Women’s responsibility in their own fulfilment

By Charlotte de Jong

www.charlottedejong.site

The following text is a summary of a previous research work.

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In the first half of the twentieth century, many factors influence women’s conception of life and of themselves and thus their decisions. Nevertheless, these factors are only influences and cannot be held sole responsible for women’s wrong choices.
One of the real responsibles might be women themselves. Two major works are related to the subject: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique[1] (1963) and  Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe[2] (1949). They suggest ways women could fulfill their lives and avoid the consequences of not facing their responsibilities themselves.

New French Edition (2019)

Women’s inability to choose which way to follow in their life might be unconscious. Excuses such as marriage and children, can be brought up as “false good reasons” not to choose anything else: they are much easier and are well-known. Women may be afraid to fail elsewhere. Where men have no easy way of avoiding the risks, women have the possibility of staying home. Noone would reproache a women this choice. Her image would not blur because of her desire to be available for her husband and children. Betty Friedan gives an example:

Betty Ann Country woman […] had planned to be a doctor. But just before graduation from Radcliffe cum laude, she shrank from the thought that such a dedication might shut her off from what she really wanted, which was to marry and have a large family. (57)

Whereas she had plans, she chose not to put them through, because it could signify her not founding a family. Nevertheless, no study has proved that women with studies have fewer abilities to found families. As this abandoning intervenes just before graduation, it might demonstrate a disguised fear of failure. The possibility of an easy way out seems possible.

Simone de Beauvoir moreover analyses the feminine ability to passively wait. She writes:

Tout encourage encore la jeune fille à attendre du « prince charmant » fortune et bonheur plutôt qu’à en tenter seule la difficile et incertaine conquête. (I.233)

The fairytale education most girls are given is evidence: girls grow confusing reality and dream-world. It seems as if girls forever keep their childish dreams of magical happiness. They believe in a life where everything is love and wonder, and marriage sufficient to fill an entire living. The result is a permanent feeling of dissatisfaction, but towards which women do not react. Simone de Beauvoir writes:

Si l’avenir l’effraie, le présent ne la satisfait pas ; elle hésite à devenir femme ; elle s’agace de n’être qu’une enfant ; elle a déjà quitté son passé ; elle n’est pas engagée dans une vie nouvelle. Elle s’occupe, mais elle ne fait rien : parce qu’elle ne fait rien, elle n’a rien, elle n’est rien. (II.127)

The problem occurs once women are trapped in the feminine mystique. Marriage shows to have nothing magical and there is nothing else. What is next? Women have no other expectancy, nothing to hope for. Once women realize their mistake, they have abandoned the possibilities they might have had of evading the monotonous life of a housewife through studies leading to career. It is too late to change what they did wrong. Simone de Beauvoir resumes the sad state of mind of a married woman:

Maintenant elle est mariée, il n’y a plus devant elle d’avenir autre. Les portes du foyer se sont refermées sur elle : ce sera là toute sa part sur terre. […] elle pense avec angoisse : ce n’est que cela, à jamais. […] Elle n’a plus rien à attendre, plus rien d’important à vouloir. (II.279)

But all her life, women were told that the way toward happiness inevitably went through marriage. All she had to do was to wait for prince charming to deliver her and make her happy. As  Simone de Beauvoir again writes:

Elle apprend que pour être heureuse, il faut être aimée ; pour être aimée, il faut attendre l’amour. La femme c’est la Belle au bois dormant, Peau d’Âne, Cendrillon, Blanche Neige, celle qui reçoit et subit. […] il combat des géants ; elle est enfermée dans un tout, un palais, un jardin, enchaînée à un rocher, captive, endormie : elle attend. (II.43)

Once women have successfully waited for a man to find them, they begin a new life of waiting for him to come home and entertain their empty existences. Simone de Beauvoir explains the immanence of traditionnal marriage :

Mais le mariage traditionnel n’invite pas la femme à se transcender avec lui ; il la confine dans l’immanence. (II.256-257)

The married woman searches for a justification of her stationary existence, which explains her attachment to material richness:

Son foyer, c’est donc pour elle le lot qui lui est dévolu sur terre, l’expression de sa valeur sociale, et de sa plus intime vérité. Parce qu’elle ne fait rien, elle se recherche avidement dans ce qu’elle a. […]  une activité qui ne l’arrache pas à son immanence et qui ne lui permet pas une affirmation singulière d’elle-même. (II.260-261)

This is how women’s lives continue to be made of continual waiting and obligatory acceptance of wasting their time in passivity and inessential chores.

Betty Friedan, 1975. (David Montgomery/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, another possibility than marriage was open to most women in the nineteen-sixties: education. A girl could make herself a way through education. But many women refused to follow this road as explained by Friedan:

But they just won’t let themselves get interested. They seem to feel it will get in their way when they marry the young executive and raise all those children in the suburbs. (152)
And yet the fact is, today most girls do not let their education ‘take’; they stop themselves before getting this close to identity. (176)

If women refused to go through the state of education, they remained the small girls they once were, nourishing the same hopes and dreams, unconscious of needs and implications of real adult life. The changes did not stop at this point and “American girls began getting married in high school.” (15-16), before they had even had a chance to grow up, evolve and be able to think about their own life. The Feminine Mystique created and narrow-minded way of thinking and behaving. Women’s only and almost desperate preoccupation became finding a man and getting married. Nothing else seemed to matter. Completely indoctrinated in the Mystique, girls were unable to objectively focus on their life and were obsessed with this sole finality of marriage. Friedan quotes a young student who explains her ideas:

Girls don’t get excited about things like that anymore [nuclear physics, Modern Art, civilizations of Africa]. We don’t want careers. […] I guess everybody wants to graduate with a diamond ring on her finger. That’s the important thing. (153) Could these girls […] really be so bored with the life of mind? (154)

Women are brought to consider college or work to be of no importance, merely a temporary step on the way to find a husband. They deliberately refuse to use their minds or to get interested in anything. They more or less consciously acknowledge the fact that they will not use any of their knowledge in their future role as mother and wife. The indoctrination of the Mystique is so powerful that they do not even try to protest and refuse to take any responsibility in thinking about their own life.

Maybe we should take it more seriously. But nobody wants to graduate and get into something where they can’t use it. If your husband is going to be an organization man, you can’t be too educated. The wife is awfully important for the husband’s career. (155)

Once women fall in love, they abandon everything for the man who will make their dreams come through by marrying them:

All she wanted,  […] was to get married, have four children and live in a nice house in a nice suburb. […] She had found true feminine fulfilment. As a housewife and mother (18)

Therefore, statistics showing a growing majority of women who study must be handled carefully. Women did not study effectively and did often not end their studies, because they did not intend to use them for a carrier:

The mystery […] was that more American women that ever were going to college—but […] Two out of three girls who entered college were dropping out before they even finished. […] the girls seemed suddenly incapable of any ambition, any vision, any passion, except the pursuit of a wedding ring[3]. (150)

Women come back to the so-called “occupation housewife” largely referred to by Friedan. Maybe they unconsciously refused to make a choice and blindly followed the crowd. Friedan recalls her own youth and how the questioning frightened her and her comrades:

We don’t like to be asked what we want to do. None of us know. None of us even like to think about it. The ones who are going to be married right away are the lucky ones. They don’t have to think about it[4]. […] The tragedy was, nobody ever looked us in the eye and said you have to decide what you want to do with your life […] I realized that I had to make my own life. I still had to decide what I wanted to be. I hadn’t finished evolving at all. But it took me ten years to think it through. (71)

Two categories seem to exist: the one of marriage and children and the one of career and passions. The two appear impossible to reconcile and women have to choose. But in order to find happiness, the two are interdependent, which makes the choice absurd. Nevertheless, it was expected of women to make a choice, and they chose to deny themselves in order to found families.

The problem is that most women wake up and understand something is wrong with their lives. Still they have no idea how to escape the prison they have contributed to build and though there might be a way out of it, they refuse to make the effort to think far enough as to actually get out:

The Feminine Mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive. There is no way for these women to break out of their comfortable concentration camps, except by finally putting forth an effort […] to help shape the future. Only by such a personal commitment to the future can American women break out of the housewife trap and truly find fulfilment as wives and mothers—by fulfilling their own unique possibilities as separate human beings. (336-337)

Simone de Beauvoir also brings up women’s choice of the easiest way of living and writes:

Le mariage est non seulement une carrière honorable et moins fatigante que beaucoup d’autres : seul, il permet à la femme d’accéder à son intégrale dignité sociale et de se réaliser sexuellement comme amante et mère. C’est sous cette figure que son entourage envisage son avenir et qu’elle l’envisage elle-même. (II.89)

One of Friedan’s most famous sentences is known as “It is easier to live through someone else than to become completely yourself”. Women simply cannot imagine a happy live without love and they cannot imagine love without submission to the object of love. This is where lies the essential difference in feminine and masculine way of loving, an eroded feminine idea of almighty love that makes women unhappy.

Simone de Beauvoir explains the feminine way of defining love as a total abandonment of their own self and living only for a man, as an issue of a non pertinent reflection on her own life:

Elle ne veut être que cette femme aimée, rien d’autre n’a de prix à ses yeux. […] C’est la dure punition infligée à qui n’a pas pris son destin entre ses propres mains. (II.564-565)

Few couples are able to elevate their love to a more subtle level based on human qualities as respect, confidence and thus individuality instead of a relation based on possessiveness.

Far from all women are aware of the questions they ought to ask themselves. Those who are still have to make the efforts to find the answers, as writes Betty Friedan:

To face the problem is not to solve it. But […] once she asks herself ‘What do I want to do?’ she begins to find her own answers. (338)

The key to women’s happiness obviously lies in this question, or rather in the answers to it. Only women themselves can be able to know what they want. They have to make the effort to find the answer in order to have a chance of happiness. In Interviews with Betty Friedan, Janann Sherman writes about Friedan:

“Women in her estimation were frivolous, evaded using their intellect, and generally took the easy way out by marrying young. They were guilty, she implied, of colluding in their own oppression.” (x)

Women suffering from the Feminine Mystique mostly do not satisfy their need for respect or even self-respect, essential survival needs, which explains the feminine illness.

Simone de Beauvoir underlines the new possibilities offered to women in the middle of the twentieth century and though these are not easy to seize, their achievement would change women’s lives, leading them away from futile preoccupations and offering a way toward fulfilment, as long as they do not abandon as soon as they fall in love in order to privilege their relationship:

Aujourd’hui, il lui devient possible de prendre son sort entre ses mains, au lieu de s’en remettre à l’homme. Si elle est absorbée par ses études, des sports, un apprentissage professionnel, une activité sociale et politique, elle s’affranchit de l’obsession du mâle (II.142)

The most recent English translation of The Second Sex by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.

Simone de Beauvoir sharply insists on the importance of women’s independence in their professional life as well as their personal life and their marriage, which she defines ideally in the following terms, warning against taking short cuts and not taking the time needed to become an individual person before engaging oneself –or escaping from oneself, to someone else:

Il faudrait que le mariage fût la mise en commun de deux existences autonomes, non une retraite, une annexion, une fuite, un remède. […] avant de pouvoir être une épouse et une mère, il lui faut d’abord devenir une personne. (320-321)

Before being able to become a wife or mother, a woman must become a person.

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NOTES:

[1]   All references to the text of The Feminine Mystique rely on the W.W. Norton & Company edition, 2001.

[2]   Simone de Beauvoir. Le Deuxième Sexe. I & II. Editions 2003.

[3]   my underlining

[4]   my underlining

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The authoress :

Née au Danemark d’une union néerlando-danoise et installée en France depuis 1989, Charlotte de Jong est passionnée de voyages, d’histoire et de littérature. Elle est titulaire d’un Master Langues et Civilisations Anglophones avec une spécialisation dans les voyageuses en Egypte du 19ème siècle.Domiciliée en Alsace avec ses trois enfants, elle rêve de transmettre la curiosité bienveillante et le respect d’autrui et de faire découvrir les richesses des différences culturelles.
Publications :
– romans historiques : Pourriture Noble, 2015 ; Egypte mon amour, 2019
– fantaisie jeunesse : Erable, la dynastie oubliée, 2019

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To cite this article: Charlotte de Jong, “Women’s responsibility in their own fulfilment”, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, janvier 2020. URL : https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/2360 

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Marine Rouch

Doctorante à l'université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès - Histoire contemporaine des femmes et du genre - Histoire littéraire - Laboratoire FRAMESPA (UT2J) - Laboratoire ALITHILA (Lille 3)

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