Am I Woman? But I Roar!

431px-Symbol_venus In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir offers her own response to the question ‘what is a woman?’ Most generally, the French philosopher suggests that women are neither constituted nor recognized by their own autonomy but, rather, by their ‘relation to-’. De Beauvoir calls attention to the historical subjugation that has resulted from this referential identity, specifically when women have been defined in terms of their ‘relation to-men.’

Gold medalist Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa, has recently seen the ugliness of this subjugation. Doctors across the globe are trying to determine Semenya’s ‘relation to-women,’ trying to determine if Semenya has enough ‘female characteristics’ to continue competing as a ‘woman athlete.’ Unfortunately, many of her fellow runners have already decided the issue for themselves. Elisa Cusma, for example, an Italian woman (I mean … runner), responded simply: “These kind of people should not run with us” [sic].

And, perhaps she is right. At the very least, we might ask if texts like The Second Sex, and the questions they raise, have not become outdated by new kinds of questions, by new waves of feminism. Perhaps there is a certain innocence to de Beauvoir’s question, an innocence made all the more complicated (or, is it all the more easy?) by the contemporary work of gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, and gender experts.

Either way, it seems we are still permitted to wonder which era de Beauvoir would find more tragic – the times when men have forbidden women to ‘run’ anywhere but alongside them, or the times when women forbid other women to do even as much? To read more see this article in the New York Times.

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