“Beauvoir’s America: Women’s History and the Making of Feminism,” a crossover book, offers the reader a synthesis of women’s history and the cultural roots of feminism. By retelling the story of women, this book addresses the crisis confronting feminism and many women’s current discouragement. Feminism has come to mean everything, or nothing, while 61 percent of U.S. women considering themselves feminists. A culture war has brought political reversals in recognizing women’s bodily autonomy, and other gains are under threat. The global pandemic showed the fragility of women’s workplace advancements as the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg declared “The Future Isn’t Female Anymore.” In 2022, Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, told the Times, “I feel proud, and I feel mad as hell.” Steinem’s bewildered indignation is a sign that marches, corporate sponsorships, and girl-boss declarations have not shielded feminism from a backlash. Sold to the masses over five decades, taken up by celebrities, championed on fashion runways, and promoted by advertisers selling nail polish and sports drinks, feminism seems to have suffered from too much exposure, a fuzzy definition, and little substance. A misogynistic culture has overrun feminist politics.
American audiences are offered sketches of heroic women and brief outlines of political battles won; it is as though we are suffering from historical amnesia. It’s time to review our deeper feminist roots. Beauvoir’s America is a cultural history of the struggle for social equality and my own grappling with feminism in reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (English edition, 1953). In “conversation” with Beauvoir, my book offers the reader both a useful history and hopeful possibilities for change in gender relationships. Beginning with Beauvoir’s life in 1920s Paris, continuing with her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, and moving on to her reception in 1950s America, I look to the places, people, and times shaping her thinking and women’s history for useful insights.
Some declare our era “postfeminist.” But our situation is more accurately described as being in the midst of epic cultural shifts that have been centuries in the making, with periodic advancements and reversals. Understanding the feminist vision of gender equality, the reason it arose, and its possible future means looking back to what a thousand years of Western misogynist thinking have bequeathed to us.
The dismantling of deeply entrenched misogyny is slow, and feminist politics alone will not get us there. Some declare our era “postfeminist,” asserting that the biggest political battles for women are behind us. But our situation is more accurately described as being in the midst of epic cultural shifts that have been centuries in the making, with periodic advancements and reversals. Understanding the feminist vision of gender equality, the reason it arose, and its possible future means looking back to what a thousand years of misogynist thinking have bequeathed to us. The big story of women and how a group of avant-garde thinkers built, brick by brick, a feminist way of looking at the world can help us face the future with hope.
Research partially funded by the New England Regional Consortium.
Photo: Simone de Beauvoir at work