Olio Seminar // Woman as Other, Woman as Lover
Often cited as the seminal text of modern feminist theory, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 publication, The Second Sex still deeply resonates with readers who seek to understand the pervasive oppression of women. The magnum opus of her long and prolific career as a writer and existential philosopher, The Second Sex offers both a sweeping history of women’s subjugation, and a compelling theoretical statement on the nature of being a woman. Women, de Beauvoir argues, are Other. “Humanity,” she writes, “is male and man defines woman not as herself but as relative to him…He is the Subject, the Absolute—she is the Other.” In this Olio seminar, we will embark on a close reading of this groundbreaking work of philosophy and feminist theory, examining how the experience of being other shapes women’s relationship to the world around them, to the men in their lives, and perhaps most importantly, to themselves. For, if de Beauvoir is correct, women are not simply “othered,” objectified, and subjugated by society, women actually come to experience themselves as other—indeed, as non-selves, “doomed to immanence, shut off to the relative.” However, according to de Beauvoir, there is nothing natural or even inevitable about women’s status as the inferior other. In one, swift, brilliant statement she reminds us, “One is not born, but rather becomes woman.” In other words, we are not born with some true essential self, which will be revealed to us over time. Rather, it is through the act of living that we become a self, and create our sense of “I”. The process of becoming, we must remember, is never complete. Thus, though women may be born into a world that relegates us to the status of other, through the continual process of becoming, we might make our “escape from the sphere hitherto assigned to them.” Women, she argues, can achieve transcendence.
This Olio Seminar will take place over four weeks, meeting Sunday afternoons for lecture and group discussion. Each week, we will read a different section of the text, supplemented by a reading guide written by the professor. We will analyze the philosopher’s claims on the nature of being woman, and discuss the significance of such claims in our lives today. Class size will be limited, to ensure rich discussion and allow participants to truly come together as a hive of thinkers and learners. In short, these meetings will go deep, straight to the intellectual bone, as we wrestle with our own demons of self, sex, love, and our longing for authentic freedom.
Class One: Facts and Myths
In our first meeting we will learn about the philosopher, focusing on what drove her to write this important work, and how the book’s publication changed feminist thought forever. We will begin by reading the book’s introduction, and the first two sections, “Destiny,” and “History”.
Class Two: The Lived Experience
Our second meeting will be devoted to parts four, five, and six, wherein de Beauvoir analyzes women as mothers, lovers, wives, and eventually, as non-women—the woman of old age.
Class Three: Criticisms
In our third meeting, we will depart from the text, and discuss the possible limitations of de Beauvoir’s work. We will read brief excerpts from other classic feminist texts, such as Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, and Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes.”
Class Four: Liberation
For our last meeting, we will return to The Second Sex, reading part seven, “The Independent Woman.” We will analyze and debate de Beauvoir’s prescription for personal liberation. And, importantly, we will also use our final meeting to drink, eat, and celebrate smashing the patriarchy.