How A Woman Can Be Liberated

Abbie on horseback

Abbie with Prince at Hilltop.

How A Woman Can Be Liberated

When I started this column a few years ago, I vowed not to give advice.  I even put that in our subtitle: “The Non-Advice Column.”  So why am I about to give some?  Well, everybody else is dishing it out, directly or by implication, and most of it is lousy.  Mine has at least stood the test of time in my own case.  And I figure you wouldn’t be reading this column if your life weren’t somewhat like mine.

To see what I mean, it might help if I revisited my own pilgrimage from girlhood to womanhood.  In my childhood, it was a plus to be a girl.  People thought you were cute and likely to make less trouble than boys would.  Best of all, your body did more or less what you asked.  That is, it climbed trees, it got on a horse when it could, ran races, took companionable walks with the local dog, befriended cats and it played impartially with girls or with boys, depending only on who was nicer and more fun.

With adolescence, all that changed.  Your body became heavier, less flexible, prone to monthly accidents that hurt, about which people told you to have a positive attitude, and – worst of all – it was suddenly the target of interest of an ominous kind from strangers.  Boys were no longer playmates.  They were potential “dates” whom it was your task to interest.

(From my mother and her European friends, I’d got a vague sense of what might appeal to the sort of youth who signed his letter, “I kiss the hem of your robe.”  However, American boys did not write that sort of letter.)

Omitting the grotesque theories from Sigmund Freud that prevailed in my adolescence and prompted girls to worry whether we were free from inhibitions, worry changed to fear at about the age of 20.  At some point thereafter, a girl might decide that she’d “given up” on finding love and marriage, which were her only desirable future at that time.

I fast forward to Feminism.  It didn’t fall from heaven.  It was ushered in by Simone de Beauvoir, a French Existentialist who wrote a book in two volumes to which she gave the ironic title, The Second Sex.

Why was it the time to do that?  It was the time because (among other things) there were refrigerators, constabulary and contraceptives, all invented by men, as it happens.  So women could leave their cooking pots, take a solitary walk without fear of rape, and have sexual relations that didn’t impregnate them.

What theory did De Beauvoir employ to launch the vessel of feminism on the stormy seas of life?   She used the theories of The Man in Her Life: the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  He held that our bodies might be a drag but our consciousness was totally free.  We self-invent our character traits and life purposes.  It follows (De Beauvoir inferred following Sartre) that women too can choose their identities and anatomy is not destiny.

Ladies, I beg you, stop a minute: What’s a man doing when he uses this line with a woman?  Please consult your actual experience, not something you read.  Isn’t he telling you to give in to the “freedom” that fits his agenda?  And if there are consequences, emotional or physical, you’ll be on your own?  In real life, De Beauvoir helped Sartre get a lot of the girls he seduced.

That said, my scathing comment applies only to the philosophical side of The Second Sex. The bulk of her book has solid content, covering major phases of women’s lives and experience, based on significant memoirs and studies.  It brings many layers of unfairness (which nobody before her had recorded in such detail) up to daylight. Armed with her courageous findings, girls and women were morally motivated to make choices.  The feminist revolution gave us … the best thing it could give us:


Because years filled with consequential choices hold intrinsic interest, a woman’s appeal no longer had a biologically fixed cut-off point, any more than a man’s appeal did.  So De Beauvoir, despite her obvious distortions, is a woman to whom we women will always owe a great deal.

Now fast forward to Post Modernism.  In this system, you can’t even ascribe a trait like “freedom” to your consciousness, because what you thought was your own consciousness was merely the site of deposits left by vast anonymous power structures. (For details, see Marx and Nietzsche.)

What’s more, no system of natural laws — psychological, biological, chemical, physical, mathematical or logical – helps your search for truth.  All these domains of empirical inquiry assert x or y and (the claim is) assertion within a discipline is nothing but domination inside the power structure.  As for any rights you might claim as a woman, or injuries you might complain of, here’s the show-stopper: you have no more claim to be a woman than anyone has who claims to be that brand new apparition: a-women-trapped-in-a-man’s-body.  Yeah and that goes for the guy with the male hormones and genitals who’s running off with the trophies in the women’s sporting event.  Suck it up, girl.  And don’t hope that any matching claim to be a man-trapped-in-a-woman’s-body will win you similar trophies in the man’s marathon.  You’ll still be eating his dust.

How did there suddenly get to be so many people claiming to be mismatched with their bodies?  The current dissolving of sexual identities is not the result of empirical studies, which are in fact discouraged for the reasons already cited.  It’s the deliverance of fragile French theories!  Also, whether a woman just takes these theories over entire from their male originators, or works them up with her own icing on top, post-modernism is based on male-authored theories.

If you want to get a woman’s account of a woman’s life, you have to go to women writers of novels, short stories, plays and memoirs.  You can’t repair to the Leading Theories of the Day: they all trace back to narrow agendas of male origin.

So what’s going on here really?  Really ladies, women are still doing what they have always done: trying to please men!  For this purpose, post-modernism throws up an additionally frustrating difficulty: it’s a form of extreme skepticism devised by men who were not looking for women.  Not as sex partners.  Not as spouses.  So they didn’t care whether you pleased them or you didn’t!

What inference shall we draw?  All these mutations and upendings began as theories.  People (men as well as women) live and die by ideas!  I do advise women – and this is very serious advice – approach life with active intellectual curiosity.  Try to see what ideas are in play in situations.  Ideas shape the forces of culture.

Isn’t it enough just to read Marx and Nietzsche?  Nope.  Read them critically and open-mindedly.  They come very late to the table and are thinkers of the second rank.  Read the best.  The best will supply the metric for the rest.  Try to grasp the ideas by which thinkers influence you, directly or indirectly.  Learn to see for yourself whether or not they make sense.  Don’t say things you don’t believe or understand, just to look trendy.

These trends are made of very poor stuff.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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