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Destruction of the Concept of Motherhood: Simone de Beauvoir on Parental Choice

Parental Choice

Although she was not a mother, Simone de Beauvoir has, as a philosopher and an author influenced the intellectual women and mothers of several generations. Her views on parental choice was clear. Simone de Beauvoir, attributed her own intellectual development to the differences in her parents’ belief systems.

“…my father’s individualism and pagan ethical standards were in complete contrast to the rigidly moral conventionalism of my mother’s teaching. This disequilibrium, which made my life a kind of endless disputation, is the main reason why I became an intellectual.”

However, the following quote perhaps best exemplifies the premise upon which she built her feminist philosophy.

“It is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills.”

Education of Simone de Beauvoir

Having grown up in an upper middle class, or bourgeois, family, she received an excellent Catholic education and even considered becoming a nun until the age of 14 (which would have led to the same parental choice she would make later on), when she instead became a life-long atheist. Intellectually precocious, after passing her baccalaureate exams, she studied languages, mathematics, and philosophy. At age 21, she was the youngest person to ever pass the agrégation exam at the Sorbonne, the scores of which were used for national ranking of scholars. She placed second, behind Jean-Paul Sarte, who placed first.

Works of Simone de Beauvoir

In her 1949 book The Second Sex”, she analyzed the phenomenon of women’s oppression and was one of the first feminists, although she did not formally declare herself one until 1972. In many ways, the book provided the framework for the later feminist movement. Other novels include She Came to Stay” and The Mandarins”. In a philosophical work titled “The Ethics of Ambiguity” she explored the concept of how freedom is affected by physical and social circumstances. Despite the lasting influence of her books, Simone De Beauvoir is as well known for her 45 year romantic relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as she is for her intellectual and literary contributions.

Controversy around the rebel Simone de Beauvoir

Simone De Beauvoir’s relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre was an open one, which caused a great deal of controversy, as did her bi-sexuality. But perhaps the biggest controversy that surrounded her was when she was formally charged with abducting a minor. She had developed an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student whose parents were outraged. They demanded that she be formally charged and as a result, her license to teach in France was permanently revoked.

Years later, in 1971, she signed the Manifesto of the 343, which was a list of famous women who’d had abortions. She defended openly parental choice. This proved to be equally controversial, but these women were willing to give up their privacy and endure public shame to legalize abortion by forcing the government to either arrest and charge them all with a crime or change the law. At the time abortion was even more controversial than it is today. Partially as a result of the controversy, abortion in France was legalized in 1974.

Simone de Beauvoir maintained that womanhood, and by extension, motherhood, were social constructs that served as tools in the patriarchal oppression of women. I have written several articles where psychologists or anthropologists would come to the same conclusion. However Simone de Beauvoir states philosophical viewpoints about motherhood, parental choice and their consequences. I believe that by who she was and what she wrote -whether I understand or agree with her personal parental choice-she has indeed influenced our beliefs and broader theoretical concept of what it means to be a mother today and in our society.

Views of Simone de Beauvoir on Parental Choice and Motherhood

Simone de Beauvoir believed that society’s definition of human being was male by default, thereby relegating women to a social construct of an inferior “other”. Further, she felt that women must elevate themselves from the position assigned them through the power of their conscious choices. In an interview with feminist Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir stated that

“No woman should be authorized to stay at home to bring up her children… because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.”

She questioned the validity of “choice” , of which the parental choice was one, within a social construct that punished women for choosing differently.

“Do you think the mothers you know chose to have children? Or were they intimidated into having them?”

She questions women’s ability to make a choice when men

“behave as if only women who stay at home are “clean” while the others are easy marks.”

To support her argument, she pointed to the increases in rape and domestic violence as evidence of male aggression expressed as punishment in response to women’s demands for equal rights.

In a 1976 interview she challenged women to examine their individual choices and how they would affect other women by saying

“Those who profit from their “collaboration” have to understand the nature of their betrayal”.

While she believed that economic systems were partially responsible for the oppression of women, she saw that the power of the patriarchal system superseded both capitalism and socialism. Therefore, she concluded that the most revolutionary act that women could perform

“to change the value system of society was to destroy the concept of motherhood.”

Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir worked for the creation of a society on which both genders were equally valued, both economically, and as parents. Most importantly, she wanted parenthood to be a true parental choice, rather than a societal expectation. When asked how long it might take to achieve such equality, she replied

“Maybe in four generations. I don’t know about the revolution. But the changes that women are struggling for, yes, that I am certain of, in the long run women will win.”

Parental Choice
Simone de Beauvoir with Jean Paul Sartre, welcomed by Avraham Shlonsky and Leah Goldberg by Flickr GovernmentPress Office
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