“The word ‘love’ has not at all the same meaning for both sexes, and this is a source of the grave misunderstandings that separate them. Byron rightly said that love is merely an occupation in the life of the man, while it is life itself for the woman.” This are the opening sentences to Beauvoir’s most famous essay within her magnum opus The Second Sex entitled “The Woman in Love.” Just as woman enters into the man-made (literally) world of ready-made values as an inferior Other, so too does woman enter the world of romance, love, and “life” as an inferior Other to man. Love is easy for men. Love is life itself for woman. What does Beauvoir mean by this?
Love was not created equal – or, more appropriately, the division of love is not equal between men and women because the norms of love and courtship were invented by men and not by women. Love, for women, requires everything within them – the total devotion of soul and body in this enterprise and encounter known as love. Women, Beauvoir informs us, must abandon themselves entirely in the process of love. As such, they allow themselves to be objectified by their male counterparts.
The essence of this essay (or chapter) within the Second Sex, and arguably the most famous, is that love is a social construction established by men for the benefit of men at the detriment to women. The entire of abdicating of the self in the process of love is the result of a male dominated construction. Love has a connotation of male superiority. For instance, men make the first move. Men are the prime movers in the enterprise of love because, if we recall from Beauvoir’s Introduction, man is the metaphysical given. Man is the Absolute. Woman is the Other defined in negative correspondence to man. Courtship and dating, for instance, are all predicated on man making that first move. Love, for women, is completely dependent on men. If a woman moves first this is “unwomanly” or “unladylike.” Woman is completely enslaved to the first moves of man.
Beauvoir also highlights the Othering of women in the endeavor of love, and to be loved, through language. The very idea of wanting to be loved promotes oneself as an object to a subject. I want to be loved rather than to know love is the same Augustinian phenomenological dilemma that St. Augustine dealt with in Confessions and throughout his life as a Christian philosopher and theologian. But we should recognize that Augustine did so from the standpoint of a man and not a woman. Though Beauvoir is influenced by Augustine – as all of phenomenology is – Beauvoir is wrestling with the same problems Augustine did but from the situational position of being a woman.
The language of love highlights the insignificance of woman in the structures of love itself. First, when women think of love they always have the image of man beside them or totally taking over their consciousness. The image of male-centered courtship and love then impacts the language of women as Beauvoir adheres to the image-to-linguistic philosophy of language (we are primarily image based animals who construct language to reflect imagery). For instance, the language that “My little girl” and “My dear child” are all reflective of male dominated love. Women are objectified by men in the very language of love because, again reaching back to the Introduction, women consent to the male-dominated structures that define them and define their lives which reduces woman to bare facticity. Likewise, the language of “I feel so small in your arms,” said by women, or other such similar language like, “Hold me,” etc., continues to perpetuate male dominated love structures and courtship. Women consent to being objectified by men in their language and women also consent to being objectified by men in their own language when they thrust themselves onto men and speak of that language of dependent otherness.
As Beauvoir claims, man – being the metaphysical given – constructed himself as a God and the entire system of love reflects this. Woman is dependent on man (God) for her wellbeing and happiness (salvation) just as it is in traditional theology. Women are not only objectified in love, they praise man (like praising God) so as to win the flattering praise of God for a ‘job well done,’ so to speak.
Love is a system and construction of relationality in which man’s consciousness and subjectivity dominates over woman’s consciousness and subjectivity. In the want to be loved women become submissive and subject themselves to the whims and desires of men in their moments of ecstatic rapture and love. Hence why it is just an occupation for men. Men only love in moments. (We can wonder whether that’s true or not – surely Augustine presents man as needing and wanting love throughout their lives just like women are depicted here in Beauvoir.) Nevertheless, women are always in the process of needing and wanting love (hence why it is life itself for women).
In consenting to this domination by men women allow themselves to be controlled by their desires – their sexual needs which fosters a culture and spirit of narcissism among men. The result, and here Beauvoir follows Jean Paul Sartre from Being and Nothingness, that eroticism and the enterprise of love moves down the path of masochism where men dominate women and happily do so because women allow themselves to be objectified and dominated by men. Woman consent to this out of sexual narcissism and need for sexual fulfillment – thus accepting any level of abuse and oppression at the hand of men in order to satisfy base desires even if for a brief moment. Of course, this only further wounds woman.
Since the aim of love is identification with the loved one, which perpetuates absorption or union with the One, the Absolute, or the Godhead. And since man is the One, the Absolute, and the Godhead, this means women surrender themselves to be absorbed by man. In revolting against herself which perpetuates narcissism and masochism, and the need for sexual gratification at whatever cost to her body and soul, woman becomes ensnared and trapped in the vicious cycle that is love.
Love, whether it is passionate or romantic, is a form of Bad Faith on the part of woman. Again, unlike contemporary feminists, Beauvoir places the blame on woman herself rather than man. This is because woman must understand her predicament first and recognize that she perpetuates the system of male-dominated oppression and not man. Woman is the one who acts in bad faith, not man. Woman is the one who self-abdicates herself in her want for Prince Charming to ride in on a white stallion and “save her.” (See how man is like God in “saving” woman.) Man is not God Beauvoir loudly proclaims. But yet, it is she who acts like he is, bowing before man, adoring man, flattering man, sacrificing herself for him, etc.
This is not to say that Beauvoir doesn’t have a certain awkward empathy for women. She does. She recognizes the thrownness of life which woman finds herself in (again building from Heidegger without directly citing him). Love is a mechanism built into the world for women to try and escape the harshness of reality. Love is a built-in safety valve for the harshness of life in the world. Men, long ago, realized the harshness of life in the world and so constructed the systems that we inherited today to allow for reprieve and rest. Love was one such construction which, in time, made men’s lives easier while not doing anything for women because it was first constructed by men. In the harsh existential reality that is life woman seeks for safety-valves, for “salvation,” and mistakenly believes that Love is that salvation.
Thus, in this famous essay within the Second Sex we see Beauvoir really crystallizing what she established in the Introduction. Woman is Othered in Love by man. Man, in the construction and system that is called “Love,” is the metaphysical given – the Absolute (or God). Woman is not only Othered in love and through love by man, she is objectified by man in love. She negates herself and only understands herself in relationship to man.
Furthermore, love is itself a social construct that was first designed by men to their benefit. As such, women who submit to the social construction of love do so on a token of bad faith. They allow themselves to be abused and otherized and objectified and perpetuate the masochism and patriarchy inherent to love. This is because woman is not free and sovereign in her choices as to love. She allows herself to be taken captive by man in the enterprise called love. Women who claim to want love, seek love, and desperately crave love, are the problem of woman’s perpetuated enslavement to man. Once more the onus of woman’s predicament lays at the feet of women and not of men. This idea of love as a social construction to alleviate the pains of the harsh world in which woman throws herself into it in hopes to find salvation but only brings about her destruction is further explained in The Woman Destroyed in poetic fashion (since the “essays” are in the form of diary notes).
Beauvoir’s feminism is not the bourgeois careerism of mainstream feminism: the “equal pay for equal work” movement or the idea that we need more women CEOs, business leaders, and so on. She repudiates that type of faux feminism because it locks women into the male-established capitalist economic system and reduces women into bourgeois careerists (they have become like men essentially). Rather, Beauvoir’s feminism is what some might call “true feminism.” It is about recognizing the inherent differences in the power relations between man and woman and what a woman’s response should be. For Beauvoir, falling within the boundaries of phenomenological existentialism, the true feminism that she advocates is that which raises woman’s consciousness to make her a free, independent, creator of the world rather than a woman who slips into male dominated systems and structures as First Wave feminism and bourgeois feminism promotes (think Hillary Clinton as an example of a feminist that Beauvoir would despise). Until woman is independent of man and his systems can she rightfully be authentic as a free, independent, subject-consciousness creator. Woman needs to be able to choose freely, independent of all male constructs, needs to be able to create ex nihilo, independent of all male influence, and needs to find her own meaning in the world, independent of man and his absorbing tyranny.
This is what men fear to lose: their monopoly on power and structural control and creation. This is precisely what women need to actualize: their ability to create and control for themselves free of any and all male influence. Anything short of this, for Beauvoir, would mean that woman is still enslaved to man and, therefore, not truly free and equal in comparison. Woman’s freedom necessitates the equality of the sexes, insofar that both sexes are free, independent, conscious creating, beings. Hence we also see that Beauvoir’s male-female dichotomy is not one rooted in biology at all – but pure existential (left) phenomenology. The difference in male and female in Beauvoir is one of who holds power and who does not.