“La femme n’existe pas.” Maybe, maybe not.
In her imperfect masterpiece The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir observes, “If I want to define myself, I first have to say, ‘I am a woman’; all other assertions will arise from this basic truth.”11xSimone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2011), 5. First published 1949. Such immediate epistemic certainty is admirable, maybe even enviable. Americans usually approach it only on occasions when the correct answer to “What do you do?” is inevitably a statement involving the godlike “I am.” “I am an electrician, I am a lawyer, I am fortunate to be an x at y.”
But for an American woman, should she pause to consider it, the matter stands differently than it does for Beauvoir. “I am a woman” is not the first thing that comes to mind when such a human accidentally finds herself faced with the problem of just what sort of thing she is, anyway. “Woman” is far too troubled a category to be immediate for us. Isn’t it a graceful fiction, subject to the whims of a given culture? It seems inelegant, beside the point; when asserted as a rejoinder or a slogan, it runs the risk of sounding aggressively sentimental, even absurd.
Beauvoir, herself being safely French, is on to us. “The defiant position that American women occupy,” she writes, when faced with such a question, “proves that they are haunted by the feelings of their own femininity.”22xIbid., 4. Encountering this statement as one such American woman, one suddenly finds oneself full of certainty after all. Immediate defiance and a strong negative seem but reasonable and just: “I am definitely not haunted by being a woman!” In much the same way, the nineteenth-century Americans whom Alexis de Tocqueville interrogated about the state of their democracy were immediately moved to defensive anger when he delicately attempted to offer critiques of their way of life. Americans will accept any criticism of themselves, Tocqueville observes, however scathing, as long as it does not come from a foreigner—and French critique perhaps feels particularly uncalled for.33xAlexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Deborah Winthrop (New York, NY: Vintage, 1954): 227. First published 1835–39.
Whether or not American women are at a peculiar disadvantage here, we do now find ourselves in a bit of an existential predicament with regard to the being-ness of being a woman. If “I am a woman” is not a particularly revelatory way to declare what one is, what becomes of a group of women when they pronounce the even more difficult “we” as in, perilously, “We women have decided this” or “We women have decided to march on Washington”? This innocent first-person plural is important for several reasons, the most pressing of which is political: Under what circumstances should we allow ourselves to act together for a common goal, despite the variety of our differences? When the “I” is in doubt, its corollary “We are” is in trouble.
Within any other group, Beauvoir argues, common cause, common action, and common feeling are more imaginable than they are among women as a body. We live “dispersed among men,” tied by interest to nearly every other thing than merely being a woman, which fact seems trivial compared to ties of social group or class, race, religion, or nationality, beauty, skill, or age. Women do not proclaim themselves a “we,” says Beauvoir, except in the artificial circumstances of academic prose (touché). “In Lysistrata,” she notes, “Aristophanes lightheartedly imagined a group of women who, uniting together for the social good, tried to take advantage of men’s need of them”—so far, so good. She concludes by saying this, however: “But [the Lysistrata] is only a comedy.”4Beauvoir, Second Sex, 9. The joke is always on us: Our revolution is undercut before it’s begun.