Reading The Second Sex For the Fifth Time

I have a shelf in my room which juts out with the mismatched spines of books, some unread and some read too long ago to be remembered. The crimson cover of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is accentuated by the dark cover of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which lies next to it – the latter a physical manifestation of the chronology of feminist dialogue. Sometimes when I feel frustrated about everything, I shut myself in my bedroom and lift The Second Sex from the shelf. It is one of the pinnacles of second-wave feminism, indubitably outdated now. However, when it feels like I can’t change anything in the outside world, it is sometimes easier to sit down with a comfortable blanket and try to contemplate some familiar feminist writing. It is a dangerous trap. The open dialogue that I crave in society about the various issues that autonomous gender groups face is substituted by my endlessly-repetitive ritual of reading this one book. My intellectual dialogue with ideas with which I have already become acquainted is comfortable, regardless of how much those ideas are in need of development, contextualisation and change – especially with regards to intersectionality.

This is one of the issues that most plagues activism: when change seems impossible, we become as recalcitrant as those who inflict and engrain repressive structures. It is possible to be a feminist and to still develop a fear of change. When an individual perceives their inability to change the attitudes of other individuals around them, it engenders activism burnout. It is disheartening to hear sexist jokes still being made, and it is frustrating to be excluded from certain opportunities because of your gender. Unsurprisingly, the seemingly irrefutable judgments that people make about certain genders does not incite scrutinised individuals to redefine the constructs which comprise their identity as powerful and valuable. Often, sexism makes me feel like it would be strategic to completely reject the feminine facets of my identity – it makes me reluctant to try to incite change.

Patriarchal structures rely on oppressed groups being reluctant to try to incite. When I lock myself in my room and get out my dog-eared feminist text from the 1940s, I ignore the battles that vulnerable gender groups have not yet won, and focus upon the battles that have been won. I am subsumed into the cycle of repression by fearing the issues of today and choosing to ignore them, and I therefore perpetuate them. This is perhaps most exemplified by the underdeveloped dialogue between white feminists and feminists of colour – a defining issue of current feminism. As a white female, I need to be comfortable with recalibrating my conception of activism from the outdated, white-centric feminism of the past. The issues facing women are highly varied depending upon their experiences, but they are all ongoing. If activism burnout leads women like myself to recede intellectually into the feminist victories of our predecessors, ‘feminism’ remains a fallaciously hegemonic concept.

Being reluctant to incite change because of activism burnout is also how certain groups of women end up with a greater burden placed upon them to incite change – a perpetuation of activism burnout. The biggest gap that needs to be bridged so that feminism is truly an all-encompassing and multi-faceted movement, which is sensitive to the issues of different groups, is the one caused by this burnout. The reality that I have constructed in my bedroom where I can mentally commiserate with Simone de Beauvoir is not a helpful one. I do not access that reality to develop my understanding of feminism; the first few times I read the book were adequate in enabling me to absorb the key ideas. Instead, I reread the book because of a desire to imagine that the 1940s brand of feminism, predicated largely upon the issues faced by white heterosexual women, is mostly a won battle. However, it does not provide true respite from the reality of today’s perceptibly immutable patriarchal forces. Obviously, feminism of the past retains a lot of value in understanding how the movement has developed. Moreover, many issues raised by feminists of the past remain unresolved. But this is the thing: feminism is a changing idea, which demands from us that we change with it.

What does changing with feminism look like? It looks like admitting that I’m not always sure the best way to contribute to current feminism, and not resorting to exclusively ruminating over ideas I already feel comfortable with. I’m 18, and after coming to university this year I have been exposed to many of the fluid tenets of contemporary feminism, and its many splinters, for the first time. Faced with innumerable channels of ideas that I haven’t yet traversed, I can’t turn around and hide in my bedroom in uncertainty and defeat. I have to keep going; my bookshelf still has gaps to fill.