“Everything in Society Is Designed to Make Women Submit”

Feminist philosopher Manon Garcia has recently published her book, We Are Not Born Submissive, in America. An assistant professor of philosophy at Yale, she moved to the United States after completing a PhD at the Sorbonne in 2017. She discusses different approaches to feminist issues in France and the U.S. and how her work was influenced by Simone de Beauvoir.
Manon Garcia. © Antonin Weber/Hans Lucas

France-Amérique: Why did you decide to study submission?

Manon Garcia: Feminist theorists have worked extensively on major themes to understand male domination of women. However, very little has been written about how women experience this domination, nor about the role they can sometimes play in its perpetuation. This shortcoming can be easily explained: Feminists don’t want to appear to blame women for their own oppression. But I believe that understanding what male domination does to women, and any complicity it may provoke, is a necessary step to achieving equality.

You book draws on the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. How does her unique perspective help us study submission?

Generally, when we think about submission, we see it as a renunciation of our freedom. We have this idea that men – and women – are born free. If they are no longer free, it must be because they had to give up their original state of freedom. Yet Beauvoirian philosophy of freedom shows us that it is not something we have, but rather something we conquer – or not – and that the social situation we are in makes this conquest more or less difficult. This helps us understand why freedom costs more for women than for men, and why submission can appear to be an easier, less costly route than freedom for women.

What is the theory of situation, and why is it an interesting tool to uncover the process of female submission?

That is a technical question, but generally speaking, Beauvoir demonstrates that our socioeconomic situation shapes the possibilities available to us. It may seem a little obvious explained as such, but it is actually quite profound. It enables us to understand that we all have what are known as social “destinies.” When you are in a certain situation, you are supposed to have a certain type of life. And the situation of women is that they are destined to submit to men. This does not mean that they have no other possibilities, but rather hat everything in society is designed to make them submit.

Can submission be a choice?

The real question is whether we can refuse it! As submission is presented to women as their destiny, it is hard to resist. We can strive to submit as little as possible, but our education and society in general conspire to give women a taste for submission and to convince them that “real women” accept this submissiveness.

Why do you think Simone de Beauvoir is more recognized as a philosopher in the United States than in France?

There are several reasons. The first is that Sartre and Beauvoir are far less famous in the United States for being intellectuals or intriguing characters, as is the case in France. As a result, their work was received without being influenced by the fantasies and fascinations surrounding their private lives and various escapades. What’s more, while she was alive, Beauvoir was a less imposing figure – although still present – in the American intellectual sphere compared with her status in France. She was therefore subject to fewer attacks by feminist theorists. Lastly, and this may be the most important reason, American philosophers have worked tirelessly over the last 50 years to question the sexist prejudices within the discipline. Consequently, the contribution of female philosophers – led by Beauvoir – is far more visible in the U.S. than in France.

Why did you decide to teach in the United States?

I originally came to the United States to study Beauvoir because there were no philosophy researchers focused on her in France and I needed guidance in my work. It’s quite a paradox, actually! As things developed, I decided to stay. One reason was that feminist philosophy is recognized as an independent field in the United States, and so my work was immediately taken seriously – meaning it was also easier to access grants and research positions.

Your book ends in our current era and explores the question of consent. Is this issue approached in different ways in France and the United States?

It is approached differently, mainly for cultural reasons. The myth of French gallantry, along with the political heritage of 18th-century libertines, mean that the French have this idea that relations between the sexes are harmonious and in no way political. We live in this illusion that romantic relations are part of the private sphere and therefore not affected by power dynamics. Even when considering rape, we tend to believe – despite the fact that every statistic proves otherwise – that it is something that happens between strangers in public spaces. Yet reflecting on sexual consent means thinking about how the private sphere is riddled with social norms and unequal power dynamics. It means, as feminists have been proclaiming for decades, that what is private is also political. And this stance clashes with the perspectives of many French people, which explains why the discussion about sexual consent is still in its infancy in France.

Is the American edition of your book different from the French version, and why did you decide to translate it yourself?

I originally decided to translate the book myself because it seemed to be the best way to ensure my thoughts and opinions would not be adulterated or adapted. However, after reading the first translated pages, I quickly realized that how I write in French is different from how I write in English (when I write directly in English). This is because the French academic style is radically different to the Anglophone equivalents. What’s more, many cultural and intellectual references are obvious for a French readership, but not for others. The French title of the book is one glaring example: In France, the reference to Beauvoir is obvious [The quote “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – On ne naît pas femme : on le devient – is from her renowned 1949 philosophical essay, The Second Sex.], but not in the United States! I therefore found myself making significant changes to how the book was written.

We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives by Manon Garcia, Princeton University Press, 2021.

Interview published in the May 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.