Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction

Existential Feminism

Summary Chapter 5 (pp.173-187)

Jan Mills

This chapter encapsulates Jean Paul Sartre’s work Being and Nothingness and Simon de Beauvior’s The Second Sex to examine feminism through an existentialist point of view. An understanding of Sarte’s philosophy is a prerequisite for fully appreciating Beauvior’s because she applies his terminology to expand on her own.

The philosophy of Being and Nothingness divides the self into two parts: the ego self versus the immanent self, or being-for-itself versus being-in-itself. Being-in-itself refers to the material existence as shared with animals, vegetables and minerals. Being-for-itself refers to the consciousness inherent to human existence that is shared by all (humans). Therefore the perceiver, the “I” can be separated from the physical self, yet paradoxically, Nothing is separating the two parts. This consciousness presents the problem of freedom, the curse of constant choice, also called the human condition. Under this tension of choice, there is the possibility of developing ‘bad faith’ which Sartre gives a few examples; the Waiter who plays a role in attempt to defer the uncertainties of life, or the woman who detattches herself from her body, no longer identifying with her free-subject self but rather as a determined object. In either case, Sartre suggests taking full responsibility for one’s actions and never denying the reality of freedom of choice.

Regarding human relations, they are categorized into basic themes of conflict between self and other; love is essentially masochistic; indifference, desire and hate are essentially sadistic. “There is no possibility of harmony, or union, between the self and the other; the self’s need for total freedom is too absolute to be shared” (p.177). Love relationships inevitably fall into the subject/object duality. “The more we try to reduce ourselves to mere objects, the more we become aware of ourselves as subjectivities who are attempting this reduction” (p. 178). And if one chooses to go the other way, the route of solipsism, to indifference and objectification of all others, that puts you in the vulnerable position of receiving “brief and terrifying flashes of illumination” (p. 178). If a person chooses to hate another, they are essentially wishing to hate all others, annihilate all others. But hatred is not the way to get out of the circle, but rather a means of staying trapped inside of it until one learns to be a self-for-others.

Beauvior examined women’s status in society and subordination to men. She analyzed Freudian and Marxist explanations for the phenomenon, as psychoanalytic or biological theories. But she sought a deeper answer for the question of why men named man the self and women the other. In studying five male authors, she found that the ideal woman whom men dream about is one who feels it is her duty to sacrifice herself for the man. In the institutions of motherhood and marriage women are denied the freedom to accomplish something ‘great’ and gradually learn to settle for less. If a woman develops the narcissism for a career, that is contingent on man’s and society’s approval of her that way, and also creates internal conflict between feminine and professional interests.

The two philosophies are tied together by the fact that “Woman, like man, is a subject rather than an object; she is no more being-in-itself than man is. She, like man, is being-for-itself, and it is high time for man to recognize this fact”(p. 187).