Several themes run through feminist literature, including the relationship between a woman’s body and her identity, or between being both a mother and a social self. However the subject of the mother-daughter relationship is largely absent in the general literature. In an early book on the topic, Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘we acknowledge Lear (father-daughter split), Hamlet (son and mother), and Oedipus (son and mother) as great embodiments of the human tragedy; but there is not presently enduring recognition of […] the loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter’ (Rich, 1976, p.237). The subject is highly controversial among feminist theorists because, as Hirsch explains, ‘there can be no systematic and theoretical study of women […] that does not take into account woman’s role as a mother of daughters and as a daughter of mothers, that does not study female identity in relation to previous and subsequent generations of women’ (Hirsch, 1981, p.202).
In the mid-20th century, many women writers began exposing their relationship with their mothers, notably Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray. Although they both reject normative femininity because it affects women’s freedom and subjectivity (Schutte, 1997, p.41), this essay aims to contrast their visions of female authenticity and motherhood through the example of the mother-daughter relationship. The first part will explore Beauvoir’s approach and especially the autobiography recounting the death of her mother, and the second part will analyse Irigaray’s perspective on feminine subjectivity that engages with psychoanalysis. Both authors boldly address this issue but contribute to the discussion from two different perspectives. They both emphasize a mother-daughter relationship full of ambivalence and in the end they recognize the same problem and the same consequences of what Rich calls ‘the essential female tragedy’ (1976, p.237).
Simone de Beauvoir is one of the most famous feminist writers and a leader of the modern feminist movement. Before the publication of The Second Sex in 1949 there was no radical feminist movement in France (Deutscher, 2002, p.7). In fact, Beauvoir, the ‘first generation feminist Mother’ (Kaufman, 1986 p.131), appealed to all women to find their autonomy and to pursue of gender equality. Although Beauvoir was never considered a philosopher, The Second Sex was an important contribution to both feminism and existentialism (Simons, 1989, p.12).
Beauvoir was also known for her links to Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, which posits that human nature does not exist, and that therefore a ‘feminine nature’ is an illusion. To Beauvoir, a woman’s identity is not bound to a biological fact, but is a product of the ‘status’ of women in opposition to men’s (Simons, 1989, p.19). She argues that a woman can have an identity – an ego – only when she gets rid of the roles imposed on her by the society, particularly those of mother and wife, which are assigned to bodily biological functions. Women will be free only when they defeat this feminization created by society, that is to say in order to be equal to men, they must lose the femininity that makes them ‘the other’ (Lennon, 2014). The philosophy of Beauvoir concludes that motherhood can be harmful to the freedom, authenticity and identity of women, and that mothers always take the risk of getting lost in this biological role.
All her life, Beauvoir fought for women’s rights – such as abortion, economic independence, and contraception – that would give them a social position equal to men. She is also well known for having ‘questioned the validity of the concept of maternal instinct’ (Patterson, 1986, p.88). In an interview in 1984, Beauvoir straightforwardly and explicitely expressed her feelings on the subject of motherhood, even comparing maternity with slavery (Patterson, 1986, p.87). Perhaps this apparently extreme and inflexible position is the product of the ambivalence, hostility, and emotional tension that characterized her relationship with her own mother.
Beauvoir wrote several novels on the mix of love and domination she associated to the mother-daughter relationship because of her own childhood (Patterson, 1986, p.105). Beauvoir was born in 1908 in a middle class family, and her mother, whom she described as authoritarian and provincial, lost in the traditional roles of mother and wife, was taking care of her children and the needs of her husband. Because of these two obsessions Beauvoir concluded that motherhood and reproduction hinder women’s authenticity.
A Very Easy Death (1985) is an autobiographical text that recounts the experience of Beauvoir during the illness and death of her mother, and the consequences on her. This essay does not only address the mother-daughter relationship but also the effect of the death of a woman on her daughter, rarely accounted for. Indeed, as Kadish explains, ‘whereas the weighty or tragic circumstances of men’s deaths often occupy a central place in literature, women’s deaths have rarely been recorded’ (Kadish, 1989, p.636). Beauvoir distinguishes the different phases of the experience. First the daughter progresses from an independent adult daughter to a daughter still tied to her mother; then the mother passes away; and finally in death the mother becomes a woman free of the limitations imposed by bourgeois society (Kadish, 1989, p.631). The text begins with a personal and geographical distance which gradually decreases to the point where Beauvoir realizes the identity they share. The description of their first meeting at the bedside of her mother is quite negative and exemplifies the tense relations when Beauvoir describes the malaise of her mother (Beauvoir, 1985, pp.14-15) which can be explained by the mistrust towards each other.
In this very personal analysis Beauvoir demonstrates the central doctrine of her philosophy: the idea that women will be free and more authentic only when their identity is no longer attached to the biological functions of the body. In other words, ‘liberated from the constraining reproductive, social, and domestic functions imposed on her by society, the mother experiences a heightened freedom that enables her actively to assert her independence’ (Kadish, 1989, p.633).
Unlike Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray believes that women who deny that they are different from men and deprive themselves of their femininity to gain equality are wrong because rather than gaining true equality as free individuals, they absorb a masculine identity whose parameters are defined by men. Because ‘women merely ‘equal’ to men would be ‘like them’, therefore not women’ (Irigaray, 1985, p.166), they must create their own language that allows them to exist alongside and equal to men while remaining authentic women. Irigaray believes that the mother-daughter relationship must return to a pre-Oedipal state in which the relations between women are not restricted by the male vocabulary – phallogocentrism – that prevents women from building quality relationships with one another, as sexually differentiated and finite selves (Stone, 2011, p.61).
Irigaray and several others, such as Helene Cixous or Julia Kristeva, who founded the second wave of feminism in the 1970s had a psychoanalytical background. They readily admitted the importance of The Second Sex as founder of contemporary feminism, but kept their distance from Beauvoir’s philosophy because of her ‘masculine perspective’, condemning the book as a ‘feminist version of the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre’ (Vintges, 1999, p.134). Indeed, when Beauvoir’s feminism stresses the importance of economic and political autonomy and is suspicious of psychoanalysis (Zakin, 2011), Irigaray takes a radically different approach by recognizing the differences between the sexes. Haigh provides a useful interpretation of Irigaray’s philosophy by theorizing that the main problem that hinders gender equality is the exchange system created by men in which women are only products, objects of exchange among men. In this system, women’s value depends on their relationship with men, and only two ‘places’ are left for them to occupy. First, as a virgin the daughter belongs to her father until the day he is replaced by her husband, and second as a married woman she becomes a wife and a mother. She exchanges the name of her father to that of her husband, and by producing heirs she is responsible for the continuation of the paternal genealogy. Therefore, by living in this phallogocentric system in which all symbols (especially language) are created and governed by men, women cannot symbolize their broken maternal bonds (Haigh, 1994, pp.62-64). Moreover, Hirsch interestingly explains Irigaray’s central point when asking ‘whether all our theories about women’s sexuality and mothering are not still so enmeshed in the language of male thinkers that our very experiences as we describe them become a shadowing forth of some man’s theory’ (Hirsch, 1981, p.200).
Irigaray argues that the source of social problems can be determined by examining the structure of the language which consists of symbols created by men. Therefore, women are forced to adapt and exist in a society where phallogocentrism is imposed on them, perpetuating their lower status. Vintges explains that Irigaray uses psychoanalytic theories because she seeks ‘to develop an écriture feminine, arguing that femininity lies outside the dominant subject form in Western society’ (Vintges, 1999, p.134). Indeed, according to Irigaray it is necessary to create a new language that will consider and discourse on women as authentic subjects. It is in this relationship to language that she addresses the complex nature of the mother-daughter relationship. To understand the conceptualization of Irigaray on motherhood, an overview of her philosophy and its links to Freud and psychoanalysis is necessary.
She caused controversy by challenging the ‘phallogocentrism’ of Freudianism and psychoanalysis that dominated all discourse at the time (Caws et al., 1995, p.50). According to Freud’s Oedipus complex, a woman is an incomplete and imperfect man, so the hostility between mother and daughter is due to a competition between the two and the desire of the daughter to identify with the father rather than the mother because of the penis envy (Jones, 1981, p.250). Although in the pre-Oedipal phase the daughter is much attached to her mother, with puberty she discovers that she lacks a penis like her mother, which feeds her disappointment leading to hostility. Therefore, according to Irigaray all women in a patriarchal culture experience insanity because of the radical separation of mothers and daughters (Haigh, 1994, p.62).
‘And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other’ (1981) represents a new phase in the philosophy of Irigaray. Her use of double pronoun ‘you/me’ is her desire for a new language that could express the feminine discourse. Irigaray believes that phallogocentrism is the real obstacle that delays the equality and authenticity of women, therefore the symbolic discourse ‘is another means through which man objectifies the world, reduces it to his terms, speaks in place of […] everyone else – including women’ (Jones, 1981, p.248). She introduced the concept of écriture feminine in ‘When our lips speak’, and uses the technique in ‘And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other’ (Hirsch, 1981, pp.209- 210). It seems that the latter is an attempt to provide a way to reopen the lines of communication between a daughter and her mother.
The essay is often described as a dialogue between an adult daughter and her mother, but it is actually the daughter’s monologue who addresses her thoughts and reflections to her mother and raises several questions. This format implies that the daughter has more to say, but perhaps she lacks the means to articulate it. First, the daughter begins her retrospective speaking of her childhood characterized by the dependency and initial attachment to her mother, i.e. pre-Oedipus phase (Irigaray, 1981, p.9). Second, she describes her adolescence time when she starts to separate from her mother, i.e. the Oedipus stage.
Freud’s Oedipus theory maintained that the daughter renounces her mother because of a lack of penis, but Irigaray subtly deconstructs this idea by emphasizing the abundance that characterizes their relationship (Wenzel, 1981, p.58). Similar to Beauvoir, the ‘suffocation’ of maternal care is the source of tension between the two. For both, the need of the mother to feed her daughter is only a manifestation of her desire to recreate her identity through her daughter. Consequently, the daughter’s freedom is restricted and she thinks of an escape, which highlights the lack of independent identity of the mother and the metaphorical projection of this need on the daughter.
In conclusion, these two very different approaches contribute to a rarely discussed topic in the literature. In describing her own relationship with her mother, Simone de Beauvoir offers an authentic experience for interpretation. Her radical approach considers that motherhood does not make a woman more authentic but rather that biology and maternity should not determine female autonomous subjectivity. In a way, it seems that Beauvoir is locked in the phallogocentric cycle described by Irigaray as separating mothers and daughters. Despite several similarities in their visions of motherhood, such as the will of the daughter to separate from her mother, Beauvoir considers this separation not only necessary but vital whereas Irigaray represents it as tragic because the destinies of the mother and daughter are intertwined. Indeed, Irigaray acknowledges the separation but at the same time hopes for the (re)establishing of communication links between mother and daughter, a return to pre-Oedipal feelings. Nevertheless, philosophy cannot deny the importance of the mother-daughter relationship in the lives of women, and these two well-known women writers ensure that feminist theorists will continue to explore this essential relationship for women’s authenticity in the future.
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