BEAUVOIR TO THE BARRICADES
BEAUVOIR TO THE BARRICADES
AN INTERVIEW BY MADELEINE GOBEIL
I began to read the books of Simone de Beauvoir when I was 15. (Sunday afternoons are long in Ottawa.) I loved her first novel, She Came To Stay, about a young girl who wanted to be free, and went on to devour everything she published, including The Second Sex and The Mandarins. Then I wrote to her and she answered and we met in Paris when I went there as a student in 1958. A friendship developed and, as with all her friends, she promptly broke the image of The Great Writer or the Existentialist-Intellectual. She demanded reciprocity, equality and confidence. She is vefy faithful and remained so throughout the years when I was back in Canada teaching at Carleton University and saw her only rarely.
But this winter in Paris, we meet as often as before, usually at her place, a very pleasant but modest flat in the 14th arrondissement near the old cemetery in Montparnasse. (Jean-Paul Sartre, her friend of 45 years, lives four blocks away.) Beauvoir’s flat is vivid and colorful — stacked with books, photographs, records and objects from every corner of the world. We have a small drink there and then we go to a nearby restaurant for lunch and to talk about ourselves, people, politics, movies and books as one does with any friend. At four o’clock I leave her in front of Sartre’s apartment. It has become a kind of ritual.
Sartre once pointed out to me that Beauvoir’s main quality as a writer was to provoke, to touch the reader directly, and I think that quality is evident in the conversation that follows. In it she puts forward her own theory about women: that we can achieve a great career and a great life but we continued on page 66
BEAUVOIR from page 35 must want it very badly. For me she proves that theory, more than any other woman of our time:
MADELEINE GOBEIL: Some people who do not like your ideas criticize you for not writing like Proust or Virginia Woolf, of not thinking enough about posterity. You love literature but literary problems are less important to you than life itself. In any case, we know perfectly well that your analysis on the subject of women will endure. When you published The Second Sex in 1949, you thought that the condition of women would change radically. It didn’t. Over the years I felt you were sometimes annoyed when we talked about this problem.
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR: The repetitiousness of the question annoyed me. Nothing was moving. I liked The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan very much because it broke new ground. GOBEIL: I have sometimes thought that the challenging attitudes of certain North American women displeased you.
BEAUVOIR: Yes, because underneath they accepted their feminine condition as secondary. They accepted the fact that they were women-as-objects and dependent on their husbands’ wallets. They asked outrageous alimony settlements in the case of divorce. But. at the same time, they had attitudes that were hard, jealous and aggressive, attitudes that did not go hand-in-hand with a real attempt to determine their own fate. There is a way — I do not mean being aggressive since I do not like aggressiveness — but there is a way to be energetic, to wish for independence, to assert one's rights in the good sense of the word, to take action and not simply to talk or to create scenes. GOBEIL: Women are often docile underneath. but outwardly aggressive. BEAUVOIR: What is preferable is a fundamental autonomy with civilized and pleasant relationships, if possible. If something must be sacrificed, then let it be good manners not independence. There are really times when one should not have good manners. The important thing is to have a profound autonomy, an independence that is real economically, morally and emotionally.
GOBEIL: Young women who have read the works of Germaine Greer and Kate Millett have asked me where you stand today.
BEAUVOIR: The MLF, the women’s liberation movement in France, with which I was put into contact on the question of abortion, was formed along the lines of the American Women’s Liberation Movement, at least at the instigation of the American movement. Young women in the French movement came to ask me to sign the Manifeste des
343, a petition drawn up by 343 women, some of whom were well known (including Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig. Alexandra Stewart), in order to draw attention to their statement that they had had abortions. Later I continued to work with some of these young women on a document dealing with abortion. I participated in their actions, their marches, and finally we organized an open meeting, lasting three days, to expose the crimes against women. It was very successful. The Americans are planning to do the same thing. This movement brings the problem of equality for women to the streets, to the important debates. Certain groups within the movement are aware that the battle of the sexes should be allied with the class struggle. They support women workers whenever they strike and they take films of the strikes. The methods used
now are much livelier, much more fun than they used to be. In France, they are inspired by May ’68 — they use slogans, posters, and strike attitudes that are quite violent and provocative, anything to draw attention to the scandal of oppressed women. I agree with some of the things they do, not with all. On the whole, it is a political style that suits me. GOBEIL: All the same, your statement, “I have had an abortion,” annoyed some people a great deal. BEAUVOIR: It was exactly the startled reaction that I had hoped to provoke. Some time ago, I restated this at a trial at Bobigny, a suburb right near Paris. A young girl of 16, pregnant after having been raped, had had an abortion and was being tried in a closed court. The young man involved had betrayed her to the authorities. Because she was under age. she was released. A huge public trial followed last fall with her mother, who had already had an abortion herself and to whom her daughter had confided. as the defendant. Seated on the bench of the accused were the mother, a woman of 37, very dignified and very conscious of her responsibilities, her socalled accomplices, that is, two women
friends who had given her the address of the abortionist and, finally, the abortionist herself. It was really a question of trying the abortion law in France which is terribly repressive and which almost never grants the right to abortion. Several people testified for the defense, including Professor Jacques Monod. Nobel Prize winner, and Professor Paul Milliez, dean of medicine at a Paris teaching hospital and father of six children, who has since received a reprimand from the National Medical Board. The world-famous biologist, Jean Rostand, also sent a supportive message. As for me, I stated that I had had an abortion, which goes back a long time, that I frequently lend money for the purpose, that I give some, and that finally I give addresses. I claimed total complicity with those who had had abortions. I testified under oath. Either I lied — I never did any of those things, and they must proceed against me for perjury, a serious offense — or, contending that I had had an abortion, they must try me for complicity in abortion. We shall see if justice contradicts itself once again. A bourgeois woman, somewhat known, is not investigated, while a 16-year-old subway worker stands trial. GOBEIL: Our law in Canada grants abortion for therapeutic reasons but in most hospitals abortions must be agreed to by a medical board. I suppose that mothers must bring their pregnant daughters before such a board in the case of rape or incest . . . But despite the legal abortions performed for whatever accepted reason, I personally do not know anyone among my acquaintances who would agree to appear before a tribunal in order to be allowed an abortion. BEAUVOIR: A woman must have full control over her own body. She should never have to ask for permission from doctors, judges, men especially, for the right to an abortion. GOBEIL: At Carleton University in Ottawa, when I was there in 1971, the students organized a Centre for Information on Contraception in order to help their comrades. If there were accidents, as there always are, there were wellknown addresses available in New York or Buffalo. Of course, you had to find $300 and plane fare . . . The students would get up a collection and come up with the money. Such traffic between Canada and the State of New York is enormous.
BEAUVOIR: There must certainly be poor women in Canada who cannot find the necessary money. In France, too, the wives of cabinet ministers, journalists and businessmen go to London or to Switzerland. Some French doctors perform these clandestine expensive operations, too, and line their pockets. Choisir, the group to which I belong, would like to propose a bill demanding the continued on page 68
BEAUVOIR continued suppression of any repressive action against abortion. We want it to be available on demand and without cost, as in certain socialist countries.
GOBEIL: Do you not think that what is needed is the dissemination of information on contraception?
BEAUVOIR: Yes, if you consider that only 7% of French women use contraceptives and yet there are one million illegal abortions per year. The government pretends that it wants contraception, but it has just withdrawn the subsidies from the only organization capable of doing the job. Family Planning. There is nothing to replace it. In France, some doctors reject contraception, refuse to recommend it to their patients. On the other hand, in the overseas provinces of France, in Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion there is enormous propaganda, and often a policy both abusive and criminal. On Réunion, women who had asked only for abortions discovered later that they had been sterilized. Several times, others, after having given birth, awoke with their newborn babies to be sure, but with no further possibility of having any more. GOBEIL: Meanwhile, one million abortions a year. Which is a lot.
BEAUVOIR: Yes! Do not tell us that we are encouraging women to have abortions! Women do have abortions, and we want them to have it done under good conditions. We fight for contraception but, in the meantime, we must start from the premise that most women have abortions under abominable conditions which lead to about 5,000 deaths a year. When properly done, there are fewer deaths due to abortion than to childbirth. In the State of New York, the Director of Public Health declared recently that after two years of legalized abortion the program was an extraordinary success, and he hoped that all the states would follow the example of New York. GOBEIL: At this moment you are fighting for abortion, but in 1949 in The Second Sex, you maintained that the liberation of women must be an economic one. Do you still think so?
BEAUVOIR: A woman is not free if she does not hold her own purse strings. A true liberation would imply that parents invest in the education of their daughters as much as in that of their sons, that careers be as open to women as they are to men, that there be no barrier set up by men to keep women from getting ahead, and that all salaries be equal. The entire female working class is underpaid compared to men and that includes women working in factories, in small businesses and in shops. In addition, women still have to take care of their homes and their children.
GOBEIL: DO you not think that now more and more men participate with the
housekeeping and the upbringing of their children?
BEAUVOIR: Men feel that if they do one tenth of what their wives do that they’ve participated with the household chores. People have official attitudes but often they behave altogether differently. A husband or a wife can say that he or she would accept unfaithfulness on the part of the other but when one of them is betrayed it is unendurable. In truth, many men accept the fact that their wives have jobs, on the condition that they also be responsible for everything at home. Happily, this idea is turned down by those men who object to the ideal viriloide (formerly called virility, what the Latins term machismo) and who reject the ideas of the past. You can see them on the streets pushing baby carriages, with infants on their shoulders. GOBEIL: Often women who fight with their bosses, who have acquired their present positions the hard way, have no desire to fight with their husbands at home.
BEAUVOIR: Indeed. Female liberation movements have the sympathy of the working class when it comes to the question of abortion, but it is difficult to establish solidarity among women whose conditions are different. Between the woman lawyer who has household help and the worker who has to do everything for herself, the difference in class is felt. It is much stronger than the difference between the sexes. To be sure, not all women involved with the liberation movement have help at home. It is even the exception. But just as in the U.S. or in Canada, these movements are organized by women who have the leisure time to take their fate into their own hands and who can look at their condition in perspective, who have the time to reflect on it. GOBEIL: There are women for whom the struggle for power is an aberration, they
completely reject this system as it is, and will not be its accomplices.
BEAUVOIR: Not wanting power is an admirable thought. In France, in your country and elsewhere, the women in the movement use methods that are anarchistic, in the good sense of the word. They try to avoid bureaucracy, the concentration of power in the hands of a few, the cult of personality. GOBEIL: Apropos of that, I have noticed that the young girls in the movement do not treat you at all as a celebrity. BEAUVOIR: They treat me as an equal and I do the same.
GOBEIL: When working for a mass movement, if there is such a thing, is anarchism the best way to make decisions, to organize?
BEAUVOIR: Sometimes there are difficulties. As for the world the movement women propose, it is far from being realized. and we do not know what will happen. These women are not only demanding equality with men in this capitalistic world of today. They feel the question of the entire hierarchy of power, money, capital and property must also be reexamined at the same time.
GOBEIL: While we wait, do we work and succeed within the system? Lately, one of your antagonists cried. “What? You want to perpetuate this world of privileges?”
BEAUVOIR: It is he who talks of privileges, not I. But as long as the world is the way it is, I can see no reason why. as far as women are concerned, they should remain at the bottom of the hierarchy. when there is a hierarchy. If you have more weight, more influence, perhaps it is a way to fight. GOBEIL: It is people’s mentality that is always slowest to change. The young, for example, still marry at an early age, without considering the options. BEAUVOIR: The institution of marriage is still very important, and so is the family, for workers, peasants and the bourgeoisie. The relationships within bourgeois marriages have not changed much. Among the intellectuals, the relationships within the couple have changed a good deal. What is new is that many young women are not getting married. Some live with men, have affairs, flings, others are single and do not get involved, at all.
GOBEIL: YOU are, at times, attacked, especially by women, who say you are wrong to urge women to work while they are involved in a family life they find absorbing.
BEAUVOIR: It is stupid reasoning. As Friedan described so well in The Feminine Mystique, women are in misery, bored and unhappy when they remain in their traditional role. Advising them to work does not add to their unhappiness. I know that there are women who continued on page 70
BEAUVOIR continued do not believe that work and economic independence are the salvation for women. It is true that the way society is today they will have to pay for it dearly. I see many who do. It is hard to be a working woman and a housewife at the same time. The real scandal is the absence of social services for women. It is also hard to be a woman who works and has no home life because of it. But that is no reason not to do it, if one finds in it self-respect and independence. GOBEIL: Young women don’t always realize what it means to be dependent. BEAUVOIR: Many letters tell me, “Had I written you three years ago, I would have said that nothing is more beautiful than motherhood, nothing more admirable than having children. It is beautiful, but I realize that it is slavery. I realize all that I’m missing because of it.” There are also women who believe in the perfect love, and who, 10 years later, find themselves abandoned by the man they adored, sometimes with alimony,
other times with almost nothing. I have so often seen the terrible drama of these women who, in good faith, took the traditional route, and then had their world fall apart. It is difficult to recover. I have seen working women who were discontent or emotionally upset. But never have I seen a woman who had a job in the state of despair and utter defeat of the married woman who has been abandoned.
GOBEIL: There are women in Canada that I like to call token women. They have important jobs, gained, moreover, through hard work and perseverance, and they are always being used to demonstrate how egalitarian our society is, how things are changing.
BEAUVOIR: We have the same thing in France. But we will be able to say that there is equality only when it has reverberated on many deeper levels of the society. Women will fight for women (there is already a feeling of solidarity among women) and there will be social
services, such as day-care centres, all those things that are now cruelly lacking. Only then will people’s mentalities change, particularly the inferiority complex instilled in women from the very beginning.
GOBEIL: You propose a break with tradition. Certain people see in tradition a protection against totalitarianism, fascism. against a complete upheaval. They consider your ideal as dangerous. BEAUVOIR: Everything is always dangerous. It is a form of blackmail to say that change could bring on fascism, totalitarianism. Dangerous for whom? Not to run certain risks is dangerous for those who remain oppressed. It is dangerous to live like the miners who have accidents at work. To upset this tradition is perhaps dangerous to the owners, the employers. Changing the life of women, shaking up mentalities, is dangerous for whom? We should think about that. ■
First of two parts