The Real Reason Women Have Yet to Achieve (Academic or Artistic) Greatness*

"Inasmuch as the woman wants to be woman, her independent status produces an inferiority complex; inversely, her femininity leads her to doubt her professional opportunities.  This is a most important point....  Above all, in studies and professions requiring a degree of inventiveness, originality, and some small discoveries, a utilitarian attitude is disastrous; conversations, reading outside the syllabus, or a walk that allows the mind to wander freely can be far more profitable even for the translation of a Greek text than the dreary compilation of complex syntaxes.  Crushed by respect for those in authority and the weight of erudition, her vision blocked by blinkers, the overly conscientious female student kills her critical sense and even her intelligence.  Her methodical determination gives rise to tension and ennui....  Having created her own jail, the female examination candidate wants nothing more than to escape from it; as soon as she closes her books, she thinks about any other subject.  She does not experience those rich moments where study and amusement merge, where adventures of the mind acquire living warmth.  Overwhelmed by the thanklessness of her chores, she feels less and less able to carry them out....

"Because of this defeatist attitude, the woman easily settles for a mediocre success; she does not dare to aim higher....  Just as she is in her studies, she lacks confidence, inspiration, and daring.  In an effort to succeed, she becomes tense.  Her behavior is a series of provocations and abstract self-affirmations.  The greatest failure a lack of self-assurance brings about is that the subject cannot forget himself.  [She] does not generously aim for a goal: [she] tries to prove [she] is worth what is demanded of [her].  Throwing oneself boldly toward goals risks setbacks: but one also attains unexpected results; prudence necessarily leads to mediocrity.  It is rare to see in the woman a taste for adventure, gratuitous experience, or disinterested curiosity; she seeks to 'build a career' the way others construct a happy life; she remains dominated, invested by the male universe, she lacks the audacity to break through the ceiling, she does not passionately lose herself in her projects; she still considers her life an immanent enterprise: she aims not for an object, but through an object for her subjective success.  This is a very striking attitude in, among others, American women; it pleases them to have a job and to prove to themselves that they are able to carry it out properly: but they do not become passionate about the content of their tasks.  Likewise, the woman has a tendency to attach too much importance to minor failures and modest successes; she either gets discouraged or swells with vanity; when success is expected, it is welcomed with simplicity; but it becomes an intoxicating triumph if one doubted obtaining it; that is the excuse of women who get carried away with their own importance and who ostentatiously display their least accomplishments.  They constantly look back to see how far they have come: this curbs their drive.  They can have honorable careers with such methods, but will not accomplish great things....  To do great things, today's woman needs above all forgetfulness of self: but to forget oneself one must first be solidly sure that one has already found oneself.  Newly arrived in the world of men, barely supported by them, the woman is still much too busy looking for herself....

"Women's situation encourages her to seek salvation in literature and art....  Most women, though, do not understand the problems that their desire for communication poses: and this is what largely explains their laziness.  They have always considered themselves as givens; they believe their worth comes from an inner grace, and they do not imagine that value can be acquired; to seduce, they know only how to display themselves: their charm works or does not work, they have no grasp on its success or failure; they suppose that in a similar way, to express oneself, one need only show what one is; instead of constituting their work by a thoughtful effort, they put their confidence in spontaneity; writing or smiling is all one to them: they try their luck, success will come or not.  Sure of themselves, they reckon that the book or painting with be successful without effort: timid, they are discouraged by the least criticism; they do not know that error can open the road to progress, they take it for an irreparable catastrophe, like a malformation.  This is why they often overreact, which is harmful to themselves: they become irritated and discouraged when recognizing their errors rather than drawing valuable lessons from them....

"Art, literature, and philosophy are attempts to found the world anew on a human freedom: that of the creator; to foster such an aim, one must first unequivocally posit oneself as a freedom....  Men we call great are those who--in one way or another--take the weight of the world on their shoulders; they have done more or less well, they have succeeded in re-creating it or they have failed; but they took on this enormous burden in the first place.  This is what no woman has ever done, what no woman has ever been able to do....   Individuals who appear exceptional to us, the ones with honor with the name of genius, are those who tried to work out the fate of all humanity in their particular lives.  No woman has thought herself authorized to do that....  When finally it is possible for every human being to place his pride above sexual differences in the difficult glory of his free existence, only then will woman be able to make her history, her problems, her doubts, and her hopes those of humanity; only then will she be able to attempt to discover in her life and her works all of reality and not only her own person.  As long as she still has to fight to become a human being, she cannot be a creator."

I don't know about you, but as a woman, I'm not really sure what to do about this.  Is it my fault I can't write, because I am too "ungenerous", or the world's?

*According to Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), pp. 738-39, 739-41, 742-43, 748-50.


  1. I think a riposte to that would be Figuration Féminine, a weblog that documents the works of centuries of women artists. Their problem is that they've been unremembered and discounted, not an inability to create.


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