Simone de Beauvoir’s Influence in the Works of Latin American Women Writers

María Claudia André
Hope College
Holland, MI

“What woman has not read The Second Sex?” “What woman hasn’t found it inspiring? Hasn’t as a result, perhaps, become a feminist?” Indeed, we have to agree with Luce Irigaray’s introductory remarks to Je, Tu, Nous regarding Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, as The Second Sex is undoubtedly the most influential and fundamental reference on feminism and feminist theory of our times (2) [1]. By now, even the French critics detractors have come to admit that, in spite of its narrow interpretation on the women’s socio-cultural condition, Beauvoir’s manuscript was among of our century’s groundbreaking studies in evaluating the extent of women’s subjection to sexism, oppression and discrimination worldwide [2]. Moreover, Beauvoir’s foundational text on feminist philosophy not only laid the first steps towards the development of a feminine perspective, but also provided some of the basic terminology for women to critically discuss and analyze issues related to their own lives and their own needs. As Elizabeth Mac Nabb notes, “In creating a space in which many textual daughters may be born, the Second sex gives birth to the possibility of feminist criticism and theory on a scale never seen before in this country or any other. Therefore it is appropriate that The Second Sex be considered the metaphorical ‘mother of the feminist family (26).” [3]

Ascribing to Mac Nabb’s comment, in this essay I will examine precisely the great impact that Simone de Beauvoir’s works had on Latin American women writers and artists, as it is a fact that, thanks to The Second Sex’s radical and controversial perspectives on the condition of women, that we are nowadays able to discuss, critically analyze, and even develop theoretical approaches based on gender. In my analysis I will also focus on the many ways in which Beauvoirs’ discourse not only influenced most well-known writers of her generation, but also the ways in which the works of these writers (whom I consider Beauvoir’s spiritual and intellectual daughters) have expanded the vision of Latin American feminist literary discourse today.

Latinamericanist critic Naomi Lindstrom considers that Simone de Beauvoir’s writings drastically transformed and influenced women: “By expressing profound dissatisfaction with the way in which our society apportions what is properly male and what female, Beauvoir’s work initiated a widespread, productive discussion. Sex-role analysis and debate assumed an important place in social writings of the fifties and sixties (1).”[4] Throughout Latin America, Beauvoir’s beliefs on women’s freedom almost immediately permeated the literary and the intellectual world, spreading onto the socio-political realm. Perhaps a key idea that ignited such an unexpected revolution was Beauvoir’s unprecedented vision on women’s rights and their capacity to confront or even challenge the patriarchal status quo since, at this time, most feminist organizations in Latin America were not daring or extreme enough to question women’s discrimination.

In countries such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay, The Second Sex was avidly read by middle and upper class women, either because a friend had recommended it or because most educated or intellectual women were acquainted with the works and political commitment of Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Another crucial factor that sparked women’s immediate interest in this text was, Beauvior’s theory of women as “the Other,” for it is particularly applicable to Latin American reality where women are not only defined by men, but are also trapped in traditional images that a Catholic and patriarchal society imposes on them. In fact, during the 50’s, with the expansion of education, many women who had acquired some sort of professional degree felt deeply displaced and frustrated as they faced an unexpected paradox: the same society that had encouraged their intellectual growth was unwilling to accept their participation within the public sphere. By then, educated middle-upper class women had already begun to develop critical thinking and were willing to fully participate in that society that had promised so much and given them so little.

Yet, another a relevant factor in the success of Beauvoir’s feminist vision was the emergence of postwar leftist orientation, embraced by most bourgeois and middle class intellectuals who viewed themselves as mediators for freedom and social equality between the proletariat and the ruling class. Particularly relevant at this time was the concept of the New Man, the romantic revolutionary hero and utopian individual who would equally cherish reason and emotion, production and reproduction, culture and political ideology. The revolution, however, had failed to consider or even allow for women’s equal participation in social and political affairs. In this sense, Beauvoir’s theories served as an eye opener for the female activist ready to express her mauvaisse and her dissatisfaction towards gender discrimination. [5] As Toril Moi examines in the 50’s and 60’s, The Second Sex was the only book women could turn to for a nonconformist message. “Crushed by the family oriented ideology of the 50s, many women found Beauvoir’s insistence on the oppressive effects of marriage and motherhood liberating.” Where patriarchy insisted that they were to blame if they did not feel fulfilled, Beauvoir retorted that their feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction were natural reactions to the constraints placed on their individual freedom (313).

South American progressive writers such as Argentines Silvina Bullrich (translator of Mémoires d’ une fille rangée, 1958), Marta Lynch, and Silvina Ocampo, along with Chilean Marta Brunet, Mexican Elena Garro, and Costa Rican Carmen Naranjo were some of the first to formulate and reflect upon the perpetual state of economic and psychological dependence of upper and middle class housewives [6]. Most female characters in the novels written by Latin American women during the 50’s and 60’s either dream of leaving or attempt to leave their domineering husbands in search for personal freedom only to face the fact that they are unable to survive independently in the manner to which they have become accustomed. According to Ernest Lewald, “In other words, their sheltered bourgeois past had conditioned them to reject an uncertain future that might involve hardship, loneliness and a daily struggle to maintain their desired freedom and dignity (21).”

Among the several writers highly influenced by Beauvoir’s work was Mexican feminist critic, poet and novelist, Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974) [7]. Like Beauvoir, Castellanos had been raised within a Catholic middle-upper class family. After graduating with a master’s degree in philosophy from the National University of Mexico, she received a fellowship from the Rockefeller foundation that allowed her to write her first novel, Balún-Canán (translated as “The Nine Guardians”), a narrative based in personal experiences on women’s marginal position within Mexican society. For this first work, the author received the prestigious Mexican Critics’ award for best novel of 1957. Through the years, Castellanos wrote for several journals and magazines and held visiting professorships in Latin American literature. In 1967, she lectured at several universities in the United States (University of Wisconsin, Indiana and Colorado), and in 1971, she was appointed ambassador to Israel, where she also taught Latin American literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.[8]

Castellanos was among the first Latin American feminists who perceived the need to develop a theory of gender with which to promote social and political equality between men and women. This was, in fact, something that Beauvoir had helped develop. According to Maureen Ahern, “Castellanos’ rejection of a biological determinism in women’s role is closely aligned with that of Beauvoir, who had argued that one is not born a woman but rather becomes a woman for it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature” (The Second Sex, 301) that culture determines all gender values, roles, and false myths that distort the images of women. Undoubtedly, these readings inspired Castellanos to apply them to her own social reality (41).” Endorsing Beauvoir’s views on maternity and marriage, in her essays, poetry and narrative writing, Castellanos renders an account of her own life while reflecting on the ways in which the myth of femininity has suppressed most Mexican women of her generation. The issue of love and marriage was of particular interest for middle and upper Latin American women as the glorification of motherhood and chastity (as reflected in the notion of marianismo [9] as opposite to machismo), was till then a very powerful moral guideline with which most respectable and honorable women were forced to comply. As María Elena Valdés explains, “In Mexico, women have not just been cast in the role of sex object, the role so prevalent in first world cultures; rather, they have been taught that their purpose in life is to serve and obey their father and their husband. No one in Mexican letters has been more lucid in understanding and putting into practice a social feminist critique than Rosario Castellanos. She gave Mexican feminism the direction and sense of purpose it required to survive in the 1970s (16).” Indeed, in her essay “Self-Sacrifice Is a Mad Virtue,” Castellanos analyzes the reasons why, the female identity is in perpetual state of crisis as the social image though which women are to establish their social identity is constantly being undermined by that of the male. In this match for legitimacy and recognition, women’s aspirations or needs are never equally validated or even considered.

It is not just- and therefore neither is it legitimate- that one of the who persons who make up the couple gives all, yet does not expect anything in return. It is not just- thus it is not legitimate- that one of them has the opportunity to develop intellectually, while the other has no alternative but to remain subject to ignorance. It is not just -and for the same reason it is not legitimate - that one of them finds not only a source of wealth through work, but also the joy of feeling useful through creativity while the other carries out duties not worthy of remuneration, that barely reduce the feeling of superficiality and isolation: duties, which by their very nature are short-lived and never ending. It is not just -therefore is not legal- that one of them is master of his own body and disposes of it at will, while the other reserves her body, not to derive benefits, but to unwillingly have it acted upon. (260). [10]

Upon comparing both authors' ideology and political commitment as reflected in their own essays and autobiographical narratives, latinamericanist critics perceive that the Mexican writer’s vision of women is more altruistic and less intellectually egocentric than the one of the French writer (Graf 40). Like Beauvoir, however, in her essays Castellanos sustains that not only men, but women as well are responsible of perpetuating the structures of oppression, since by accepting their subordinate position, women condone and perpetuate their own subjection. In this sense, as Myralyn Allgood remarks, Castellanos is considered “The Simone de Beauvoir of Mexico as she reaffirms the notion that traditional ideologies perpetuate oppression and that the oppressed are so conditioned that they willingly consent their own oppression (xxxii).” The main interest and critical research of Castellanos focus in debunking the rhetoric of the sanctity of the family as she wants women to become aware that such discourse is the base of women’s objectification and submission throughout Latin America.

Moreover, Beauvoir’s notion of Otherness was immediately embraced by her Mexican contemporary, as previous perspectives on women’s participation in society had never been openly or seriously questioned. It was in Beauvoir’s work where Castellanos first encountered female reality discussed not as social or biological destiny, but as internal choices heavily influenced by religious, moral, and intellectual factors backed up by economic and patriarchal interests. Many critics of Castellanos acknowledge that the origins of her creativity lie in the tension between self and the other, an image that underscores all her verse and prose. In her poem “The Other” (from Al pie de la letra, 1959), the poet extends the notion of otherness to women, indigenous cultures, language, and even writing itself. “Look around you,” she writes, “There is the other, always the other, he breathes what chokes you, He eats your hunger, he dies with the purest half of your death (quoted in Ahern 83).” [11]

In all four critical essays that Castellanos wrote on Beauvoir, we are able to realize that the French feminist occupies a privileged space [12]. Indeed, ascribing to Beauvoir’s philosophy and writings, Castellanos continues a literary tradition of the feminine which, according to Jennifer Estrella's “proposes a type of writing that functions within masculine discourse but deconstructing it from within in order to transcend the signifiers and symbols of the oppressive discourse. They place themselves within the masculine to refute stereotypes of women by using irony and parody of patriarchal values (85).”[13] Along these lines, Castellanos imitates the academic and authoritarian tone of masculine writing to construct a discourse that is seen as rational and objective, however, it incorporates a high dose of sarcasm and a touch of humor in order to demonstrate the irrationality behind men’s prejudice against feminine writing.

In Latin America as well as throughout the world, the socialization process of the feminine subject has not only been reflected in literature, but in other areas of cultural representation such as film. Within this field, Argentine filmmaker, producer, Oscar Nominee, and perhaps one of de Beauvoir’s most avid fans, María Luisa Bemberg, stands as an exemplary figure. In a personal interview with Caleb Bach, Bemberg explains, “I entered film for ideological motives. Since childhood I had felt a sense of frustration, a double standard between my brothers and me. This was a rebellion I had had since being a girl, and it manifested itself especially after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was like an explosion in the minds of the majority of women of my age. I will never be able to adequately express my appreciation for that book. It was like a dam that burst (Bach 22).”[14] In fact, during the seventies, years later after her well known aunt Victoria Ocampo had begun voicing the first feminist concepts and ideology among the highly educated elites of Buenos Aires, Bemberg founded Argentina’s first Feminist Youth Organization in 1970 [15]. Through the years, she worked sporadically in several theater productions as a costume and set designer; however, due to the domestic responsibilities of raising four children on her own, she was unable to begin her screenwriting and filmmaking vocation professionally until she was almost 60. Throughout her life and artistic career, Bemberg remained active in the feminist cause, tirelessly pursuing the worthy task of changing women’s subjectivity within the social and political sphere. As the director indicated in several interviews, her primary intention was to show women different ways to channel their emotions and passion into political struggles and to set an example through her films and through her own personal lifestyle for younger generations of women to follow. In particular, Bemberg’s first scripts Crónica de una Señora (Chronicle of a Lady, 1972) [16], Mundo de Mujeres (Women’s World, 1972), Triángulo de cuatro (Four-sided Triangle, 1974), and Señora de nadie, (Nobody’s Wife, 1982) present a sharp ideological standpoint as well as an identifiable autobiographical element as they reflect on the hardships of women dealing with marital infidelities and divorce in the extremely judgmental society of the Argentine upper-class. The product of such society, Bemberg felt the topic of marriage needed to be questioned, as she felt that “Marriage has always been a form of prostitution, disguised under the illusion of love and care. Divorce will change this. Women will not be able to feel safe in marriage. They will not consider their marriage license as a kind of B.A. or a meal ticket (Torrents 172).” In her later productions, Bemberg’s so called femme films deal with the lives of defiant and exemplary women who dare to challenge and question patriarchal canons of their times. Camila (1982), a groundbreaking production that would gain Bemberg worldwide recognition for its Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Film. The story is based on the dramatic true story of the forbidden love of Camila O’Gorman, an aristocratic young woman who, after eloping with her confessor, is caught and executed without a trial for her disregard to society’s pivotal institutions: church, family, and state. Miss Mary (1987), another distinctive example of patriarchal rule, explores the subjection and repression of bourgeois women in Argentina during the 40’s. In this semi-autobiographical co-production, Bemberg recreates the life of a British governess who, while packing her bags to return to England in 1945, reminisce the summer of 1938, when she was hired as a tutor of two young upper-class girls. Apart from recreating the historical events that lead to Juan Domingo Peron’s presidency, the film explores a variety of socio-political issues dealing with Argentine oligarchy’s delusional and eccentric behavior. As Mark Szuchman notes, the film explores the antinomies of asserted values and behavioral practices. “This central opposition is manifested in various ways but always within the frame of ethical opposites, of morality and lasciviousness, of conservatism in public and licentiousness private, of affinity for Fascist hierarchies in the thirties and support for liberal democracies in the forties. Bemberg explored these dyads through longitudinal portrayals of Argentine mores (190).” Seeing how upper class values affected the middle class, Bemberg felt compelled to examine those mechanisms that led to the institutionalization of women’s subjection as well as sexual repression, which in fact, she considered to be utterly the foremost repression, “It is very hard to imagine how a person can be free if s/he is sexually repressed (Torrents 173).”

In 1990, by then a well-known film writer and established director, Bemberg began her third and last historical film, Yo, la peor de todas (I, Worst of All) based on the biographical work of Octavio Paz (1988), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; O, Las trampas de la fe (The Traps of Faith) [17]. True to historical accounts, Bemberg’s production recreates the life of Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje (1651-1695), Latin America’s first feminist writer, a woman of remarkable genius who rejects the glamorous life of the seventeenth century Spanish court to enter the convent of the Jeronymite Order in order to pursue her academic interests [18]. In proposing female characters who dare to confront their inner selves in the quest for autonomy, the Argentine director reflects on the self evolutionary process followed by women in the deconstruction of a patriarchal system that seeks to suppress their intellectual development. As a true artist and feminist, Bemberg has portrayed women ahead of their times, who, in seeking to defend their basic need for self development, have been forced to confront the male social and political forces: Inquisition, Rosism, Peronism or Militarism, etc. [19] Joining in the common preoccupation of her contemporaries, Bemberg explores identity issues that clearly relate to gender, politics, and history. Like herself and Beauvoir, Bemberg's heroines are audacious and energetic women who are able to overcome their own insecurities and fears, each of them serving as a role model for anybody who dares to be different. As the director explains, “Most women waste their youth as love junkies, in constant need of that fix of adoration and passion. What I want to explore now is how to use that need in the interest of women themselves. There’s nothing wrong with passion, it just should not be allowed to consume our lives, or it should be channeled into political struggles (Jahene 11).” Indeed, previous representations of women both in literature and films produced by men have mostly portrayed female characters that ascribe to traditional phallocratic perceptions of love (in which a woman is only complete through her total surrender or subjection to a man, as the masculine subject grants transcendence to the feminine objectified other); however, Bemberg’s productions constantly subvert and deconstruct romantic or hegemonic visions of the feminine in favor of more autonomous and independent gender relations in which women either refuse to be the Other to the male subject, or they embrace their alterity without falling victims of hierarchical subordinations [20].

Younger feminist writers like Argentine Luisa Valenzuela, Mexican Angeles Mastretta, and Puerto-Rican Rosario Ferré have not only embraced, but also expanded some of the feminist concepts introduced by Beauvoir [21]. Assigning new values to the feminine experience in Latin America, several novelists like Ferré perceive the act of writing as a means to reinvent the individual’s perception of the world, particularly women’s: “I write to reinvent myself and to reinvent the world. My need to write has a destructive quality as an attempt to annihilate myself and annihilate the world. One must castrate oneself into writing. Letting go and overcoming the signs of sexual opposition as a way of defeating the Western tendency to emulate men (138).” Under the lights of this new empowering scenario, the female subject becomes not only a part of the writing process but also a full sign, she is “at once the signifier and signified. And as sign, she acquires creative as well as critical value (Ahern 57).” [22] In this position, she is able to challenge phallocentric constructs of class, race, and gender, and at the same time, efface the defining lines between high and popular literature and art. Avoiding the elitist tradition which calls upon a “higher literature” to mirror society’s defects, and more prone to support activist or sociopolitical work, Latin American women writers have refrained from using complex literary tropes or allusions characteristic of the écriture féminine; coinciding with Beauvoir’s perception that “écriture feminine is an inappropriate way to do feminist political work, which would be more effectively accomplished by using everyone’s language, ordinary language... (Whitford 10).” Born out of the popular weave, this polydiscursive feminist literature taps into the tradition of testimonial from which it collects the various strands of oral history that will thread into the text. As writers have searched for codes, tropes, and models of representation closer to Latin American women’s needs and concerns, they have become aware of the extent to which the cultural identity and traditions rely upon oral narrativity and autobiography. Along these lines, the oral tradition has served as a cultural connector between personal and collective testimonies maintaining the social matrix that keeps Latin Americans’ cultural identity alive.

No longer subjected to patriarchal canons or restricted by oppressive social politics, newer generation of women writers explore the limits of the feminine through a variety of genres through which they challenge the nature of power and expose the hypocrisy of traditional notions of gender [23]. In this sense, many women authors call for the transcendence of sex altogether, thus agreeing with Monique Wittig’s vision of a sexless society in which binary restrictions are resolved (and dissolved) through the proliferation of genders. The poetic, dramatic, and narrative discourse of Latin American, Latinas and Chicanas writers today more than ever continue to ascribe to Beauvoir’s feminist vision by developing innovative strategies and techniques that adjust to the mutations of the feminine subject and her forever changing roles within modern society [24]. As a consequence to ideological and political shifts within the social systems, and certainly following Beauvoir’s call for individuality and freedom, Latin American women have definitively broken free from patriarchal assumptions by constructing a positive vision of the feminine no longer related to the marginal, but interpreted as an independent vindicatory symbol of spirituality and transcendence.