“How Can We Be Sisters If We Are Not Yet Women?”
By Simone de Beauvoir
Relief Society General President
Welcome one and all. As females we are gathered from all corners of the Earth to listen to what I hope will be a message of inspiration and wisdom. Though all of us are females, many of us have not yet become women. And still less can claim to be, in fact, sisters. My dear fellow vessels of the XX chromosome, one is not born a woman, and one does not take upon herself the title of “sister” without undertaking the requisite work that would legitimately grant such a title.
We must constantly ask ourselves, “Are we, of a truth, sisters in Zion?” Our appeal to the authority of the “priesthood” will not endow us with this precious, singular identity, nor can we simply claim divine approbation. Consider carefully the following, adapted from the inspired rhetoric of Alma chapter 5, and ask yourselves if your journey into sisterliness has been as authentic and complete as you’ve assumed, or if it is premature, even fraudulent. I suspect the latter.
Are you sufficiently intelligent, demanding, and resourceful to declare your feminine independence? For no one can claim to take entire charge of you. No one can know or love you as you can know and love yourself. In the end, despite all sexual, sisterly, brotherly, or paternal relations, you have only yourselves. Never forget this most basic of facts. You are alone in your magnificent and glittering oneness and no one will ever be able to value you as you yourself can.
Are you sufficiently greedy? Do you want everything from life, to be both a woman and a man, to have many friends yet to also have loneliness, to work yourselves to the bone, yet enjoy good books, and travel, and endless acquaintance with the peculiarities of your sisters and brothers the world over? Do you want selfishness and unselfishness? You will no doubt become angry when everything cannot be yours. This is the most appropriate response, by far.
Are you sufficiently loving? You should be as equally capable of loving a woman as loving a man, for both are human beings. The quality of your love must be without fear, restraint, or obligation. Remember that the highest form of love is generosity. You know you have been genuinely generous when you have given your all and yet you feel as if it cost you nothing. If you are worn out and broken down by others’ needs, you have, in fact, been ungenerous, and in further, more condemning fact, you have been shown to be quite taken with yourself and your petty little “sacrifices.” You sought the visible scars and wounds of one who was enslaved to the demands of others and you have indeed received your reward. Instead, be loving. Be generous. And love yourself in and through your generosity. On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself–on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.
Have you daily asked of yourself, “What is a man?” The endless answers to this ceaseless query will yield veritable mountains of wisdom and insight. Why, you may ask, should I not instead be asking the equally or much more important question, “What is a woman?” And I respond that the answers in response to your question, “What is a man?” will yield a clearer and clearer view of what a woman is thought to be in a world ruled by men, for you will not be able but to help applying these insights to your own femaleness. My dear sisters-in-embryo, when you begin to understand the many ways in which you are constructed in a world created by and for men, you will understand the difficult but sure path to true freedom and equality. For example, through this simply inquiry I have learned that men attach themselves to women, not to enjoy women, but to enjoy themselves. And they take that enjoyment very, very seriously. I have also learned that man is defined first and foremost as a human being, but woman is defined first and foremost as a female. When the woman behaves as a human being, she is said to be imitating a man. And yet, very few males and females have truly become men and women. Should that ever happen on a large enough scale, I dare say the human race will have finally begun.
Are you consistently re-evaluating your oppression in order to counterattack it anew? It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations imposed upon her. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them. Just as American economic and political dominance could not have come to pass without the enslavement of Africans, so the flourishing of the human male–both individually and collectively–could not have happened without the oppression of the human female. Take, for example, housework. Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. And yet, housework is to woman as food is to water: always and forever paired together. Oppression will always try to defend itself through its utility, it practicality. But the point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hands–to turn the tables and consign men exclusively to housework (well, maybe a couple centuries of it would do them some good). But that wouldn’t change anything about the world. It’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power. It is destroying the idea that one group should dominate or hold responsibility over another, to insist that male and female “roles” are equal when in fact, certain roles hold power over and control other roles. Young women are told nowadays that they are the equals of boys and men, that they can do what they wish with their lives, so they must prepare now. And then they are reminded or persuaded or herded or shamed into the only acceptable roles that have ever really existed for them. They are then shut up in a kitchen or in a boudoir, and astonishment is expressed that their horizon is limited. Their wings are clipped, and it is found deplorable that they cannot fly. Let but the future be opened to them, and they will no longer be compelled to linger in the present. The moment we decide to do away with “roles” is the moment we begin to allow all others to flourish as they see fit, men and women alike. And flourish they will.
My beloved sisters-to-be, I fear that we have too thoughtlessly embraced the aura and mystery that has been built around the essence of femininity. Our dear brothers have made of woman the “mysterious Other,” a category of being that by definition is alien and cannot be understood. This mystery is used time and again as excuse not to understand us and our problems, and one of the primary reasons to maintain patriarchies and not more universal, egalitarian societies and organizations. We even shroud the Divine Mother behind an impenetrable veil of mystery and forbiddenness. We know little of Her, but this is only because we have said so little, declared so little, argued so little about Her. We share with Her an inherent invisibility. Our struggles to reveal ourselves are Her struggles to be revealed. All those who share in the feminine are so hidden and muted.
It is the same quality of relation that obtains between men and our Heavenly Father. When speaking of God, we are never required to add, “God is male.” It goes without saying that God is masculine, and in our religion a man outright. It would be out of the question to say that God commands such and such “because he is male” for the fact of being male is no peculiarity at all. There is no need for God to define what it is to be a “male god.” Thus, divinity is male, and we define our Heavenly Mother–whenever we bother to do so, which is hardly ever–not in relation to herself but as relative to the Father. She is, therefore, not an autonomous being like the Father is (if we can even force ourselves past our cultural gag reflex to admit she exists at all). The male divine is the default setting of divinity while the female divine is recessive. So it is with men. Men are never required to add, “Because I am a man.” It would be out of the question to say that a man might think such and such “because he is a man” because “being a man” is synonymous with being human. And thus we define women relative to men.
Too often, I fear, we not only fail to oppose this mystery that makes of us lesser or greater but never truly human, and we often embrace it. We too often derive great satisfaction from being connected to men by being their “mysterious Other” instead of autonomous individuals in our own right. And yet, is this not understandable? Given the material realities of your lives, this may have been the only avenue open to you for the only available form of happiness. We have historically been exploited; the facts are unyielding in this regard. And that means that our exploitation can be subject to change. But, my sisters-on-the-brink, we must take responsibility for changing it. We cannot appeal to men, to the priesthood, for our freedom. In this sense we are as much the enemy of our freedom as the patriarchy that subjugates us. Our mutual understanding comes from the fact that we identify ourselves with each other; but for the same reason, so often each sister is against all the others.We must discover our solidarity, rejecting the bad faith temptations of a familiar yet tranquilizing happiness in favor of the exhilaration and risks of freedom. And yet, men as such are not our enemies. But they will not recognize in us the inherent autonomy of an equal, the freedom of a true subject, if we do not take such freedoms for ourselves, which can only come through mutual recognition, in sisterly solidarity, of one another as free subjects first. And thus we see that becoming a sister and becoming a woman are both one and the same.