This essay borrows the term “womanly nihilism” from an antifeminist misreading of Simone de Beauvoir in order to better understand her politics and philosophy and rethink her legacy for contemporary feminism. Through a close reading of The Ethics of Ambiguity and key chapters from The Second Sex, I argue that Beauvoir shares a critique of nihilism, though she gives the term more analytic precision and political purchase than those who would use the term against her. For Beauvoir, womanly nihilism—or the feminine will to nothingness—is paradoxically expressed in the desire for everything, or “having it all.” Wanting it all, says Beauvoir, must be considered in connection with the conditions under which women are permitted too little. She shows how the desire for all is a nihilistic compulsion to repeat and re-create the conditions of one’s injury, exclusion, and oppression. As corporate feminist icons encourage women to lean in, as “having it all” becomes the popular slogan for the feminism of the professional class, Beauvoir’s portrait of womanly nihilism provides an occasion to take stock of her lasting significance for us.
On Womanly Nihilism: Beauvoir and Us
Robyn Marasco is associate professor of political science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of The Highway of Despair: Critical Theory after Hegel (2015). Her articles have appeared In New German Critique, differences, Philosophy & Social Criticism, Constellations, Contemporary Political Theory, History of the Present, and Theory & Event. She was the guest editor of “The Authoritarian Personality,” a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly (2018). She also coedited, with Banu Bargu, “The Political Encounter with Louis Althusser,” a special issue of Rethinking Marxism (2019).
Robyn Marasco; On Womanly Nihilism: Beauvoir and Us. boundary 2 1 February 2020; 47 (1): 43–64. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-7999496
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