I’m the 'little girl' of the family, but when my family sits down for dinner, I always take the seat at the head of the table. I don’t have the type of dad that feels the need to assert his masculinity by sitting at the head of the table and mine is not the type of family that would ever view me as inferior on account of my gender or even my age. And yet, I feel the need to take this seat. It’s a small act of establishing myself in a family of three impressive minds and talkative mouths.
In studying the philosophy of Existentialism, I think I have to come to better understand why I always do this. I am establishing my essence. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir were two brilliant thinkers who have influenced the way that many of us view our own agency and freedoms. In this piece I’m going to explore how Existential thought offers insight into how we shape who we are and, in De Beauvoir’s Existentialism, how in shaping who we are we can deconstruct systems of oppression.
Sartre was arguably the founder of Existentialism and built the philosophy from the fundamental principle that, “Existence proceeds essence.” He believed that individuals do not have any intrinsic or inborn qualities or natural purpose that determine who we are, but rather that we must create our own essence and purpose, which he refers to as “the fundamental project”. The phrase “existential crisis” which we hear all too often refers to the feelings of absurdity and angst that naturally accompany the realisation that we have no inherent purpose, and that the only way to acquire any purpose it to construct it ourselves. The hands that sculpt us are in fact our own, and we are simply the sum of our choices and actions. From this premise, Sartre argued that if it is our actions alone that determine who we are, then we are able to choose to be whomever we want to be. Sartre described this ability to entirely design our own beings and existences as “radical freedom”.
Simone de Beauvoir, commonly upheld as the founder of 2nd wave feminism, was also a proponent of Existentialism. De Beauvoir and Sartre were contemporaries and, in fact, existed in exactly the same world (they were in a romantic relationship for many years). And yet, De Beauvoir had a very different experience in this world due to the fact that she was a woman. As a result, she developed a theory of existentialism that varied from Sartre’s.
De Beauvoir did not dispute the maxim, “Existence proceeds essence,” but she mirrors it to explain the root of the subordination of women: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In her book, The Second Sex, de Beauvoir explains that there is nothing innately inferior about women, but rather that misogynistic ideas and norms condition women into subordination, both in the eyes of men and in our own perceptions of ourselves. Now this may seem like an obvious idea — modern progressive discourse includes phrases such as “internalised misogyny,” but in De Beauvoir’s time, she was a revolutionary. Not only does she liberate women from any ideas of natural inferiority, she proposes that women are able to overcome oppression by dismantling the norms that shackle us in the position of the second sex.
On the question of free will, de Beauvoir questioned Sartre’s theory of radical freedom. She detailed the realties of patriarchal oppression and as a result concluded that women cannot be considered to be responsible for their circumstances. Again, this seems like an obvious statement, but Sartre’s idea of radical freedom decrees that every person is entirely responsible for their own circumstances, either through action or inaction. De Beauvoir’s ideation of oppression can be thought of as a high wall — a barrier separating women from the world of radical freedom, keeping us in the realm of immanency. Women cannot simply make the choice to climb over the wall; it is too great an obstacle. However, De Beauvoir definitely did not believe that women should submit to this oppression and live in the shadow of the wall. Rather, following the core principle of Existentialism, she advocates for women to acknowledge our ability to contribute toward achieving freedom. She might say that we each have the ability to contribute to the assembly of a ladder that will eventually enable women to climb over the wall.
De Beauvoir decreed that women ourselves must redefine what it means to be a woman— our essence. Inline with Existential ideas of how one creates essence, she said that the only way to do this is through our individual and collective actions. Every action that one does either moves us (individually or collectively) closer to or further from freedom. To be subservient to the patriarchy, to be passive, is to act in favour of it by entrenching perceptions of femininity which account for or excuse the oppression of women. Thus, inaction moves us further from freedom. Imagine that inaction not only doesn’t contribute to assembling the ladder, but also adds bricks to the top of the wall.
To deny the freedom that one has to create their own essence is to live in “bad faith,” as coined by Sartre. De Beauvoir explains that to allow men to define femininity and the abilities of women, is to live in bad faith, as it is denying our own freedom to form who we are. To live in the shadow of the wall, rather than aid the assembly of the ladder, is to live in bad faith. As women, we not only have the freedom to form our own essence and progress towards transcendence from patriarchal oppression, but also the responsibility to do these things.
And this is why I sit at the head of the table — it is a very small contribution to the assembly of the ladder of transcendence. Although my dad doesn’t consciously exert his patriarchal power in my house, I think that to normalise him sitting at the head of the table is to add a few bricks to the wall. Sitting at the head of the table is a small part of my own “fundamental project” of constructing who I am and making and taking my place in the world. It is accompanied by pursuing intellectual activity (particularly in maths and sciences), dressing however I please, making my voice heard, supporting other women and many other things. The realisation (or at least the confirmation) that I am not defined by societal norms, but rather possess the agency to constantly define and redefine who I am through my actions and words is empowering.
Of course De Beauvoir’s experience and accounts of oppression are hardly all-encompassing. As a middle class, well-educated white American she did not experience intersectional discrimination. In her writing, she does extend these ideas of overcoming power and redefining essence to other oppressed groups, but she fundamentally represents her own perspective. This was her contribution to the construction of the ladder rather than the entire ladder. As women, we each have the responsibility to embrace the freedom we do have and, in constructing ourselves, construct the ladder that will allow for the liberation of all women.