My body, my choice! Women yell as they march through the streets of Washington D.C. demanding reform and women’s liberation in the United States. Despite legitimate progress over the past several decades, there are still heated debates regarding whether a woman has the right to have an abortion, the difficulties of being prescribed birth control, the gendered pay gap, and the oversexualization of women. These conversations have affected generations of women living in the United States with the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. Applying the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir through the biblical story of Adam and Eve can help us decipher the origins of this prolonged system that represses women.
Women have been prevented from taking control of their lives. Men have always been the Self (the essential) and women have always been the Other (the inessential), Simone de Beauvoir concludes in her book, The Second Sex. Beauvoir writes that, “Humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself; she is not considered an autonomous being.” In other words, man is the subject and woman is the extension of man. The Other is the one who follows, and the Self is the one who leads. The biblical story of Adam and Eve is a perfect example of a woman, in this case Eve, defying the boundaries imposed on women. Eve’s attempt at potential individualism and the punishment that follows reflects the way women are treated today. Unfortunately, many fail to notice that Eve attempted to be the Self, but God cemented her as the Other. Christianity, according to Simone de Beauvoir, is the instrument that influenced the idea of a woman’s subservience to man in the United States, which is counterintuitive to feminist ideologies.
In order to become the autonomous Self, a woman must take responsibility for the decisions that she makes, simultaneously contributing to her own identity and ultimately creating her own moral standings. According to Beauvoir, unless women are able to accept responsibility and form their own moral code, they will never be anything more than the extension of man. “For the man there was not found a helper as his partner,” (Gen 2:20) strengthens the idea that Eve was created by God merely for Adam. In preventing Eve from creating her own identity, God pushes Eve closer to the stereotypical woman we know today. The understanding that woman is an extension of man and the claim that ambition is a dangerous quality in a woman are relevant in American culture. These expectations, according to Beauvoir, threaten a woman’s freedom by justifying her subjugation to man. When Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman,” (Gen 2:19) it further emphasizes Eve’s inescapable reality that she is an extension of Adam because her existence is attributed to Adam’s literal flesh. However, Eve should not only be remembered for her attachment to Adam. Her actions before God’s unruly punishment matter too.
When Eve tells the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die,” the serpent explains that she would not die and that God lied (Gen 3:2-5). Weighing God’s word against the serpent’s words is a heavy burden to handle, yet Eve made the decision all on her own. She was perfectly aware that the possibilities that lay before her — eat the fruit and live or eat the fruit and die — had nothing to do with the serpent deceiving Eve or influencing her decision. Eve, in reality, did not disobey God; rather, she revealed God’s deceitfulness and proved herself to be fearless of death if it meant acquiring the knowledge God spoke of. Eve’s gamble with curiosity, her choice between life or death, and never considering Adam when deciding proves her to be the autonomous woman that God suppressed. Eve’s actions are exactly what Beauvoir wants women to aspire to: creating individuality individually, on their own terms.
Beauvoir contends that the dispute for inequality between the sexes is first biological; accordingly, the assumption that men’s biological advantage does not determine the fate of a woman in society. Because Eve was created for Adam by God, Beauvoir would say that Eve was created from birth as the extension of Adam by God, consequently, making her the Other from the beginning. However, when Eve eats the fruit, she gives some to Adam. One can argue that Adam was just as autonomous as Eve, or just as weak as Eve, for eating the forbidden fruit. Yet, despite the blame being equal, Eve was given the harsher punishment by God, reinforcing her as the Other. These punishments range from the excruciating pain of childbirth, the purpose of a woman’s life being only for a husband, and man dominating woman. Contrary to Eve’s punishment, Adam’s was much more reasonable; instead of God giving everything to him, Adam would have to do the labor himself in order to survive.
Eve is viewed as the Other throughout the story, but what some fail to realize is that for a brief moment, Eve was the Self. Eve had a choice. She was not subjected to Adam, God, or the serpent’s authority. When Eve tasted the fruit despite the life or death conflict, she proved herself the subject for just a brief moment; she was not the extension of anyone. She was Eve, a liberated woman. The desire for knowledge and the pure delight the fruit brought Eve represents the autonomous Self that Beauvoir encourages. Reaching the autonomous Self and detaching from man is when a woman finally becomes woman. However, when God found out, he punished Eve more harshly than Adam, proving that God punished Eve for being the Self, for going against God’s lying words, and Adam was deemed the Self once more.
There are plenty of people who base their morality around their religion and use it as a base for argumentation. The biblical story of Adam and Eve is just another piece of literature that confines women to their boxes. Consequently, it is this kind of literature that is taught to children who grow up normalizing oppressing women. As a feminist thinker combating misogyny, exploring existentialism, and inspiring feminist liberation in France, Beauvoir’s contribution to breaking the glass ceiling does not go unnoticed. Her philosophies are highly esteemed and continue to be applied in modern feminism. As the battle for women’s rights gains renewed momentum, we continue to see further progress in the equality women deserve, but it is still not enough. Fortunately, we have seen more women advocate for reproductive rights, equal pay, an end to oversexualization, job discrimination, domestic violence, and more repressive issues. The biblical story of Adam and Eve is one example of the many origin stories of sexism and discrimination against women and how, hundreds of years later, women are still fighting for the right to be equal to men. More people acknowledging and combating the subjugation women have experienced for hundreds of years is the only way that further progress can be made in a world of struggling inequalities between the sexes.
Note: All biblical citations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)