Sunday, 11 January 2009

Simone de Beauvoir and Rachida Dati : a co-incidental pair.

Co-incidence is a funny old thing: when it happens we think it is magical but I suppose – if you are a mathematician – it is only a matter of odds. For example, here’s my latest little co-incidence. Years after struggling with Simone de Beauvoir’s dense book, The Second Sex, I found a slim volume of hers on my bookshelf that I had never read (put off, no doubt, by the earlier struggle).

Well, I picked up A Very Easy Death – possibly had the subject on my mind as the anniversary of my father’s death is about to be - and a very easy read it turned out to be. Quite unassuming and virtually without incident – if you don’t count the death of her mother– it raised subtle questions about relationships with ones parents that gave me pause for thought.

Then blow me down, only a few pages off finishing it I hear a Radio 4 programme all about Simone de Beauvoir: 2009 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Second Sex. The gist of the message enshrined in its pages is that women are not simply adjuncts to men.

Now, this might be assumed as quite obviously the case today, but SdB (somehow it’s inconceivable to call her Simone) was from a bourgeois Catholic background, living in a period – in France – when a woman’s place was definitely in the home and her time fully for the benefit of her husband.

She was against obligatory motherhood, advised women not to live solely as a housewife and, in the book, described women’s sexuality: her views caused, as you might expect, quite a stir. SdB had enrolled herself at the Sorbonne and studied philosophy: here she met Jean-Paul Sartre and their passionate partnership – and intellectual harmony - lasted for decades. SdB, like Sartre, espoused personal freedom and this included their sexual life.

She was at the time - and has been since – labelled a feminist by some, not a true feminist by others. On the one hand she felt strongly that “one is not born a woman, one becomes one” (a winner with the feminist and nurture-not-nature view). On the other, she was a victim of all those emotions (jealousy being one) that women fall prey to whatever their views: she was hurt by Sarte’s sexual affairs. Nevertheless, in spite occasional forays into other men’s beds, she was always ‘his woman’. Not a winner with the full-on feminists.

But SdB’s feminism was always – in its simplest form - towards gender equality. Now, here’s another co-incidence: 60 years on. In the press this week we were treated to the headline news that Rachida Dati, the unmarried French Justice Minister, has returned to work only five days after giving birth to her daughter.

She has since been alternatively praised and pilloried: the feminists argue that she is just acting like any one of her bread-winning, ambitious male colleagues and why not. The opposite camp argue that she has not done any favours for her gender: that her decision is not only an unnatural action but one that puts at risk their hard fought-for maternity leave.

Now, I’ll come clean: from choice I stopped work to have my children and did not consider the role to be second-class. Indeed, I considered myself lucky to be able to make that choice, not least because I had a husband to pay the mortgage. Unlike the unmarried, un-partnered, Ms Dati. Surely, she is just a very modern Simone de Beauvoir: gender equality is her aim and personal freedom her choice.


PS Having enjoyed A Very Easy Death I have now dug out (you can see how old the books are by the covers!)the two volumes of Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography. The titles are challenging in themselves.

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