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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

The Second Sex

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir, H.M. Parshley, Deirdre Bair Knocked Up
Up the Spout
A Bun in the Oven

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The word “pregnant” is pregnant with connotation. And for women—often viewed in more bodily terms than men—nothing foregrounds a woman's body more than pregnancy. It’s interesting to consider what Simone de Beauvoir, dubbed the "mother" of modern feminism, thought about motherhood itself. Given what she writes in The Second Sex, Beauvoir would probably concur with my friend’s attitude…

...A number of years ago, a friend of mine spoke to me of her desire to have a baby. She felt—being in her early thirties—she should get on with it but would not consider being pregnant while she was still in graduate school. When I asked her why, she responded that pregnancy made you into such a “body,” and in the environment of graduate school, she would feel like “a body among minds.”

Her fear encapsulates a number of assumptions: A mother is a body. A body does not think. Intellectuals—graduate students, faculty, writers—think. Mothers do not think. A woman—as a graduate student or a professor—writes, talks, produces, thinks from the position of a daughter, that is, from the position of a female body still unencumbered enough to think.

Pregnancy or maternity, besides being a position traditionally at odds with intellect (consider the old caveat: “the baby or the book”), also represents loss of control and a resultant discomfort with the body (somatophobia). Marianne Hirsch, in The Mother/Daughter Plot, isolates both lack of control and somatophobia as two areas “of avoidance and discomfort with the maternal” (165) often apparent in feminist rhetoric. In The Women’s Room, one of Marilyn French’s characters sums up pregnancy as a time when a woman loses control of her body (and, by extension, her mind) as well as her identity:
Pregnancy is a long waiting in which you learn what it means completely to lose control over your life. There are no coffee breaks; no days off in which you regain your normal shape and self, and can return refreshed to your labors. You can’t wish away even for an hour the thing that is swelling you up, stretching your stomach until the skin feels as if it will burst, kicking you from the inside until you are black and blue. You can’t even hit back without hurting yourself. The condition and you are identical: you are no longer a person, but a pregnancy. (69)

With pregnancy, you are “no longer a person,” you are no longer “you.” Logically, the next question is, “Will you still be you when you become a mother?”

For Simone de Beauvoir the answer would be “No”: pregnancy and motherhood rob a woman of her identity and her intellect. Over and over again, in her interviews and in her books, Beauvoir refers to mothers as slaves reduced to bodies and cut off from intellectual pursuits. Beauvoir’s description of pregnancy, from her influential book, The Second Sex (1949), sounds very much like the description quoted above from The Women’s Room. While French’s character emphasizes how much pregnancy overtakes a woman’s identity, Beauvoir goes further and depicts pregnancy more like a disease that ultimately annihilates awoman:
[the fetus is:] an enrichment and an injury; the fetus is a part of her body, and it is a parasite that feeds on it; she possesses it, and she is possessed by it; it represents the future and, carrying it, she feels herself vast as the world; but this very opulence annihilates her, she feels that she herself is no longer anything. (emphasis added, 495)

In this theorization, a woman not only loses her former identity in the process of pregnancy, but actually loses her mind, as Beauvoir illustrates when she describes the pregnant woman in less than human terms:
. . . but in the mother-to-be the antithesis of subject and object ceases to exist; she and the child with which she is swollen make up together an equivocal pair overwhelmed by life. Ensnared by nature, the pregnant woman is plant and animal, a stock-pile of colloids, an incubator, an egg; she scares children proud of their young, straight bodies and makes young people titter contemptuously because she is a human being, a conscious and free individual who has become life’s passive instrument. (495)

Beauvoir’s perspective in the above quotation attracts comment. Though The Second Sex ostensibly is presented as an objective critique there is no attempt at objectivity here. In what often amounts to an emotional tirade, Beauvoir relentlessly focuses on the pregnant woman’s body, equating it with an “animal” or a “stockpile of colloids” and then—rather gratuitously—states that a pregnant woman “scares children” and makes them “titter contemptuously.” Beauvoir’s descriptions of pregnancy illustrate her attitudes about the pregnant body and the resultant disintegration of the mind and identity she sees occurring with maternity.

Beauvoir’s attack on motherhood is surprising unless you've read Beauvoir’s autobiographical works. There, you can see how Beauvoir systematically rejects the body—particularly a woman’s body—in favor of the life of the “mind.” And Beauvoir’s research on motherhood proves less than scientific. While she presents her findings in The Second Sex as though they are objective and backed by evidence from broad samplings, her viewpoints on motherhood rest largely on her observations of a few friends, quotes from novels, and her own personal life. Beauvoir, for instance, posits that the nausea women suffer in pregnancy demonstrates that pregnancy is not a natural state for human women given that nausea is “unknown for other mammals” (498). In evidence for this conclusion, Beauvoir preemptively cites herself, referring the reader to an earlier point in her own text!

Whatever groundbreaking work Beauvoir accomplishes in The Second Sex needs to be balanced against Beauvoir’s privileging of the mind over the body as well as her evident distaste for women’s bodily processes and pregnancy in particular. Furthermore, Beauvoir’s desire to erase the body doesn’t work. Ironically, as Jane Flax points out, the search for truth in the world of pure mind ultimately leads right back to the body:
The self, which is constituted by thought and created by an act of thought, by the separation of mind and body, is driven to master nature, because the self cannot ultimately deny its material character or dependence on nature. Despite Descartes’ claim, the body reasserts itself, at least at the moment of death. (28)

And, can one really separate the mind from the body? Jean-François Lyotard provocatively explores this question in his essay, “Can Thought Go On without a Body?” Lyotard considers whether technology could create machines “to make thinking materially possible” after our bodies are destroyed (77). Lyotard concludes that not only is thought impossibly entwined with the body but that the body actually creates thought: “Thinking and suffering overlap” (82). Thought, Lyotard posits, attempts to create endings, to once and for all silence the discomfort of the unthought:
The unthought hurts. It’s uncomfortable because we’re comfortable in what’s already thought. And thinking, which is accepting this discomfort, is also, to put it bluntly, an attempt to have done with it. That’s the hope sustaining all writing (painting, etc.): that at the end, things will be better. As there is no end, this hope is illusory. (84)

The impasse of artificial intelligence thus hinges on desire: thought without body has no impetus. Indeed, Lyotard questions why machines designed to mimic human minds would ever start thinking without the discomfort of the unthought making “their memory suffer” (85). We need, he continues, “machines that suffer from the burden of their memory” (85), i.e., machines with bodies.

But it is precisely this burden, the burden of memory, the burden of the body, Beauvoir hopes to silence as she fashions her life into a trajectory of pure intellect. Increasingly, Beauvoir identifies herself with the life of the mind she associates with the male sphere while simultaneously excising all that connects her to her female body. Though Beauvoir points out many of women’s inequities in A Second Sex and argues that women have often been viewed as the lesser or “other” sex, ironically, it is a sex that Beauvoir seems to reject as well.

adapted from a prior publication