Duke University Alumni Magazine

What is a Woman? And Other Essays

By Toril Moi. Oxford University Press, 2000. 536 pages. $35.

his collection of essays by Toril Moi, James B. Duke professor of literature and Romance studies, has a deceptively straightforward title. Readers unfamiliar with either contemporary feminist theory or ordinary language philosophy may be puzzled by the simplicity of its core question--why should there be any doubt about what a woman is?

Such readers stand to benefit from a careful reading of this elegantly written book, especially part I. The benefits to readers steeped in philosophy will be even greater. Moi adapts a number of different theoretical traditions to her own use, bringing them to bear on the fundamental opening question of feminist theory, which should be (but too seldom has been) one of the opening questions for philosophy in general.

Moi notes in her preface that the year of publication of her newest book marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Simone de Beauvoir's classic The Second Sex. As she points out, while this major text has not been neglected, precisely, it is rarely read with the close attentiveness that it deserves. As a result, its rich potential for stimulating theory and philosophy is largely untapped. The first half of Moi's book demonstrates that potential by a close analysis of the opening pages of The Second Sex, and an extended series of meditations on the basic questions Beauvoir addresses.

In Moi's reading, Beauvoir suggests a promising way out of the perpetual oscillation between essentialism and nominalism (constructionism) in feminist theory. In lay terms, there is a better way of thinking about what it means to be a woman than to assume either that being a woman means possessing some unchanging mysterious essence that marks all female human beings and dominates everything we do, or else is the consequence of a set of cultural assumptions or stereotypes and thus separable from, and less basic than, just being a human being. A roughly parallel way of understanding this distinction is the sex/

gender dichotomy with which most of us are at least passingly familiar.

In Moi's reading of a few key passages in the early part of Beauvoir's book, we glimpse a tantalizing alternative--one that, as Moi says, feels profoundly liberating. Beauvoir, she claims, asserts that "a woman defines herself through the way she lives her embodied situation in the world, or in other words, through the way in which she makes something of what the world makes of her." This is Moi's thoughtful explication of Beauvoir's famous passage: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Moi makes clear that this is not the same thing as acquiring gendered stereotypes, which is the way this passage has often been read. It is part of the existential nature of a "project," but one very much constrained by the materials that the world provides to the subject.

The "cornerstone" passage in this reading is in the third paragraph of The Second Sex, where Moi highlights Beauvoir's statement that the basic declaration "I am a woman" is the "background from which all further claims will stand out." This is Moi's translation of the French cette vŽritŽ constitue le fond sur lequel s'enlevera toute autre affirmation, which here as elsewhere differs from Parshley's familiar English version (whose serious deficiencies Moi amply demonstrates, not for the first time).

Later in the book, Moi provides an account of how a woman might use this concept of foreground/background to live her life as a human being without denying her femininity or femaleness. In some situations, such as feeling sexual desire, a woman could want her female body to be foregrounded, but in others, such as understanding trigonometry or composing symphonies, she would prefer that it "be considered as the insignificant background" of her actions. Moi makes clear that "this is not the same thing as to say that I wish my body to disappear or to be transformed into a male body," not the same as wishing to become "some kind of universalized human being." Rather, the fact of being a woman rather than a man will be highly pertinent in some situations, marginally relevant in others, and pretty much irrelevant in many of the things we do as human beings.

I agree with Moi that this is a very appealing concept, an excellent way of describing how many of us would actually like to live our lives and be regarded by others. However, as The Second Sex persuasively illustrates, the dilemma has always been that we cannot control how others see us. One of the most frustrating aspects of life for many women is that too often, in situations when being a woman is for us personally the "insignificant background" of what we are doing, someone else will bring it resolutely to the foreground. By drawing attention to the fact of our being a woman in contexts where we are just being a human being who happens to be a woman, the observer exercises a great deal of power over our foregrounding/backgrounding, and can make this strategy impossible.

Moi's reading of Beauvoir suggests a way of being human that could work equally well for men, although she does not explicitly explore this possibility. But Beauvoir herself uses the image in a passage clearly designed to make evident the deep asymmetry between women and men. The very fact of beginning a book on philosophy by noting that she is a woman reminds Beauvoir that a man would never think of doing such a thing, since the fact that he is a man "goes without saying."

Perhaps most human beings who happen to be male enjoy without deliberate striving a wholeness that has historically been out of reach for almost all women. One might say that the background and the foreground of men's lives are either merged into one smooth surface, or are largely under their own control. Making the same true for women is a good way of stating a worthy feminist goal. Unfortunately, as Moi notes, The Second Sex is weak on strategies for change.

The second half of Moi's book is a set of essays previously published elsewhere. The two on Pierre Bourdieu's theories and their relevance for feminist analysis are valuable companion pieces for the first half of the book. The others, mostly written in the 1980s, inevitably appear somewhat disconnected. Even so, Moi's gifts as a literary critic and theorist assure that each brings some valuable insights to the fundamental question that animates the book.

--Nannerl O. Keohane

Keohane is Duke's president and a professor of political science.

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