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Past her Prime? Simone de Beauvoir on Motherhood and Old Age

Abstract

Despite her reputation as the ‘Mother’ of second-wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir is not usually heralded as a mother-friendly feminist. In The Second Sex, the passages dedicated to the female body—and especially the pregnant female body—have been dismissed as unfortunate expressions of internalized patriarchy or personal idiosyncrasy. By comparing Beauvoir’s later analysis of old age to aspects of the experience of pregnancy and early motherhood, this essay suggests that Beauvoir’s later work Old Age offers a rich untapped resource for understanding her thinking on maternity.

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Notes

  1. Hansen 1997, p. 5.

  2. Jeremiah 2006, p. 22.

  3. Jeremiah 2006 p. 23.

  4. Whitmarsh 1981, p. 147.

  5. Kruks 1992, p. 95; though on Kruks’ view, Beauvoir should not be consigned to ‘ancestor worship’.

  6. These are the words of Gide’s elderly character, La Pérouse, quoted in OA, p. 237.

  7. Walters 2005, p. 101.

  8. In what follows I follow Patrick O’Brian’s use of ‘the aged’ and ‘man’ in translating Beauvoir’s les vieillards and les hommes.

  9. For other passages on monstrosity of older women: cf. OA pp. 126, 321, 331: ‘I have never come across one single woman, either in life or in books, who has looked upon her own old age cheerfully’ (p. 331).

  10. Beauvoir attributes these thoughts to Sartre’s practico-inert.

  11. Hartsock 1985, p. 241.

  12. Kruks 1992, p. 98.

  13. Phyllis Chesler, cited in Maushart 1999, p. 1.

  14. Nelson et al. 2013, p. 1.

  15. While many of the themes that will emerge from this consideration are more widely applicable, for the sake of argument, it will be useful to restrict our focus to a relatively short segment of motherhood—pregnancy and the first year of a child’s life—and a particular political and geographical location: the UK at the present time.

  16. Rossiter 1988, p. 177.

  17. See Maushart 1999.

  18. Cited in Kitzinger 1987, p. 13. Interestingly, one study found that for both men and women, gratification with parenting roles was negatively correlated with educational attainment. Russell 1974.

  19. http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/MaternalMH/en/.

  20. She goes on to quote Stekel at length: “Children are not substitutes for one’s disappointed love; they are not substitutes for one’s thwarted ideal in life, children are not mere material to fill out an empty existence. Children are a responsibility and an opportunity. Children are the loftiest blossoms upon the tree of untrammelled love … They are neither playthings, nor tools for the fulfilment of parental needs or ungratified ambitions. Children are obligations; they should be brought up so as to become happy human beings.”

  21. Surely, it is not enough to say this is a matter of man and man; it is a matter of recasting all relationships, of man and woman, of woman and woman, of woman and child, of man and child, and so on.

  22. It is interesting to note her invocation of (altered) temporal language in this context.

  23. According to The Ethics of Ambiguity, they are ontological but not ethical freedoms, which isn’t necessarily to say they are subhuman.

  24. Though clearly this varies depending on the age and dependence of the child.

  25. The author wishes to thank Pamela Sue Anderson and a reviewer for this journal for their comments, and the AHRC for its support.

Abbreviations

EA:

Beauvoir (1976) Ethics of Ambiguity, trans. B. Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press

SS:

Beauvoir (2012 [1949]) The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Vintage. Pagination references are to the Vintage e-book edition

OA:

Beauvoir (1977 [1970]) Old Age, trans. Patrick O’Brian. Harmondsworth: Penguin

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Correspondence to Kate Kirkpatrick.

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Kirkpatrick, K. Past her Prime? Simone de Beauvoir on Motherhood and Old Age. SOPHIA 53, 275–287 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-014-0410-8

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Keywords

  • Beauvoir
  • Old age
  • Ageing
  • Motherhood
  • Maternity
  • Mothering
  • Ethics
  • The Second Sex
  • Pregnancy