Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

Do Women Exist?

Mary Townsend

Untitled, 2016, by Hélène Delmaire,; IG @ helenedelmaire; facebook:; courtesy of the artist.

“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.


Aristophanes’s women, spread across his three separate theatrical attempts to envision a female-inspired revolution, possess a fatal flaw: The women of classical Athens and Sparta, the citizen wives of the native-born men, unite to secure peace for the Greeks as a whole, but at the expense of the foreign born, the prostitute, and the slave. For Aristophanes’s citizen women, “woman” does not simply equal “female,” and they are quite cruel about it. So it’s no surprise that contemporary attempts to speak on behalf of women run into the same problem. Betty Friedan, the author of the strange, strangely popular, and still quite irritating The Feminine Mystique, herself pronounces a “we women” so notoriously and comically limited that the reader must continually cringe.55xConsider also Clare Coffey’s discussion of the stratification that the preference for hyper-successful women brings in “The Limits of Excellence,” Jacobin, August 18, 2016,

But Friedan’s rarified section of humanity, and her contention that to be a mere housewife, however wealthy or well connected, is a form of suicide—once I discovered an edition of her book in a university library where someone had carefully torn out that word, “suicide”—still has an outsized relation to the American mythos, running parallel to the American dream of a house and a wife and a car. “Femininity” is an extremely awkward adjective-noun, and hardly seems related to woman-ness at all; if we remain haunted by it, it’s bound up in our attempts to lay it to rest. With Virginia Woolf, one is to kill the “Angel in the House”; with Beauvoir, one must lay aside the eternal woman; with Sheryl Sandberg (apologies for this third) and others, one must toughen up, deepen the voice, stand with arms in “Wonder Woman position,” letting someone else (usually other women) do the traditional dirty work.66xVirginia Woolf, Women and Writing (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1980), first published 1904–42; Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 750; Jessica Bennet, “How Not to Be ‘Manterrupted’ during Meetings,” Time, January, 20, 2015, See also Katherine Zaleski, “I’m a Successful Mom Because of My Nanny,” Elle, April 25, 2016, Woman-as-such must be met with violence and left in shambles, if one is to do it properly. Being female is simply not relevant, except as an otherwise contentless gold star appended to what you can do just as well as a man, if not better.

After all this violence, what remains? If femaleness is ultimately a fiction of culture, of early youthful experience, the way one is raised, the psychological consequence of how others treat you, a woman can hardly be said to have any authentic being of her own, as woman. In an important sense, women as women exist only hazily at best, at most a shared mirage to rise above.77xSee Mari Mikkola, “Ontological Commitments, Sex and Gender” in Feminist Metaphysics, ed. Charlotte de Witt (New York, NY: Springer, 2011), 67–83. “Are there even women?” Beauvoir asks flippantly.88xBeauvoir, The Second Sex, 3. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan goes further: “La femme n’existe pas.”99xJacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1999), 7. First published 1975.

Beauvoir’s question, however, has undeniable dialectical panache. Although she phrases it as the sort of argument only a debater could love—Question 1: Do women exist? We will now hear arguments for and against the case—I take it seriously as a playful way into the question of women’s self-understanding. In many ways, the burden of the past century is that we do not. Fictions don’t actually exist; cultural constructions aren’t solid reality; you can’t be them, only be in the act of attempting to be them. Being a woman is a vestigial aspect of our humanity. Whatever it ought to constitute, as even Beauvoir thinks, is the work of the future, and the future is (you guessed it) up for grabs.

Of course, women exist. One walks down any street and there they are, and expressions of fellow feeling and sympathy can exist among them even if they lack some unifying factor. But I have to confess I find this profoundly dissatisfying: A nagging sense remains that phenomenological niceties aren’t a solution so much as a weak compromise.

As a good existentialist, Beauvoir would remind us at this juncture that to be oriented toward Being in spite of ourselves is a fundamental condition of being the sort of thing that dies and is also aware of this unfortunate fact. We are not satisfied with fiction; we want to say, godlike in all the irony this entails, that we are, and are something in particular. In fact, the fullness of being a god is our not-so-secret metaphysical longing, Beauvoir writes in The Ethics of Ambiguity: a god for whom there is no gap between being alive and being perfect, not to mention eternal. And as she hopes we come to recognize, all of our efforts to be such a god will be in vain.1010xSimone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York, NY: Citadel Press, 1948), 12.

There’s an irony here: One of the usual metaphysical slanders of women is that we embody a transitory being-ness, a genesis or coming-to-be, an activity in constant need of tending as a way to keep up appearances, in contrast to the safer, more firm reality of the masculine To Be. Judith Butler’s insistence that gender is a set of practices and therefore “a constructing that rightly cannot be said to originate or end” is merely the current manifestation of the ideal put forth by Plato’s enthusiastic astronomer-figure Timaeus, who sees the feminine principle as the even-more-amorphous source of all generation.1111xJudith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 43; Plato, Timaeus, 48e–51b, although for a more positive view of Timaeus’s theories see Emanuela Bianchi, “Receptable/Chôra: Figuring the Errant Feminine in Plato’s Timaeus,” Hypatia 24:4, 2006. To take up female-ness, therefore, as an endlessly changing, essentially malleable thing, in the hope that somehow this will be more satisfying, seems to me weirdly and wastefully contrarian. A disembodied metaphysics of malleability is precisely the sort of metaphysics that will make our crisis of self even worse, and it’s no less frustrating than an eternal unchanging Form of Womanhood that taunts us with its unattainable imagery, whether we’re picturing the career-and-family woman “having it all” or the aspirationally quirky movie or TV heroine of the day: Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, for instance, or Zooey Deschanel in New Girl.1212xAnne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” The Atlantic, July/August 2012,

Luce Irigaray, the French psychoanalyst and linguist, notes that women in Western liberal democracies dedicated to equality think of themselves as “first and foremost asexual or neuter,” until they run across some circumstance in the sexual arena or family life that they experience as restrictive.1313xLuce Irigaray, Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, trans. Alison Martin (New York, NY: Routledge, 1993), 21. The experience of this restriction varies: As Armani Eady, one of my students reading Beauvoir with me once put it, racism is the brother you grew up with; sexism is the uncle who started coming around when you were ten.

For a certain sort of American woman, to discover that (a) women exist in a nonfictional way and (b) one is oneself a woman in relevant senses, the discovery seems the most cosmic joke imaginable. As soon as one experiences the presence of some difference, however minor, one experiences that difference as a wound: a thorn in the flesh, a drag on what you thought you were, but extraordinarily, turn out not to be; a sign of being something slightly different, of that which you know not what. When other problems of existence are less pressing, sex takes on an outsized importance in one’s sense of self, becoming the only real obstacle to overcome. This is one of the problems with the pinkwashing brigade, who cheer for women without any definite sense of what that means other than whatever you can toss a pink halo around. The goal remains equality, and if you don’t achieve it, you’ve failed. When sex is the only misfortune, then sex is misfortune personified; it should be obvious that this is not a helpful philosophical place.

Neutrality, a place beyond either sex or any gender, would seem to be the easiest way to ensure equality, but neutrality is at times a gay deceiver: As Irigaray insists, in the very neutrality of certain laws there’s a subtle patterning that still takes the exigencies of men’s lives as the default. “Neutral” expectations disproportionately restrict ordinary patterns of female human lives, from the trivial (air-conditioning levels set to what men find comfortable) to the only seemingly trivial (seatbelts aren’t built with breasts in mind); to the impossible (the need to hide your pregnancy from prospective or current employers, or having to worry about being fired for staying home with a sick child). At the least, for the self-professing woman, coming to see oneself as something other than neutral should probably be one of the goals.

But difference itself has become a loaded political word. Often, with equality as the imperfect articulation of what we want out of life, the debate on the broadest public stage takes the irritatingly abstract approach of asserting either that women are essentially the same as men or that women are different, full stop. Socrates (known for being a man oddly invested in female deities) notes that it’s perfectly obvious that men and women, belonging as they do to the same species, are both same and different—the minor problem remaining, which he himself puts off for another day, that we still have more work to do to articulate in what respects these similarities and differences lie. Tina Chanter wrote in 1995 that, historically speaking, American feminism has insisted upon the similarities of women and men at the expense of articulating difference, in terror perhaps at the need to prove enough similarity to guarantee that our political equality is assured.1414xTina Chanter, Ethics of Eros: Irigaray’s Rewriting of the Philosophers (New York, NY: Routledge, 1995), 5.

As Beauvoir has it, “It is easy for the antifeminists to show that women are not men,”1515xBeauvoir, The Second Sex, 4. even without, one might note, running to lobster-based absurdities.1616xAs Jordan Peterson recently has put it; see Leonor Gonçalves, “Psychologist Jordan Peterson Says Lobsters Help to Explain Why Human Hierarchies Exist—Do They?,” The Conversation, January 24, 2018, The reactionary arguments tend to follow the same mix of tired truisms, even less convincing or attractive than Beauvoir’s collection of bons mots from more-or-less cynical French thinkers from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, with an assortment of ever zanier spitballs about what women really want. Women’s existence becomes a point of order to insist upon, rather than a puzzle to articulate. The problem is, if women were a natural phenomenon pure and simple, it would be obvious to everyone what they were; but for us it nevertheless remains a puzzle. Beauvoir’s sense of how interesting and still unresolved a matter it really is, how it’s linked to broader human questions but not subsumed by them, remains peculiarly enlivening.

Like Kierkegaard, Beauvoir has a guarded fascination with Hegelian metaphysics. The German philosopher’s language does a lot of work for her. The woman’s goal is to be a true Subject (never Object) for-herself, the one who confidently and in perfect freedom asserts her first-person “I” against the world.1717xBeauvoir, The Second Sex, 749. But the thing that makes both Kierkegaard and Beauvoir livelier reading than Hegel is that neither desires to be an acolyte of a System, even while they both playfully incorporate some of Hegel’s better turns of phrase into their thinking about existence at large.

For this reason, it’s a pity that Beauvoir is committed, for her own private reasons, to Sartrean teleology, according to which the existential goal of existence is a radical freedom for all. Practically speaking, our American experiment might well show the better wisdom of Kierkegaard’s understanding of the deadly burden absolute freedom represents. To be for-ourselves as free primarily too often looks like a recipe for anxiety and despair. By contrast, Beauvoir’s solution for us to accept, by means of freedom, our partial ever-fading existence is the sort of grand advice that remains impossible to follow.1818xBeauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 9, 70. Beauvoir and Sartre as exemplars of a radically free romantic pair, seen laughing together at cocktail parties in exquisite photographs, may seem like an appealing aesthetic, but as an ethic, such freedom leaves something to be desired. At the very least, Beauvoir’s contempt for women she considered unfree does not reflect well on freedom as the highest personal good.1919xBeauvoir’s disdain for breeding women and on occasion even wives is well-known; see Chanter, Ethics of Eros, 47–79.

But Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, massive in its grandiose scheme to unite wry and often cynical psychoanalysis, hard-driving Marxist optimism, and existential good faith, does begin its philosophical inquiry into the being-ness of a woman within a properly grand domain. Americans tend to regard our gender troubles as primarily a battle of culture or politics, one that pouring more career-based equality into the mix will solve. Unfortunately for us, the self and its crisis with itself remain. The firmness of the American creedal conviction that some professional accomplishment or accolade can save us from ourselves continually surprises me, although I suppose it shouldn’t.

Like Plato, Beauvoir insists upon locating the question of woman-ness within the political whole and the possibility of justice for all, where considerations of eros and private life are not left behind. Both Plato and Beauvoir also see a need for more self-cohesion than we ordinarily possess: For Plato, it would be well for the parts of the soul to be harmonized, while for the existentialists, the self has to be reconciled to itself. Beauvoir has no answers as to what singularity female human being will have in the future, as she is ready to admit, but she is asking the right questions. And there may be no answers, only paradoxes to be resolved more or less tragically, as Plato hints. But reading Beauvoir, even if we don’t share her optimism, we get a glimpse in the hazy middle distance of the to-be we long for, even if its ontological category remains indistinct.

The Trouble with Our Angels

Irigaray notices a curious phenomenon in her clinical research: that how we conceive of ourselves as the male or female subject “I” finds its way into our smallest grammatical patterns. There’s an awkwardness built into any “I am” on the part of the female subject, because the forms of self-announcement and assertion grow out of the patterns of speech built around male subjectivity.2020xLuce Irigaray, To Speak Is Never Neutral (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 3, 165. See also Je, tu, nous, 33. Women exist; but the language to articulate their existence doesn’t quite, yet.

It’s true that women have begun to say “me,” as in “me too,” which parsed as a sentence is not unreasonably translated as “I am as well.” In the safety of the object pronoun “me” we’ve made a peculiarly interesting kind of conversation among ourselves, the very kind Irigaray recommends as the best way to open up our language. We might call it a “between-women space,” the sort of conversation possible only when there are only women in the room—even if our talk, at present, is often agony laden.

Grammatically speaking, in many languages the presence of one man among however many women changes the “we” to a masculine plural pronoun. Psychologically speaking, nothing could be a more apt description of what often happens when one man sits down at a table full of women: The focus shifts, certain subjects become taboo, even if none of the women have any particular patience for this one man’s opinions. I’ve noticed this in the college classroom, especially when gender is up for discussion.

By contrast, in between-women’s space, there is the possibility of language together that doesn’t have to avoid certain subjects or dress itself in neutral forms—the sort of thing that inevitably defaults to male forms—but can start, often painfully, to notice, to admit, to recognize, to note the presence and absence of similarity and dissimilarity, to open up Aristophanic elisions, even if between-space for more specific subsets becomes desirable for the sake of even more specific talk. (Given our foibles, transgender women’s presence in the conversation is a grace that other women don’t always deserve.) Such talk runs parallel to the linguistic revolt in which we depart from the usual disembodied prose of faux objectivity, to speak of one’s life, to say “once I was” without this being a genre breaker or reflecting poorly on the truth of our words.2121xIbid., 3; see also bell hooks, “Engaged Pedagogy,” in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994): 13–22.

On the Internet, women talking with women is often a high-wire act, always verging on morphing into something else, even if the something else is not unpleasant (who doesn’t like to talk to men, on occasion, in their place?). It’s not an easy between-women space to maintain. There are many reasons social media constitute a wretched world, but the structures of social media free women from a few of our divisions: age, beauty, sexuality, clothing, sometimes even from social class. The possibility of saying “myself as well” or “me too” is possible only in a between-women space, both a gift of language and a gift to it. In ancient Athens, Solon restricted the number of mourners at funerals. Since women were the primary mourners, this had the direct effect of breaking up a cross-generational women’s space for ages. Mourning together, as we have done on the Internet, has its merits; in such a space the “I am too” becomes more plausible, less strident in the speaker’s own ear, and never absurd.

Certainly, we are in a pickle if even the language for what we need most of all has yet to be born. In the spirit of this fundamental difficulty, Beauvoir returns to the dialectic:

But how then, will we ask the question? And in the first place, who are we to ask it? Men are judge and party: so are women. Can an angel be found?2222xBeauvoir, The Second Sex, 15.

In Thomas Aquinas’s vision of angels, each new angel is its own distinct species, bodiless and of no particular sex, even if angels themselves are not above forming and joining parties in opposition to one another. I suppose it’s only human to hope that such a singular creature, helpfully beyond our petty grammatical concerns, could do the subject justice, and speak in loud carols of the truth that would set us free.

But the trouble with our angel, Beauvoir argues, is that an angel can’t do the subject justice, because an angel isn’t qualified to speak on the subject at all. An angel’s explanation of being female would be the explanation an angel would give, not a self-articulation. And so we’re stuck to a large extent within our human quarrels and the language they give rise to.

Yet there’s hope for the next sort of articulation we might discover in the between-women space, if the space can hang together long enough for further language to develop, and if there is enough interest in being a woman to continue to hope for the “we” that might result. Should we wish for a “we,” I think we have to hope for an “I” in addition to the tragic “I” of the “I am in pain” or its fellow “I experience being a woman as pain”—if somehow one can temporarily put off one’s irritation at continuing to be a woman, the strangest sort of non-thing to nevertheless be. I’m not optimistic, but I’m not willing to be a fatalist yet, still wagering that Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, with its community founded in something other than disaster, might after all be a better model than Greek tragedy. Perhaps in this way it might be possible for us to have the last laugh after all.