior's Situation of Women in The Second Sex
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir claims that women are born into a world that is operated by men. It is the reality and truth they come to acknowledge and believe. She states that “women have never formed an autonomous and closed society” because she conforms to the world around her (638). Thus, in her situation, she finds herself subordinate to the ways in which society is structured. However, Beauvoir claims a paradox in a woman’s position; they reside in a limited sphere, within the realm of a male-centered world – a sphere within a sphere – and cannot create themselves as free, independent beings (638).
A woman is conscious of her situation and acknowledges a world run by masculinity. Because she identifies with and is seen as the opposite feminine, Beauvoir claims that she do not assume any responsibility over her situation because she had no say in the creation of the world around her and holds no power to change it. She has not learned how to rise to the top and does not see the world and the things that surround her as tools to facilitate dominance and carry out her aspirations. She silently accepts her position as part of her existence and does not see the world as a place where she can fulfill her needs and desires. Therefore, she escapes in magic, superstitions, and falls into religion (639).
Work that is attributed to her is rudimentary and repetitive. Beauvoir claims that “she is ruled by routine; time has no dimension or novelty for her” because she is stuck in the monotonous work which she cannot break free from (640). Caught in a cycle, she has limited room to be creative and construct new life for herself. Her power then lies in her ability to give birth and breathe new life into the world. Time, if not a novelty, is against her as she ages and her chances of fertility are lowered and her value is decreased.
The world functions through male logic, thus a woman has more difficulty navigating her way through the world. Her inactivity stumps her thinking – unproductively pondering in circles – and she easily gets lost in everything that surrounds her, such as opinions and events. Because she was taught to silently accept her circumstances under male power, Beauvoir claims she never develops the thoughts that are crucial to criticizing and examining herself (640). Therefore, she sees the masculine world as a transcendent reality and “wallows in her immanence” (638).
Women then let go and give their respect and power to men and the perpetual process, which holds them down, because they are paralyzed and naive. They abide by engaging in “bad faith” and accept the laws without critical assessment. Beauvoir argues that women blindly believe without using knowledge because they have not been trained to think in constructive ways. A man knows he can reconstruct the world that does not serve him and possesses the flexibility to adjust himself to different situations; however, a woman is unable to understand how to maneuver her way to freedom because she does not exist in history and does not have the tools to succeed. Therefore, she idolizes men for what she does not have: power and prestige (641).
Resignation seems to be a plausible answer for women because they endlessly suffer and cannot act to change. However, a woman is yet again caught in a paradox in which her resignation becomes a virtue. Men will admire women for their patience and resistance against pain, but their ability to endure adversity without the capacity to bring about change and reconstruct their constrained sphere is futile. They cannot facilitate change and prefer to compromise (642). Beauvoir states that women would rather live in the comfort of their own homes and are satisfied with their meager lives because they have not experienced the potential of freedom, thus do not know it exists. Women tend to settle and live in mediocrity because “the horizon is blocked for them” due to immanence (643). However, she is capable and ready to attack when she identifies with a cause or aim – the only issue being the lack substance in the world for a woman to identify with.
A woman’s situation leaves her complacent and orders her to maintain and produce only what is in her sphere, i.e. housework and childcare. She lacks conviction and blames the world and men for her shortcomings because she has been placed, where there is little room for her to move out (655). In attempts to revolt, she is misunderstood, and her actions are misinterpreted as violent, irrational, emotional and petty.
Although a woman lives and breathes in society as the Other, she does not always accept her situation. She rebels to stir about change but makes little impact because she is operating in a sphere dominated by men, who also play a role in maintaining and producing their own power in ways that benefit them. Women who try to produce culture through meaningful work – in art, education, and government – are not taken as seriously, and their work often dies with them. I believe women assume responsibility over their lives, but it is a case in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor. They blame and victimize themselves for their inability to achieve a sense of fulfillment because they do not know they are the bird in a cage. But those who do revolt, as they see their voice as a powerful tool, are silenced because they are not valued. Women are perpetually caught in this vicious cycle in which she cannot escape and free themselves from as an autonomous being.
On Uma Narayan's Ideas of Transnational Feminism in Dislocating Cultures
Uma Narayan argues that in order to make transnational feminism work better, one must reexamine the origin of feminism. There is a general impression that feminism stems from a Western, elitist ideology; however, Narayan argues that her way of feminist thinking is rooted in her relationship to her home and culture in which she grew up. She addresses the issues that her mother and other female figures in her life faced and how their pain had been felt and understood as an oppressive force against many woman long before she went into the feminist politics (9).
Narayan stresses the importance of the home as an arena where many political issues dwell. She gives examples of an aunt who remained a silent victim of domestic abuse and of a second cousin who married an American man having a secret affair. She argues that the personal issues that are often left in the dark should be seen as a “systematic part of the ways in which [one’s] family, [one’s] culture, and changing material and social conditions script gender roles and women’s lives,” (11). These personal stories not only influenced Narayan’s studies, but also reach beyond just the personal sphere into the political.
Feminist movements are said to rise from a consensus of women who acknowledge that the circumstances that surround them – may it be political, historical, traditional, or institutional – negatively affect their wellbeing. Narayan contends that if feminist politics are dismissed as part of “Westernization,” then those in Third-World contexts fail to see how their experiences inform their politics (13). Although the specifics of one’s issues differ in relation to location and class, the discrimination and exploitation of women are universal affairs that are faced globally.
Colonialism also plays an important role in the way that feminism is perceived. When looking at the history of colonialism, the arguments that were made praised “Western civilization” as superior over other Third-World civilizations. The “West” was seen as progressive, while the colonized were seen as helpless. However, a problem arises when people view a culture, especially their own, as an epitomized or one-sided version of the truth. “Western” culture argues that indigenous practices are crude and inhuman. One uses traditions, such as dowry and sati, against Indian culture without examining its rich history and current place in its current climate. On the other hand, nationalists will make claims that their culture respects and honors women in ways that the “West” does not (19).
There is an inherent need to keep one’s culture and traditions alive to maintain a semblance of independence from colonizing powers; however, through the process, women became a tool in both nationalist and colonial movements (19). Narayan states, “the nationalist cultural pride that was predicated upon a return to ‘traditional values’ and the rejection of ‘Westernization’ that began under colonial rule thus re-emerges today in a variety of postcolonial ‘fundamentalist’ movements, where returning women to their ‘traditional roles’ continues to be defined as central to preserving national identity and cultural pride,” (20). However, both sides neglect the women who are marginalized by other classes. Both sides will use an idealized image of themselves to “conceal their own history” and status, rather than acknowledging that culture is a man-made construction and what that might entail for the status of women (21).
I believe Narayan makes very critical and necessary evaluations on the conflicts between the “West”, “First-World”, “Colonialists” and the “East”, “Third-World”, Nationalists.” Her account also stresses the importance of “the personal as political,” and how one’s day-to-day experience is affected by the forces in and between cultures and the fight for power. Because cultures are dynamic, Narayan argues that one must consider, understand and be true to the depth of another’s culture and history in order to build upon transnational feminism.
On Susan J. Brison's Relational Theory of the Self in Aftermath
Susan J. Brison makes an argument for a relational theory of the self by using personal, historical, and cultural accounts of trauma and sexual violence. She writes about the interdependency of one’s autonomous self with the relationships one forms with others and how life experiences and history affect the shaping of one’s world around them. In the event of trauma, there is a shift, loss, or separation from the notion of a former self, which Brison uses to argue the relativity of one’s identity to the external conditions that form one’s understanding of the world and of one’s self.
Early philosophical ideas of the self have been focused on the independency of one’s identity to the social influences that provide context to one’s life. Later feminist ideas – that of which Brison argues – propose the interconnectedness of identity in relation to others and how one’s self is constructed or destructed by society. Brison states, “When the trauma is of origin and is intentionally inflicted […], it not only shatters one’s fundamental assumptions about the world and one’s safety in it, but it also severs the sustaining connection between the self and the rest of the humanity,” (40). Thus, the self deeply depends on the way one’s life is experienced, according to metaphysics, through the body and through other people (40).
Brison examines the way trauma manifests physically and psychically through the “intermingling of mind and body,” (44). Physical violence not only creates a different relationship one has to her own body, that of “betrayal” and “increased vulnerability,” but sensory flashbacks and memories also paralyze the body, which is rendered ineffective and futile (44). Not only does one lose trust in society, but the body is also reduced to its flesh and taken as an object. It also complicates one’s answer to the epistemological question of one’s ability to feel at home in the world (46). Feminist voices have also argued that the body is a home in which one knows their own existence (Adrienne Rich, Notes Toward a Politics of Location). Therefore, the physical embodiment of trauma also reshapes one’s notion of the self as a safe space they can inhabit.
Memories are integral to identity and the narratives of individuals, but in the face of trauma, memories become an obstruction to one’s development of the self. Brison claims, “Not only are one’s memories of an earlier life lost, along with the ability to envision a future, but one’s basic cognitive and emotional capacities are gone, or radically altered, as well,” (50). Trauma affects one’s sensitivity and ability to feel and create new memories to continue their narrative and sense of self. Not only do they lack former emotions, but there is also a limitation and seeming futility to the language used to construct one’s narrative. Brison argues that having an audience, who is willing to listen and understand, is just as important as the words needed to share one’s story (51). She testified that sharing her narrative to those who understood helped her “gain control over the occurrence of intrusive memories,” (54). The same is accounted for the cultural memory and political history of countries whose citizens suffered trauma through war – not only through stories, but also through the manifestation of trauma in the body that is passed down from generation to generation. She writes, “The influence of cultural memory on all of us is additional evidence of the deeply relational nature of the narrative of self,” (55). Through the retelling of traumatic accounts, one is able to regain a semblance of identity.
Brison argues that autonomy is interdependent to the relational self. She notes how the fear of violence “impair[s one’s] ability to be connected to humanity in ways [one] values,” (61). Using trauma as a scope to view the notions of the self provides the tools to string identity together as narrative, embodied, and relational (62). Moreover, the self does not exist independent from the world but is relative to the people and life experiences that are integral to the making of one's self.