April 17th, 2012
On September 2011 I published a new essay, Simone de Beauvoir and women today (Editions Odile Jacob, Paris 2011), in which women from different backgrounds and countries- farmers, doctors, lawyers for women rights, diplomats, cooks, journalists, delicatessen owners, mothers who built their own business at home, artists, painters, academics, testify on their condition and on the future of their lives.
Some men also bring their support to women’s causes and tell me about how they want their wives, mothers, daughters, to be respected and treated with equity.
These women who testify also recall how Simone de Beauvoir’s body of work still inspire them, give them a feeling of empowerment, hope and strength, sixty years after the publication of The Second Sex. Thanks to my experience of travelling around the world and having been an activist in women’s issues for more than forty years, I try to offer new avenues of research and actions to follow up in this 21rst century.
“Paris, Wednesday the 28th of October 2009
A cold wind is blowing on the Rue Schoelcher, wiping the leaves off the trees of the Montparnasse cemetery. They fly, whirl, up to the peeling blue-gray shutters of your apartment. Cars speed by your dilapidated windows, not slowing down in front of the plaque that carries your name.
It is here, right under this plaque that didn’t exist at the time that I would come, trembling, walking at a fast nervous pace down the sidewalk to 11 bis. It’s where I would stare at my watch intently until it was time and I was allowed to ring your rez-de-chaussée door, squeezed between the concierge’s loge and the staircase.
In a few days it will be 60 years since the publication of The Second Sex, and also, therefore, since my own birthday. It will be my turn now to be the old lady I thought you were the day we first met, in 1970. And yet you had only just entered your 63rd year.
Forgive me for referring to your age. I had just celebrated my twentieth birthday. The period following May 1968 overwhelmed us with disillusion and interrupted dreams. Young women were in revolt against that unbearable wall that had encircled us for centuries, trapping us in an accepted segregation. It was more nefarious than the Berlin Wall, the wall of men.
When you opened the door that day, it was not an old lady that I discovered. In front of me stood a woman whose beauty left me speechless and whose energy would soon surpass that of the enthusiastic student that I was. The forty years and two generations between us evaporated in an instant.
Today it’s my turn to be a woman of a certain age. Vibrant. Enthusiastic. Spilling over with projects. Laughing. Alive. Young people in the Paris subway jump up to offer me their seat. I’m not old! That’s what I feel like telling them as I sit down, smiling with relief that I don’t have to stand squeezed in the middle of the crowd. How you are in my thoughts! You always have been, you know it, your strength inhabits me, nourishes me from morning till night and all through the hours. Sometimes I sense your presence so strongly that I want to say your name out loud, as if that would help to preserve our rights from being erased. You taught me so much over sixteen years and I miss you. I want to continue the conversation that was interrupted twenty-three years ago, in 1986, when you departed this world to join Sartre at the Montparnasse cemetery. Like him, you simply had to cross the street to get there. Today the building I live in looks out over the cemetery where you went to rest.
I have one option left. To write to you. To tell you the story of the women and of the men in this 21rst century that you will never know, but in which so many follow your inspiration. The air we breathe today is impregnated with your strength, with your aura, even if millions of us don’t realize it or deny it. Even gone, you still speak to us. You are so alive that my lungs, as I think of you, feel like they could burst.
Of course you won’t answer my letters. But my need is so great to tell you about the world, to think of it through your inspiration and your piercing gaze. It is my turn to transmit that vision to those today that can still make a difference in this century. And one day perhaps, if you allow me to, I will sit on the bench set up in front of your tomb where young Japanese women and other foreigners leave you little love notes. I will whisper these messages to you as if I was telling you great secrets.
This week a woman won the Goncourt prize, the eleventh after the writer who wrote a novel of an ordinary woman Elsa Triolet and you. Marie Ndiaye’s stories depict beautiful, dignified and courageous African women. This female author rapidly went home to Berlin to return to her husband and children, to breathe through writing. The choice seemed a natural one.
Tuesday December 1, 2009
Sixty years. I never thought I’d reach that age. It seemed unfeasible, too far off. I had no choice but to remain the young twenty year old woman who first entered your studio on Rue Schoelcher, with great emotion, in 1970. Well, I was wrong. This 29th of November, I too, entered the world you describe in The Coming of Age. The night before I turned the age you were when I met you I was giving a talk about you and Jean-Paul Sartre in Limoges. A wink to you. With affection.
This city was very familiar to you. Fifteen miles from there you played with Helen on your grandparents’ property in Meyrignac. Moments of happiness that you describe in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Forty years after meeting you in 1970, the room was filled with people who came to hear your world come to life. Many men were there, men who appreciated your prescience. They were amazed at your ability to anticipate the major events and issues facing France. Some of them said you were the real philosopher of the couple you formed with Sartre. That’s a very rare thing to hear about you. Usually people grant you talent as a writer, but rarely as a thinking woman. That evening, as night fell, your words as I repeated them commanded respect. And that’s how it happened that I spent the last hours before my 60th birthday speaking of you. That same week, another philosopher, Bernard-Henry Levy declared that you were “the Hegel of feminism”. Would men be starting to forgive you for writing The Second Sex? Are the intellectuals starting to accept you as an equal?
In this room in Limoges, full to the rim, we spent a long time discussing The Coming of Age. The auditorium was listening, needed to hear your reflections, your denouncing the poor conditions of life for the elderly. I reminded the audience that they should delve into these eye-opening and liberating writings that show to what point our outlook today is manipulated. If the aging of the population is a social reality we must take into account, we also tend to feel guilty for treating a decent retirement as an entitlement. You showed us that we’re being treated as objects and not as human beings.
“That’s the book we’re going to buy” several people present told me. Once again you proved ahead of your times and your words spoke directly to the public. Your writings answer our questions, calm our fears, and quench our thirst for justice.
I need to tell you about the last few minutes of the Limoges event. It was almost midnight and I was about to enter a new phase of my life, the phase you were in when I met you. A few moments before the fateful hour, I lost my voice and felt the ground sway beneath my feet. I was overcome by a sudden and terrible feeling of dizziness. In front of the puzzled assembly, I said: “I think I’m not well.” Two doctors stood up, rushed to my side, and helped me to the sidelines while I recovered. It was midnight. Now I was as old as you were in 1970. That thought terrified me. How could I ever have expected to reach your age some day? I, for the first time, knew with certainty that you were dead, and I was overcome with grief. In a way, I’d never accepted your disappearance. But now I’ll have to get used to that reality. It’s a feeling so unbearable that I feel the urgent need to write to you with a pen of a century that you will never know. A pen that is begging you to stay alive, you who accompany me through thick and thin.
Paris, Wednesday December 9, 2009
I remember how much respect you had for female builders, female crafts, women farmers, workers and technicians, those who work so hard in professions that don’t properly value their work. Thinking of all those brave and hard-working women, exhausted and doing their job without complaining, made me want to interview some of them.
Brittany in the 21st century is not the Brittany of my youth, very catholic, steeped in tradition and populated by large families. Today Brittany still places a lot of importance on its heritage is at the same time bursting with a new dynamism. Carhaix-Plouguer, near the Monts d’Arrée, is very proud of its successful music festival “The Old Ploughs”. Every July tens of thousands of people come together in the neighboring fields to hear musicians and singers from around the world. Bruce Springsteen sang there in 2009.
Outside of the festival, the market-town stands at the cross-roads between several roads that lead to Quimper, Brest, and other towns of Brittany. On the Post office square – La Place de la Poste- the statue of La Tour d’Auvergne, the first French grenadier of Napoleon’s Empire, reminds us of the valiance of the Bretons. Many businesses have settled in the region. Craftsmen and women still live here, and you have to stand in line to get into Christine’s delicatessen, on the main road of Carhaix.
Young, vivacious, her blond hair perfectly cut, slender, she turns, responds to each client with a personal work for everyone. The shop is impressive, with all kinds of pâtés, hams, and gratins. On the windowsill, standing tall and shiny, you find trophies of different colors blue, gold or silver, won in Brittany and beyond, and draw the clients’ attention to the wooden architecture. There’s no doubt about it, we’re in a Breton house and we feel welcome.
“We win both the Contests of Brittany and the national contests of all over France here”,
Christine declares with a warm smile. Her husband rushes in bearing fresh pâtés and other delicacies. With his butcher’s hat on his head, he seems like a happy man. The trophies are there to remind one of how much the couple love what they do.
“Come to the laboratory!” Christine whispers to me one afternoon, at the start of her break. The lab is the workroom behind the storefront. It’s protected by a one-way mirror so they can see clients coming in. Today, because of me, she won’t get any rest. “That’s OK, I’m here anyways from 7 am to 7:30 pm, till everything is cleaned up.” She makes a little coffee for us, “I need it” she says, closing the shutters that separate us from the lab where her husband and their assistant are working. “It’ll be quieter”. We begin the interview, sitting at a little table in an impeccably neat pale blue room. The recipes for house specialties are printed on cardboard and rest on a shelf. I’m facing the one for stuffed crab.
Behind the shutters, I can hear the clanking noises of food preparation. Despite a busy morning, Christine is overflowing with energy:
“I was born in Brittany, in the Cotes d’Armor. My parents were farmers. They had calves and milk cows. They worked hard, because they didn’t have the modern equipment we have today. They worked seven days a week. When they went to a wedding, they would leave mid-afternoon to milk the cows, and then come back to the party that evening. My parents never stopped. My mother brought me up with my two brothers and sister. She was lucky to be able to save a little money. So she was able to have a bit of a retirement from the farming life. In her generation that was rare. Today my parents have a vegetable garden which helps.
I went to school in Rostrenen, near here. In the beginning it was a girl’s school and then it started to admit boys. My favorite subjects were math, French, geography, but not history. I also liked science but not English. My parents were very supportive. When I cam home from school I’d have a snack and then do my homework. They had great respect for education. Of course during the holidays I helped around the farm, for the potatoes, raking the hay and doing the laundry.
I went to school till I was 19. Then I went to get a degree in hotel management at a little school near Guingamp. The director was very open and encouraging. That was very important. I stayed there until 1977. Then I went to work in a bar where we sold tobacco in Rostronen where I met my husband.
We moved to Carhaix where I worked for 19 years at the hotel-bar next door. They were always very decent to me, and I was in good terms with the clients. Then, in 1999 we took over this delicatessen. At first it was really hard. I was taking over from someone known throughout the entire region and I could barely hold a knife. Usually an apprenticeship takes two years. I had to learn a lot faster than that. Look!”
Christine took me to the store through the one-way mirror door. She makes me stand in front of an impressive row of knives of all different sizes. “In the beginning, she told me, putting a big knife in my right hand, I didn’t know how to use a cutter. And do you know what the most dangerous thing was? Cutting and talking to the client at the same time. I really cut myself badly once.”
Christine showed me her scar. “No, she corrected me taking hold of my hand, you can’t hold a knife with two hands: only one! And all the while you have to make conversation with the client, it’s not that easy.”
I put the knife down. It was so heavy for one hand. Christine took me back to the “lab”. “Happily she continued, serving some more coffee, I was very lucky. The former woman owner of this delicatessen showed me how to do things and warned me of the pitfalls and necessities of the business. There’s a lot of solidarity between women. You have to understand that we’re handling dangerous material. Look, when I cut the ham or sausage into thin slices, I use a cutter. Once I was chatting with a client and didn’t pay attention for a moment. My finger went into the cutter and I injured myself. One of my colleagues in another delicatessen dropped a big knife on her foot. She had a serious bleeding problem. Workplace accidents are common in our profession. Look at the statistics, she told me as she handed me an industry journal for people who work in delicatessens, 50% of the accidents are to the hands, 14% to the torso, and11% to the arms and legs.
My clientele is very broad. They come from Carhaix and other boroughs in the center of Brittany. I don’t really suffer of competition from the supermarkets. The people who come to my shop are looking for quality. With the economic recession people are having more parties at their homes. My husband wins contests. The business is growing bigger and bigger. We have nothing to complain about.”
Her husband walks by carrying festive trays wrapped like presents, in transparent paper. Christine continues, interrupts for a moment when a client comes in, comes back, serves us some more coffee, and answers the phone. “I’ll be able to retire. I always succeeded to have my bosses give me a legal allowance and so I will get a pension, small but nevertheless one. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it, when people said it would be hard, but I hung in there. You have to hang in there. On top of it all, we women are paid less than men, and when we go home we have to take care of the children, the laundry. I also do the accounts. It takes more and more time, there are always more forms to fill out.
“You see, she said with a smile that lit up her face, the pleasure I get out of my work and out of my relationship with the clients. And I don’t do the same thing all day long. My job is paramount and lively. What is a shame is that in our profession, there is no one to buy our businesses. The hours are very long, and we work five and a half days a week, from 7 am to 7:30 pm. We have to work very late in the evening. It’s the morning and the evening when you get the most people coming to the shop. The afternoon is much calmer. People work, are getting up from lunch, aren’t hungry. They don’t feel like shopping.
What’s encouraging is that our working conditions have gotten better over the past ten years. The materials we have to work with, that we have to buy of course, are much more efficient. For example we have a dishwasher, a vegetable peeler. Before workers at the delicatessen had to do everything by hand, carots and celery salads and so many other vegetables. The cleaning instruments we have now are much better and it makes it easier to clean the lab and the boutique.
For the young today it’s a very hard profession. First of all you can forget the 35 hour work week. You won’t last long in a profession if you’re counting your hours. The young, in general, don’t understand that. And for young women, with a family life, it’s very hard. So the trainees tend to be young men, which is too bad. You find women in the shop taking care of the clients. That said there are some women full of initiative, who are being very creative.
Then there’s the fact that it’s a profession you exercise standing up in the cold. At first I was feeling very cold. But the cold did good things for me too. First of all I never catch colds anymore, and I have no circulation problems in my legs. The cold seems to protect them from that. On the other hand when I have to stand up during a reception or if I’m delivering dishes my legs hurt. The recession and the need to survive, like in all things, force us to have more imagination to invent new products. Tastes evolve too: in Brittany, cold and hot fish is becoming more and more popular, as is crayfish.
It’s inspiring for us to do the competitions offered by the chamber of commerce. They’re completely anonymous of course. You send in pâtés, sausages, and terrines by Chronopost. It’s a bit expensive, once you pay the shipping fees, the registration fee, and you make the product, but if you win it’s a good investment. Our name gets in the newspaper, and clients see the clippings when they walk into the store. Look, the prizes we’ve won are on our wrapping paper. We have so many we can list them all.” I observe her storefront, interspersed with the goods for sale are trophies of different shapes and sizes. The list of prizes is impressive: 5th Grand Prix d’Excellence National Pâté de champagne 2008-2009 (Prize of Excellence for pâté with Champagne), 1rst place Prix d’Excellence National Saucisse Bretonne 2008-2009(French National Prize for Excellence sausage), not to mention all the prizes from previous years. Christine goes on. “I feel like the Internet is starting to bring us more clients, even before we mention our prizes—Hurry up and list them, I tell her, they’re impressive!”
We burst out laughing, her husband comes to lend a hand in the store, clients arrive, chat, make comments. Christine jumps up, and returns to the universe she is so comfortable in. These anonymous women are the ones who drive the economy and keep alive our small villages threatened by the recession.
Morzine, Saturday January 2, 2010
You were solely responsible for detonating the bomb that exploded the question of women’s rights in 1949. No one was expecting this particular bomb during that period of Cold War. Truman and Stalin’s atomic bombs scared entire populations. Francine Camus, the wife of Albert Camus, famously declared “If the Soviets invade, the children and I are committing suicide.” There turned out to be no need. The only bomb that affected people on a planetary scale at that time turned out to be made of paper. Your writings were the explosive and device combined. The Second Sex was a peaceful, efficient and beneficial bomb.
You left us twenty years ago. As I give a tribute to you I can picture all of those women in tears at your funeral. They came from every continent to thank you for changing their lives. Some of them spent all their savings to buy their plane or train ticket, not knowing if they would even have enough money to pay for a hotel when they arrived. Feminist solidarity kicked in of course. During conferences overseas, women sometimes approach me, and touch me, very emotional. “I hold your hand because your hand was touched by Simone de Beauvoir”. Reading The Second Sex changed my life.” What statesman can say he or she has received such tribute? Perhaps Churchill, de Gaulle and Gandhi knew that kind of gratitude. Feminists fight during peacetime and they accomplish their work peacefully. Our victories are less bloody and our successes less publicized. Yet they are real.
You were a pacifist, like Gandhi for whom I have the most profound respect, and indeed your pacifism is even more honorable than the one of Gandhi’s. Male domination has not lasted the past one hundred years but for thousands. Our struggle is belittled because there isn’t a bloodbath and it’s invisible to a large part of the population…”