By Neha Chaudhary:
When one asks the question, “What is a Woman,” Simone De Beauvoir answers, that the very need of asking this question is testimony to the fact that the “act of being a woman,” is not “normal.” Time and again, there has been the need to redefine ‘woman’, the grounds of her oppression, and the roads to her liberation. It began with the likes of Jeremy Bentham and Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s and is still continuing. The plethora of themes that these works have dealt with is sundry and diverse. At the same time, these works are responses to the changing socio-economic and political settings, written on account of different backdrops, and dedicated to the questions of ‘women’ by questioning the dominant ideologies with theory.
“Otherness is the fundamental category of human thought”; and woman is the ‘other’. A woman is always defined vis-à-vis a man; she is secondary, the subordinate one. God created man, and woman was born out of his ‘supernumerary bone’. He is the supreme creation of the ‘Supreme Creator’, and she is only a ‘woman’–a mere ‘other’. Aristotle in his works writes, “A woman is an incomplete man.” She is a woman because of the lack of certain virtues. Plato shows his gratitude for not being born a ‘woman’. Rousseau, who gave the ideological basis for the French Revolution, argued that women should be educated only in the art of ‘home-making’ as this is what they are supposed to do. As Simone De Beauvoir writes, with the help of theology, philosophy, science, literature et al, men have turned their supremacy into a ‘right’.
Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first to question this right of men in her work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. Although she agreed on the point that women are physically inferior to men, she elaborated that men further tried to dominate women through the indoctrination of the ideas that propagate women’s moral and mental subordination to men. She criticised Rousseau on calling women “virtual slaves,” and stated that ‘virtue’ is not relative to gender, as both are created by God, both have souls and have similar abilities to exercise reason and develop virtue. Here, she brings in the idea and importance of education. It was the lack of education or, rather, the lack of the right kind of education that was responsible for the deplorable condition of women.
She argues that women are taught that their appearance is of paramount concern. They are led to believe that emotions and sentiments are above reason and common sense. They are taught to please others, conditioned to develop a love for homely affairs and tricked into believing that this is what they are made for. She further develops this point by calling this the reason for extra-marital affairs; women are not at par (in terms of knowledge) with their partners and after a point, men lose interest in the sheer nature of “hollow beauty.”
Friedrich Engels deals with the question and problems of monogamy. He traces the beginning and the need of family as a structure. According to him, the family was the system “which had all the contradictions of state and society.” It was in the family that the first division of labour occurred, for the production of children. He adds that the first ‘class antagonism’ is manifested in monogamy, and the first oppression is that which is done by the male sex of the female sex. Thus, he calls women the “first exploited class.” He delves into details in defining the presence of slavery within monogamy, taking examples from Iliad and Odyssey to comment upon women’s condition. He points out that monogamies were “marriages of convenience” and, with the passage of time, women were increasingly deprived of their sexual freedom.
The logic applied here is simple. With the coming of ‘private property’ male heirs were given paramount importance as they were the carriers of wealth and private property, and men ensured that the bloodline remained unadulterated by curbing all the sexual freedoms of their female counterparts.
And as we know, they were very successful. As De Beauvoir writes, “…in truth the woman has not been socially emancipated through man’s sexual desire and the desire of an offspring…” She draws a trajectory and writes that much like the relationship of ‘master’ and ‘slave’, which is governed by the reciprocal need (economic needs in this case), always works in the favour of the oppressor–the men. With the passage of time, women accepted their role as the ‘other’, and are often pleased with this.
However, this is not the end of it. Men are looking for their virility in their female counterparts, according to De Beauvoir. He is always concerned with his appearance as a male–the important, the superior one–and persists on woman to continue to remain in their chains, as he “identifies” himself with them.
As the definitions on oppressions vary, accounts on liberation also vary. First-wave feminists, the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft look for the liberation in ‘education’, ‘universal suffrage’. She argues that women and men should be given the same kind of knowledge and should be sent to same schools, as young girls developing an interest in “playing dolls,” is nothing but patriarchal indoctrination. However, her ideas begin to grow problematic when she suggests that there is no need for men to worry, as women can never grow strong enough to completely do away with them in their lives.
With the passage of time, we see women were given education, they were sent to schools to study, factories to work, courts to become lawyers and judges. So, if education was the way out, then by this time, at least, a section of women must have been liberated. So, what is the catch? Emma Goldman, in her work ‘The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation’, answers this question.
According to her, the emancipation that was achieved was only “external” in nature and this made the modern woman an “artificial being.” The “hollowness” of this emancipation is manifested in the fact that women fear to fall in love, as it will take away their freedom. She fears to experience the joy of motherhood, as it will not allow her to do justice to her profession. She writes that the emancipation was reduced to a “battle of the sexes.” This is not the true emancipation, states Goldman.
On the question of ‘political suffrage’, ‘economic emancipation’, she writes, “The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in a woman’s soul.” True emancipation is not just about fighting “external tyrants,” but, from internal ones as well. The lines, “until woman has learned to defy them all, to stand firmly on her own ground and to insist upon her own unrestricted freedom…she cannot call herself emancipated,” very much explains what she is looking for.
She responded to the times she was writing in, and she was very successful. The answers that she left were taken up by Second-wave Feminists in their discourses, Simone De Beauvoir being one of them. She argues, “the bond that unites her [woman] to her oppressors is not comparable to any other…women can’t even think of exterminating males.” She goes on to explain that the reason for this is that, women never perceived themselves as a single unit, they have “no past, no history, no religion of their own, and that they have no such solidarity of work and interest as that of the proletariat.” Women’s efforts, she says, were not more than “symbolic agitation,” where they were pleased to “receive” whatever men willingly gave them; thus, they have “taken nothing.”
She asks for a “Social Revolution,” much like Engels, with the first condition being the bringing of the “…whole female sex back into public industry, and that in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.” However, it doesn’t mean that monogamous families will cease to exist, what it means is that when both the sexes will be ‘equal’, in all the senses, in all the forms. Only then the truest nature of ‘monogamy’ would be achieved as there will be no economic, social and political ‘compulsions’ governing the dynamics of ‘gender relations’.
After engaging with the ideas of four leading feminists, do we have a clear-cut answer to any of our initial questions? I hope not. Because writing about women is not about ‘categorising’ them. This theory is about “formulating the problems correctly.” However, this is not going to be easy. Above everything, our task here is not to stop at these narratives and wait for equality to be bestowed upon us. And fortunately, we have not stopped. Feminist ideas are still arising, with the coming of Third-wave feminism, and the New-Age Feminism. However, it is important to mention, that these new narratives are probably more problematic as they increasingly focus on the ‘individuality’ of the issues and look for ‘individual solutions’. They forget Simone De Beauvoir and Friedrich Engels, who demand more ‘collective solutions’.
In the end, I would urge people to ask the question that Lenin once asked. “What is to be done?” Until and unless we ask this question firmly, we won’t get an answer. In this ‘liberal’ world, where women are oppressed under a ‘mask’, and are forced to live under the farce of ‘free choice’, we need to ask this question. And the answer will most certainly demand that we give women the authority and the agency of their freedom and emancipation in their hands. Only then can what is aspired to be truly achieved–the true emancipation.