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Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. Existentialism is a philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the individual and the experiences of the individual, that moral thinking and scientific thinking together are not sufficient for understanding all of human existence, and, therefore, that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to understand human existence. (Authenticity, in the context of existentialism, is to recognise the responsibility we have for our existence, and consequently to take authorship for and of it.) This philosophy analyzes relationships between the individual and things, or other human beings, and how they limit or condition choice.
Existentialist feminists emphasize concepts such as freedom, interpersonal relationships, and the experience of living as a human body. They value the capacity for radical change, but recognize that factors such as self-deception and the anxiety caused by the possibility of change can limit it. Many are dedicated to exposing and undermining socially imposed gender roles and cultural constructs limiting women's self-determination, and criticize post-structuralist third-wave feminists who deny the intrinsic freedom of individual women. A female who makes considered choices regarding her way of life and suffers the anxiety associated with that freedom, isolation, or nonconformity, yet remains free, demonstrates the tenets of existentialism. The novels of Kate Chopin, Doris Lessing, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Drabble include such existential heroines.
Simone de Beauvoir was a renowned existentialist and one of the principal founders of second-wave feminism. De Beauvoir examined women’s subordinate role as the ‘Other’ in her book, The Second Sex. The book includes the famous line, “One is not born but becomes a woman,” introducing what has come to be called the sex-gender distinction. Beauvoir's The Second Sex provided the vocabulary for analyzing the social constructions of femininity and the structure for critiquing those constructions, which was used as a liberating tool by attending to the ways in which patriarchal structures used sexual difference to deprive women of the intrinsic freedom of their “can do” bodies.
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