Simone de Beauvoir:
feminist contributions to pluralism in organizational studies
Professor of Organizational
Centre for Action
Research in Professional Practice
School of Management
University of Bath
Bath BA2 7AY, UK
Journal of Management
2000 9 (2) 166-172
Simone de Beauvoir:
feminist contributions to pluralism in organizational studies
collection of papers celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It takes this work as an historically
significant point of
departure for scholarship
which theorises differences and is contributing to a growing pluralism
studies. It asks what returning to this source can offer now as we move into a
We shall focus on
insights from feminism, their contributions to re-forming organizational
pluralism, and some current prospects and challenges. We appreciate that
there are other streams
of thinking which develop notions of pluralism. These attend to
differences such as
race, class and sexuality, and to multiple differences, and so are not all
under the heading of feminism. We focus here on feminism to reach
back fifty years to
Beauvoir’s work, but do so committed
to and enjoying this wider array of
paper sets the scene for the remaining articles in the section by doing three
things. It firstly
sketchs the background to this collection of papers, explicating some mutual
purposes and imagery.
It then briefly reviews selected themes from The Second Sex which have
for organizational studies. As it does this, it, thirdly, questions current
patterns of scholarship
which may limit movements towards pluralism.
TO REVIEW BEAUVOIR’S WORK AND LEGACY
This collection of
papers originated as a proposal for a Symposium at the American Academy
of Management Annual
Meeting in Chicago in August 1999. Three core images inform it. The
first is the notion
of journeys of change and development. Articulations of insight and
are of their time and context. Feminism has been and is evolving, multiple,
often re-visioning previous orthodoxies. This sense of proliferation shows
the vitality of feminism
as a genre of academic study, but it is challenging, and at times
The authors of this collection of papers thank the Divisions and Program Chairs who
sponsored the Symposium
at the 1999 Academy of Management Meeting at
which the papers were presented.
These are the Gender
and Diversity in Organizations Division and Audrey Murrell, and the Managerial and
Cognition Division and Kathleen Sutcliffe. For their encouragement and help, we also thank Kim
Boal, Peter Frost
and Paul Hirsch.
This article draws, with her kind permission, on Linda Krefting's Overview for the 1999
Academy of Management Symposium Proposal.
disturbing, as a milieu
in which to work, think, and live. It is therefore valuable to pause at
times, to review earlier
reference points and evaluate where we have reached. This is a
of these papers.
The second image is
that of pluralism. Often theorizing and associated action are reaching for
a next desired state.
We may then discover that, realized or not, this becomes unsatisfactory,
open to critique in
some way. One current formulation of this desired state is “pluralism” – at its
best applied to forms
of knowing and acting as much as to being able to value an extensive range
of voices, qualities,
chosen identities and so on. Pluralism is currently valued but somewhat un-
defined. This territory
includes seeking to understand multiple differences such as race, class,
sexuality and gender
alongside each other, and offering these as potentially relevant in all
analyses. Scholars attempt to appreciate theoretically the shifting,
of differences, power and potential oppressions as dynamic processes
for persons, patterns of interaction, institutions and other levels of analysis
(Collins, 1990; Segal,
1999). This section’s papers contribute to pluralist images, and provide
cautions about how
pluralism’s more radical potential can be undermined.
The third image which
is repeated in this collection of papers is that of Otherness. We look
back to Beauvoir’s posing of this notion and its personal and political
implications. We explore
what is needed to
move beyond ascriptions and dynamics of Otherness. (See below.)
Re-visiting Simone de Beauvoir, the many facets of her contribution become apparent. Her
published work spans
fiction, autobiography, philosophical essays - including the extensive
seven part volume
The Second Sex - and more. Her life as a woman in France, and how this
relates to her writing,
is also of interest, and often paradoxical. How she defined herself and
how she has been responded
to by others (for example as a woman writer and as writing overtly
about sex) offer further
avenues for analysis (Fallaize, 1998).
Working with the images
above in their own individual ways, the authors in this section
follow diverse paths,
pushing selectively at different aspects of the rich territory opened by
Beauvoir and her successors.
Several extend the journeys that departed from Beauvoir.
go back to Beauvoir and The Second Sex, finding insights from aspects of her
life and from
neglected parts of
BEAUVOIR AND THE
Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was published in France
in 1949 and translated into
English in 1953. Before
this she was known as a novelist and for her relationship with John Paul
Sartre. Her prominence
contributed to the book’s early impact and circulation. The Second Sex
is widely credited
for inspiring the contemporary women's movement. Beauvoir
is regarded as
"surely the greatest
feminist theorist of our time" (Moi, 1985, p.91) and "a spiritual godmother to
the women's movement"
(Heller, 1998, A22). Fallaize (1998) notes: “Beauvoir’s
been so widespread
that it is impossible to draw up an exhaustive list of feminists indebted to
her work.” (p.15)
Her intellectual influence is apparent even when unacknowledged (Moi,
1985). Beauvoir has also been much criticised and ignored. Whilst her work remains
recognized, it has
not been as widely cited, even in feminist scholarship. The fiftieth anniversary
of The Second Sex
is prompting a reappraisal of her contributions.
the women's movement through her application of the existential
articulated in Being and Nothingness (1943). Her analysis is extensive,
drawing on biology,
psychoanalysis, history, anthropology, socialism and literature, and
incorporating a stage
by stage critique of women’s lives. Her thesis was simple but profound:
women have been reduced to objects for men: “woman” has been
construed as man's
Other, denied the right to her own subjectivity and to responsibility
for her own actions
(Moi, 1985, p.92).
A few quotations from
The Second Sex (1988 edition) illustrate Beauvoir’s
man represents both
the positive and the neutral... whereas woman represents only the
by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. (p.15)
humanity is male and
man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not
regarded as an autonomous
She is defined and
differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to
her.... He is the
Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other. (p.16)
Whilst Otherness is
a fundamental category of human thought in the creation of self as
subject, usually the
Other can claim the consciousness of subject for themselves in reciprocal
relations. But, according
to Beauvoir, woman never becomes the subject
in this way and so
cannot reach the necessary
consciousness for emancipation.
Beauvoir argued that
this view of woman as man’s Other is the premise of all political and
social life and has
been internalized by women themselves, who exist in a state of
enacting patriarchally prescribed roles. Thus Otherness is intra-psychic as well
She rejected women's complicity as either legitimation of patriarchy or as
evidence of a female
nature or essence. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”
(Beauvoir, 1988, p.295) is the assertion for which she is most famous.
Beauvoir's analysis of
woman as Other is historically
important, looking beyond biological sex to the social
construction of gender.
It established the groundwork for this conceptual frame of analysis.
Much of Beauvoir’s early influence was political. Consciousness-raising
encouraged women to
explore for themselves - and to resist - the prevailing social views they
internalized to "become"
woman. The inherent interconnectedness of the personal, political and
apparent in this process. The challenging summary phrase "the personal is
However, when we look
to The Second Sex to understand how to escape being positioned as
Other its messages
are ambiguous. Beauvoir’s writing is
contentious. She is accused of being
her typing of desirable human characteristics, contrasting entrapping female
passivity and immanence
with male transcendence, the existentialist route to freedom and
agency (Moi, 1994).
She appears to believe in universal disgust at the female body and to
(Fallaize, 1998). However, through her extended existentialist analysis she
also suggests that
women are more ambiguously placed in the world than men and so more
to live fully the ambiguities of human existence (Moi, 1994). In this
Issue, David Knights
engages in this territory, debating whether a concept of the autonomous
subject is necessary
to the feminist project of development. He explores the dilemmas opened
by this questioning.
one way forward from oppression toward eventual freedom as the life of
woman” (1988, p.689), finding economic and social autonomy through paid
and reciprocity in relationships with those men who are able to relate without
domination. She also
explored the myriad impediments to this happening. Politically, Beauvoir
sought equality with
men, regarding herself, for much of her life, as a socialist rather than a
in her estimation, class struggle would more successfully improve the position
of women than would
independent advocacy of women's rights. Moi (1994) argues that she
the strategic value of a politics of difference” (p.212) – a matter of
- instead depicting “women’s struggle for liberation... as a slow and
We might ask whether
understanding the social construction of gender and other differences
and societies sufficient tools to escape the extreme shaping of consciousness
that Beauvoir described and the associated dynamics of Otherness. Sometimes
it certainly does
not. The territory
of choice - for identities, interaction patterns and so on - is largely shaped by
which encode differences and power, a challenge reflected in Beauvoir’s
theorising. Much feminist
work has focused on this dilemma (Segal, 1999) and on trying to
escape it. Thus as
we seek to deconstruct dominant thinking we challenge established
is therefore worth pondering what those of us who think of ourselves as
as scholars living outside the mainstream, have simultaneously internalised from
prevailing world views.
I see these as currently challenging issues, as some people achieve the
relative comfort of
apparent acceptance into dominant academic cultures for their representations
of difference. Are
we both enabled and disabled by this positioning (as Moi, 1994, suggests
Beauvoir was by hers)?
How do we conduct ourselves and what identities do we create? The
work of consciousness-raising
seems to need repeated renewal.
Following Beauvoir, much scholarship has concentrated on the social construction
limiting other kinds
of analysis based on difference. In this Issue, Linda Krefting argues that
from biology and evolutionary psychology can complement explanations of
grounded in social construction. Mindful of the historical use of "essential"
to exclude people designated Other that concerned Beauvoir,
to counter the risks. Can pluralism allow a more subtle, multi-dimensional
framing? And what
forms might it take? How can we account for, rather than deny,
embodiment in our
theorising, as Beauvoir sought also to do?
analysis of a universal woman as man's Other has given way to more
(Fallaize, 1998; Moi, 1985, 1987). Later French feminists added the
perspectives of Lacanian
psychoanalysis to the concept of Otherness. Many other developments
have enlarged or moderated
the ideas Beauvoir offered. Her concerns
are now recognized as
situated: those of a bourgeois, white, Parisian woman at mid-twentieth
century rather than
of a universal woman. Feminism's interest in Otherness has been extended
beyond affluent white
women to other voices, including to women of color and to men, and has
combined with interests
in identity. Examining processes through which Others have been
marginalized and excluded
requires new theory and methods of research because existing
scholarship is part
of the process through which Otherness, identity, and pluralism are obscured
(e.g., Harding, 1990).
These journeys of change continue.
In this Issue, Marta
Calįs and Linda Smircich argue however, that, despite developments, we
have not yet “transcended”
Beauvoir and they return to her for inspiration.
They review ideas
which have seldom
been figural in analyses of Beauvoir’s
work and present them anew for our
with "good reasons", they explain why there have been good reasons for
North American feminists
to overlook Beauvoir and why deeper reading
of her treatments of
reason and of good
provide good reasons for remembering her work. They offer these “re-
Beauvoir to engage/interrogate contemporary
organizational literature on gender
and social identity.
PARADOXES OF THE
SCHOLAR’S LIFE – MIRRORING ONE’S THEORISING
and analyses repeatedly remind us that the personal, professional and
intellectual are interwoven.
The Second Sex emerged because she set out to write autobiography
and realized that
she had first to ask herself the question “What has it meant to me to be a
1998, p.3). She wrote instead “an onslaught on contemporary ideas about
Commentators look to Beauvoir’s life
to understand her ideas and contribution.
The interplay of memberships
and marginalities in her story present especially interesting
conundrums. Moi (1994)
identifies Beauvoir as “an intellectual
woman”, a pioneering woman
of her time, entering
previously all-male institutions of education.
Given her unique opportunity
to develop herself fully as an intellectual in a country and
at a time when intellectuals
were considered important members of society, Simone
Beauvoir became more
purely an intellectual, as it were, than any other woman of her
Yet Beauvoir could also identify woman as Other in the male-defined world in which she
lived. She experienced
the ambiguities of such a placing, wanting to be taken seriously as an
intellectual and also
to achieve love, and emotional and sexual happiness. The resulting tensions
permeate her writing
and theorising. Evans (1996) adds a valuable cautionary note to this theme
of analysis, “to
ask exactly what (and indeed who) intellectual women are, and what non-
are like.” (p.120) Thus, describing Beauvoir
as “intellectual” is both
illuminating and poses
further questions. It paradoxically counters disparagement of women’s
it is also referring to historically and situationally defined membership of an
elite rather than
to a universal attribution of value. With many other academics, I would
a range of forms of knowing, not privileging propositional knowledge
above all others.
It has been troubling
for some feminists that Beauvoir seemed to
devalue her own creativity.
She placed herself
second to Sartre, and also initially chose a different realm of writing – fiction
- as her territory,
rather than philosophy (Moi, 1994). Scholars now debate the traditional
positioning of Beauvoir as a disciple of Sartre, and affirm her
influence on his work and her own
(see Calįs and Smircich this Issue).
There are several
strands of interest here for current scholars. The tenacious mindset of
needing to prove someone
“independent” in order to value their work is open to critique. What
does or would it mean
to have a more relationally appreciative model of academic life? An
opposite concern is
how aspects of someone’s contribution can be obscured, overlooked, if they
are interpreted as
disciple. There is also value in taking seriously the work Beauvoir
and biographer. She was engaging in forms of inquiry and scholarship
which have their own
epistemological and methodological richness and challenges. Falaize
(1998) notes that
she was criticised by some for being unfeeling (for example in her accounts of
and Sartre’s deaths), “never parted from her notebook at the most emotional or
(Fallaize, 1998 p.5.) I find this interesting. Does her work, and that of a
kind, breach academic “good taste”? For me it points to the challenging
territory of conducting
self-reflective sense-making with appropriate practices of quality
in press). However well we believe Beauvoir
did this, her work extends the realm
which should be accounted
for, appreciating the personal, professional and intellectual as
In this Issue, Ella
Bell reflects on the relevance of the intertwined journeys in Beauvoir's
to those of a Black
feminist scholar fifty years later. Despite differences, she finds meaning in
the borderlands where
plural identities engage. She finds Beauvoir’s
questions and challenges
relevant to her own
BEAUVOIR AND PLURALISM
The influence of Beauvoir's epochal work on organizational scholarship
has been indirect,
but substantial nonetheless.
The Second Sex was a point of departure for significant change and
which have enhanced pluralism in management scholarship over the last
in management addresses ways to incorporate pluralism and discontinue
the silencing of Otherness.
It has gained recognition among the critical perspectives featured in
special issues of
established major journals and those specifically seeking new approaches (e.g.,
Fletcher, 1998; Martin,
Knopoff & Beckman, 1998; Meyerson & Scully, 1995; Mumby &
Putnam, 1992). Following
Beauvoir's precedent, feminism enriches organizational
importing theory and
method from other disciplines (e.g., Martin, 1990; Calįs & Smircich, 1991;
Fondas, 1997). The
United States tends to dominate mainstream management knowledge-
(Jacques, 1996). Scholarship on gender has been a point of entry for
(e.g., Alvesson & Billing, 1997; Collinson & Hearn, 1996; Gherardi, 1995;
Hearn, et al., 1989;
Marshall, 1995; Mills & Tancred, 1992; Wajcman, 1998). These
the potential to enhance pluralism in form, content and method.
The recent Handbook
of Organization Studies (Clegg, Hardy & Nord, 1996) provides a not
of how appreciations of gender and diversity are currently placed in
The inclusion of women and diverse identities in separate Handbook
chapters (Calįs &
Smircich, 1996; Nkomo & Cox, 1996, respectively) makes plural
This is indicative of change. The editors shaped the Handbook to foster
for example selecting contributions to provide “a panoramic vista” (p.xxi)
of different views,
and using the metaphor of opening up conversations. But the form of
inclusion of diversity
related issues also reflects a continued Otherness. Such issues are raised
but then marginalized
by mainly separate consideration. The index of the Handbook suggests
that beyond the Introduction
and Conclusion (which are thoughtful in these terms) there are few
references to diversity,
ethnicity, feminism, gender, race, women and so on in other chapters.
There are substantial
sections of mainstream “conversation” which focus their referencing on a
relatively small band
of dominant scholars and do not incorporate pluralist appreciations. The
Handbook, as the editors recognize, reflects current organizational scholarship and
We may, then, achieve potential or apparent pluralism, but persist in
enacting many traditional
forms of organizational theorizing.
What might we expect
new genres of scholarship and representation, informed by pluralism in
form, process and
content, to be like? They might, for example, place other voices so that they
supplant and stand alongside rather than “simply” add to the current
mutually informing and aware, contributions could be in the same arena,
within the same purview,
rather than separately located. (The Handbook above moves in this
we develop scholarship of such form, the notion of mainstream might
Until it does any claims for radical pluralism are contentious.
In this Issue, Joanne
Martin considers how mainstream organizational research continues to
present itself as
gender-neutral despite abundant analyses to the contrary, and thus incorporates
blindspots and weaknesses.
She selects a range of traditions of organizational scholarship –
bureaucracy, stress, bounded rationality and institutional theory – and
employs a variety
of analytic techniques to show their gendered assumptions and to present
She encourages others to engage in similar scholarship as a path to re-
visioning the field,
moving beyond the marginalization of gender concerns and developing new
insights. She lists
theories which might warrant such attention.
In this section I
take the origination of this collection of papers and their subsequent
performance at the
Chicago Academy of Management Meeting as an example of the interwoven
dynamics of change
and resilience in cultures of organizational scholarship.
Changes towards greater
incorporation of pluralism can be seen in the history and current
functioning of the
Academy of Management (AOM), as in other institutions. It is a professional
association of management
educators and practitioners, based in the United
States but with
and influence. It is an important institution in terms of making
meaning in management
scholarship. (Are there resonances here with the power of the
in mid-twentieth century France to which Beauvoir
of diversity has increased
both in AOM membership and in leadership positions. Some years
raising about gender issues influenced establishment of a Women in
Mirroring growing recognition of diversities beyond gender this
chose to transform itself into Gender and Diversity in Organizations.
It is to the Academy of Management
that the Symposium proposal from which these papers
are derived was made.
Justifications were offered for the relevance of re-visiting Beauvoir’s
Second Sex to organizational scholarship. They were accepted.
The AOM Annual Meeting
Programme has a similar pattern in terms of incorporating
pluralism to that
identified as currently typical above. Diverse representation is achieved, but
usually with continuing
separation of most material to do with gender, race, diversity and
difference from ‘mainstream’
sessions. I shall not pursue this issue further, but turn to the
of our Symposium.
A major intention
of the Symposium proposal was that we should enact pluralism, allowing it
also to be engaged
experientially rather than only discussed. This required taking a different
form for the session
than that typically followed. Incorporating radical ideas into dominant
modes of scholarship
and presentation dilutes or subverts their potential. Form can carry
alternative forms, incorporating alternative foundational principles,
In practice, there
were limits to our ability to innovate within the session. Two planned
elements were relinquished:
that of speakers being positioned amongst the audience (because of
sound quality); and
everyone incorporating their personal, political and intellectual journeys in
(because of time pressures). Other intentions were achieved: the designated
speakers kept strictly
to their allotted times in order to free a significant space for the “audience”
and speakers then
to meet in discussion groups, allowing expression to a plurality of voices.
There was thus a session
facilitator (me) rather than allocated “expert” discussants. In the
closing phase of the
Symposium some participants voiced their responses and thoughts. People
reported that the
Symposium had provided a different experience from that of other sessions -
more engaged, “a
warm place in a chilly climate” - and that their own concerns had been
mirrored in the presentations.
It seems, then, that
for some we did achieve a different, more dialogic, form of encounter –
offering resonant ideas, multiple – an alternative space, appropriately
transitory. And then
we dispersed. I wonder whether we left any traces.
I have taken opportunities
during the course of this paper to query the current state of
pluralism in organizational
scholarship. It seems both to be developing and in some significant
I am left with concerns about how enactments of academic scholarship -
and institutionally - might be self-limiting, and with several
questions. What, then,
does pluralism mean? How can this notion retain a radical, jarring edge
rather than become
diluted, co-opted? Through what forms and dynamics can it be achieved?
Can analyses be suitably
subtle, multi-faceted, complex, and yet vibrant? What does the praxis
of pluralist scholarship
look like? How can responsibility for change and incorporation of
more widely shared? Finally, if Beauvoir’s
The Second Sex marked a
from prior scholarship in its time, I wonder what would be an equally
now, and how we would treat it.
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Woman has been measured
and judged against the norm of man, the essential human subject,
strong and moral half of a human whole” (Bailey 1993, p.99). Biological deviation
from the male standard
marks women as biologically (and therefore ‘naturally’) inferior; as “victims
of a pathological
physiology” (Balsamo 1996, p.42). Aristotle regarded the female as being
natural defectiveness”, St Thomas Aquinas saw woman as ‘imperfect man’ (de
Beauvoir 1988, p.16) and a ‘misbegotten male’ (Tseėlon, 1995, p.11). Women are the
necessary evils for
reproduction (Bailey op. cit. p.99) and the opposite against which the male can
compare himself favourably.
The ‘one’ requires the category of the ‘other’ in order to be the ‘one’.
The idea of men and
women as opposites is supported by polarized categories such as
spirit/matter that have been inflected with gender ideologies. In the
the body and mind are regarded as quite separate, the body is merely the crude
container of the mind.
Mind and reason are superior to the emotions and senses and divorced from
one another. Man is
mind and represents culture: the rational, unified, thinking subject; woman is
body and represents
nature: irrational, emotional and driven by instinct and physical need.
harness and control this potentially unruly body/nature/woman through the
application of knowledge
with body/nature is strengthened by biological essentialist and
which define woman according to her reproductive physiology. She is thus
feeble and passive,
literally a receptacle for the desires of the male
and incubator for
a creature driven
by emotion and instinct; a slave to her reproductive organs/hormones. Man may
be able to transcend
his biological materiality, but woman is entrenched in her physicality - “a thing
sunk deeply in its
own immanence.” (de Beauvoir op. cit., p.189).
Woman as other is inferior but also unknowable, enigmatic and disquieting. She represents
that which must be
investigated and dissected until her secrets are relinquished. Consequently the
female body has been
subjected to the scrutinizing gaze of the human sciences far more than the
male. Every hint of
abnormality has been thoroughly and enthusiastically ferreted out and classified
by numerous ‘experts’
eager to provide indisputable proof of its inherent pathology. Its
must be contained and inherent weakness of character exposed, particularly
as it is primarily
a reproductive body.
Medical and scientific
discourse has confirmed the pathology of female biology and
subjugation, prescribing in the past what activities women should engage in,
what clothes they
should wear to preserve appropriate ‘womanliness’, their moral obligation to
preserve their energy
for child birth and so on. Catherine Kohler Riessman argues that since the mid
there has been an increasing ‘medicalization’ of women’s lives which has seen
more and more female
‘conditions’ identified in ways “that connote deviation from some ideal
(Kohler Riessman 1992, p.132). The nineteenth century woman was diagnosed
as frigid, hysterical
or neurasthenic with mental disorders put down to ‘disturbances’ in the womb,
The word vagina
comes from the Latin word for sheath.
women suffer from vaginismus, pre menstrual tension, infertility, pre and post
eating disorders and so on.
Of course, the processes
that I have been relating - i.e. the role of discourse in producing and
identity and as a form of social control - are close to Foucault’s theoretical heart.
Indeed, he succinctly
refers to some of these issues in his description of ‘the hysterization of
(Foucault 1998, p.104). There are in fact many convergences between the feminist
account of power and
the body and Foucault’s. Feminism has long been preoccupied with
theorising how power
operates, particularly between the sexes. Like Foucault, many feminists had
engaged with Marxism
but found its framework fell short. Foucault held particular disdain for
theories that claimed to offer the ‘truth’ through ‘scientific’ explanations. Feminism was
with critiquing the notion of science (with particular regard to their
of the female body), its claims to objectivity and the idea of guaranteed truth. Both
of their projects
seem to be primarily deconstructive: eager to expose the ‘discursive practice’
behind the natural
have been useful to feminism in their challenge to paradigms of western
thought taken for
granted since the Enlightenment. He critiques the classical ways of thinking about
the subject as a rational,
unified being with a fixed core or essence, arguing that: “Nothing in man -
not even his body
- is sufficiently stable to serve as a basis for self recognition or for understanding
other men” (Foucault
1991, p.87-8). There is no ‘natural’ body or pre-discursive, essential human
subject who is “amputated,
repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is
in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies” (Foucault 1977,
p.217). In fact, Foucault’s
commentary of how subjectivity is produced calls to mind Simone de
Beauvoir’s now famous phrase that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”
op. cit., p.295).
approach to the body has been a major attraction for many feminists.
For Lois McNay his
work on the body “indicates to feminists a way of placing a notion of the body
at the centre of explanations
of women’s oppression that does not fall back into essentialism or
op. cit., p.11). However, although he offers ammunition to tackle essentialist
with regard to sexuality which he argued was an historical construct and not a
or ‘furtive reality’ (Foucault 1998, p.105)) his failure to address gender as itself a
as an “‘effect’ produced at the level of the body” (Balsamo op. cit., p.21), is
Anne Balsamo rightly points out that it “contradicts his analytical intentions to
consider the system
of differentiations that make the body meaningful.” (Ibid.), whilst McNay
“If, as Foucault
claims, there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ body and it is, therefore,
impossible to posit
a pre-given natural sex difference, then he needs to elaborate on how the
of sexual division is perpetuated by the techniques of gender that are
applied to the body.”
(McNay op. cit., p.33)
Foucault did not address
gender as a ‘technique’, so it appears he did regard something as a ‘natural
discourses I have been relating, as extreme and irrelevant as they may appear to us
today, have informed
contemporary society - inflecting modern thought through philosophy,
medicine, law, the
arts and so on - and entered into the popular consciousness as forms of self
evident truth. They
have helped to create a chasm between men and women that appears natural and
ineluctable - as banal
as the cliché that women are from Venus and men from Mars.
gender neutrality is problematic precisely because we live in a society
that is far from gender
neutral and in fact constantly seeks to reiterate the polarization of the sexes
through these ‘techniques
of gender’. Failing to be specific about just what kinds of bodies
or not) he’s discussing implies that gender has no impact. His analysis
sidesteps how woman
has been discursively identified with the body and downplays the
feminists argue this results in in order to argue for the subjectifying power of
discourse. The cultural
insistence on a male/female binary that derogates the female body in
relation to the male
inevitably leads to more intense policing of women’s bodies and specific
apparatuses of control.
Therefore, treating the body ‘as one’ is not viable; his concept of power
cries out for gender
specific analysis and in that analysis gender needs to be acknowledged as a
technology of the
body in its own right; “a primary apparatus of scientific biopower that constructs
the body as an intelligible
object” (Balsamo op. cit., p.22)
Many feminists have
read his gender-neutrality as androcentrism; he doesn’t make gender
in Discipline and Punish, because he is not really treating the body ‘as one’
but as male and no
distinction is necessary when dealing with the ‘genderless’ body of man - the
essential human subject.
He seems to fall into the very modes of thought he sought to challenge.
Balsamo argues that
ultimately “Foucault ends up writing...from a site of power - male-centred
op. cit., p.22) while Bartky claims that his work “reproduces that sexism which
is endemic throughout
western political theory” (Bartky op. cit., p.64).
I have tried to show
that the notion of difference that is articulated by gender is itself a
Male and female are designations not as thoroughly opposed as the
them suggest. The differences that do exist are, as McNay points out, “over-
determined in order
to produce a systematic effect of sexual division” (McNay op. cit., p.22).
Though many people
may experience gender as a natural expression of their biological sex, it is
important to recognise
that, in Benhabib and Cornell’s words, “it is the way that anatomy is socially
invested that defines
gender identity and not the body itself” (Benhabib and Cornell 1987, p.14).
Male and female should
not be conflated with masculinity and femininity. They are
identities that invest the body, producing certain characteristics that are taken
as evidence of a male
and female essence and an ineluctable difference between them. The
of gender is constantly invoked, but masculinity and femininity are disciplines of the
body that require
work. For Judith Butler gender is a performance, “an active style of living one’s
body in the world”
(Butler in Benhabib and Cornell 1987, p.131). For McNay it is an ‘imaginary
of sex (McNay op. cit., p.22). Femininity in particular has been variously referred to
as a myth, a mystique,
a masque, an artifice, an achievement (Bartky op. cit., p.64). Paradoxically,
while femininity is
regarded as the most ‘natural’ of the genders (as women are biologically over-
determined) it also
requires the most artifice to be considered successful, whilst those that are
unsuccessful or refuse
to take part in it are regarded as ‘unnatural’.
I shall now go on
to explore how the female body is manipulated, shaped and trained to bear
signs of its ‘natural’
femininity using the example of some fashion and beauty practices in order to
illustrate how women
become practised and subjected in the discipline of the female gender.
The Spectacle of
Adorning and transforming
the body with clothes, cosmetics and jewellery is associated with
femininity, even though
it is well documented that men have been equally engaged in such practices.
Male involvement in
spectacular forms of adornment declined dramatically during the 18th century,
due no doubt in part
to the identification and pathologising of homosexuality that occurred at the
time, and the subsequent
need to avoid any suggestion of effeminacy. Sexual stereotyping in dress -
maintaining a visible
distinction between the sexes by exaggerating existing physical differences or
ones - also became of overriding concern during this period. According to
Elizabeth Wilson fashion
is ‘obsessed’ with gender, and serves to define and redefine the gender
boundary (Wilson 1985
p.117). This is evidenced by the anxiety aroused by ‘cross dressing’ the
very idea of which
could not be possible if it were not for such rigid gender demarcations.
Female fashions, particularly
since the Victorian era, seem to have been especially
concerned with marking
difference spectacularly on the body by constantly drawing attention to
sites of ‘otherness’
such as the breasts, waist, buttocks and hips which have been exaggerated by
corsets, bustles and
bras. Considering the well documented discomfort, breathing difficulties and
internal organ displacement
caused by the 19th century corset in particular, it is possible to draw an
analogy with Foucault’s
writing on torture, which he says must “mark the victim: it is intended,
either by the scar
it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim
(Foucault 1977, p.34).
identified torture as a characteristic of pre-modern times, whereas for
women this form of
spectacular discipline has extended well into the modern period. The advent of
by rationality sees a certain ‘rationality’ appear in men’s attire; women,
however, are not regarded
as rational agents but as instinctual, inherently pathological bodies,
unaffected by culture,
outside of modernity. Primitive and ‘uncivilisable’, these distinctly ‘pre-
therefore require pre-modern methods of containment and control that
them with the ‘infamy’ of their gender and the ‘irrational’ display that
becomes regarded as
an inherently feminine trait.
of being other - of embodying all that man fears and despises yet desires -
finds fitting ‘punishment’
in clothing that draws erotic attention to the body by simultaneously
constraining and ‘correcting’
it. According to de Beauvoir: “In woman dressed and adorned, nature
is present but under
restraint, by human will moulded nearer to man’s desire” (de Beauvoir op. cit.,
p.191). By beating
down upon and mastering the body punishment was also an emphatic affirmation
of power (Foucault
1977, p.49) and superior strength. As Susan Bordo observes, the corset caused
women actual physical
incapacitation but it also “served as an emblem of the power of culture to
impose its designs
on the female body.” (Bordo op. cit., p.143).
argued that female costumes and styles have been designed to prevent activity:
with bound feet could scarcely walk, the polished fingernails of the Hollywood
star deprive her of
her hands; high heels, corsets, panniers, farthingales, crinolines were intended
less to accentuate
the curves of the feminine body than to augment its incapacity”. Paralysed by
either too little
or too much weight, by inconvenient attire or the ‘rules of propriety’, woman’s body
could then “present
the inert and passive qualities of an object” and “[seem] to man to be his
property, his thing.”
(de Beauvoir op. cit., p.189-90). Thus containing the threat of the potentially
Whether or not one
agrees with de Beauvoir’s comments, which seem to suggest some kind
of male conspiracy
orchestrated against women that is at odds with Foucault’s theories, it must be
although incapacitating corsets may be a thing of the past, certain degrees and
techniques of discipline,
manipulation and discomfort are still practised on the female body.
High heeled or stiletto
shoes, for example, require practice to walk in; they affect balance and
resulting in a particular posture and gait. ‘Feminine’ shoes bear little resemblance
to the shape of the
human foot and squeezing one’s feet into narrow pointed shoes can cause
discomfort and deformity.
Corsets and girdles have given way to new hi-tech stretch fabrics and
lingerie that claims
to ‘control’ and ‘shape’ unruly parts of the body that would disturb the required
smooth, firm silhouette
by compressing them with strategically placed ‘control panels’. In the last
ten years or so there
has been a veritable explosion of bras aiming to transform the shape, size and
direction of one’s
breasts in order to achieve the desired large, rounded bust-line with maximum
cleavage. To this
end there are maximizers, plunge, push up and cleavage enhancing bras; ones with
with liquid gel, even with inflatable sections. Breast implants have of course
become much more common
in recent years and augmentation is now the second most requested
cosmetic surgery procedure
(Bordo op. cit., p.25).
doesn’t stop with the manipulation of the female flesh, however; the
texture and appearance
of the skin also requires a profound amount of attention. According to
Sandra Lee Bartky
a woman’s “skin must be soft, supple, hairless and smooth; ideally, it should
betray no sign of
wear, experience, age, or deep thought.” (Bartky op. cit., p.68). To this end women
are exhorted to follow
a detailed daily beauty regime and to choose the correct preparations, far too
numerous to list here,
designed for ‘treating’ and transforming the skin on all parts of the body.
Then there are the
numerous cosmetics applied with various instruments that women are expected to
master, not to mention
false eyelashes, hair-pieces and nails. There are specific products and
for the removal of hair from different parts of the body; from the eyebrows,
upper lip, underarm,
leg and ‘bikini’ by plucking, shaving, waxing, buffing and electrolysis. And as
for the hair that
remains on the head, a myriad more treatments and products await.
Women are advised
to avoid unnecessary exposure to the elements, such as wind, water and
rays’ of the sun in order to keep skin ‘fresh and young looking’. Only youthful
bodies or bodies with
the appearance of youth are considered beautiful and valued in our society, but
as Efrat Tseėlon points
out: “While both sexes dread ageing, it is the woman who is expected to
(Tseėlon op. cit., p.82). The cosmetic industries capitalise on the fear of ageing by
endorsed by scientific language that claim to prevent or reduce the signs of ageing,
which is discussed
as though it were some kind of disease that it is every woman’s responsibility to
try to prevent.
have been commonly associated with individual expression, indulgence
and even emancipation
(particularly in the first decades of the twentieth century), the idea that it is a
to be beautiful’ has been just as prevalent. Wilson observes that the rhetoric of the
beauty routine has
at times suggested military ritual or a moral, even eugenic, obligation, (Wilson
op. cit., p.111) while
Sandra Lee Bartky regards making-up the face as “a highly stylised activity
that gives little
reign to self-expression” (Bartky op. cit., p.71). Writing in 1985, Wilson laments the
fact that cosmetics
are now regarded as a necessity rather than as ‘daring display’ and suggests that
they are now worn
like a “‘uniform’ in much the same spirit as most men wear ties - in order to look
in order not to stand out from the crowd” (Wilson op. cit., p.114). Bartky concurs that “a
properly made-up face
is, if not a card of entree, at least a badge of acceptability in most social and
(Bartky op. cit., p.71).
In more recent years
of course, the measures I have been describing don’t go far enough for
the increasing number
of people who choose (and can afford) to undergo cosmetic surgery, which is
fast becoming another
necessity in the pursuit of an acceptable body. An ever-expanding range of
procedures are on
offer to correct more and more parts of the body to increasingly detailed criteria.
Though surgery continues
to gain popularity amongst men, the vast majority of people trying to
themselves are women. Given the obsession in our culture with slenderness it is
liposuction is the most requested operation (Bordo op. cit., p.25) with women
outnumbering men nine
to one (Tseėlon op. cit., p.81). Surgery is also promoted as being about
and self-determination, but the end results aimed for, especially by the most
seem to be profoundly normalizing
Turning woman into
an ornamented surface requires an enormous amount of discipline and
can cause discomfort,
not to mention untold feelings of inadequacy. It cements woman’s status as
body, confirming her
role as primarily decorative. Female styles over the years have also served to
confirm myths about
woman: as duplicitous, over-sexualised temptress; delicate and weak or
and obsessed with trivialities: “[l]ike fashion itself...ephemeral, changeable,
illusory and extravagant.”
(Tseėlon op. cit., p.23).
Of course fashion
and beauty practices can be about play and indulgence, but pressure to
conform to certain
norms makes them more like a form of gruelling work (Wilson op. cit., p.122).
And, as Wilson observes,
staying true to the old adage about women’s work, beauty care is
work that can never be done because an absolute, petrified state can never be achieved:
“it is a losing
battle against the inevitable deterioration of the body...a struggle against life itself”
According to Anne
Balsamo “gender is one of the primary effects of the discursive
construction of the
human body” (Balsamo op. cit., p.22). It is a pervasive and powerful method of
social control that
both produces and restricts one’s mode of being. Therefore, by neglecting to
address gender in
his studies Foucault can only have produced a partial account of the discourses
surrounding the body
and the discipline that shapes it.
association with the body has resulted in her being judged by and valued
for her appearance
more than man, often above all else, and has also engendered the fear and dread
of otherness. Even
in this supposedly equal, liberated and progressive society femaleness is still
to require supervision and containment by forms of discipline that men are not
. The story of women’s
emancipation and increasing self-determination is clouded by
the continuing presence
of restrictive ideals of womanhood that Myra Macdonald claims
reinvent’ themselves against the cultural and social changes in women’s lives
(MacDonald 1995, p.220).
However, just as Foucault
did in his later work, I would like to stress that resistance is
not suggesting that all women clamber to conform to the ideals of femininity. There
have always been,
and always will be, those who gleefully subvert or ignore the ‘rules’ or who enjoy
the pleasures of fashion
and beauty without feeling them to be an obligation or a necessity. As
Wilson says, we can “acknowledge that dress is a powerful weapon of control and dominance,
widening our view
to encompass an understanding of its simultaneously subversive qualities”
that “the long term success of such operations seems to hinge on how sexually appealing, acceptable, or
woman becomes” in Tseėlon, op. cit. p.83.
that men are being increasingly targeted as consumers to indulge in ‘male grooming’ products, though I
am inclined to
think that this is because the market in women’s beauty treatments has been so saturated that companies
are having to
seek out a new one.
quoted in MacDonald op. cit., p.212). Foucault claimed that resistance exists
wherever there is
normalisation and domination. Power is never total, uniform or smooth but
shifting and unstable;
if it is exerted on ‘micro levels’ it can be contested on micro levels; there is
“no single locus
of great Refusal” but a “plurality of resistances” (Foucault 1998, p.95-6).
In more recent years
feminists have been attending to postmodern concepts of the plurality and
instability of identity.
Foucault’s ‘docile body’, read by some as absolutely passive and manipulated
and leaving little
room for agency, has been read another way: “not as passive, but as malleable, as a
contested and contestable
site of power and knowledge” (Gedalof 1993, p.50). If our identities are
by power, and that power is shifting and unstable, then we must be also.
The more we challenge
traditional dichotomous gender norms the less ‘normal’ they’ll
become. Then perhaps
we can reject them in favour of a mode of embodiment based more on choice
and pleasure than
on the desire for acceptance and paranoia about our inherent deficiency
course, not all women
in our culture experience women’s situation as problematic, just as in the eras
the Pankhursts and de Beauvoir. Yet the fact that women of our era would find
past conditions intolerable
signifies that gains have been made and will continue to be made. Unlike
Foucault, who described
himself as a pessimist, I am cautiously optimistic; I believe that society can
change, but only with
continuous struggle and engagement on all levels.
Bailey, M. E. (1993)
‘Foucauldian Feminism Contesting bodies, sexuality and identity’ in
(ed.) Up Against Foucault: Explorations of some tensions between Foucault
and feminism Routledge:
Balsamo, A. (1996)
Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women Duke University
Bartky, S. L. (1988)
‘Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in I.
Diamond and L. Quinby
(eds.) Feminism and Foucault: Reflections of Resistance Northeastern
Simone (1988) The Second Sex (trans. and ed. by H.M. Parshley) Picador: London
Benhabib, S. and Cornell,
D. (eds.) (1987) Feminism as Critique: Essays on the Politics of Gender in
Polity Press: London
Bordo, S. (1993) Unbearable
Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body University of
California Press: California
Diamond, I. and Quinby, L. (eds.)
(1988) Feminism and Foucault: Reflections of Resistance
Foucault, M. (1977)
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. Alan Sheridan) Allen
Foucault, M. (1998)
The History of Sexuality Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge (Translated by
Robert Hurley, Random
House 1978) Penguin: London
Foucault, M. (1991)
“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in P. Rabinow (ed.) The Foucault Reader: An
Introduction to Foucault’s
Thought Penguin: London
Gedalof, I. (1993) “Habeas
Corpus: Foucault, Feminist Theory and the Body” Unpublished MA
Kohler Riessman, C.
(1992) “Women and Medicalization: A New Perspective” in G. Kirkup and L.
S. Keller (eds.) Inventing
Women Polity Press: Cambridge
suggesting that this is an easy strategy of course. Women’s choices have always been constrained by
economic and social
factors. See Naomi Wolf’s chapter ‘Work’ in The Beauty Myth (1990) where she discusses recent
cases where employers
have discriminated against women on the basis of their appearance (and gotten away with it).
MacDonald, M. (1995)
Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media Arnold:
McNay, L. (1992) Foucault
and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self Polity Press: Cambridge
Ramazanoglu, C. (ed.)
(1993) Up Against Foucault: Explorations of Some Tensions Between
Foucault and Feminism
Teėlon, E. (1995)
The Masque of Femininity: The Presentation of Woman in Everyday Life Sage:
Wilson, E. (1985)
Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity Virago: London
Wolf, N.(1990) The
Beauty Myth (Chatto & Windus: London)